She fancies fishnet stockings and stiletto heels, bleached blond hair and a manner best described as, well, blunt. Freida Parton may own one of the most famous names in Nashville, but Dolly’s younger sister (by 11 years) and her musical tastes seem as countrified as concrete and asphalt. “I come out kicking amps over just to show it’s rock ‘n’ roll,” says the 27-year-old vocalist of her stage act. “If I wasn’t Dolly’s sister, critics would probably be saying, ‘Wow, it’s another Janis Joplin.’ When I scream, people listen.”
Some do, at least, although Freida’s debut album echoes with the sort of primeval wails and rough-edged rock that might send Grand Ole Opry fans running for the exits. Two-Faced, released in March, includes backup vocals by Rick Danko, formerly of the Band, as well as Chicago bluesman Paul Butterfield. Though the LP hasn’t yet cracked Billboard’s Top 200 list, the single Oriental Dolls has made its way onto MTV with a video introducing Freida’s 5-year-old daughter, Jada Star.
The song was inspired by a 1979 trip to Japan by Freida’s husband, Mark Andersen, then lead guitarist with Dolly’s band. “I couldn’t get hold of him for three days,” explains Freida, “so this little bitch started getting jealous.” Freida vented her displeasure by writing: “Sometimes they’re fine, Oriental dolls/They’re just your kind, beckon to your call/But I don’t bow down to any kind of man/And I don’t come running when you show your hand.” Mark returned, but not before Freida had penned even saltier lyrics: “I drink champagne from a crystal glass/ And I’m not going to kiss anybody’s…” Well, you get the idea. Concludes big sister Dolly of her hard-rocking sibling: “She’s a driving, feisty little thing.”
Both sisters grew up with 10 siblings in the impoverished East Tennessee hills. At Pentecostal church services, “we yelled, screamed, gurgled and screeched,” says Freida, remembering an uninhibited style of worship that “wasn’t too far from rock ‘n’ roll.” At 13, with her sister’s star fast ascending, Freida moved to Nashville to live with Dolly and her husband, Carl Dean, a local paving contractor. Dolly became both mentor and mom to the youngster (Freida still sends her a card each Mother’s Day), and it was at her home that Freida first tuned into early rockers like Elvis, the Everly Brothers and Jerry Lee Lewis. Says Frieda: “I’ve been hearing Dolly scream and rock the house for years.”
Still in her teens, Freida met hubby-to-be Andersen while he was performing at Pee Wee’s, a Nashville honky-tonk. They wasted no time on their first encounter. “I went home with him,” she says matter-of-factly. “I wanted all his attention that night, and I got it.” Within two weeks the couple was “seriously in love,” reports Freida. They married a year later.
By the time Freida gave birth to Jada Star, she had sung backup vocals on some of Dolly’s albums and was determined to cut an LP of her own. Then, in 1981, after starting the recording, she tripped on the stairs at home while holding her daughter. Though she saved the child from harm by cushioning the fall with her body, Freida suffered back injuries that left her bedridden for eight weeks. “Religion helped me,” she says, recalling her long and sometimes painful convalescence. After a two-year struggle to get back on her feet, “I wanted to do crazy rock ‘n’ roll because I felt it,” she says. “I had time to feel pain. It sounds crazy, but the fall was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Onstage these days the singer shows no ill effects from the mishap as she struts through a performance that is flirty, raucous and sometimes raunchy. To protect herself from over-exuberant fans (“I don’t know if they’re sexually excited or just excited”) she flanks herself with two burly bodyguards. After the show they accompany her to the modest one-story Nashville home she shares with her husband and child. For Freida, not yet a superstar herself, the guards’ presence is simply part of the price she pays for being a Parton.
Still, this fall the singer plans to release a second rock LP that she hopes will bring even more fame to the family name. All things considered, “I don’t mind being Dolly Parton’s sister,” allows Freida, “especially if people say, ‘That’s Dolly’s rock ‘n’ roll sister.’ ”