Dolly Parton: Singer-Songwriter, Beloved-Icon, Needle-Mover

For over 50 years, Dolly Parton has been flipping the script on how women are portrayed in country music. If you ask her about it, though, she’ll just giggle and say she writes about the things she knows about — that matter.

I have a memory of the first time I saw Dolly Parton on T.V. Based on my internet sleuthing, it would have been 1985, and it was her singing with Kenny Rogers, the iconic Islands in the Stream. I was 10 years old. If I’m being honest. I’ve loved her since that day.

I was mesmerized when Whitney Houston released I Will Always Love You (and when Kelly Clarkson released it!), and I found out it was actually a Dolly song. Years after its release, I watched 9 to 5 with some friends who couldn’t believe I had never seen it, and I couldn’t stop watching it.

Much the same way I experienced the 2018 Netflix film, Dumplin, that is full of Dolly songs and Dolly drag queens. Oh — which reminds me, there were all those times at Drag Shows that someone performed as Dolly too.

Just last year, This is Us used an old school Dolly Song, Lonely Comin Down, and instantly it felt like a song written just for me. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I wrote a poem called I sleep on my side of the bed after my first big heartbreak which is very similar!)

What I never understood until last fall was how much is really going on in those songs, performances, and her music, in general.

There’s so much more to love about Dolly than her music.

That’s when Jad Aburmad released his hit podcast, Dolly Parton’s America — named after a class at the University of Tennessee Knoxville (true story!). From the very first episode, Sad Songs, I was falling in love with Dolly all over again, but this time, it was all at once so much more than her music that I loved — and 100% her music that I loved.

It is also that first episode where I began to reconcile my own complicated relationship with the south and country music and religion. I’ve never seen someone so easily blend their beliefs in God, the South, equal rights, and true love.

She just tells the stories that need to be told.

Jad and Dolly jump right in talking about one of her very first hits, Daddy Come Get Me, released in 1970: 50 years ago.

When he said he loved another, I was crazy with jealousy
That’s ’cause I was crazy over him and I couldn’t stand to set him free
And I couldn’t stand to lose him and I cried and cried for days
And he said that I was crazy but he just put me in here to get me out of his way

Dolly explained that she wrote that song to tell the story of a woman in her family who had that exact thing happened to her and to tell the stories of the many women she had known that had experienced this. Divorce was a no-no, so men who wanted to leave their wives regularly had them declared insane and locked them up.

She then talked about a song also released that year, Down from Dover. In this song, a young woman gets pregnant and is trying to conceal the pregnancy while she waits for her lover to come back down from Dover. She knows if he comes before the baby is born, she won’t be scorned. Unsurprisingly, he does not come, and she has the baby — but it is stillborn.

My body aches the time is here it’s lonely in this place where I’m lying
Our baby has been born, but something’s wrong, it’s too still, I hear no crying
I guess in some strange way she knew she’d never have a father’s arms to hold her
So dying was her way of tellin’ me he wasn’t coming down from Dover, from Dover, from Dover
Down from Dover

For the woman in this song, there is relief that her baby is born stillborn and no one will have to know that she got pregnant. When Dolly talks about the song on the podcast, she shares that RCA wouldn’t put the song on the radio — not because it talks about a baby being born stillborn — but because an unmarried woman got pregnant. And this is a moment where it all becomes about more than the music.

She is giggling as she shares that. At first, it catches me off guard and then I realize that I don’t ever remember a time when she was talking and not smiling. There’s no heaviness to her, even when she talks about really heavy things. She just says, “I wrote about the things I knew that mattered — I was writing about abortion, adoption — all sorts of things.” And she laughs as she says it. Well, not laughs, but there’s a lightness — almost a chuckle — you have this feeling of being let in on a little secret: Dolly Parton is a feminist and she has been for 50 years. In Country Music.

Just don’t call her one.

Even though she likens her time on the Porter Wagner show to something like an abusive relationship and she wrote I Will Always Love You to explain the complex feelings she had leaving the show.

Even though she starred in 9 to 5 (the movie) and was part of the team that recreated it for the stage 28 years later.

Even though she talked to Barbara Walters in 1977 about working to get equal pay as a female in the Country Music industry.

Even though she released 19th Amendment in 2018 to celebrate the 19th amendment.

Even though she completely flipped the script on other woman songs when she released Jolene.

She just lives it.

Jolene, arguably her most famous song, is about the other woman, like many songs. But that’s where the parallels end. Instead of begging her man not to leave, the scorned wife describes Jolen’s beauty and power — in fact, it’s one of the few other woman songs where the other woman’s name is even used (let alone said repeatedly). And it’s not just the lyrics that shake up this genre. Most other woman songs are either spunky and angry or slow and sad…this one is written in a minor key (Gregorian Mode to be exact) and has the pace of someone who is nervous, anxious, even scared.

When discussing Jolene on the podcast, the idea comes up that maybe the two women end up together and leave the man altogether. (Side note: when I heard this, I yelled “YES” while driving!) Intrigued by the idea, Jad and his producer, Shima Oliaee, encourage Nadine Hubbs to write that verse. She does, and they play it for Dolly.

She laughs and giggles and says, “I didn’t think of that when I wrote it; maybe if I was a lesbian I would have…” and then goes on to say that she can see it, and she loves it as an alternate ending. Her good-nature shines through again.

This is also the episode where the question of being a feminist comes up. There’s no shortage of commentary on her refusal to be categorized as a feminist, with the general consensus being that she is playing to her Southern base.

A feminist icon and a southern woman.

Although Dolly says over and over that she avoids politics and religion, she always tells you what she thinks right after she says that (at least on the podcast).

When asked about Gay Rights, she says God made everyone exactly as they are, and she doesn’t want anyone telling her to dress different, act different, or look different, so she isn’t going to do that to other people.

When asked about her faith, she tells the story of the moment she found God and then jokes that when people ask her if she believes in reincarnation she says she doens’t know but she didn’t believe in it last time either.

When a writer talked about the weirdness of her Dixie Stampede, she reworked it and explained that she is human and doens’t know everything, but when she does know, she makes a change because she doesn’t want to hurt anyone.

And when asked about being a feminist, she says

I am a feminist in practice, but not in name. I think that’s a good way of saying it. I live with it. I work it. I believe there is power in it — at least for me.

Forget intersectional, the next wave is multi-dimensional.

She also happens to be one of the most successful businesswomen ever. She has written thousands of songs and continues to write daily. She’s working on a way to digitize her voice so that even after she’s gone her voice can be used to record music. She loves her Appalachian roots, jokes about her boobs when she knows everyone is thinking about them, openly shares a time in her 30’s when she was so down that she seriously contemplated suicide, and is flattered (and surprised?) every time someone pays homage to her in any way — as equally with the class at UTN dedicated to her and the drag queens who love and emulate her.

As Dolly said herself, she is “Sensuality, Sexuality, and Spirituality.” Aren’t we all?

And with the 2019 remake of Faith with Galantis and Mr. Probz, she assures us all that she is here to remind us who we are and that she is always here when we need her.

And with the 2019 remake of Faith with Galantis and Mr. Probz, she assures us all that she is here to remind us who we are and that she is always here when we need her.

When you don’t know who you are
I will find you so easily (oh)
Don’t you worry, whenever you need me
Have a little faith in me (in me)

Let me shine and radiate
With your love and light, and help me make
Any change I can in this world today
Just show me the way

Maybe it is about the music after all.

I expand in the words written by others and write words to change the narrative.

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