by Marcus K. Dowling
With 44 of them, George Strait has the most number-one Billboard singles in country music history. But even though she only has 25 number ones, Dolly Parton’s chart-topping appeal may — in terms of defining country music’s timeless global pop appeal — be greater. According to one 2016 written article, the Pigeon Forge, Tennessee native is “America’s Greatest Living Artist.” Moreover, in 2019, her timeless success is defined by the New York Times as representing the lesson that “artifice doesn’t negate authenticity.”
However, how can one female, five-foot-tall, “Dumb Blonde” country music artist be so universally beloved as to have their existence triumph over racism, sexism, homophobia, and misogyny, though never directly making a statement decrying these societal ills?
Parton’s success can be credited to how well she synthesizes dogmatic religiosity, extraordinary kindness, and a blue-collar worker’s indomitable resolve. In regards to her creativity, these elements develop into a pristine lens that alchemizes a three-minute song to appeal for pop-cultural adulation.
If American pop culture defines the world’s zeitgeist, then country music is as much our most-defining sound as it is the globe’s most-defining sound. Country’s songs are the tunes of the United States’ global immigrants given an Afro-Caribbean back-beat. Thus, when a tiny woman from rural Appalachia burrows deep into that region’s core sensibilities and attaches them to distinct, universal emotions like love, jealousy, and melancholy, amazing things occur.
Parton reached Nashville and achieved stardom there as the genre adapted the Wrecking Crew’s smooth, palatable, West Coast rock into blues and jazz-inspired folk (aka “Western swing”) into what became the “Nashville Sound.” In the early mid-to-late 1960s, both male and female vocalists crafting “Nashville Sound” recordings had all of the earmarkings of country’s traditional, rougher flavor being infused with a funkier, grooving rhythm and plaintive melodies.
However, Parton’s blend of pinup model looks, soprano voice, and sound business sense, when blended with country music’s ever-present Protestant theology and a clear appeal to blue-collar sensibilities, allowed for something incredible to develop in her career. Imagine a metaphorical Virgin Mary serving up worldly wisdom alongside a double-wide and double-deep slice of apple pie. Therein lies Dolly Parton’s artistic core.
While being the popular co-host and regular performer on country star Porter Wagoner’s weekly-televised variety program from 1967-1974, Parton achieved 17 top-40 Billboard Hot Country Chart singles. These included career-redefining hits “Dumb Blonde,” “Coat of Many Colors,” and her first set of back-to-back number-one hits “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You.”
Parton created these hits while achieving yet another impressive feat that defines her success. By 1974, she’d been married to her still-husband Carl Dean for a decade. Moreover, by 1974 she’d loosed herself from being professionally attached to Wagoner, aka “Mr. Grand Ole Opry,” and one of Nashville’s most important power-brokers.
Nashville’s a town where famous female vocalists of the era like Tammy Wynette were attached — in marketing and success — to their love interests (in Wynette’s case, George Jones). However, Carl Dean has likely been seen in person with Parton less than a handful of times in a half-century. Moreover, a woman in the music industry declaring her independence — from Loretta Lynn to Britney Spears — has always proven to be, for many reasons, near impossible. In one iconic song, “I Will Always Love You,” Parton sang of her impending split with Wagoner as a tear-jerking “bittersweet memory,” and her star rose instead of fell.
Parton’s soprano over delicate instrumentation reached gold-selling status and has twice become an artist’s most recognizable top-seller. Whitney Houston’s soulful refresh eclipsed Parton’s hit with it in 1974 as part of the 1992 film The Bodyguard’s soundtrack. Houston’s version ruled Billboard’s Hot 100 charts for one-third of 1993.
As defined by her uniquely incredible humanity, Parton’s iconoclastic success has continued to serve her well throughout her career. In February 1981, she could be seen onscreen with Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dabney Coleman in 9 to 5, a film that earned (adjusted for inflation) $330 million at the box office. As well, the film soundtrack’s lead single of the same name was surging to the top of Billboard’s Hot Country Singles, Hot 100, and Adult Contemporary charts simultaneously.
By 1983, “Islands in the Stream,” a Bee Gees-penned, triple-platinum pop crossover hit duet with Kenny Rogers, was another Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper. Furthermore, she starred in the films The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Rhinestone alongside Burt Reynolds and Sylvester Stallone, respectively.
In 1985, Parton invested $5 million ($12 million in 2020 dollars) in the Silver Dollar City amusement park in her native Sevier County, Tennessee, which she rechristened as Dollywood. This spawned further business ventures in her home area. Related, the population of Pigeon Forge jumped 66 percent between 1980 and 1990.
Parton’s often noted that she didn’t get into the entertainment industry without pop superstardom as her goal. Thus, her desire to blend core American ideals with global appeal — a love of God, country, and hard work — alongside a stellar voice and captivating looks has benefitted her. Insofar as how this has impacted her artistic and human legacy, it’s significant.
Parton had a twenty-year gap (1999-2019) between having her original material reach the Billboard charts. However, her existing catalog of songs’ heart-warming impact allowed her role as a global ambassador of goodwill and common decency to emerge.
By 2006 her Dollywood Foundation’s Imagination Library had bolstered childhood literacy efforts nationwide. Free, age-appropriate books had been offered — each month, in the mail, until the age of five, and regardless of family income — to 471 communities in 41 states. Musically, in 2014, she played a headlining set at the UK’s Glastonbury Festival in front of 180,000 people. Moreover, in 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Parton donated $1 million towards vaccine research at Vanderbilt University. At this point, to write a story of Parton’s humanitarian exploits is a novel-length gambit. It’s a tale being told daily.
Parton’s impact as a female country artist and creator who globalized country music’s mainstream implications cannot be undersold. From mainstream icons with silver screen appeal from Reba McEntire to Shania Twain excel, Parton’s there. When liberated, female country performers like Taylor Swift, Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, and Margo Price push for more significant sociopolitical impact or make groundbreaking business moves, Dolly’s legacy appears.
Regarding Parton’s legacy, a quote from Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, an associate professor in the iSchool at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, best sums the icon’s career work:
“The woman has earned her nostalgic moment in the sun; the question is whether we have earned the rose-tinted glasses through which we see her.”
As the woman responsible for swaddling the world in a set of rags that her mother sewed into a “Coat of Many Colors” like Joseph’s biblical dream coat, Parton knows we have the ability — if only by listening to her music — to rise above hatred and disdain.