Hello (again) Dolly Parton: Uniting artists and fans across genres and generations

Find me a person who doesn’t like Dolly Parton, and I’ll show you someone who simply hasn’t heard enough Dolly Parton. She’s country music for people who don’t like country music; an iron fist in a pink velvet glove; a pleasure that even the most serious muso would hesitate to call ‘guilty’. She’s the only woman in the world to have her own theme park. Her appeal spans the globe, and at 73 her fanbase – much like Dolly, the joke she’d probably make herself – is looking younger and younger.

She never really went away, but it’s fair to say we’re currently in the midst of a full-blown DP renaissance. First came the Broadway and West End productions of 9 to 5: The Musical, a timely refresh of the working women’s revenge story for the #MeToo generation. Last year, there was Dumplin’, the coming-of-age movie scored by Parton. BBC Two will air new documentary Dolly’s Country before the end of the year, while Netflix has just released Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, a fictional eight-part anthology inspired by her archives.

Then there’s Dolly Parton’s America, a WNYC podcast currently riding high in the iTunes chart. Two years in the making, the series is a nine-part excavation that dives deep into the singer’s career, her ambiguous politics and her famously humble beginnings as one of 12 children raised in a one-room cabin in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee – also host and co-producer Jad Abumrad’s home state, where Dolly mythology “infused the air” as he was growing up. More than just a biography, the podcast is a pop cultural odyssey that journeys far beyond the expected, as it attempts to answer the question: what can Dolly Parton tell us about modern-day America?

Abumrad tells me the podcast’s reception seems to go deeper than a renewed appreciation for Parton’s music. “People are ready to see Dolly Parton in a new way,” he says. “It’s like she’s the folk hero we need right now.”

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Of Dolly in her own words there is plenty, and that’s a blessing since her brand of wisecracking, fridge magnet philosophy (“Find out who you are, and do it on purpose”) is a gift to the Instagram generation. But just as interesting is the way people respond to Dolly. Her Q Score, a measure of public appeal and positive sentiment, is one of the highest of any performer in the world. It’s hard to find a star as prolific who has garnered so little criticism, or who is beloved by such a diverse – often discordant – demographic. Young and old; Republican and Democrat; evangelists, activists, beauty queens and drag queens are all brought together under her big, glittery umbrella.

It’s a rare skill, that ability to be so many things to so many different people while maintaining such a crystalline sense of self. And it’s the central theme of Dolly Parton’s America, the idea of Parton as ‘”the great unifier” in a time when we desperately need one. “You look at America right now, and it’s a hot mess,” says Abumrad. “There are so many contradictions riddled through this country. But in her, they don’t feel irreconcilable. It feels like there’s a way they can all make sense together.”

Even in secular realms, there’s something quasi-religious about the feelings she inspires. She’s called a “saint”, a “goddess”, a beatific advert for forgiveness – and she has something to teach us about cancel culture, too. Rather than bashing President Trump publicly, as her 9 to 5 co-stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin did at the 2017 Emmys with Dolly wide-eyed between them, she would rather “pray for him”. It sounds almost radical.

Then there’s her philanthropy. Among a whole catalogue of charitable acts there’s the Dolly Parton Center for Women’s Services she helped to build at a local hospital, and Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which has given almost 128 million free books to preschool children since 1995. One of Parton’s favourite mottos is ‘Dream More’.

“It’s an exhortation to think more expansively, to have a bigger and bolder vision – for oneself, and for the world,” says Dr Helen Morales, classicist and author of Pilgrimage To Dollywood: A Country Music Road Trip Through Tennessee. Morales discovered Dolly through her father. “He was a Greek Cypriot immigrant, and he used to like her songs, I think, for the evocation of home and the sense of longing that runs through them,” she says. “He used to say ‘this is our music’, meaning ‘this is immigrant music’.” Hearing Kenyan star Esther Konkara perform the hymn-like ‘My Tennessee Mountain Home’ on the podcast, it becomes clear that yearning, small-town nostalgia has a global resonance. All lyrical roads lead to home.

Perhaps Dolly was the original Jenny from the Block? If we’re fooled by the rocks that she’s got, that’s intentional – along with the big hair, the nails and some other famous assets. Always keen to joke about her ‘Backwoods Barbie’ image (“I’d rather say it before they do”), her appearance is another narrative Dolly remains fully in charge of. But it’s never been the whole story.

“I think sometimes that [the self-deprecating instinct] gets in the way of seeing her as a virtuoso musician and lyricist,” says Morales. She praises Parton for what she calls “the insistent witnessing of women’s lives”; immortalising stories of female love, loss, anger and suffering in a way that rarely gets the recognition it deserves. “Meanwhile, the songwriting of Hank Williams or Willie Nelson or Bob Dylan have whole sub-disciplines devoted to them.” You don’t have to be the brightest rhinestone in the box to spot the difference.

And yet to try to separate Parton the artist from the wigs and heels and boob jokes would be to miss the point; that exuberant, cartoonish glamour is part of the package. As Gloria Steinem put it in a 1987 issue of Ms. magazine, Dolly is someone who “has turned all the devalued symbols of womanliness to her own ends.” She proves that the feminist and the feminine aren’t mutually exclusive, a torch that artists like the Spice Girls, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift have all carried in their own style since.

While there are legions of fans desperate to crown her a feminist by proxy, Parton flinches at the word itself – even if her decades of fighting women’s corners and lambasting lousy men suggest otherwise. Abumrad suggests that maybe she is more feminist in practice than in theory? To the relief of her woke fanbase, Dolly concedes. “I live it, I work it, and I think there’s power in it.”

“She’s subversive by what she does, rather than what she says,” agrees Morales. “There’s always been an aspect of Dolly that pushes boundaries, that collaborates with people you wouldn’t expect.” From a 1990s duet with Culture Club to last month’s foray into electronic dance music with Galantis and Mr Probz, Parton has long acted as a kind of musical conduit for her more conservative country audiences, uniting artists and fans across the genres.

And with that magnificent 4,000-strong back catalogue, there’s a Dolly for all seasons, too – from the “sad ass” elegies of her early days to rousing clapbacks like ‘Dumb Blonde’, rootin’ tootin’ party tunes and soaring, yearning anthems. “If a person’s just had a break up, there’s a song for that,” says Morales. “If the person’s the one doing the breaking up, there’s a song for that. If a person’s lonely, there’s a song for that.”

When I ask which set text they would teach as Dolly 101, both Morales and Abumrad reach for the same answer: ‘I Will Always Love You’, a karaoke standard across the world and yet one that many people don’t know was penned by the queen of country at all. But it needs to be accompanied by its origin story.

Parton wrote the tender ballad as a parting shot for Porter Wagoner, her former professional partner, on whose eponymous TV show she appeared for seven years. As Dolly’s confidence and popularity grew, Wagoner became bitter, their relationship broke down and eventually she left him, tired of being the pretty sidekick and determined to be the star.

A furious Wagoner sued her for a million dollars; she recouped her loss many times over when ‘I Will Always Love You’, covered by Whitney Houston, became the bestselling song by a female artist of all time. It’s a satisfying twist in time-old tale of male privilege and power. “She serves her own ambition while being almost saintly in her forgiveness,” says Abumrad. “That, to me, is quintessentially Dolly.”

Or as she sings it herself: this dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool.

© Lauren Bravo / Telegraph Media Group Limited 2019

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