In the new series Country Music, documentarian Ken Burns (The Vietnam War) offers an exhaustive overview of the genre, from its humble birth to a booming industry. By the 1970s, the dominant Nashville Sound had cleaned up country’s dirty roots, adding string sections, lush backing vocals and smooth pop melodies to make it palatable for listeners. But, as detailed in the series’ seventh episode, ‘Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? (1973–1983)’, a rebellion against the “Rhinestone suits and new shiny cars” was brewing.
The Outlaw Country movement brought grit back to country music, with the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson self-mythologising by writing about their fast living: boozing, cruising and law breaking. Their dressed-down aesthetic was praised as authentic and a return to “real country”. Meanwhile, the antithesis to the outlaws became an unlikely star in the male-dominated industry: Dolly Parton.
Dolly Parton’s hyper-femme image screams of inauthenticity – big blonde hair, long acrylic nails, plastic surgery, and a taste for outfits adorned in pink and rhinestones. “You don’t have to look like this,” Barbara Walters told Parton in a condescending 1977 interview. But Parton possesses self-awareness, cracking genuinely funny self-deprecation that only adds to her charm. “I’ve had lots of work done,” she admitted in 2004. “If I see something sagging, bagging and dragging, I’m going to nip it, tuck it and suck it.”
Parton’s life is a classic story about pursuing the American Dream. Born in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, Parton was one of 12 children in a dirt-poor Southern family, all born and raised within the confines of a cramped one-room wood cabin. By 1967, Parton was finding success as a songwriter for others. Opportunity for advancement came when country star Porter Wagoner (a man who represented everything the outlaws despised) offered Parton a regular spot on his television show, singing duets and participating in hokey comedy sketches and, as Ken Burns’ documentary relates, provided another story that grew Parton’s legend.
In 1973, ‘Jolene’ topped the country charts and began to crossover into the international pop charts, achieving the success few of her peers had achieved. But Wagoner’s grip blocked Parton’s ambitions, and the only way to continue growing her career was to separate from Wagoner. Her mentor wasn’t agreeable but came around when Parton laid out her feelings with ‘I Will Always Love You’. “It’s saying, ‘Just because I’m going don’t mean I won’t love you,’” she said.
The expression of devotion in ‘I Will Always Love You’ proved powerful. The ballad topped the country charts, gained Elvis Presley’s interest (Parton rejected Presley due to his manager’s demand for a large share of the publishing rights) and was immortalised by Whitney Houston’s 1992 cover.
Parton’s catalogue is filled with personal songs. ‘Jolene’ emerged from Parton’s jealousy when a bank clerk flirted with her husband, while ‘Coat Of Many Colors’ recounts her childhood poverty and family’s love, as expressed with a coat her mother made from cobbled-together rags. But what made them transcend the country designation is the way they reflect the universal struggles her fans face, especially appealing to women for their authentic tales of womanhood.
While the outlaws’ taste for self-destruction saw many become cautionary tales, Parton soared, her business savvy leading her to dominate music charts, boosting the careers of friends such as Kenny Rogers, and eventually the box office with the 1980 hit comedy 9 To 5 – a tale of everyday sexism sharing parallels with her own songs and battles.
She may still encounter mockery, but it’s only because Dolly Parton is such a dominant presence in the pop culture landscape, with shows, films and a theme park inspired by her likeness, and still unlike anyone in country music.
Country Music airs on SBS on Saturdays at 8:30pm. After going to air, episodes also stream at SBS On Demand.
NOTE: episodes 8 and 9 will air later on SBS, due to the premiere of Slow TV chocolate on Saturday 11 April. Those episodes will be at SBS On Demand at the earlier time of 8:30pm.