How a dirt-poor sharecropper’s daughter survived poverty, injury, bullying and bedwetting siblings to redefine the term ‘Dumb Blonde’ for a new generation of country fans
Once upon a time, in the very same proud southern states where one day Obamacare would later be decried as a form of communism, another future American icon had her own issues with the US healthcare system.
It was a bitterly cold January day in East Tennessee in 1946 and Avie Lee Parton was about to give birth to her fourth child. Only trouble was, they couldn’t afford to pay the doctor who had come to deliver her. The best they could do was offer him a sack of cornmeal by way of compensation.
To say that Dolly Parton was born into poverty would surely be, by modern standards, a major understatement. Her father Lee, like many others in and around Sevier County, in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, made ends meet as a sharecropper – he was given land and lodgings in return for farming the land it stood on, and lived off a share of the produce. If the crops failed, the family would often go hungry. For much of Dolly and her 11 siblings’ early lives, they had no electricity, and as she later joked, “two rooms, a path, and running water, if you were willing to run and get it”– from the outside well.
Dolly’s grandfather Jake Owens once said, “she started singing as soon as she quit crying,” and like so many other future superstars, she would find her singular voice singing in church as a child.
Meanwhile, grandpa Jake and his clan would encourage her musical development. As she would later put it: “My mother’s family, the Owenses, are vagabonds. They live to play music and will let nothing – earning a living, for example – stand in the way of that.”
At the age of just seven Dolly made her own rudimentary stringed instrument from an old mandolin and some bass strings (or piano wire, depending on the version of the story you hear), and not long afterwards her uncle, Bill Owens, a budding songwriter himself, bought her the real thing, having heard her singing while doing the dishes. Meanwhile, when they could afford a battery for the radio they’d listen to the Grand Ole Opry or The Lone Ranger.
Dolly’s unique style of self-presentation was already developing fast, even if she had to learn the hard way that standing out can be a hazardous business for any child.
Her former teacher once told of how she once found Dolly smearing red crayon over her face to try and imitate make-up. Around the same time occurred the famous episode that was recounted in her 1971 hit Coat Of Many Colors: The nine-year-old Dolly didn’t have a winter coat and her family couldn’t afford to buy one, so her mother sewed together a patchwork affair from old rags, and sent her to school in it. Although she was proud of her eye-catching garment, her schoolmates teased her for it and tried to pull it off to prove she wasn’t wearing a blouse underneath it.
Yet Dolly was already bolstered by a steely self-belief that would serve her well in the years ahead: “I knew before I was 10 that I was going to be a star and going to be famous and make money. I did truly,” she is quoted as saying in Stephen Miller’s 2006 biography Smart Blonde.
That process was to begin very soon, as Bill Owens persuaded her, at the age of 10, to audition for The Cas Walker Farm And Home Show, a local TV show broadcast nearby Knoxville, sponsored by the irrepressible host’s supermarket chain. She impressed and began to appear regularly, bringing in much-needed earnings to the Parton household that would soon outstrip those of her own father, even though he had now given up sharecropping to earn a crust at a local sawmill.
Dolly’s success on the show was the result of a determination to succeed in anything she put her mind to, and a country girl’s practical ingenuity, a fact surreally demonstrated when Walker announced a promotion in her hometown of Sevierville at a theatre in which was erected 50-foot pole greased with petroleum jelly. He offered a $250 prize at the top of the pole for anyone who could shin up to the top.
Dolly went outside into the parking lot and rolled around in gravel and sand to allow her a better grip, then duly climbed the pole to climb the prize. With the money, she bought the family their first television so they could watch her on the show.
The next step for Dolly and Bill (who was now acting has her de facto manager) was to get the precocious youngster’s shrill southern voice onto record. Her uncle Henry Owens knew a studio owner in Louisiana and arranged for Dolly to cut her first record, Puppy Love, which Dolly and Bill wrote together.
