Hello, Dolly - again! Parton enjoying career resurgence

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Dolly Parton in 2019
Dolly Parton performs onstage during MusiCares Person of the Year honoring Dolly Parton at Los Angeles Convention Center on February 8, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Rich Fury/Getty Images)

To celebrate Women's History Month, The Current is spotlighting some of the most iconic women artists in music history, from the greats of yesteryear to some of today's most exciting young voices. To complement our programming, we're sharing this feature on Dolly Parton, a true national treasure who is enjoying a career resurgence and an explosion of public interest.

"It's Dolly's world, we're just living in it."

"Is there anything we can all agree on? Yes: Dolly Parton."

Those recent headlines from the Evening Standard [U.K.] and New York Times epitomize the ubiquity — and staying power — that multi-talented artist Dolly Parton has shared for six decades. And The Current's listeners are all in on the Dolly love: she was the top vote-getter from the list of 88 artists on the Women's History Month ballot.

Parton's rags-to-riches journey is well known — and difficult to summarize, given the enormous range of career highlights and awards. Let's run some numbers: Parton has released 50 studio albums, six live albums, five soundtracks, and more than 180 compilations. She has been in a dozen feature films and appeared on TV more than 400 times, from Hee Haw to The Simpsons to The Bachelorette — and she played Aunt Dolly on Hannah Montana, with her goddaughter Miley Cyrus. Parton became part-owner of a theme park that was renamed Dollywood in 1986 and has become a major tourist attraction in Tennessee. Her non-profit philanthropy organization, the Dollywood Foundation, established the Imagination Library, a book-gifting program, in 1995; it has supplied more than 1.5 million kids with more than 130 million books. She has won and been nominated for Grammys, Oscars, Emmys and Tonys, and countless country music awards. And she has been inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and was bestowed with the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honor. And Parton has been married to her husband, Carl Dean, since 1966.

It's an extraordinary résumé for a life with such humble beginnings. Parton was born in 1946, the fourth of 12 children who lived in a one-room cabin in eastern Tennessee. She wrote her first song when she was five years old, and she made her first guitar two years later when she put two bass guitar strings on a mandolin. She first performed on TV and radio shows and sang at the Grand Ole Opy when she was 13 (Johnny Cash introduced her).

Parton recorded her first 45, "Puppy Love," in 1960. She moved to Nashville after graduating high school and quickly signed with a song-publishing company. A big break came in 1967 following the release of her debut album, Hello, I'm Dolly: she was hired to appear on the weekly syndicated Porter Wagoner Show, which led to a string of country hits.

In 1971, Dolly's solo success began with her first No. 1 country single, "Joshua," and her beloved musical memoir, "Coat of Many Colors." But the true breakthrough came in 1974 with the chart-toppers "Jolene" and "I Will Always Love You" — and she wrote both of them on the same day! Parton attained crossover success in 1977 with the album Here You Come Again; the title track (written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil) was No. 1 on the Country chart and reached No. 3 on the pop chart. In 1980, the theme song for the hit feminist-themed workplace comedy 9 to 5 — which starred Parton alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin — was No. 1 on the Country, Pop and Adult Contemporary charts. Parton continued her run, co-starring with Burt Reynolds in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in 1982 and duetting with Kenny Rogers on the hit song "Islands In the Stream" in 1983. And in '87, she teamed with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris on the trad-based Trio, which sold four million copies.

Parton was ever-active in the ensuing years, though her hitmaking prowess faded a bit. (One of the "Wit and Wisdom of the Dolly-Mama" quotes from her 2012 book Dream More addresses that topic: "I think of country radio like a great lover. You were great to me, you bought me a lot of nice things, and then you dumped my ass for younger women.") But in 1992, she got an enormous financial boost from Whitney Houston's take on "I Will Always Love You," which anchored the all-time best-selling soundtrack of The Bodyguard (45 million copies!) and logged 14 weeks at No. 1. Parton followed her creative muse, recording bluegrass albums (which included covers of Collective Soul's "Shine" and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven"), and sharing the mic with Brad Paisley, Billy Ray Cyrus, Vince Gill, and Kesha.

So it's truly remarkable that Dolly Parton is ever-relevant in the second decade of the 21st century. In the last two years, she has extended her influence to a new generation, which has encountered her work in Dumplin', a 2018 Netflix release based on a young-adult novel about an overweight teen who is inspired by Parton's music; the soundtrack had five new songs co-written with Linda Perry, and featured Sia, Miranda Lambert, Mavis Staples and others. More recently, her artistry was showcased in Dolly Parton's Heartstrings, a Netflix series which dramatized eight of her songs; and "Dolly Parton's America," a nine-part podcast produced by WNYC and hosted by Jad Abumrad.

