Dolly Parton is the unlikeliest of icons. Sure, she's a bona fide star -- what with her big platinum wigs, her "Hi, sugar" demeanor and that famously improbable figure. Say her name and chances are the first thing people think of isn't the sweet, softly twanged voice behind "Coat of Many Colors," "Jolene" and "The Grass Is Blue."
But just as Parton is undeniably a star, she's also a creature of another time. She came into the spotlight during the era of huge cotton candy hairdos and shimmery polyester gowns with blue spangles and matching eye shadow. A human marker at the place where Appalachia and Vegas meet, Parton embodies all of these things and more: the winking comedy of burlesque, the musical joy of a Tennessee hoedown, a drag queen's interpretation of the Goddess, a miracle of modern plastic surgery and the innocent sincerity of a little girl. None of which plays particularly well anymore with contemporary Nashville, which sold its soul for the likes of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain decades ago.
And to become an icon? That usually requires something serious, for instance untimely death (see Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Patsy Cline) or at the very least, substantial validation from a member of the White Stripes (see Loretta Lynn). Fond of corny one-liners like "it costs a lot of money to look this cheap" and "I'm not offended by all the dumb blond jokes because I know I'm not dumb, and I also know that I'm not blond," she could easily have become washed up, tossed carelessly into a heap of such similar cultural flotsam as Tammy Wynette, Mickey Rooney and Hee Haw.
But Dolly Parton (who appears at the Star Theatre on Saturday night) still inspires an astonishing degree of both respect and affection. I've seen the most affected, well-educated and cynical hipsters go gaga at the mention of her name, and it's not for nothing that even National Public Radio enjoys having her in for a visit from time to time.
The secret behind Parton's appeal could go all the way back to the poverty of her youth. Born Dolly Rebecca Parton in 1946, she was one of 12 kids born to a family of rural sharecroppers. Although she's arguably one of the wealthiest female performers in country music, the poverty of her childhood seems never entirely banished. The most famous example, of course, was her 1971 hit "Coat of Many Colors," where she recalls both her mother's love and ingenuity and the careless cruelty of her classmates at school.
While that was actually one of few Parton songs addressing growing up poor, much of her music (and even some of her acting) exhibits both a plaintive, silvery richness and a resourceful, can-do attitude. She also -- despite the artifice of her trappings (That hair! Those nails!) -- has the reputation for being one of the most genuine women in the industry. You never read about Dolly throwing tantrums on the set or copping an attitude in interviews. Unfailingly sweet, Parton is the epitome of good-hearted country femininity.
From the very beginning, it seems, Parton knew she wanted to become a star. She recorded her first record ("Puppy Love") and made her first television appearance (The Cas Walker Home & amp; Farm Hour) at the age of 10, and by the time she was 13, she had already performed at the Grand Ole Opry. But her truly big break came in 1967 when she was signed to the cast of The Porter Wagoner Show. Wagoner -- older, modestly talented and not terribly handsome -- benefited from the onscreen company of his bubbly, buxom costar, and the two performed and toured constantly for the next seven years. In 1974, Parton broke off with Wagoner and, even though the two had never been romantically involved, their breakup was as acrimonious as any mid-'70s divorce. Wagoner eventually sued her for breach of contract, while Parton, sporting a new array of sexier wigs and a noticeably slimmer figure, had a slew of radio-friendly hits, including "Here You Come Again," "Love Is Like a Butterfly" and "I Will Always Love You" (a nice little song before Whitney Houston diva'ed it to death).
She made her cinematic debut in 1980s ebullient 9 to 5, playing Dabney Coleman's underestimated secretary. At times, she stole the show from costars Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda; at others, it was clear she was there to supply a pre-P.C. level of physical comedy. Similar movie roles followed, including the regrettable (Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Rhinestone) and the not-too-bad (Steel Magnolias).
By the 1990s, Parton's popularity had waned. The chart-crossing superstar persona she had skillfully created began to implode as the country music industry spurned her and other "oldtimers" in favor of younger, "poppier" acts like the Dixie Chicks, Faith Hill and Brooks & amp; Dunn. Likewise, the opening of her new theme park, Dollywood, and restaurant chain, Dixie Stampede, didn't endear her much to serious music fans who wanted more melody and less marketing.
In 1994, she took a self-imposed break, retreated from touring and focused on her work. By 1999, she'd found her way again, ironically by returning to the traditional music of her youth.
The Grass Is Blue, a collection of pure, unvarnished bluegrass, caught the attention not only of her former fans but also music critics and alt-country listeners who were turning to the likes of Gillian Welch, Whiskeytown and the Mavericks for their nostalgic musical pleasure. Parton followed that album up with Little Sparrow and Horns and Halos, which -- with its Annie Leibovitz portraiture -- confirmed that Dolly was both back, and a force to be reckoned with.
With two new albums out (including a two-disc live effort and the patriotic crowd-pleaser For God and Country) and a tour underway, it's clear the 58-year old star has no intention of slowing down. It's also clear, from the looks of her presence on the Web, that she has even more fans than ever. Embraced by the feminists, the folks who remember her from her Porter Wagoner days, the gay community, the Shania Twain fans and the hipsters, Parton has become an icon by being both paradoxically everything to everyone and unabashedly, shamelessly Dolly.
Publication date: 12/09/04