Only problem was, Dolly was too young to travel that far and Bill couldn’t help. So she begged her grandma Rena Owens (who had once sang rewritten versions of popular songs with Dolly’s name in them to her toddler granddaughter), which she claims inspired her to to accompany her having exhausted options of anyone else to accompany her, and on the 30-hour bus trip she says it smelt of “diesel fuel, Naugahyde, and people who were going places.”
The resulting single, Puppy Love coupled with another Parton/Owens original, Girl Left Alone, was relased on Goldband records in 1959 and ended up receiving quite a bit of local airplay.
The following year she got another taste of the big time – she sang at the Grand Ole Opry on a Friday night at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, as a guest with Jimmy C. Newman, introduced by none other than Johnny Cash, after bugging Cas Walker show regulars Carl and Pearl Butler to find her a slot. “Johnny Cash brought me out,” she later recalled, “and I sung and I just tore the house down.”
Three encores that night whetted her appetite for performing even further. Although she wouldn’t appear at the Opry again until she was an established star, throughout her early teens, she and Owens kept hustling for a break, and they secured another record deal with Mercury records, with whom the now 16-year-old Dolly cut a single, “It’s Sure Gonna Hurt”, as well as signing a songwriting contract with Tree publishing.
She had by now graduated to using Merthiolate antiseptic oil for lipstick (“and there weren’t nothin’ daddy could do to get that off,” she told Rolling Stone in 1977), but her glamorous extra-curricular life was a cause of resentment back at school.
They made up rumours such as her being gang-raped and also becoming pregnant by a man who worked on the Cas Walker show, and giving birth to Rachel, who the family had passed off as Dolly’s youngest sister. How this pregnancy would have been concealed by a 12-year-old schoolgirl was never adequately explained.
At her graduation, each pupil had to stand up and announce their plans for the future, she announced, “I’m going to Nashville to become a star.” The room erupted in laughter.
But as she spoke that Friday evening, her bags were already packed and the following day she was on the bus to the capital of Country music.
The 18-year-old struggled for a while with homesickness, but she at least had the help of Bill Owens, who would drive the pair of them round in a battered old Ford car with one door wired shut with a coat hanger. They would gig tirelessly and hustle for contacts over the next two or three years, making whatever money they could to finance their trips. On one occasion she says Owens stepped in front of a bus in order to get injured just enough to secure an insurance pay-out.
In 1965 Fred Foster, owner of Nashville’s biggest independent label, Monument Records, (home to Roy Orbison among others) offered Dolly a record deal, and signed the 19-year-old and Bill Owens to the label’s publishing wing, Combine.
Initially, though, Foster insisted that Dolly’s piercing, almost childlike voice was best suited to recording pop and rock’n’roll material, meaning I Wasted My Tears, her first record for Monument, was followed by a couple more rather bland cuts, neither of which made a big impression on the listening public. Thankfully, despite his attempts to train her out of employing her distinctive vocal vibrato, she ignored this aspect of his coaching.
Dolly and Bill were finding more success with their songwriting. Hank Williams Jr recorded I’m In No Condition, Jan Howard did Your Ole Handy Man, Skeeter Davis had a hit with Fuel To The Flame and Bill Phillips also made the Country Top 10 with The Company You Keep. But it was the Phillips’ recording of Put It Off Til Tomorrow that would prove a turning point for its author, as it was another Country chart hit and was also voted the BMI Song Of The Year for 1966. More significantly still, Dolly’s own striking backing vocal on Phillips’ hit had got many a radio listener asking ‘Who’s that girl?’ This success persuaded Fred Foster to let his young protegee return to the country style she had always been keen to focus on, and also to release Dolly’s debut solo album, Hello, I’m Dolly, which included versions of all five of the above-mentioned hits for other artists
The album, whose title was a deliberate play on the name of the 1964 hit musical Hello, Dolly!, was preceded by her first solo hit. Dumb Blonde, which made No.24 in the country charts, was a fine introductory hit for the 21-year-old, and although it was penned by Green Green Grass Of Home (and later D.I.V.O.R.C.E) songwriter Curly Putman, it seemed to set Dolly’s stall out as a brassy, sassy performer with a sharp wit and the tough attitude of a true country gal.
