In the August, 1977 issue of High Times, Harry Wasserman profiled the great Dolly Parton for the “Culture Hero” column. We’re republishing it here in celebration of Parton’s birthday on January 19.
Dolly Parton is a Deep South truckdriver’s dream. Her snapshot is taped to his windshield, and her songs are on his radio. She’s his daughter, her little-girl voice singing of her dirt-poor childhood in the mountains of Tennessee. She’s his mother, her voluminous breasts overflowing with the milk of human kindness. She’s his wife, singing songs of everlasting devotion to her one and only man. She’s his mistress and his whore, all dolled up in a cascading platinum wig, flirtatious false eyelashes and come-hither painted lips, waiting breathlessly for a wild night on the town. But most of all she’s his truck. When he tools down the highway and pops his clutch he’s dreaming of Dolly’s big rig, her chassis, her headlights and her chrome. Her voice can purr softer than his engine or blare as honkie as his horn.
“They know I’m gonna come out with every spangled thing I can get on,” says Dolly, “and as big as I can get my hair and still get through the door space to get on the stage.” She loves to joke about her image. “You know, I was one of the first women’s libbers. I burned my bra—it took the fire department four whole days to put it out.”
But all that glitters is not her garb or glossy good looks. Dolly’s talent shines through. For the last two years she has won the Country Music Association award for best female singer. She has been widely acclaimed as a serious artist by critics who usually stay away from cornpone. County rock stars Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris have helped to allow Dolly’s music to achieve popular acceptance by recording her songs. “She’s just a southern magnolia blossom that floats on the breeze,” says Linda. “But she’s no dummy. She taught me that you don’t have to sacrifice your femininity in order to have equal status. The only thing that gives you equal status with other musicians is your musicianship. Period.”
Music has been Dolly’s drug ever since she was born 31 years ago in a two-room shack on the Little Pigeon River in the foothills of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, the fourth of a dozen children to parents who worked the land. “Music was just as much a part of us as cornbread and beans,” says Dolly. “We had absolutely nothin’. We wore rags, and was lucky to get rags. But you dream, you have time to dream.” She later sang of her childhood in “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” and of the rags she once wore in “Coat of Many Colors.”
Her dream was to be a big country and western star in Nashville, or at least to get the hell out of that two-room shack full of 11 other screaming kids. So the day after she graduated from high school in 1964, she packed her cardboard suitcase (really just an empty box of Quaker Oats) and rode a rickety bus 200 miles to Nashville, where, she believed, “your music could live and you could be a star if that’s what you wanted to be.” She also believed in the Easter Bunny, the Good Tooth Fairy and that the South had won the Civil War.
On her first day in town she met her future husband, asphalt-paving contractor Carl Dean. Legend has it that it was love at first sight, as he almost ran over a hapless pedestrian with his steamroller while watching her cross the street. Within a few months she had signed a contract with Monument Records, who gave her a big enough advance for her to dine lavishly on mustard and relish for two weeks. Three years later, in the summer of 1967, she was discovered by lanky, lacquered c & w impresario Porter Wagoner, who signed her with RCA and put her on his tour and his syndicated television show. Porter and Dolly soon became known as Nashville’s Sonny and Cher, and just like Sonny and Cher they eventually broke up. Dolly started performing solo and toured with the Traveling Family Band, whose members included her uncles, cousins and brothers. On the road the entire family reportedly shared two adjoining rooms at the Holiday Inn.
Dolly sings like an angel because she’s got God on her side. God has been abundant in his favors to her heavenly voice and her cornucopia of flesh. Dolly has been returning the favors ever since, but she insists the two of them are just good friends. “I don’t know what it is with me and God,” says Dolly. “I’m just totally aware of him. I talk to him just like I talk to you. If something’s going wrong I’ll talk to him about it.”
She talks to God more often than she does to her husband Carl, who lives in their antebellum mansion outside of Nashville waiting for her occasional phone calls and rare visits. He has never seen her perform, but then again she has never seen him pour asphalt. They’ve never had an argument in their 11 years of marriage. “We’ve been perfect for each other,” she says. “He’s busy and I’m busy, and we thought it would cost more money to talk every night on the phone than what I’d make on the road. I can always talk to him if I want to, and he knows where I’m at. He can always call me.”
Success is not enough for the sequined Cinderella. She now dreams of professional self-reliance and of reaching a much larger, more diversified audience. She’s got new L.A.-based management and a new rock band called Gypsy Fever.
“I was killin’ myself workin’,” says Dolly, “and I was havin’ problems with my throat because of poor sound systems. I had a hectic work schedule and was not really makin’ very much money.” She calls Gypsy Fever “very, very close to bein’ a near perfect group for me. They can play traditional music when I want it, and crossover music when I want that. I’ve paid the price for it, but I have not lost friends for it, and that’s the main thing. It’s been the best move I ever made.”
Dolly’s new album is appropriately titled New Harvest—First Gathering. On the cover, her mile-high wig has been replaced by humble ringlets, her gauche glitter by dusty denim. The lead song, “Light of a Clear Blue Morning,” tells it all: “I’ve been like a captured eagle. / You know an eagle’s born to fly.” Her songs of devotion are now balanced by songs of freedom and independence. Her country twang sings Motown, pop and rock. The lyrics are printed on the inner sleeve. You can’t read lyrics while driving a truck.
She has recently been touring such rock palaces as Los Angeles’ Roxy Theatre, New York’s Bottom Line and London’s Rainbow Theatre. She’s currently on a nationwide tour with pop singer Mac Davis and will appear at Harrah’s in Reno this October. Her ascendant popularity is marked by the crew of chic celebrities attracted to her concerts—Mick Jagger, Lily Tomlin, Jack Nicholson, John Belushi, Faye Dunaway, Jon and Barbra, Rod and Britt. At the Boarding House in San Francisco, her audience was mostly kinky gays in black leather and chains. “I guess a lot of my popularity with gays is my gaudy, flashy appearance,” says Dolly. “They like to have a good time—I guess that’s why they call them gay.”
Dolly hangs around a lot lately with Linda and Emmylou, while Tammy and Loretta are reportedly miffed. “I haven’t changed,” explains Dolly. “I am expanding—as a writer and a singer. But I’m getting promoted, getting talked about and seen in the areas where I always thought, if I could go there, that people would like me. Even if I have an artificial appearance, my music is not artificial and I’m not artificial as a person. I’m just a country person. It’s still the same Dolly Parton, but I feel I’m ready to fly. I’m really a pretty brave little number.”