Abumrad told The Bello Collective, "It's really easy to talk about Dolly Parton as the persona and the presence and the celebrity. She doesn't get enough credit for being one of the great songwriters of our time. I don't know of a more prolific songwriter. You hear all these things about Bob Dylan and how Bob Dylan is a genius. And how people say, 'Oh my God, his lyrics, his lyrics,' and somebody needs to do that for Dolly. I hope I'm doing that a little bit, or at least starting that."

The show's producer, Shima Oliaee, told IndieWire, "What we really wanted to convey was what it might've been like for a woman coming up in the '60s and the '70s and the '80s, being Dolly Parton and what it would look like from a televised standpoint — those songs where she actually talks about what it was really like for the women she saw living around her. I think that juxtaposition became a stronger starting point."

On July 27, 2019, a few months before the release of Heartstrings and the podcast, Parton was the surprise guest at the Newport [R.I.] Folk Festival as part of the Brandi Carlile-curated showcase titled "♀♀♀♀: The Collaboration," featuring the Highwomen (Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby and Carlile), Judy Collins, Lucy Dacus, Amy Ray, Linda Perry, Sheryl Crow, Yola and Maggie Rogers. Toward the end of the set, Carlile introduced "the incomparable unicorn legend that is Dolly Parton." The "unicorn legend" declared: "This is kind of all about the girls, and I looove being one of the girls. Of course, I love my men, too. Don't get me wrong, I've always had one of my own. I've had the same one for 53 years, as a matter of fact. But I love to be up here with all this girl power. I love to see us do good." Parton and company performed "Eagle When She Flies," "Just Because I'm a Woman," "I Will Always Love You," "Jolene" and "9 to 5."

Parton posted a bit of the set on Instagram with the comment, "Girl power! Such a delight to share the stage with so many amazing women at @newportfolkfest! Thanks to @brandicarlile for getting the whole gang together."

Hemby reflected on the experience with Entertainment Weekly: "I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. I was just so nervous. I mean, Dolly doesn't make you feel nervous, it's just like Santa Claus: you can't believe she's standing in front of you. You just want to sit on her lap. I didn't feel inside my own skin on that day because I was just like, 'There's Dolly Parton. This is Dolly Parton. She's right in front of me. She's right here. That's Dolly Parton.'"

In the last paragraph of her 1994 memoir, My Life and Other Unfinished Business, Parton said, "I still have love to give and get in this world, and I am excited about that prospect. No one can say how many years God will give us on this earth, but I know that every day he gives me I will cherish as a special privilege, a new opportunity to love. There's plenty of life and love left in Dolly Parton. I plan to enjoy every blessed second of it." Twenty-six years later, she has fulfilled that mission — and she has much more to give and get.

In 2018, Dolly took stock of what had transpired since she wrote those words: "I'm always amazed by what's going on now, and that I'm still around, or that a lot of these people kind of look up to me. You worry that you can't be that good, you can't be all that. I'm just a regular person, just trying to live my life.

"I want to do good. I want to touch people," Parton continued. "I'm not preaching a gospel; I'm not trying to do anything but live my life the way I see fit. If that's touched people, and is an inspiration, then that makes me feel good. Sometimes you're better being an example than trying to go fight a battle. My way has always been to address things naturally and honestly, and let it be part of my personality. Just be it."

External Link

Dolly Parton - official site

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5 Photos

  • Dolly Parton in 2019
    Dolly Parton (L) and Linda Perry perform onstage during MusiCares Person of the Year honoring Dolly Parton at Los Angeles Convention Center on February 8, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Rich Fury/Getty Images)
  • Dolly Parton in 2019
    Dolly Parton (L) and Miley Cyrus perform onstage during the 61st Annual GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on February 10, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
  • Dolly Parton in 2019
    (L-R) Katy Perry, Dolly Parton, and Kacey Musgraves perform onstage during the 61st Annual GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on February 10, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)
  • Dolly Parton in 2019
    Nile Rodgers and Dolly Parton attend We Are Family Foundation honors Dolly Parton & Jean Paul Gaultier at Hammerstein Ballroom on November 05, 2019 in New York City. (John Lamparski/Getty Images)
  • Dolly Parton in 2019
    (L-R) Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood, and Dolly Parton perform onstage during the 53rd annual CMA Awards at the Music City Center on November 13, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Terry Wyatt/Getty Images,)