Dolly later explained the choice of song by saying, “he [Fred] figured it would make people forget about whether my voice was any good or not and just listen to the song.”
As it turned out, the public would quickly embrace not only Dolly’s voice but also her own songs (as she proved when her own composition, Somethin’ Fishy, was another 1967 hit for her) along with as the big personality that was bursting from the seams of both.
This latter attribute was doubtless what helped Dolly make her next major professional breakthrough, when she was picked from a shortlist of several other female performers to become the new female sidekick on his nationally syndicated country music showcase The Porter Wagoner Show.
A peacock-suited, blond-pompadoured, coffin-faced 40-year-old, Wagoner had parted ways with previous onstage partner Norma Jean Beasler after she had left the show to get married (although Wagoner has since admitted they had an affair that accelerated the split), and at first his fans weren’t too welcoming of the new, younger model on Porter’s arm.
On the live dates the pair played Dolly was often heckled off by fans shouting for Norma Jean, and the experience often left her in tears backstage. “It was like murder,” she later admitted. But gradually she won them over, thanks in no small part to regular duets with her new boss, and to capitalise, subsequent solo albums were recorded alternately with a string of albums with Wagoner.
Porter was keen to guide Dolly’s career and promote his own alongside it, and he secured her a deal with his label, the major RCA/Victor, although she had sufficient industry savvy to ensure she kept copyright of her own songs by setting up her own publishing company with Bill Owens, Owepar, even though Wagoner would soon buy Owens out of his share of the company.
Although her appearances on The Porter Wagoner Show sometimes embarrassed Dolly (not least when she was obliged to literally sing the praises of questionable sanitary products and medical miracle cures for the chemical company that sponsored the show), and she fought relentlessly with her stage partner for creative control, the show boosted her profile to the extent that by the end of the decade, she was one of Country music’s biggest new stars.
Three further solo albums followed before the end of the decade, and the last of them, 1969’s My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy, saw her debut in the Billboard Top 200. by then, back in Sevierville, there was an annual Dolly Parton Day parade, at which many of the classmates who had once jeered and bullied her would line up to get a glimpse of the town’s most famous daughter. She’d come a long way. But her journey was only just beginning.
Porter Wagoner – his role in her rise
Without Porter Wagoner’s help, it’s a fair bet that Dolly Parton’s career could have been quite different. At the very least, her path to stardom might well have been a more gradual one.
It was the wiry Missourian singer who, in the summer of 1967, picked Dolly from a number of notable candidates to become his new female companion on the hugely popular nationally syndicated music show that bore his name.
Wagoner was then instrumental in persuading guitar legend and RCA producer Chet Atkins to take Dolly onto the his label, to the extent that Wagoner is reputed to have agreed that any losses made from her records would be taken out of the records for his own records.
He was protective of Dolly to a fault when confronted with live audiences noisily demanding the return of her much-loved predecessor, Norma Jean, and once the first duet they released together, the jaunty, harmony-soaked The Last Thing On My Mind, had made the top 10 the pair’s partnership was duly cemented.
As Dolly admitted in her 1994 autobiography: “At the beginning I was like a kid in school… one of those accelerated schools where you have to learn a lot in a hurry.”
She credits Porter with helping her stage craft, her rapport with audiences, even dealing with drunken hecklers. There’s also no doubt that Wagoner influenced Dolly beyond just TV exposure and record deals. His flamboyant dress sense, in dazzling Nudie Cohn designer suits, encouraged her to bring out the colourful, brash side of her image that would turn her into an icon.
In February 1974 they announced a parting of the ways, and it was at that point that she wrote I Will Always Love You by way of a fond farewell. “I played it and he cried,” she said.
