The great singer and songwriter turns 75 on January 19. Tanya Gold will always love her
The usual rebuke to Dolly Parton is that she is unreal: named for a doll and trying to surpass it. This rebuke is inspired by snobbery – misogyny does the rest - and I wonder if Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, her new book, is her response to this.
She always says: if you want to know me, hear my songs. Here she publishes some of the 3,000 songs she has written, with commentary and photography, and I wonder if people have been listening at all.
She was one of twelve children born to an illiterate sharecropper – “Daddy” - and a home-maker – “Mama”. Mama sang in a “haunting voice” and feared winter, because her children might die. Daddy was illiterate but knew the value of everything. There was no indoor plumbing or electricity. In winter they slept in their clothes.
She was mocked at school for a home-made coat, which she honours in Coat of Many Colours: “And, oh, I couldn’t understand it, for I felt that I was rich. And I told them of the love my mama sewed in every stitch”. Her family encouraged her to sing; her uncle bought her a guitar, which she felt, “was a piece of my body”. She moved to Nashville the day after she turned eighteen: “In the fountain at the Hall of Fame / I washed my face and I read the names”.
Parton excels in narrative storytelling, and not just her own; she is the closest thing Tennessee has to a poet laureate. She was a songwriter before she was world-famous because her songs didn’t match her face; they are so much bleaker. She writes about the Vietnam War (“God give me the courage to tell them/ That Daddy won’t be home anymore”) and all the permutations of poverty and loss: prostitution; suicide; arson; alcoholism and drug addiction; abandonment; the torture and death of children; imprisonment in mental institutions. She calls herself, “morbid. When people say, ‘Oh, you always look so happy,’ I say, ‘Well, that’s the Botox’”.
I wonder if Dolly’s appearance is her disguise: if you look like she does when you sing to Middle America you can get away with anything; and there is an addictive element to plastic surgery. (She is obviously a workaholic). Another criticism is that she has refused to call herself a Feminist but if you examine her lyrics, she does not have to: “My mistakes are no worse than yours / Just because I’m a woman”; “You want me like I was before / But I’m not like that anymore”. And, most famously, in 9 to 5: “Tumble outta bed and I stumble to the kitchen / Pour myself a cup of ambition”. Tellingly, she allows To Daddy – a song in which a woman leaves her husband - to be described as a “feminist saga”: “She never meant to come back home / If she did, she never did say so to Daddy”. “I can say what I need to say,” she writes in the commentary, “without having to march in the streets”.
Her own romantic life is shrouded here. I suspect Dolly is enough of a professional to know when to stop talking. The obvious question is, of course: why does she write so well about heartbreak if she is so happily married, to the semi-invisible Carl Dean who she met on her first day in Nashville? Here it is, buried: “I don’t admit or deny anything. I have been everywhere, and I have felt everything”.
In this book the central relationship is with her career, manifest in Porter Wagoner, a ludicrous “country superstar”, who made her famous and tried to control her. Eventually she wrote I Will Always Love You to convince him to release her; now she says that, “I would only be in your way” should have read, “you would only be in my way”. It became, after Whitney Houston recorded it, one of the best-selling songs in history; and Wagoner sued her for $1 million. She spent some of the proceeds from the song on her literacy charity: for Daddy.
Here then is a serious, clever and gifted woman, secure behind her absurd and soothing façade. I thought it was impossible to like Parton more than I did when I picked this up, but I do.