Moving from country music to pop songs to movie stardom, Dolly Parton charmed America with her fiamboyant, yet folksy persona. She was born on January 19, 1946, in a rural community in Sevier County, Tennessee. The fourth of 12 children, she grew up in a close but poor sharecropping family, an experience that inspired many of her early songs.
Dolly first sang publicly in a church where her grandfather preached. At six, she began playing guitar and writing songs. At 10, she made her first radio appearance and three years later sang on the Grand Ole Opry, a country music radio revue that was broadcast throughout the South. Although ferociously ambitious, she put her music career on hold until she finished high school, becoming the first in her family to receive a diploma. The morning after graduation, she headed off to Nashville to make her fortune.
While struggling to become a singer, she met and married Carl Dean, a contractor, in 1966. The next year, she first entered the charts with the song “Dumb Blonde.” Appearing on American Bandstand, Parton became a local hero because of her modest success. In Sevier County, October 7, 1967, was declared Dolly Parton Day, during which the aspiring singer was honored with a parade. Parton also received her big break in 1967, when she was chosen as the new girl singer on the television program The Porter Wagoner Show.Wagoner, an established country star, soon began recording a string of successful duets with Parton, including “The Last Thing on My Mind” (1967) and “If Teardrops Were Pennies” (1973). On the strength of both her work with Wagoner and her solo career, Parton became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1969. During her seven-year stint on The Porter Wagoner Show, Parton’s relationship with Wagoner slowly deteriorated, as she began to long for greater things, while he wanted her to remain his protégée. In 1974, she finally quit the show. Supposedly, she wrote her most famous song—“I Will Always Love You”—about ending her professional relationship with Wagoner.
On her own, Parton found immediate success. In 1975 and 1976, the Country Music Association named her Entertainer of the Year. Parton, however, set her sights on pop stardom. She fired her band in 1977 and hired a management firm in Los Angeles to take charge of her career. The move provoked criticism from some country fans, who thought she was forgetting her roots and selling out for fame and fortune. Particularly irksome was her carefully packaged appearance, which featured tight-fitting, fiashy gowns and bouffant blonde wigs. The costume seemed a parody of country music style, ripe for mocking by the genre’s detractors. Parton herself attributed her look to her own sense of good fun. As she told Vogue magazine, “It’s a good thing I was born a woman or I’d a been a drag queen.”
Parton had a mainstream pop hit with “Here You Come Again,” which won her a Grammy Award in 1978. She followed it with the chart-top-per “9 to 5” (1980), the theme song to her first movie, which costarred JANE FONDA and LILY TOMLIN. She had less success in her next film outing, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), for which she rerecorded her earlier hit “I Will Always Love You.” When the new version rose to the top of the charts, Parton became the first artist to hit number one twice with the same song. The tune would return to the charts in 1992 in a cover by WHITNEY HOUSTON that ultimately earned Parton more than $1 million in royalties.
After Whorehouse proved a box-office disaster, Parton retreated from the public eye, suffering from physical ailments and weight gain. She reemerged with the hit duet “Islands in the Stream” (1984) with Kenny Rogers. Parton also tried her hand at hosting a television variety show, Dolly (1987), but it was quickly canceled “because it sucked,” Parton’s own clear-eyed assessment. Her film career also continued to fiounder with the fiops Rhinestone (1984) and Straight Talk (1992). She had hit with Steel Magnolias (1989), but she was only one member of a strong ensemble cast.
Parton herself came to doubt her ability to carry a movie “’cause I’m not that fine of an actress.”Despite her career setbacks, Parton developed an unerring business sense, which has made her one of the wealthiest women in show business. Against the wishes of her financial advisers, in 1986 she invested $6 million in Dollywood, an amusement park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, near her childhood home. The park has been an extraordinary success, bringing in approximately $30 million in profits a year. In 2001, Parton expanded the facility to include a full water park. Parton’s other successful business concerns include two production companies and five music publishing businesses that handle the estimated 3,000 songs she has written throughout her career. Arguably her most important legacy to popular music, her song catalog earns her substantial annual royalties.
Although Parton’s recent recordings have been uneven, she has had several successes collaborating with other stars, a strategy that emerged from her frustration with getting little airplay for her solo material. “I’m commercial minded,” she once explained in an interview, adding, “If I can’t get my own hit, I’m not too proud to hang onto somebody else’s coattails.” On Trio (1987) and Trio II (1999), she sang with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, while on Honky Tonk Angels (1994), she collaborated with TAMMY WYNETTE and LORETTA LYNN. As a solo artist, Parton scored an unexpected success with Treasures (1996), an album of covers that yielded several dance club hits, including a remixed version of Cat Stevens’s “Peace Train” featuring Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Parton also scored a critical victory with The Grass Is Blue (1999) and Little Sparrow (2001). These forays into the notoriously noncommercial genre of bluegrass reminded her diehard fans that regardless of how often Parton journeys into the mainstream, at heart she is never far from her country roots.
Mahony, Judith Pasternak. Dolly. MetroBooks, 1998.
Parton, Dolly. Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
The Essential Dolly Parton. RCA, CD, 1995. (CD)
The Essential Dolly Parton, Vol 2. RCA, CD, 1997. (CD)
9 to 5 (1980). Twentieth Century-Fox, VHS, 1995. (V)
Steel Magnolias (1989). Columbia/Tristar, DVD/VHS, 2000.
Trio.Warner Brothers, CD, 1987