A legal battle followed, though, and a frosty relationship resulted for a good few years, time eventually healed the old wounds, and when Porter died at the age of 80 in 2007 Dolly was said to have been at his bedside. “It was like losin’ a piece of me, like losin’ your daddy,” she said.
In terms of recorded output, their duet albums haven’t aged quite as well as Dolly’s solo material, but their 1969 sophomore effort Always, Always is arguably the pick of their early studio sets, although the 1996 compilation The Essential Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton does what it says on the cover in terms of an overview of their best moments.
Classic album: Hello, I’m Dolly (Monument Records, 1967)
It was accepted practice for debut albums in the 1960s to be packed full of covers to lure in the punters, so it’s testament to Dolly Parton’s prowess as a songwriter that songs she penned alone and with writing partner Bill Owens make up 10 of the tracks. She has since claimed that even at this early stage – she’d just turned 21 – she had written over 400 songs.
The title surely hoped to catch people’s eye on the basis of its play on the name of the hit musical, but the music, and its performer, could more than stand up for itself.
From the first bars we see an unmistakably tough but smart working class edge to Dolly’s onstage persona. “This dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool,” she chirrups on the Curly Putman-penned opener, then Your Ole Handy Man backs up the same impression, pointing at an errant partner and demanding he raise his game on the domestic chores front.
Then a touch of real menace is introduced, even if its wrapped up in wronged-woman emotional fragility. I Don’t Want To Throw Rice admits “I don’t want to throw rice, I just want to throw rocks at her,” in response to the wedding of a love rival. “Maybe I’m taking this too far,” she sings, “but I feel like tying dynamite to her side of the car.” Slightly shocking at face value, but it also showcases a trademark humour that would prove a key component of her appeal.
Most striking to listeners at the time, though, was Dolly’s voice. Label boss Fred Foster was nervous about how the public would take to it, and tried to train out her trademark vibrato on her first recordings for the label, but here it has rarely sounded more resonant. “It would cut through anything, through the thickest fog – it was perfect for recording” Monument producer Ray Stevens commented.
The album is helped in no small part by some beautifully subtle playing by the session musicians backing Dolly, such as Floyd Cramer’s gentle piano on Fuel To The Flame and The Giving And The Taking. Mystery still surrounds which maestro was responsible for the shimmering, woozy pedal steel that laces the above songs, the uneasy minor chords of I’m In No Condition and the weary melancholy of The Company You Keep; the absence of credits on the sleeve is something of a travesty – we only have label boss Fred Foster’s hazy recollections to help us identify the rest of the band on the credits below.
Monument records promoted the album again towards the end of the year once Dolly secured regular TV exposure on The Porter Wagoner Show, and it earned Foster a belated return on his investment after he had found himself helpless to stop his new star rejecting a new contract and electing to sign to Wagoner’s label RCA Victor. The success for all concerned was well-deserved.
Ultimately, of course, Dolly Parton would make much bigger-selling albums and better-known songs, and develop a far more polished sound, but as a document of a raw singer-songwriting talent, Hello, I’m Dolly is essential listening.
Hello, I’m Dolly was a fine ‘howdy do’ to Ms Parton’s public, but in fact they were already acquainted with her songs. Five of the 12 songs on this album were hits for other artists around the same time it was released.
Bill Phillips had made Put It Off Til Tomorrow a Country No.1 in 1966 with Dolly herself on backing vocals (uncredited but far from unnoticed). Yet Dolly’s version on this debut album has a touch more vulnerability to it, as does her take on Phillips’ 1967 hit The Company You Keep. Skeeter Davis’ dreamier, less plaintive reading of Fuel To The Flame is also an intoxicating affair, and Hank Williams’ version of I’m In No Condition imbues it with a brittle male pride. Elsewhere, Jan Howard’s take on Your Ole Handy Man is a touch more mumsy than Dolly’s, but has a similar breezy charm. All of which shows, if a song’s good enough, it can be a hit in anyone’s hands.