The Queen Of Country Music
Perhaps no performer’s story better qualifies to be called “rags to riches” than that of Dolly Parton. From the poverty-stricken days of her youth, to the international fame she has attained through the five decades of her music and film careers, no other entertainer is more deserving of the title: the Queen of Country Music. Hers is truly a Cinderella story.
Her hill country upbringing and backwoods demeanor remind some of Elly May Clampett of the Beverly Hillbillies television series; her eccentrically outrageous manner of dress and gregarious behavior remind others of Mae West; her beauty and hourglass figure remind still others of Marilyn Monroe. She embodies them all- and much more. For, whatever she might appear to be, Dolly Parton is indomitable, tough, strong and smart.
“I’m not offended by dumb blonde jokes,“ she once said, “because I know that I’m not dumb. I also know I’m not blonde.” In fact, Dolly has an IQ of 145. She has written nearly five thousand songs. She has recorded nearly three hundred and fifty of those songs, while two hundred have been recorded by other artists.
Through the course of her forty year career, Dolly has won seven Grammy awards. Of the over eight hundred songs she has recorded, one hundred and eleven have made the country or pop charts. Based on singles sales, she is the top female country artist of all time- with eighty-seven Top Forty hits, fifty-five Top Ten hits and twenty-four #1 hits. Of the seventy-six singles she recorded for the RCA label, during the height of her career, only two failed to make the charts. She has recorded sixty-nine albums (as well as an untold number of re-packages and compilations), for which she has received twenty five gold and platinum record awards. These accomplishments are made all the more special when one considers the impoverished circumstances surrounding her childhood.
The fourth of twelve children, Dolly Rebecca Parton was born in Sevierville and grew up in a one-room cabin, on the banks of the Little Pigeon River in Locust Ridge, next to the Smoky Mountains National Forest in eastern Tennessee, about thirty-five miles east of Knoxville. Her poor, tobacco farming parents, Robert Lee Parton and Avie Lee Owens Parton, were so abjectly destitute, they could not pay the doctor who attended their daughter’s birth. “My daddy couldn’t afford to pay Dr. Thomas for delivering me,” Dolly once explained, “so he gave him a sack of cornmeal.”
Though her father did not play an instrument, her half-Cherokee mother played guitar and her grandfather, the Reverend Jake Owens, was a fiddler and songwriter. His song, “Singing His Praise, ” was recorded by Kitty Wells. Her father (who nicknamed her his “little songbird”) recalled that Dolly was singing almost before she could talk. Certainly long before she had learned to read or write, she was “making up” her own songs. She wrote a song about her corn-cob doll, “Little Tiny Tassletop,” at around age three. Since Dolly was unable to, her mother wrote down the words for her. At the age of six Dolly made her first guitar from an old mandolin and two guitar strings.
When she was seven, her uncle, Bill Owens, gave her a real guitar, which she taught herself to play. Within three years she was appearing regularly on The Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour on Knoxville television station WIVK. Over the next two years, her career steadily grew. Dedicated to her first job, Dolly performed on every broadcast she could fit into her schedule, sometimes taking time off from school to accommodate her burgeoning career. In 1959, at the age of thirteen, she made her debut on the Grand Ole Opry.
The following year, she recorded her first single, a rowdy rockabilly rave-up called “Puppy Love,” for Goldband, a small, Louisiana-based, independent label (which actually released several of Freddy Fender‘s first records, at about the same time). “That record didn’t do anything,” she later confessed, “because it wasn’t good at all! But it was a start, and I had big dreams.”
When she was 14 years old, Dolly signed a contract with Mercury Records; but her 1962 debut for that label, “It’s Sure Gonna Hurt,” flopped miserably. Mercury summarily dropped her from their roster. Over the next two years, she shopped for a new contract, while occasionally recording demos of her original material. She continued to attend high school, playing snare drum in the school marching band.
In June of 1964, as soon as she had graduated from high school, Dolly moved to Nashville, where she stayed with her uncle, Bill Owens- who was also a musician and songwriter. On her first afternoon in Nashville, she met her future-husband at the Wishy Washy Laundromat. In a classic case of opposites attracting, Carl Dean, an asphalt paving contractor, lived a life altogether out of the spotlight which Dolly so steadfastly sought. As fledgling song promoters, Dolly and Bill Owens pitched their songs all over Nashville, with little success; although Dolly did find some work, occasionally singing on various demo recordings for producers and publishers.
