Dolly On Dolly: Interviews And Encounters with Dolly Parton, edited by Randy L. Schmidt
I must admit that my knowledge of Dolly Parton is somewhat peripheral. In high school I went to an orchestra competition in Gatlinburg, but we did not go to Dollywood. I come from the Appalachians myself, but a different part than she hails from. I am familiar with her music, but generally her more pop-oriented music like “9 to 5,” “I Will Always Love You,” and “Islands In The Stream” and “Romeo” and later songs like “When I Get Where I’m Going,” where she has collaborated with other artists. So, I am by no means an insider as far as Dolly Parton’s life goes. I didn’t even know she was married, something these interviews talk about a lot. Nevertheless, as a relative outsider to Dolly’s outsize importance in country music as well as the pop mainstream through her acting and crossover appeal, I can say that this book demonstrates both the promise and the pitfalls of stardom for an artist like Parton seeking to interface with music journalists who want a good story and want to stir up trouble. The tension between the careerist ambitions of a musician like Parton and of the jouranlists who interview her comes off rather intensely here and makes for very intriguing reading.
This book consists of some very long interviews and excerpts of other interviews not included that span across the period of nearly five decades of Parton’s career in music. The first part, cleverly titled “Blonde Ambition,” shows four interviews between 1967 and 1974 that look at Parton’s early career and her collaboration with Porter Wagoner that lasted for several years before acrimoniously breaking up. After that there are four interviews from 1977 to 1979 that show Parton as an elusive butterfly trying to escape easy categorization as she moves out from an exclusive focus on Nashville and readies a mid-career crossover into pop and Hollywood. This Hollywood career is seen in four interviews from 1980 to 1982 that show her success in 9 to 5, which makes up the third part of the book. After that there is a fourth part of the book that looks at her country comeback and her efforts at broadening her corporate empire as the “toast of Dollywood,” featuring four interviews from 1984 to 1988. After this there re four interviews from 1989 to 1999 that show her as a tough steel magnolia working hard in a business that tends to drastically favor youth. Finally, the book closes with five interviews from 2002 to 2014 that look at Dolly Parton as an elder stateswoman of country and show her continuing to deal with cultural trends including her status as a gay icon.
Despite the sprawling degree of material included in this book, there are some threads that run through the content. Parton has a wary relationship with the press, desiring both publicity and privacy, at times revealing personal heartache and health problems and at times giving bland platitudes that sidestep a more complete investigation into areas that she does not want to get into. We see Parton as straddling the ground between traditional music and traditional values and clearly untraditional personal and cultural interests, seeking to be feminine and also a powerful woman, without coming across as too abrasive. We see her attempting to secure her base in country music while also moving into pop music and movies, we see her trying to secure her base among conservative and traditional Southern baptists and other evangelicals while also reaching out to gays and lesbians, who are drawn by her campiness and the extravagance of her public persona. We see the tension between a relentlessly positive attitude and a life filled with heartache and sadness and not fitting in, someone with obvious street smarts that would tend to be seen as a dumb blonde by all too many. The end result shows that Dolly Parton is a complex and compelling figure, well worth reading about and studying, praying for and pondering over.