Dolly Parton's first performance as a thirteen-year-old at the Grand Ole Opry inspired the following encouragement from an observant listener standing behind those famous curtains: "Go where your heart takes you, and don't care what others think." That the man was Johnny Cash hasn't been lost to history — that's his version of the story — but it's still difficult to imagine his advice, or anyone's, "making" an interminable self-creator like Dolly Parton.
She developed her unapologetically campy humor on the set of The Porter Wagoner Show in 1967 under the watchful eye of Wagoner, who plucked Dolly from relative anonymity to replace country singer Norma Jean as his hostess. Wagoner and Parton's tempestuous relationship ended seven years later in 1974, immediately after Dolly's first solo blockbuster, "Jolene," but not before she had honed her delivery of the bawdy stage banter that would later distinguish her.
Wagoner and Parton would produce a total of fourteen top-ten hits together including, in 1971, the flamboyantly accessible "Coat of Many Colors" — which Dolly promoted as an intimately autobiographical window into the poverty of her childhood in Sevierville, Tennessee — and later came "Jolene," the small-town jukebox standard that has filled ad infinitum dusty bars with the wailing angst of her jealousy over her husband Carl Dean's affair.
In spite of generational differences in her appeal and several sonic reincarnations, Dolly shrewdly upheld the sense that her music provided a porthole into her private life, a bluegrass tradition that she carried into her pop years. She never seemed lost or vacant, even during a highly publicized bout with depression in her early forties, and her persona, like her birth name, never wavered over the entirety of a rhinestone-studded career spanning five decades. Though Dolly to most of us, she's Aunt Granny to her nieces and nephews, whose parents she helped raise with her husband; she was Doralee in the 1980 movie Nine to Five, and she's now Aunt Dolly, godmother to Miley Cyrus on Hannah Montana.
In all assumed identities, though, she's always an impenitent version of herself. Her role as an underappreciated working woman in Nine to Five resonated with feminist ideologies (just as the lyrics to the movie's chart-topping theme song did), although her exploitative humor and physical appearance did not. Dolly managed to absorb the paradox without alienating listeners, a feat she pulled off with slick vulnerability offstage. "The way I look was really a country girl's idea of what glamour was. I patterned my look after the town tramp," she told Rolling Stone reporter Jancee Dunn, as they snacked on chunks of Velveeta ("Ain't it good?").
"Dolly magic," a well-worn phrase used by fans describing her concert afterglow, might also describe her ability to escape unscathed from a long history of dealings with public snark, often lobbed at her appearance and the plastic surgeries she physically and verbally flaunts. Her self-parodies might have fanned some feminist flames, but she excelled in a music industry not celebrated for its equanimity. "There was Patsy Cline and Loretta and Tammy and me. There were just very few of us, and they were all under the direction of men," she told Rolling Stone.
One of Dolly's most insightful business dealings was in direct opposition to a man, and a powerful one at that. Less cited than her concert quips, but generally known, is her 1974 decision to refuse to relinquish half the publishing rights for "I Will Always Love You" (an intimate account of her breakup with Porter Wagoner) to Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, a man notoriously unable to accept "no" for an answer. When the song reared its hoary head in Whitney Houston's squalling version nearly two decades later, it would earn Dolly a reported $6 million in revenue and contribute to her nickname in showbiz circles as the Iron Butterfly. (A flurry of butterflies greets a mouse click on the screen of her official website.)
Dolly magic may rest mostly on the appearance of pure intentions, something that, unlike her songwriting talent, practically no one contests. Who else could start an amusement park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee — one named after herself, no less — claiming: "My one wish for you during your visit is that the wonder of the Great Smoky Mountains will touch your heart," and still seem so plausibly altruistic?
Randy Lewis of the Los Angeles Times recently explained this phenomenon in a concert review of Parton's current "Backwoods Barbie" tour as "the rural cred that underscores everything she does." (The trek's name refers to the title of her 2008 album of the same name.) And in a recent interview with Liz Hoggard for The Observer, Parton similarly described her fame: "People always felt like they knew me like a relative, not a star." In the '90s, when other older country stars were casting their popular fate to casino circuits, Dolly was starting Blue Eye Records, unabashedly returning to an Appalachian sound and taking her Nine to Five pop audience with her up the Smoky Mountains using the same autobiographical shtick. "I had to get rich to sing like I was poor again," she lithely joked during her 2002 "Halos & Horns" tour.
Critical acclaim met the folkloric acoustics of 1991's The Grass is Blue and 2001's Little Sparrow, in part because they were refreshing glimpses into the past of a genre — country music — that, like popular music, was becoming plagued by the consequences of the modern conception of music as a commercial enterprise. Both albums were also hauntingly beautiful — proof that seasoned musicianship can bask in the giddy pleasure of making the music that feels right.
Dolly's voice, still immaculate, is her best instrument, but not her only one: For this tour, she doses her act liberally with traces of dulcimer, autoharp, electric guitar and piano, all of which she can play skillfully. The second half of the "Backwoods Barbie" show — the pop half — is the one reviewers are talking about, but the magical window into a country queen's world has always transcended whatever anyone has to say about Dolly.