In her 1978 book titled Singers and Sweethearts, writer Joan Dew made what must have seemed then like a far-fetched comparison between Dolly Parton and Barbra Streisand. Dew noted the tenacity and strength of character inherent in both women. Streisand already had a reputation for standing her ground, but at this time female country singers weren’t known for being independent thinkers. In fact, some like Loretta Lynn more-or-less did as they were told. Tammy Wynette famously sang of standing by her man. Of Parton, Dew writes, “When Dolly wanted to renegotiate her contract, she got on a plane and flew to New York and made the deal herself.”
Dolly’s first big hit was called “Dumb Blonde.” It climbed to number 24 on the country charts in 1967. The lyrics in part go:
Just because I’m blond/Don’t think I’m dumb/’Cause this dumb blond ain’t nobody’s fool
It’s hard to imagine that anyone could have thought of Dolly as a stereotypical dumb blonde at one time. If they did, she has certainly proven them wrong over the years. Her net worth is reportedly around $500 million. Like Joan Dew predicted, Dolly did crossover as an across the boards entertainer. Her many beloved films such as Nine to Five, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Steel Magnolias and even the guilty pleasure Rhinestone attest to this.
Earlier this week Dolly performed a rendition of the song at Country Music Hall of Fame 2016 Medallion Ceremony to celebrate new inductee Fred Foster, who signed Dolly to his influential Monument Records in 1965. After all these years, she can still command a stage like few others. I saw Dolly perform again at the Hollywood Bowl earlier this month. She put on a terrifc show, as she always does. She ran through her repertoire of colorful stories about growing up poor in a big family, her religious background, her fixation with the town floozy who inspired her look (Dolly told us she will actually portray this woman in her upcoming TV film, Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love ), and, of course, how she herself has inspired countless drag queens. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen her in concert, but I remember well the very first time. It was before I began elementary school and took place at a state fair in the South. Dolly was onstage with fellow country-western recording artist Porter Wagoner. My father had hoisted me onto his shoulders so I could see. I remember being mesmerized by a huge blond bouffant that at the time reminded me of cotton candy I’d just consumed. My parents remarked that I was seeing TV stars in real life (Wagoner had his own syndicated variety show and Parton appeared each week to sing with him or solo and later wrote her massive hit “I Will Always Love You” about her decision to leave the program). I’ve followed her career over the years. After all I was raised in a house that had Gone With The Wind on the coffee table next to the Bible and we gathered around the TV to watch Grand Ole Opry each Saturday evening, so listening to country music was a big part of my formative years.
I’ve decided to devote this site to show business renegades and I think I can make a strong case for Dolly within that criteria. She has always played by her own rules. She’s done so much to fight illiteracy in the U.S. Her Imagination Library project has donated millions of books to young children. Dolly has always had the back of her LGBT fans. She’s spoken about a dance song she’s working on titled “I’m a Wee Bit Gay.” She loves a good Dolly drag queen. (Who doesn’t, right?) She’s often told a story about entering a drag queen celebrity look-alike contest and losing. She said:
“They had a bunch of Chers and Dollys that year, so I just over-exaggerated — made my beauty mark bigger, the eyes bigger, the hair bigger, everything. All these beautiful drag queens had worked for weeks and months getting their clothes. So I just got in the line and I just walked across, and they just thought I was some little short gay guy.. but I got the least applause.”
Just this week she did her gay fans another solid when the subject of homophobia came up during an interview with Larry King : “I keep saying ‘If you’re the fine Christian that you think you are, why are you judging people?’ That’s God’s job. We’re not God, we’re not judges, we’re supposed to love one another, we’re supposed to not judge.”
My friend Randy Schmidt, who authored a remarkable biography of another music legend Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter a few years ago, has edited what will surely be another another fine book, Dolly on Dolly: Interviews and Encounters with Dolly Parton. I can’t wait to read it.
Here are a few of her early performances I love. I’m sure you’ll enjoy them, as well.
The original recording of her 1967 hit is irresistible.
She’s riveting in one of her early performances at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
Here’s a 1975 performance of her still-popular hit “Jolene.” This song was ranked No. 217 on Rolling Stone‘s list of “the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” and has been covered by countless artists, including Olivia Newton-John, Miley Cyrus, Kelly Clarkson and Dolly herself recently performed a version with the a cappella group Pentatronix.
I had no idea that Dolly and Cher had performed together until I stumbled upon this gem. It’s a religious experience literally and figuratively. If I could time travel I’d go back to the 1970s and write a buddy comedy screenplay for the two of them to costar in.
She performed her first big pop hit “Here You Come Again” for President Jimmy Carter in 1978. It’s still a staple and much-loved fan favorite in her recent tours.