Whether or not you like country, it’s hard to deny that Dolly Parton is a musical genius. She has composed more than 3,000 songs and holds two Guinness World Records. Her voice is like auditory serotonin, whether she’s falsetto-yodeling on “Joshua,” fluttering in a perfectly synchronized three-part harmony with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt on “Wildflowers,” or thundering powerfully on “Touch Your Woman.” There are also reported instances of her playing a tiny, rhinestone-bedazzled saxophone onstage.
Parton’s greatness isn’t limited to her music: She’s an incredible actress (please pause here to look up her “All Shook Up” Elvis impersonation on YouTube) and starred in the groundbreaking cinematic masterpiece 9 to 5, which brought attention to the challenges women face in the workplace, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, a musical that touched on still-relevant hot-button issues like censorship and the legalization of sex work. Parton is also known for her philanthropy; she has her own charitable foundation that includes a literacy program and has poured money into social services in her hometown of Sevierville, Tennessee. The public eye hasn’t always been kind to the self-proclaimed “Backwoods Barbie,” specifically with the misogynist, decades-long critiques of her appearance, but there’s a genuine “kill ’em with kindness” ethos to everything she puts out into the world, and her songs act like miniature fables, from her cautionary tale of the “Kentucky Gambler” to the nostalgic “Coat of Many Colors” to “Shattered Image” (“Stay out of my closet if your own’s full of trash”).
Dolly Parton is clearly worth celebrating, and that’s just what local cover band Doll Party is doing—paying tribute to her legacy and evangelizing the gospel of Dolly across Portland (and hopefully, someday, beyond). With roots in the city’s karaoke scene, its members also play with groups like Ice Princess, Choking Kind, Bryson Cone, Martha Stax, Mini Blinds, and the Amy Winehouse cover band Finehouse. I recently met with them to discuss all things Dolly: the time she entered a Dolly Parton look-alike drag contest and lost; those laser sound effects on “Baby I’m Burnin’”; her secret butterfly tattoos. Doll Party promises there’ll be some theatrical surprises and deep cuts performed at the Fixin’ To’s two-night celebration of Parton’s 73rd birthday, the band’s first shows in more than six months.
Who they are: Jessica Lauren Sylvia (lead vocals), Rachel Brashear (guitar), Graye Guidotti (bass), Anna Smith (mandolin/keyboard), Hannah Blilie (drums), and Betty Joy Downey (saxophone).
What they do: All of them dress as Parton and play her songs to rowdy and impassioned crowds that often sing along to every word.
How it started: Last year, Joel Christerson of Omnifang Booking approached the women and asked if they wanted to form a cover band to play at their annual Dolly Parton birthday party. The show completely sold out (and this writer stood outside the Fixin’ To in the rain, forlorn and ticketless). “We weren’t going to continue,” Sylvia explains. “It was supposed to be a one-time thing, but we kept getting show offers and there was so much interest.... We also didn’t start out as an all-female band, but it accidentally turned into that just because we’re all the best musicians.”
What they love about Dolly: “Everything,” Guidotti says. Sylvia notes that Parton is a longtime supporter of LGBTQ rights. Brashear likes her earnestness and sentimentality. “I grew up in a one-room cabin with no indoor plumbing,” Smith says, “and she had a similar upbringing, so she was an early ‘shero’ of mine.”
Their favorite song: “‘Here You Come Again,’ but it’s the hardest song of all,” Sylvia says. “The musicians of the band aren’t too fond of it because there are like, 50 chords.” Brashear nods: “There are three key changes, but every section is in two different keys.”
Thoughts on the new Netflix film Dumplin’, which is entirely soundtracked by Parton songs: “I cried three times,” Sylvia says. “I was watching an interview [with Dolly] and she was saying how her husband wants to have a threesome with her and Jennifer Aniston.”
What it’s like being in a cover band: There are plenty of benefits: “[Dolly] has already done the emotional labor of creating the song,” Blilie explains. “I make more money playing cover shows,” Sylvia adds, “because there’s a built-in audience.” However, Guidotti says the bar is set very high with Dolly diehards, since “there is an expectation that we have to be good and we have to bring it.” And Doll Party has to be selective about when they play: “We’ve had to turn down a lot of offers, just because we want to save it for when it’s really special,” Sylvia says.
The future for Doll Party: “There’s talk of maybe getting to play Dollywood,” Sylvia says. “If I get to meet Dolly Parton dressed as Dolly Parton, I can die happy.”