Dolly Parton: Barbie With Serious Legs

By: Dennis Cook

Back through the years
I go wonderin' once again
Back to the seasons of my youth
I recall a box of rags that someone gave us
And how my momma put the rags to use

Dolly Parton by Kii Arens
Dolly Parton is a serious musician. Not everyone realizes that, distracted by her sheer platinum "Dolly-ness." She's a hot pink firecracker that chirps and chuckles with an ease most of us quietly desperate souls will never know. The fourth child of twelve kids who grew up dirt poor in a one-room house in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, she began working professionally in music around 1955, when the 10-year-old Parton became a regular on local radio and television. By 13 she was singing at The Grand Ole Opry. A record holding 25 #1 singles and 42 Top 10 country albums later, she's released Backwoods Barbie, her first foray into mainstream country in 17 years, at the end of February on her own Dolly Records.

"I write everyday. I write something all the time, and no matter how many Dollywoods or Dixie Stampedes or any of the other things I do, music is still my number one love," says Parton, a dedicated musician that often doesn't get the credit she deserves. "Well, I am serious, and it took years for a lot of people to realize that because my 'Backwoods Barbie' look has thrown a lot of people off, not knowing if I take myself seriously or not. Through the years, people who've really watched it know I'm dead serious about my work. I don't take myself that serious but I take my work dead serious. This is what I do. This is my art, my gift. I'll never give it up. I've often joked that I'll be making my records even if I have to sell them out of the trunk of my car."

"I tried to come up with some good stuff for mainstream country that's still 'Dolly.' [The song] 'Backwoods Barbie' sort of reminds me of 'Coat of Many Colors.' I purposefully focused on doing something really good that also gets some radio play in addition to pleasing fans. I figure a good fan is going to buy it anyway, whether it's good or bad [laughs]. I've been doing acoustic things and bluegrass stuff and that's mainly because I wasn't getting much action from radio for a long time. Bluegrass, though I love it, doesn't sell many records. I still would love to chart records in the mainstream. You'd be surprised that when I was doing my bluegrass things, even though they got critical acclaim, they don't sell anything. If you're gonna do it, well, it's the music business. You think of success and money and being able to afford your habits," observes the unabashed capitalist.

The week of release, Barbie entered the Billboard Country Album chart at #17 and the Billboard Indie Album chart at #2. While the new album can hold it's own against anything out there in commercial country it retains Parton's hallmarks - characters with dirt under their nails and skeletons in their closets. Her tunes have gentle insight into the workings of human beings that drink and lust and love hard, and usually find themselves a touch wiser on the other side of life's challenges. Despite her sometimes baroque shows of success, she still resonates most deeply with working folks wrestling with day-to-day concerns and hurts.

"Music is a gift in my family. All my mother's people write songs and play some sort of musical instrument. Most of us play several different instruments. My grandfather, who was a great Pentecostal preacher, was a great writer and musician. So, I grew up with that spiritual background as well as the music background. I just loved it," says Parton. "I learned to play when I was little and I started writing songs when I was about seven. After I learned to play the guitar then all them words just started coming. I started writing songs about dogs and cows and dolls. I would write about anything I thought or felt or saw [laughs]. I had a gift for rhyme. I started singing on radio and TV when I was 10 and most of those were songs I'd written."

Her compositions are lessons in songcraft. Parton is as worthy of study as Kris Kristofferson, Paul Simon or any other acknowledged master of songwriting fundamentals. The 1975 single "The Bargain Store" is a primo example of the clarity and flow of her writing:

My life is like unto a bargain store
And I may have just what you're lookin' for
If you don't mind the fact that all the merchandise is used
But with a little mending it could be as good as new

The bargain store is open come inside
You can easily afford the price
Love is all you need to purchase all the merchandise
And I will guarantee you'll be completely satisfied

"That's one of my favorites! When I wrote that they wouldn't play it on the radio because they thought it was too suggestive. We've come a long way, baby! Now you can just show the body, show all the parts I was talking about," says Parton. "Even when I wrote 'Down From Dover' [from 1970's The Fairest of Them All], another of my favorite songs, which is about a girl who's pregnant, they wouldn't play it then either. I keep thinking if somebody now would do 'The Bargain Store' it would be a hit."

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