As country queen Dolly Parton turns 70 (yes really!) we salute the ultimate mistress of reinvention
In a career spanning five decades, Dolly’s achievements are without parallel. Reportedly worth over £150million, she has amassed seven Grammy Awards (from 45 nominations), been up for two Oscars, had 42 top ten country albums and more than 100 chart singles, including I Will Always Love You, which became one of the biggest-selling songs of all time after it was covered by Whitney Houston. As well as her Tennessee-based theme park, she owns restaurants, a water park, a radio station, a cosmetics brand and film, record and TV companies. In addition, she expanded her Imagination Library, a childhood literacy scheme, to the UK. Now thst she’s just turned 70, her popularity is greater than ever.
‘Her appeal is universal,’ says Lucy O’Brien, author of She Bop, The Definitive History Of Women In Rock, Pop & Soul. ‘Folk fans, soul singers, rappers, drag artists… She’s popular because she understands the power of a really good song with a strong melody. It’s that, plus a lovely voice and a gift for communicating her honest feelings about being a woman, coupled with an unforgettable image, that makes Dolly so unique.’
To fully appreciate Dolly Parton you need to understand her struggle to escape childhood poverty. Born Dolly Rebecca
Parton on 19 January 1946, she grew up in a shack in East Tennessee, the fourth of 11 surviving children. Craving attention in a home where her parents were too busy to give it, Dolly began to make up songs on the guitar and
perform them for whoever would listen. Her musician uncle, Bill Owens, spotted her talent and from the age of nine secured Dolly a regular slot singing for local TV and radio stations. Within two years, she was earning more than her father ever could.
But as her success grew, so did her unhappiness with her appearance. Fascinated by the big hairstyles and gaudy clothes of local prostitutes, a 14-year-old Dolly began to use burnt matchsticks for eyeliner, antiseptic merthiolate for lipstick and peroxide to dye her hair. By the age of 17, her cartoon image was established – the big hair, the red lips, the heels, the teeny tiny waist and, of course, that cleavage.
‘I’ve made a fortune looking cheap,’ she says, then adds: ‘But I’m nobody’s fool. When I was starting out, people didn’t take me seriously. I always looked like I could be had, but the truth was, I couldn’t.’
Her Barbie doll appearance caught the eye of Carl Dean. She was 18 and had just moved to Nashville with dreams of becoming a star. Standing outside the Wishy-Washy Laundromat in skin-tight red trousers and a low-cut blouse, Carl couldn’t take his eyes off her, and the attraction was mutual. ‘I knew as soon as I met Carl there was no point looking for somebody else,’ says Dolly. They married two years later and have been together ever since.
Within three years of her moving to Nashville, Dolly had landed herself a record deal with Monument and released her first hit single, Dumb Blonde. But it wasn’t until she got the job as co-host on The Porter Wagoner Show on TV that she achieved mainstream recognition and quickly earned herself a loyal following. After leaving the show, Dolly began to release albums and singles prolifically, writing moving and evocative songs that focused on the trials of being a woman. Hits like Jolene, The Bargain Store and Here You Come Again were to bring her global attention, but diversifying her career in the 1980s was by far her savviest move. ‘People write Dolly off as this country music joke,’ says O’Brien, ‘but then she made a few astute moves, like appearing in the films 9 to 5 and Steel Magnolias. People got to see her sense of humour.’
Throughout her career, Carl was a regular but discreet visitor to engagements, although Dolly says he has only ever seen her perform once. His reluctance to be seen in public has led many to question the strength of their marriage. Dolly is quick to defend their union. ‘He is someone I can count on,’ she says. ‘He’s my anchor and I’m his excitement.’ It’s easy to imagine the couple as parents but in 1984, aged 36, Dolly underwent a partial hysterectomy and was told she could never have children. It was to be the start of a difficult few years.
‘I went through a dark time,’ she says. ‘I was starting my menopause and was feeling guilty about my success. Maybe I was thinking that I’d been selfish not to have had children.’ For the first time in her life, she gained weight, and became so depressed she considered suicide. She credits Sylvester Stallone, her co-star in Rhinestone, with helping her recover. He cleaned up her junk food diet and talked the exercise-phobic Dolly into weight training to help her get into shape.
At 70, Dolly continues to be endearingly open about ways she has chemically and surgically preserved her look over the years. Although she shows no signs of giving up on the stripper heels, skin-tight costumes and inch-thick make-up, arguably, what really keeps Dolly in the public eye is her best-known quality: how genuinely nice she is. As close friend and singer-songwriter, Mindy Smith, puts it: ‘She’s always Dolly. Funny. Clever. Professional. Full of energy and consideration. I think she just really loves being herself. That’s why we adore her.’