Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.
As previously mentioned in this feature, Dolly Parton’s transition from country to pop was the opposite of a prevailing trend. Today we’re going to pick up where that conversation left off, and to do so, we need to answer a simple question: Why were there so many country music-related movies in 1980?
The movie industry traditionally treated country music as low-comedy, B-grade, rube material, but as discussed multiple times in this feature, country music demonstrated its prominence in American life in a variety of ways throughout the 1970s. In 1973, Loretta Lynn appeared on the cover of Newsweek and was the central focus of the magazine’s coverage of country music. Merle Haggard would enjoy similar exposure just one year later in Time. The treatment country music received most likely reflected the nation’s shift toward conservatism and the music’s identification with white working-class culture (ironic, as Bill C. Malone argues in Country Music U.S.A., given that the 1930s had been fueled by an awakening of liberal sentiment).
Either way, the phenomenon treated the genre with a seriousness that had seldom before been witnessed. References to “corn,” “hillbillies,” “twang” and “nasal” were replaced by attempts to understand the origins and contemporary meaning of the music. In 1975, producer/director Robert Altman was impressed enough by country music’s growing influence to make it the centerpiece of the movie Nashville (even if Altman himself cared little for the actual music). On one hand, the Nashville world depicted in the movie stood as a larger metaphor for modern American culture, but country music fans perceived it as a frontal attack on their music and the culture that embodied it. Still, the movie won a new audience for country music, as new fans were intrigued by the idea of artists expressing feelings through their songs.
Movies seemed to become major vehicles for the mass exposure of country entertainers not long afterward. The aforementioned Lynn, for example, enjoyed enormous public visibility from Coal Miner’s Daughter, a critically acclaimed adaptation of her autobiography. Willie Nelson profited from a similar aura, starring in lead roles for Honeysuckle Rose and Barbarosa, the former of which mostly being used to highlight Nelson’s singing and the honky tonk atmosphere of Texas, rather than his acting abilities. And, as you can probably guess by now, Dolly Parton became a household name around the world when she exhibited a natural comic flair in 9 to 5, in which she co-starred with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.
It was, in part, Fonda’s idea to make a movie about secretaries. Once she decided it should be a comedy, she knew immediately that Parton had to be in it. “I had never met her,” Fonda said, “but I was really into her music. Anyone who can write ‘Coat Of Many Colors’ and sing it the way she does has got the stuff to do anything. This was not a woman who was a stereotype of a dumb blond … did we coach her? No. Her persona is so strong, you get somebody mucking about with that and making her self-conscious, and it could be negative.”
But while 9 to 5 is hailed as a catchy pop hit movie with a title song of the same variety, it’s also a dark indictment of corporate culture and the exploitation of workers, looking to find hope in one another to press onward. And yet, as a testament to her performance skills, Parton delivered that sort of message with her usual, upbeat personality.
In Parton’s words, however, 9 to 5, to her, was never a message movie. “It’s about women,” Parton said, “but there’s women and men in the office. I’m the executive secretary to the boss, and he’s a real turd. He got where he was because Violet [Lily], who had been with the company for twelve years, had trained him, and she had never gotten a promotion because they felt that position should not be held by a woman, that men prefer to deal with men. So actually, a lot of people thought it was just going to be women’s lib … it’s just a funny, funny show.”
Movies like Nashville, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Honeysuckle Rose and 9 to 5 would set the stage for other movies like Tender Mercies and Urban Cowboy, which took the rolling momentum from those movies (minus Tender Mercies, which wouldn’t be released until 1984) and transformed it into something that would have an even bigger impact on American popular culture – a conversation for another time and place. For now, join me next time on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ where we’ll discuss Kenny Rogers not once, not twice, but three times, and I have a feeling we’ll be discussing Parton again in one of those features.
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
- Bill C. Malone’s Country Music U.S.A., particularly the chapter, “Country Music, 1972-1984.”
- Quote attributions for both Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton stem from Dolly on Dolly, Interviews and Encounters with Dolly Parton, edited by Randy L. Schmidt. Both quotes stem from a Rolling Stone interview Parton conducted with Chet Flippo on Dec. 11, 1980.
- Country: The Music and the Musicians, by the Country Music Foundation, specifically the chapter, “Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson.”