Fri Dec 17
1401 N Wheeler
At a recent wedding reception I attended, friends of the newly married couple performed a hipster and grandma friendly soundtrack, providing an assortment of appropriate covers, including those of Nick Cave, Mazzy Star, and Dolly Parton songs. And just as the frontman began singing the opening bars of Parton's "I Will Always Love You," I overheard a guest scoff, "I can't believe they're covering that fucking Whitney Houston song." Since this was a wedding reception, I suppressed the urge to smack the ignoramus's drink out of his hand and set him straight. I suppose blame could be laid at the feet of Ms. Houston for drilling and shrilling that song into everyone's skull in 1992, but I didn't think the fact that it was a cover of Parton's 1974 hit was such obscure knowledge.
That incident got me thinking about how people view Dolly Parton--and how widespread are the misconceptions about her. An informal survey of my peers produced wildly varying responses to the question, "What do you think of when you think of Dolly Parton?" A few expressed a long-standing desire to visit Dollywood, the bizarre amusement park executed with her signature contradiction of sensory overload and moral fortitude (there are 18 restaurants, 19 rides, 11 ongoing musical productions, and one seriously enforced dress code for visitors). Others voiced a respect for the depth of her back catalog (she's published more than 3,000 songs and is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame) or her overall "pluckiness" or "resilience," particularly in relation to her childhood years spent in extreme poverty (she grew up with 11 siblings on a rundown farm in Tennessee). My father, the man responsible for introducing to me to Dolly, simply cited her bracing honesty and fearlessness. "She is never afraid to say what's on her mind," he told me. "And she explored things with acting and [business ventures] that no one thought she was capable of." And, naturally, if any of my informal queries continued for more than a few minutes, talk turned to her well-documented relationship with plastic surgery and her iconic décolletage.
All these observations are valid parts of her persona--and there's a reason they repeatedly arise when Parton is profiled. Her chosen mode of gleeful self-parody and rhinestone-studded bravado is charming and self-deprecating, yet carefully calculated for commercial success. It's also an occasionally frustrating distraction from her talents as a prolific songwriter. I find no fault in self-possessed women choosing to bedazzle and paint themselves up in the name of camp, contrast, or genuine personal preference--I myself proudly nurture my go-go boot collection alongside my Gore Vidal obsession--but that episode at the wedding made me reconsider the way a shiny guise can obscure the broader scope of an artist's work, particularly when that artist is a woman working in the historically sexist and narrow minded genre of country music.
All that being said, I think the only way to truly appreciate Dolly Parton is to admire the brains behind the brassiere, accept that the glitter and glibness are necessary parts of the package, and just let the whole blowsy, blonde tornado plow right over you. Appropriately enough, anyone attending Friday's show will undoubtedly get the best of both worlds. Along with the inevitable onslaught of costume changes and grand theatrics, Dolly has composed her set list with an emphasis on her full range as a songwriter.
Few other musicians can claim such cross-generational appeal and seemingly effortless endurance. Let's just hope that guy at the wedding--as well as other deluded listeners--isn't also operating under the delusion that the White Stripes came up with the song "Jolene" on their own--I can't bear the thought of Jack White getting credit for Parton's defiant yet desperate plea to a man-stealing girlfriend. It's enough to drive you crazy, if you let it.