The coif still seems to be by Carvel, the makeup out of Wally Westmore. The clinging costume—well, if she sneezed, the exploding sequins could put a whole arena into the emergency room. The talent? She’s still the idol of better known names like Linda Ronstadt, and says Emmylou Harris: “She’s one of the great writers—man or woman—and great singers of this generation.” Her old mentor and duet partner, Porter Wagoner, declares, “She’s as creative as anyone I’ve ever met, including Hank Williams.” But, in every other aspect, the old Dolly Parton act ain’t what it used to be.
At 31, she has traumatically just fired her Travelin’ Family Band, which included four siblings, an uncle and a cousin. She’s split with Wagoner and replaced her manager with the hotshot Hollywood firm that handles Joan Rivers and Cher. Has the queen-to-be of country music abdicated even before Loretta Lynn stepped aside? To some Nashville purists, it was a sacrilege comparable to the Cypress Gardens operators taking over Everglades National Park or Billy Carter’s agent packaging Miss Lillian.
In fact, the reports of Dolly’s defection are greatly exaggerated. Sure, she’s gunning for new customers by merchandising an 11-inch Dolly doll (in perfect, preposterous scale), touring with Vegas cowboys like Mac Davis and becoming practically a regular on The Tonight Show. It’s true also that her current and first personally produced LP, New Harvest…First Gathering, includes reworked R&B hits by Smokey Robinson and Jackie Wilson. But to call it an indulgence matching Streisand’s A Star Is Born (as Rolling Stone did) is bushwah. After all, which commandment decrees that a true country songstress can go gold or platinum only at her beauty parlor?
As Parton herself justifies the new departure, “I want people to know there is a lot more to me—good or bad—than they’ve seen so far. All I’m askin’ is a chance to prove it. I needed to reorganize to try to make those dreams come true,” Dolly adds delicately, never saying what had been quietly acknowledged on Music Row: that the cornball combo of kinfolk was not up to the star (nor to the slick Gypsy Fever band that’s taken over). “These are awfully hurtful decisions I’ve had to make,” winces Dolly. “I’ve suffered a lot, and I’ll suffer some more because of the great love I have for the people involved. I may be an eagle when I fly, but I’m a sparrow when it comes to feelings.”
A mute sparrow, it almost turned out. Her unearthly, shivery, crystalline soprano was frighteningly stilled late last year. Her emotional anguish compounded the toll of a battering schedule of 20 one-night stands a month, and the nodes on her vocal cords, a chronic problem, perilously re-flared. Surgery was too risky—who could float the malpractice insurance? Finally, her otolaryngologists had her cancel 65 concert bookings worth $325,000 and ordered two weeks of total silence in which she could communicate only by notepad. It worked. Dolly eased back into business two months ago, and what friend Maria Muldaur describes as “one of the really great voices ever issued to a human being” is abroad again in the land.
That was a relief back in Nashville, but why, the jingoists wonder, is she hobnobbing with pop stars like Muldaur? Or doing Carson when Hee Haw is closer to home? The fact is that there’s been a détente in the world of country. Two years ago Dolly was active in ACE (Association of Country Entertainers), a rearguard organization then reacting to outsider Olivia Newton-John’s winning a traditional country award. This year Dolly happily accepted absent buddy Olivia’s third straight American Music Award. So much for ACE.
“Many of my friends are afraid I might be screwin’ up,” Dolly admits of her own artistic accommodation with pop. “And,” she adds, “some are afraid I will do good. But I’ll never turn my back on the people who made me want to sing and write. I’m not leavin’ Nashville. Roots are important to me, and my roots are here.” Not that anyone thinks Dolly’s only roots are the brownish ones under her wigs. She grew up in a two-bedroom shack in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, the fourth of 12 children of a struggling laborer-farmer. “We never actually starved,” Dolly remembers, “but sometimes we never had quite enough to eat.” Having lain awake as a child listening to rats scurrying in her bedroom, she still sleeps with a night light.
At 6, Dolly had rigged her first primitive guitar from an old mandolin and two bass strings and was singing in her preacher grandfather’s Church of God choir. Though she couldn’t read music (and still doesn’t), Dolly was beginning her astonishingly prolific flow of autobiographical songs, dictating to her mother at 7 and eventually filling “dressers and trunks with thousands and thousands.” An American original as a songwriter, Dolly has recorded some 400 to 500 of her songs, including such authentic folk hymns as My Tennessee Mountain Home and her deeply affecting tribute to her mother, Coat of Many Colors. (“I put the hurtful things in my songs,” she says now. “It’s better than a psychiatrist.”)
Dolly eased into secular music at 10 on radio and TV in Knoxville, and immediately after her high school graduation in 1964, she boarded a bus for the musical Mecca, Nashville. Her breakthrough came three years later when Wagoner needed to replace his married-off singing partner, Norma Jean. Even after Dolly stopped singing with Wagoner three years ago, he continued to produce her records and coaxed her into a 26-episode TV series syndicated on some 140 stations this season, an embarrassment that will not be renewed. Concedes Parton: “I didn’t have time to make it right.”
Some fans think Dolly and Porter are married—which is true, but not to each other. Oddly, she met her future husband, Carl Dean, now 35, at a laundromat her first 24 hours in Nashville. Dean, a lanky Nashville native who owns an asphalt paving company, has resolutely stayed out of Dolly’s career throughout their 10-year marriage. He’s never even seen her perform. (Admittedly, the local deejays who leeringly introduce her at concerts with lines like “Dolly burned her bra—it took three days” wouldn’t encourage any husband.) “He’s sort of shy and quiet,” Dolly understates. “What we have together is so sweet and good that I’d never want it to get jumbled up with the other.” When lonely, she phones an SOS to Carl to wing in for a couple of nights.
Dolly and Carl live outside Nashville in a 23-room Tara with 200 acres, a mobile home for her folks when they visit, 25 polled Herefords, two peacocks, two hounds and Dolly’s 17-year-old kid sister, Rachel. Four other Partons were raised there. “I don’t know that I won’t have children someday,” she says. “But it’s just not possible for me to bear children and leave them for somebody else to raise while I have a career. If I wait until I’m naturally too old to have children, I can always adopt them.” In the meantime, there are her compositions. “When I listen to my own things, I think to myself, ‘I was the mother of that.’ ”
She feels comfortable enough on the road these days to wisecrack that her celebrated measurements may be approaching 80-80-80. “I eat like a hearty, healthy farmer’s daughter, and all the things I like are fattening.” Which is a problem for someone five-foot even (“6’4″ with wigs and heels,” she laughs). “I’d rather have people see more in me than hair and wigs and makeup,” Dolly pouts. She has “lots of offers” to write or star in movies and is looking for an MTM or Doris Day-style comedy. What’s next? “I may go to heavier lyrics or back to simple country on my next album. I had to try things my way. I can only be what I am. I’m Dolly Parton from the mountains, and that’s what I’ll remain.”