The Emancipation of Dolly Parton

By Jessica Wheeler, AliveTampaBay Columnist

Dolly Parton is a country music legend, going all the way back to her days on the Porter Wagoner Show 50 years ago. In honor of her upcoming Nov. 26 show at Tampa’s Amalie Arena, we take a look back at how she broke away from the past to become a new kind of country music star.

Country music fans of the 1960s clung to traditions in the face of societal upheaval. Change was not a welcome commodity, and familiarity was king. For this reason, Dolly Parton was despised by Porter Wagoner’s audience when she first teamed up with the singer and television show host in 1967. She was replacing his former duet partner, Norma Jean, who was widely beloved by fans, and spent her first few shows enduring the chants of “Norma Jean! Norma Jean!” from the crowd. The likable Dolly soon won over the masses with her talent and good humor, but made it clear that she would not be the typical country “girl singer” audiences were used to.

For one thing, she insisted on writing her own music. While female country singers had recorded their own songs before, no one had quite so many as Dolly—she wrote every day, and already had more than a hundred songs at her disposal. A multi-instrumentalist (she plays guitar, banjo, autoharp, dulcimer, drums, fiddle, harmonica, piano, flute, and pennywhistle), Dolly was more than equipped to accompany herself. And the things she sang about! Sure, there were the traditional country songs about cheating, but there was also the cheeky “Dumb Blonde” and the proto-feminist anthem “Just Because I’m a Woman,” which proclaimed “My mistakes are no worse than yours, just because I’m a woman.” Traditional country fans found this a little hard to swallow.

As Dolly’s success singing duets with Porter Wagoner grew, she began to share her life story in song. The granddaughter of a Pentecostal preacher, she grew up in poverty in the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee. Always a “people person,” Dolly thrived on having an audience, and began singing on local radio at age 9. By 13, she’d recorded her first single, “Puppy Love.” While appearing at the Grand Ole Opry as a teen, she met Johnny Cash, who encouraged her to take control of her career. She followed his advice, and moved to Nashville the day after she graduated high school in 1964. Her first recording deal, the next year, was on a pop label. Dolly protested and expressed her desire to sing country music, but the label executives felt that her trebly voice suited pop music far better than country. After other country singers charted with songs that she’d written, she was finally allowed to make the switch to country, and soon Porter Wagoner asked her to join his band. Dolly never shied away from her past, and transcribed her childhood poverty in autobiographical songs like “Coat of Many Colors.”

By 1974, Dolly had had enough of being Porter Wagoner’s sidekick. Her ambition fueled her desire to truly go solo, and she handed in her resignation from The Porter Wagoner Show. Her songwriting had won her critical acclaim, and her fans were becoming more numerous. That year she released the album Jolene, one of her very best. The title song, with its tingling guitar and eerie strings, told the anguished tale of a woman begging her husband’s mistress to leave him alone. It shot up the charts to number one, and also crossed over to the pop charts. Dolly’s climb to the top had begun.

The Jolene album contained another enduring Dolly treasure: “I Will Always Love You.” The song, directed at her former singing partner Porter Wagoner, expressed her sorrow for leaving his show, but acknowledged that in the end it would be the best thing for both of them. The song would become the biggest hit of Whitney Houston’s career in 1992, when she covered it for the soundtrack of her film The Bodyguard. Dolly’s version, while simpler, packs a bigger emotional punch:

For the rest of the 1970s, Dolly charted hit after hit on the pop and country charts, while collecting accolades for her songwriting, her performances, and her quick wit. Her trademark overdone look — modeled after, as she put it, “the town tramp” — drew attention, but her heartfelt kindness became her legacy. As Emmylou Harris recorded her debut album in 1974, she displayed a photo of Dolly in the studio, to remind herself to be sincere. Dolly became a champion of Emmylou’s music, promoting her albums on television shows and performing with her when the opportunity presented itself. Dolly is seen here playing the banjo on her song “Applejack,” accompanied by Emmylou and Linda Ronstadt:

Dolly continued to record, and had her biggest success in the 1980s with “9 to 5” and “Islands in the Stream.” To date, she has written more than 3,000 songs, and she continues to record and perform. She is among the most philanthropic of recording artists, donating proceeds from her theme park, Dollywood, to various charities. In recent years, she has reached back to her roots to record several inventive bluegrass albums, which include traditional songs alongside covers of “Stairway to Heaven” and “Drives Me Crazy.”

Jessica Wheeler

Jessica Wheeler

Music Columnist

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