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At 61, Dolly Parton stands at a curious point in her long and illustrious career. A prolific, unpredictable songwriter whose work has confidently straddled the line between popular success and artistic respectability, Parton still displays the enigmatic quality of a born star. In October, she lost one of her guiding lights when Porter Wagoner died in Nashville at age 80.
At 61, Dolly Parton stands at a curious point in her long and illustrious career. A prolific, unpredictable songwriter whose work has confidently straddled the line between popular success and artistic respectability, Parton still displays the enigmatic quality of a born star. In October, she lost one of her guiding lights when Porter Wagoner died in Nashville at age 80. And while Parton has always given Wagoner credit for his role in her rise to stardom, her legacy as songwriter, performer, film star and, most recently, record-label owner and Broadway composer, might well be more complex, and vexed, than Wagoner’s.
February 5 sees the release of Parton’s latest collection, Backwoods Barbie, on which she and producer and songwriter Kent Wells modernize-but not too much-her signature blend of ancient modal melodies and optimistic pop confections. On several tracks, legendary session musicians Lloyd Green and Pig Robbins join Parton, but Backwoods doesn’t register as a revivalist nod to the past. Ever ambitious, Parton has started her own label, Dolly Records, and she’s been busy working toward the 2009 opening of the Broadway musical based on the film 9 to 5. She’s the very definition of the questing songwriter, and one gets the sense that Parton is only as satisfied as her last effort to make sense of experience through words and music.
The debut release on Dolly Records, Backwoods Barbie stands as the work of an original, whose relationship to the music business has always been assertive. Arriving in Nashville in the early 1960s, Parton was hungry for success. In one of her early songs, “Down on Music Row,” she describes herself as “sleepy, hungry, tired and dirty.” And while she struggled to make herself known in a town renowned for songwriting, Parton came already signed to Tree International Publishing Co., to whom she’d been contracted since 1960. Tree’s Buddy Killen had perceived potential in the teenager’s demos-after an introduction to Parton in the late ‘50s by rising talent and Tree staff writer Roger Miller-and in 1962 Killen secured her a recording contract with Mercury Records.
While her Mercury single “It’s Sure Gonna Hurt” failed to set the world on fire, it did receive some airplay. More significant for Parton’s career was meeting Fred Foster, whose Monument label had become one of the city’s important independents. Writing for Combine Music, Monument’s publishing arm, Parton impressed Foster and Combine president Bob Beckham. She drew $50 a week from Combine in the mid-‘60s, and supplemented her income working as a receptionist and as a waitress.
Parton turned out over 100 songs during three years at Combine. By 1966, artists had begun to take notice of her efforts. That year, Bill Phillips recorded a song Parton had written with her uncle, Bill Owens. With Parton singing harmony, “Put It Off Until Tomorrow” sounds today like a great lost slice of ‘60s pop-country, and the record made it into the upper reaches of the country charts on the strength of her uncredited vocal. The performance tantalized listeners and disc jockeys, as yet unaware of Parton.
Her first real hit as an artist, however, was Curly Putman’s “Dumb Blonde,” a 1967 single that featured a harpsichord. “Dumb Blonde” and its follow-up, the Parton-written “Something Fishy,” were notable pop-inflected singles and helped bring Parton to the attention of Porter Wagoner, who was looking for a replacement for the immensely popular singer Norma Jean-a fixture of Wagoner’s television show. Leaving Monument and signing with RCA Records, Parton became a star.
If her image as an impossibly beautiful and voluptuous woman didn’t hurt her prospects, it was Parton’s genius as a songwriter that cemented her reputation among fans and critics. Reviewing 1975’s Best of Dolly Parton, rock critic Robert Christgau was one of many enthusiasts: “In her productivity and devotion to writing, Parton is like a 19th century woman novelist-a hillbilly Louisa Mae Alcott.” Songs such as “Jolene,” “Coat of Many Colors” and “If I Lose My Mind” stand as examples of Parton’s ability to create compelling narratives within the limits of the three-minute country single, while late-60s songs such as “Just Because I’m a Woman” are tough-minded, gorgeous and unselfconsciously feminist.
Of course, critical acclaim was never enough for Parton, who in the ‘70s went pop with varying degrees of artistic success, but immense commercial force. 1978’s Heartbreaker found her attempting to sing rock music, while New Harvest and First Gatherin caught her in good vocal form, but lacking the kind of first-rate material she had summoned a decade earlier. Her huge crossover hits like “Here You Come Again”-written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil-are essentially immune to criticism and, if nothing else, demonstrates her mastery of the sort of pop banality common to all pop singers. Parton became an icon, which isn’t to say that she ever stopped being a songwriter.
We spoke to Parton the week after Porter Wagoner died, and she was upbeat, intelligent and almost preternaturally quick on the draw. Still, she was reflective about her amazing career, even as she waxed enthusiastic about Backwoods Barbie, the 9 to 5 musical, and her legacy as songwriter, performer and, yes, American icon.