Blond Ambition

That titanic contradiction Dolly Parton is a whore, a saint, a poet and a preacher disguised as a dumb blond country girl

Aug 21, 2002 at 4:00 am
When Dolly Parton arrived in Nashville, a few days after her high-school graduation, she found a world light years from the Smoky Mountains of Locust Ridge, Tennessee. She grew up a sharecropper's child, one of twelve born to Robert and Avie Lee Parton. The first songs she heard were the old-time ballads played by her mother, a half-Cherokee, and her grandfather, a Church of God preacher who played fiddle and even published a few gospel numbers. The coat of many colors of her signature song wasn't a conceit; you can see the patchwork dress, a symbol of the poverty she endured and the imagination that saved her, in a museum at Dollywood.

Although a seven-year-old Dolly had already performed on Knoxville radio, made a few recordings and even appeared on the Grand Ole Opry at the age of thirteen, she had yet to learn the commercial-country game. During the late '50s and early '60s, Nashville was only slightly more friendly to old-time country music than it is today. Still reeling from the aftershocks of rock & roll, the industry was developing the sound that would later be known as "countrypolitan" or, simply, the "Nashville sound."

Ironically, the climate of pop crossover that greeted the young Parton would serve her well in later years, but the strategy of matching her piercing mountain twang with pop songs such as "Puppy Love" and "Dumb Blonde" (her first hit) hardly resulted in the answer to Elvis the Nashville establishment needed. Those teenage recordings presented Dolly as a Brenda Lee spitfire and were instantly forgettable. It fell to Porter Wagoner, who was then looking for a replacement for singer Norma Jean on his popular television show, who first understood what to do with Dolly's talent. Their recordings (recently reissued by RCA as The Essential Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton) are still among the best work Dolly has ever done. And it was Wagoner's idea to try (à la Elvis' rocking out a Bill Monroe classic) Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel No. 8" and turn it into the first true Dolly Parton hit as "Mule Skinner Blues."

As it turns out, Dolly would become country music's closest equivalent to Elvis. She was the genre's first international superstar, the first to fully explore the visual media of television and film, the first country singer to build an identity around pure, unapologetic sex. In her songs and self-fashioning, Dolly is a quintessential American artist, exuding an aura of wide-open possibility, that she can do and be anything she damn well pleases. She can be a whore and a saint, a poet and a preacher -- all at once. Like Elvis, Dolly doesn't just seem larger than life: She embodies an absolute freedom born of individual charisma and boundless talent. She remains a titanic contradiction. She's penned classics that represent everything country music has promised: Her best songs ring with humility and honesty toward her origins and her loves. But it has often been impossible to square those songs with her playfully brash exploitation of stereotypes. Dolly's not a dumb blond country girl; she just loves playing one on TV.

And, like Elvis', Dolly's rags-to-riches story is more than a little marred by some awful music. Two of her biggest crossover hits, "Here You Come Again" and "Islands in the Stream," are definitive country-pop trash, and her musical decline, like Elvis', can be traced to her misguided movie career. By the mid-'90s, Dolly, for all her willingness to play by the pop rules, found herself abandoned by mainstream country radio. She didn't really need more hits, and she certainly didn't need the money, so she returned to making what she calls "heart songs." In 1998, she released the brilliant hard-country album Hungry Again and then two bluegrass gems, The Grass Is Blue and Little Sparrow. Her brand-new album, Halos and Horns, is somehow sexier, more nostalgic, more sentimental and flat-out bigger than any of her previous back-to-the-roots projects. Though hewing to standard bluegrass instrumentation, the pop ambition that's at once her most alluring trait and her Achilles heel fuels some of the most successful tracks. On "Hello God," she offers a post-Sept. 11 prayer in the dark night of the soul, questioning the existence of anything greater than the destruction she sees all around her. "The free will you have given, we have made a mockery of," she sings as a chorus swells and swells around her. "This is no way to be living, we're in great need of your love." While other mainstream country artists are cutting songs about kicking terrorist ass, Dolly instead looks inside and points a finger at no one but herself.

No surprise, though, the songs of country heartache, especially "Dagger Through the Heart" -- the album's first single -- and "I'm Gone" are among the album's most moving, and deeply Dollyesque, moments. Dolly has always been hyperdramatic, always a little overwrought, but it's the trace of agonizing artifice that makes her voice the exquisite vehicle for emotion that it is. For when we've been betrayed, when we've wept in regret, our emotions are bigger than themselves, and they need a voice and a song bigger than life to do them justice.

Halos and Horns closes with her now-notorious version of "Stairway to Heaven" -- and no, not even Dolly can make sense out of lines such as "If there's a bustle in your hedgerow/Don't be alarmed now/It's just a spring clean for the May queen." And though it's not the first bluegrass attempt at heavy metal, it's undoubtedly the first bluegrass cover of a song that, when played backward, reveals a satanic message. You could call it a slightly calculated stab at a novelty hit -- Dolly's savvy enough to know the original is among the most-played songs in radio history -- but no one but Dolly could make the song rock without the aid of a single electric guitar and also make a connection, at a personal level, with what was so beautiful about the tune the first time you heard it. The melody is dreamy and the theme strangely mystical. As the performance climaxes, Dolly ad-libs a few lines, drawing her own life into the song's spiritual message. "You can't buy it, you can't borrow," she wails, "You must walk it straight and narrow." It was a country lesson Elvis remembered too late. Dolly, it seems, never really forgot.