Early in 1965, Fred Foster signed Owens to his publishing house, Combine Music. Not long after, Foster signed Dolly to his Monument Records label. Her first records for Monument were intended for a pop market (“They recorded me rock!” she exclaimed in frustration). Nonetheless, her second record, “Happy, Happy Birthday Baby,” nearly made the charts.
In 1966, country music star Bill Phillips took the song “Put It Off Until Tomorrow” (which Dolly co-wrote with her uncle Bill; and a record upon which, unaccredited, she also sang background vocals) to the Top Ten of the country charts. The pair also wrote his 1966 follow-up Top Ten hit, “The Company You Keep.” On May 30th 1966, Dolly married Carl Dean. “He’s good for me,” she said, “because he’s so different in nature from me.”
Next, Dolly recorded an up-tempo Curly Putman song (Putman wrote “The Green, Green Grass Of Home,” among many other well-known hits) called “Dumb Blonde,” and it became her first hit for Monument. Released early in 1967, the record climbed to #24. It was followed shortly after by the # 7 hit “Something Fishy,” which Dolly wrote.
The success of both songs for Monument, soonattracted the interest of country music icon and nascent television star Porter Wagoner. Dolly joined Wagoner’s Wagon Masters band in September of 1967, replacing his previous vocal partner, the popular Norma Jean (after she ended their long-running romantic affair), on his syndicated television show. “The Porter Wagoner Show” exposed Dolly to over forty-five million people in more than one hundred markets; while drawing the attention of record executives at Wagoner’s label, RCA.
Dolly stayed with the show for seven years. Her duets with Wagoner became legendary; and Dolly often made solo appearances with the Wagon Masters at the Grand Ole Opry. Dolly and Porter were twice the Country Music Association’s Vocal Duo of the Year and together they had fourteen Top Ten hits (mostly between 1967 and 1974).
At Wagoner’s behest, Dolly was signed to a recording contract with RCA, as a solo artist. Her first single, “Just Because I’m a Woman,” was released in the summer of 1968. It became a moderate hit, reaching #17 in the country charts. But, for the remainder of the decade, none of her solo efforts were as successful as her duets with Wagoner. In 1969, Dolly joined the Grand Ole Opry, fast acquiring a reputation as a spellbinding storyteller, who wove fascinating homespun tales of her rural upbringing.
She had her first solo #1 country hit in 1971, with “Joshua.” Another early solo hit, “Coat of Many Colors,” which followed later that same year, became Dolly’s signature song. In 1973, she released one of her best loved solo albums, My Tennessee Mountain Home. Her popularity eventually began to overshadow Porter’s (which caused something of a rift between the two, despite the fact that Wagoner had a significant financial interest in Dolly‘s solo career, as well- owning half of the rights to her publishing royalties).
She finally ventured out on her own once and for all in 1974, crossing over to the pop music charts with her albumJolene. The title track became her second solo #1 country hit. She followed that with another #1 single, “Love Is Like A Butterfly.” For the next six years Dolly regularly continued to reach the Top Ten of the country charts, with eight #1 singles, including the 1974 hit “I Will Always Love You” and “The Bargain Store” released in 1975. She achieved breakthrough success with the platinum-selling album Here You Come Again, released in 1977. The title track reached #3 on the pop charts, while spending five weeks at #1 on the country charts, selling over a million copies. Meanwhile, in 1978, she crossed over with disco-tinged smash “Baby I’m Burning.”
Dolly won the “Female Vocalist of the Year” award from the Country Music Association in 1977 and 1978. The Association voted her it’s “Entertainer of the Year” in 1978. That same year she won a Grammy for “Best Female Country Vocal Performance,” for “Here You Come Again.” Dolly Parton had become a pop and country diva without radically changing her image or her music. She assured fans, concerned that she might be abandoning her roots, “I’m not leaving country, I’m just taking it with me.”
