The Unbroken Circle is a recurring feature where I discuss classic country songs, though for this particular feature, I found it easier to write a collective essay about Dolly Parton and a few key cuts related to this piece.
As discussed last week, country music crafts its identity most from its down-home, working-class roots. It’s an admirable trait, ultimately, but it also comes with country music being dismissed as mere “hick” entertainment for larger, mainstream audiences. Still, the rise of country music performers as mass-media pop stars, while slow, was inevitable.
By the time that, say, Dolly Parton rose to prominence, there was a variety of precedents set for her multimedia superstardom, most of which were tied to the urban stereotype of the affable hick. From Buck Owens and Roy Clark cracking hayseed jokes on “Hee Haw” to Minnie Pearl hollering “How-deee!” from an illuminated box on “Hollywood Squares,” before Parton, country music performers were supposed to remain grinning good old guys ‘n’ gals in the public mind. Performers like Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves gave an air of sophistication to country music crossovers, but the music remained far outside the mainstream, flickering across pop radio stations one day and gone the next.
By the ‘60s, however, country music began exerting more of an influence on popular music at large, and the music’s rise in mainstream popularity just happened to coincide with the rising popularity of television. A thirst for new programming meant that the country music industry had its chance to see if it could attract viewers beyond its record-buying known public. The first example was “Ozark Jubilee,” hosted by Red Foley and filled with the usual suspects of a country music show: an easygoing host, cornball comedians, and the singers themselves. And from it came shows that were steadfast in their approach to honor a country image as well as shows with broader scopes; “Hee Haw” didn’t quite function like “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” or “The Johnny Cash Show,” but all were virtually two sides of the same coin.
Perhaps that’s the best way to describe Dolly Parton’s mainstream superstardom – a performer with a smooth tone, playful attitude and public image all her own, but also a product of grinding poverty. Like Loretta Lynn, Parton’s anecdotes of her childhood are filled with fondness, yet never try to romanticize the harsher reality of the situation. Born in a two-room wooden shack in Sevier County, Tennessee, Parton would use her childhood and her roots as subject matter for her songs. From “In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)” came “anything at all was more than what we had,” balanced against a sweeter detail of “on a distant hilltop, an eagle spreads its wings, and a songbird on a fence post sings a melody” from “My Tennessee Mountain Home.”
Nostalgic, yes, but Parton’s material also addressed a subtle need to move on, no doubt a reason she was singing on Cas Walker’s Knoxville television variety show at ten years old; five years later, she’d perform on the Grand Ole Opry.
Parton got her real start as Porter Wagoner’s singing partner. His old-fashioned, vinegary voice matched against Parton’s sweeter style really shouldn’t have worked as well as it did, but their series of duets provided Wagoner with his biggest commercial success yet and a start for Parton. It was an image, however, that replicated Parton’s childhood – sweet in the moment, but not one meant to last forever. Parton commenced a solo career in 1974 and didn’t look back.
To address the elephant in the room, Parton’s physical image certainly played a role in helping the public accept her (a sadder story for another time), but knowledgeable music fans knew the real talent stemmed from her songwriting abilities. It was by no means unprecedented for artists to write about their rural upbringings, but Parton’s knack for specificity and detail gave an original life to her recordings – “To Daddy,” “In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad),” “Joshua,” “Coat Of Many Colors” – all of which are similar, yet unique, pieces of Parton’s larger story. Family, too, was as important to Parton’s story as it is to country music’s story in general. Most obviously, she toured for the early years of her solo career with the Traveling Family Band, consisting of multiple Partons.
Of course, Parton’s desire to always move ahead also resulted in another paradox – at a time when singers like Olivia Newton-John and John Denver transitioned from pop to country, Parton moved from country to pop with 1977’s “Here You Come Again.” And thus stems the debate of whether Parton abandoned country music or whether she was, as she said she was, “not leaving country” and instead, “taking it with her,” a dicey conversation that’s hard to approach with any notion of objectivity. It’s fair to say Parton’s temporary departure created a gaping hole in the country music world, but it’s also unsurprising to view, in hindsight, another example of how Parton moved forward with a relentless hunger. She could utilize her huge personality in the hit movie 9 to 5 while reminding listeners of her first musical love by teaming up with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris for 1987’s Trio.
More to the point, though, Parton’s willingness to be herself and yet somehow be everything to everyone is a talent that very few artists, country or otherwise, have been able to balance. And regardless of where the road has taken her, her rags-to-riches story is the heartbeat of her discography, and comprises some of the best songs in country music history.
Next time, we’ll jump ahead to discuss John Anderson’s “Straight Tequila Night.”