I started my project to listen to all of Dolly’s albums in 2018 and I admit it took me much longer to finish this than I had anticipated. When you grow up with an artist and listen along to them, it’s much easier to connect and put their work in context than trying to listen to everything all at once. Many of Dolly’s albums are tied to particular eras in time and music history, which were pretty alien and musically discombobulating to return to.
What I did learn about her music and her life might already be obvious to others, but I thought I would share some of my conclusions here about what Dolly’s music can teach us about how to live a good life.
1. Rework, Revise, Repeat
Listening across the decades what struck me most was how often Dolly mined the same themes, sometimes even the similar melodies or titles, until she found the exact right ingredients to make a hit. ‘Jolene’ had two or three precursors which lead to the perfect song, same with ‘Coat of Many Colors’ and ‘I Will Always Love You’.
Her other key themes of returning home, appreciating nature and the countryside are ones she is happy to repeat again and again. Her sassy songs about leaving useless, cheating men for a better life have also given her endless opportunities to say the same thing to her listeners: dump the dude and get to living. To go over the same territory actually allows for the songs to improve and the message to ring out clearer every time.
2. Be Your Own Co-Writer
Dolly has rarely co-written a song in her career, preferring to either solo write or record songs written by other people. What that offers is a unique insight into her skills as a writer, but also is the key reason as to why she has reached such mythical status in our culture. No one can question her ability. The credits do not lie. By working this way she offers us a poet’s voice and her authentic vision across the decades.
3. Collaborate, Collaborate, Collaborate
However her solo songwriting has not stopped her from working with others, from her many duet albums with Porter and Kenny to the dizzying array of guests she has included on her albums. Often they sing her solo written songs.
Her bluegrass albums also allowed for her to work with musicians whose talents help to bring hers into ever sharper focus. She was always willing to work with the artists who were popular, a way to maximise her connections and influence in the industry while increasing her recognition among new generations of fans.
From Trio to her recent Dumplin’ soundtrack, Dolly’s career is a masterclass in how sharing the limelight only adds to the power of her as individual.
4. Re-Write Your Own Past
Dolly’s song ‘In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)’ is her most honest take on the harsh realities of her childhood upbringing, where she concluded ‘no amount of money could pay me to go back and live through it again’. Along with the brutal ‘Coat of Many Colors’ Dolly spoke the truth about the suffering of her poverty stricken upbringing.
Around the time of ‘My Tennessee Mountain Home’ she began to soften her outlook somewhat, using more rose-tinted glasses to describe where she was from. By subtly re-writing her own history, she lets the harsher truths fade somewhat over time, focusing instead the bonds of family that helped her endure.
5. Protect Your Privacy At All Costs
After his appearance on the cover of Dolly’s album ‘My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy’ her husband Carl Dean quietly disappears from her discography, a relationship she now fiercely protects along with her privacy. Compare the modern pop stars and how they are expected not only to write albums that reflect their personal lives, but also to share these relationships constantly on social media. No aspect of personal lives is off limits – from inside their homes to inside their handbags and how they get ready every day.
Dolly has survived by cutting off this part of her life from the public. Her songwriting has always been personal, but she is concerned with the universality of her experiences rather than the narcissistic specificity of what is expected from our modern pop stars.
6. Laugh At Yourself, Loudly
Dolly Parton learned her trade working on Porter’s show where comedy was an integral part of the entertainment offered. When Porter listened to her first album he heard in the songs not just a songwriter but a natural comedian and foil for his duets.
From her debut single ‘Dumb Blonde’, Dolly made it clear she was at ease with telling jokes at her own expense. Her live show includes routines as predictable as any stand up comic. Her worst albums of the seventies and eighties were weak exactly because she lost that sense of humour. By laughing at herself, loudly and freely, she showed herself to be amiable in the face of any attacks on her character. Self-deprecation wins supreme.
7. A Shattered Image Hides the True Self
Listening to her discography also reveals another uncomfortable truth about Dolly’s life – the pain caused by criticism of her image. Even if she was happy to laugh at herself it didn’t mean that she didn’t suffer from the cruelty of the attacks by others.
‘Shattered Image’ is one of her best songs because she admits the truth of how hurtful the attacks have been, concluding ‘the world is cruel and people are cold’. The song admits to her own self-hatred before turning it on the listener and reminding them to ‘stay out of my closet if your own is full of trash.’
The theme of this song, written in the 1970s is returned to in ‘Backwoods Barbie’ where tries to explain the reasons behind her style, asks for kindness and understanding instead of judgement.
Even as time goes on and people become more accepting of how Dolly looks, it’s hard not to see the tragedy in her image and how it has been cruelly received. And yet paradoxically this artificial veneer allows the true Dolly to remain hidden from sight, just below the surface, somehow always finding a way to survive.
8. Success means Sacrifice… and Freedom
Dolly never hid her wish to get rich and be a commercial success. Across her career she made sacrifices both musically and personally in order to try to achieve her goals. Listening to many of her albums in the late seventies and eighties might leave you scratching your head but in context you can see her shift to the mainstream was necessary for survival. Country music alone could never be enough.
When she released her bluegrass trilogy Dolly said: ‘I had to get rich so I could sing like I was poor’. But that admission shows that her earlier success had actually allowed her the freedom to occasionally do whatever she wanted with her music. Even then her choice was still somewhat commercially minded, using the trends of the time to her advantage.
9. Be Your Own Religion
What surprised me most about the Dolly project was how much I enjoyed her gospel music, and how much religion seemed integral to both her appeal and her songwriting. What’s also clear is how Dolly has managed to somehow infuse a traditional religious upbringing and heritage with her own message about loving yourself and each other.
Dolly claims to have no particular religion, she doesn’t attend a church and yet she has a strong faith in God which is reflected in her music. By denying any particular faith and yet working deeply in the pastor tradition of her family she avoids alienating any of her audience. To me Dolly’s a secret faith healer in secular clothes.
10. Stay Hungry and Get to LIVIN’
Despite all her success Dolly has managed somehow to maintain ambition and hunger throughout her career. Her enthusiasm for life and using music to connect with people remains unmatched. Even when she works on other projects like films, TV and Dollywood there is still something which brings her back to music, seeking another song to sing and share with others.
Her gift is ours. Shine on, Dolly, shine on!