Exploring another aspect of her ever-expanding career in 1980, Dolly made her big-screen debut in 9 to 5, in which she co-starred with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. She wrote and performed the film’s title song, which became her first #1 pop single. The song also earned her two Grammy awards in 1981, as well as an academy Award nomination. Dolly appeared in a string of popular films over the next decade. In 1982 she starred with Burt Reynolds in the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, in which sang her 1974 hit “I Will Always Love You.” The reissued single made the charts for a second time.
She filmed another musical, Rhinestone, in 1984, with Sylvester Stallone; and Steel Magnolias in 1989, co-starring with Julia Roberts, Sally Field, and Shirley MacLaine. Again she received terrific public response and positive critical reviews. Of that experience, Dolly quipped, “Shirley MacLaine says we all got along so well in Steel Magnolias because we were all the same person in another life. I told Shirley I don’t believe in reincarnation and I didn’t believe in it when I lived before either.”
Dolly sent twelve songs to the top of the charts throughout the early ‘80s. In the fall of 1983, she teamed with her country crossover counterpart, Kenny Rogers, recording “Islands In The Stream.” Written by the Bee Gees, that song topped the Billboard pop chart in the autumn of 1983. Once Upon A Christmas, an album of duets with Kenny Rogers, was released in 1984. It became a major hit, selling over a million copies. Also in 1984, Dolly was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1985, again with Rogers, she scored with “Real Love.”
By the mid-‘80s, she had placed her recording and touring careers on hold in order to oversee her expanding business interests- which had become a multi-million dollar media empire: Dolly Parton Enterprises. On May 3, 1986 one of Dolly’s most cherished dreams became a reality, with the opening of Dollywood, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee- an entertainment theme park, dedicated to preserving her Smoky Mountain heritage.
Over the years, Dollywood grew to be the top tourist attraction in state of Tennessee, with over two million visitors annually. The park annually employs nearly nineteen hundred people during the peak season. It is one of the fastest growing attractions in the United States, ranking among the nation’s top thirty theme parks.
She hosted an ill-fated weekly television variety series, Dolly which suffered from a bad time slot against tough competition and was quickly cancelled after a single season. Undaunted, Dolly resumed her music career in 1988 , winning yet another Grammy award for “Best Country Performance Duo or Group with Vocals,” for Trio, an album she recorded with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, selling over a million copies and peaking at #6 on the pop charts.
Then, in 1992, Whitney Houston recorded “I Will Always Love You” for the soundtrack of her film, The Bodyguard. Of all Dolly’s songs, none has had a more resilient history, becoming a hit song in each succeeding decade from the ‘70s through the ‘90s. Houston’s version stayed at #1 on the pop charts for fourteen weeks. The most popular of the three hit versions, it escalated into a worldwide hit; and, as a result, in 1993 it was declared the “Most Performed Song Of The Year.” What’s more, the success of the single helped to bring attention to Dolly’s music career, which had waned, somewhat, since her last run of hits at the beginning of the ‘80s.
Displaying yet another facet of her acting abilities, in 1992 Dolly starred in her first dramatic role, on television, inWild Texas Wind, a Movie-of-the-Week, co-starring Gary Busey. In 1993, Dolly earned praise for her starring role in the film Straight Talk with James Woods. Also in 1993, the royalty of country music, Dolly, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, teamed for a landmark album, Honky Tonk Angels, performing songs in tribute to the great Kitty Wells. In 1997 she starred with Roddy McDowall in another made for TV movie, Unlikely Angel.
The new, “contemporary country” trend of the early ‘90s meant the decline in popularity of many established country performers, Dolly included. Still, she continued to release an album a year throughout the decade. In 1999, Dolly reunited with Harris and Ronstadt for Trio II. The recording gained positive reviews and won a Grammy for “Country Collaboration with Vocals” for the single “After the Goldrush.” On September 22, 1999 Dolly was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame
For forty years, Dolly Parton has touched the hearts of music fans everywhere with her enormous talent, quirky personality and refreshing candor. She is a true superstar- the queen of country music- certain to reign for many years yet to come. “My music is what took me everywhere I’ve been,” Dolly once confided, “and everywhere I will go. It’s my greatest love. I can’t abandon it. I’ll always keep making records.”