To Nashville xenophobes, 1975 was the year country music went pop but lost its soul. After all, what does the daughter of a Tucson hardware merchant like Linda Ronstadt know of poverty? How can a well-born Aussie like Olivia Newton-John empathize with Appalachian heartbreak? And what does Robert Altman, the eastern-critics’ darling who created the film Nashville, know from anything? But simultaneously a defender of the faith has emerged who knocked out anyone else within ear-or eyeshot—Dolly Parton, 29, a homegrown Tennessean and the heiress-apparent to Loretta Lynn as queen of country.
At first, Parton looks like a throwback whom not even Altman could have dreamed up. (She hasn’t seen Nashville, in which Karen Black plays a caricature of Parton-cum-Tammy Wynette.) Exactly five feet tall, Dolly wears blond bouffant wigs piled on her head like a vanilla sundae and squeezes into seam-popping sequined jumpsuits that leave fans gasping. But Dolly’s shimmering soprano and sensitive lyrics (she composes all her own songs) this year have brought her three more No. 1 country singles plus the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year award, and awestruck admiration spreading far beyond Printer’s Alley.
“Dolly’s voice has an essence and purity that chills me to the bone,” gushes pop star Maria Muldaur. “She goes beyond that canned syrup out of Nashville. I’d love to sing like her, but I can’t.” Linda Ronstadt openly idolizes Parton, and acid-rock monster Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead speaks for Dolly’s sexist constituency when he observes: “She has big knockers and a tiny waist, and I love her voice.”
While Dolly is still brightening the increasing round of country music specials on the tube, she’s also regularly jetting into Hollywood for the citified followings of Merv and Dinah. And in January she will begin tapings at the Grand Ole Opry for her own syndicated half-hour TV show, Dolly. But Parton maintains, “I’ll always be a country musician because I’m a country girl. My style is my soul and my feelings. I’ll tell the world in my songs what I wouldn’t have told my mother.”
Her discography is her biography. Dolly grew up one of 12 children of a poor farmer in Locust Ridge, Tenn., the setting of My Tennessee Mountain Home. Her dad remembers that “Dolly sang almost before she talked” at her grandfather’s fundamentalist church. While her mother sewed clothes from rags (Coat of Many Colors), Dolly dreamed of glamour. “If we ever had any makeup in the house,” her mother recalls, “Dolly’d grab it first.” The night of her high school graduation Dolly headed for Nashville and a singing career. Within two days she met her future husband, Carl Dean, in a laundromat, “and it’s been wishy-washy ever since,” she jokes. Dean runs an asphalt paving company and shuns. Dolly’s public life (leading to the misapprehension that she was married to her mentor-producer and 1964-74 singing partner Porter Waggoner). Dean built her a Tara-like mansion in Nashville. They have no children but fill the 23 rooms with assorted kinfolk. Four of her siblings and two cousins make up the “Traveling Family Band” she now tours with a battering 20 days a month.
Loretta Lynn thinks Parton writes over the heads of her female audience, but her compositions are hardly feminist. Dolly scoffs, “I don’t even know what that women’s liberation stuff is about.” And her guitarist brother, Randy, fractures the house noting that if Dolly burned her bra, they’d have to call the fire department. Of her flamboyant coif and costuming, Parton says simply, “It’s what being rich means to me. I don’t have time to change with fashion. My music is too important.”