I first became aware of Dolly Parton in the early 1970’s when she was the singing partner of Porter Waggoner. They were hawking laundry detergent on his Saturday morning show. He walked into the shot and handed her something every woman in America coveted at that time: a box of Breeze.
With a soothing voice comforting every housewife in Tennessee and a prodigious rack unsettling every pecker in Pocatello, Dolly opened the box.. She pulled out a full-sized floral bath towel and exclaimed, “Why Porter! You brung me flowers!”
Of the many dumbfounding moments in that commercial the most was how Lever Brothers got that promotional towel into the box. I still think about it.
Dolly knew it was schlocky but didn’t care. If there were people stupid enough to write corny lines like that she was stupid enough to make money reading them. Not exactly a well-principled stance but it could have been worse.
At a time when it was difficult for women to succeed in any field it’s hard to fault someone who grew up in the extreme poverty of the Smokies. It gave her the financial foundation she needed to write and sing her music.
Another confounding career moment in the mid-70’s was when she appeared on the cover of Interview Magazine. Andy Warhol’s monthly was the denizen of the hip, young, and urban–the antitheses of the Country Music crowd. This move had the markings of a star trying to escape a niche market and redefine themselves.
But Dolly wasn’t rebranding anything. She was keeping the act, she just wanted a bigger audience.
One reason Jane Fonda was thrilled to cast her in 9 to 5 was because she thought it would help with box office in the South. To which Dolly quickly chimed in, “as well as the East, West, and North.” Miss Parton’s sights were set higher than a Georgia pine.
There are some good things about getting old including the opportunities to reassess opinions you may have formed for the wrong reasons. When Islands in the Stream came out in the 80’s I was a post-punk, rock elitist. The song was okay but too fluffy. And it’s Gibb Brothers/Disco lineage was offensive.
In the last couple of years, though, I’ve become obsessed with this live performance of the song. The harmonies, the blue notes, that quirky 3 against 4 or whatever it is rhythm of the chorus and the way her voice soars at times are all captivating.
She has been an artistic and financial success in her crossover career without offending her original base.
Politics are so fraught with confrontation and emotion, it’s understandable why some avoid them completely. Especially if they can achieve many of the same ends quietly with their own money.
Dolly has never taken a political stand but has employed thousands of people through her enterprises in eastern Tennessee. Plus she’s given extensively through charities, most notably her Imagination Library that has distributed 130 million free books to children.
Well respected intellects who know Dolly like Fonda and Lily Tomlin jump to their feet to defend her. Reading between the lines one can assume she is one of us. She just has to walk the tight rope of practicing a music style she loves that is mainly appreciated by those who disagree with her politically.
I’ve always been deeply interested and somewhat involved in politics but I understand why people have such disdain for them. Every proposition, every school board race is framed in such dire terms. It’s better to win, but really, even when you lose you can right things over time. You just have to be persistent.
This year is different, however. Death really is an option. The populace may not hear that message because they’ve become so inured by decades of politicians crying wolf.
Dolly’s voice could encourage some who want to break out of their traditional voting blocs. She doesn’t even have to mention names. It could be something as simple as: “I caint vote for any guy who lies as much as this one has.”
Or maybe a homespun take on tax returns. “I guess the best way to make money in America is to lose money.”
If Dolly doesn’t speak out she still deserves respect. But if she would she could have a huge impact. Just because she can.