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A beginner’s guide to…Dolly Parton

Find out all you need to know about the Country icon.

Dolly Parton
Credit: Sony Music

A beginner’s guide to… is a new regular series on EF Country, where we introduce readers to country music stars both old and new. Hopefully you’ll find some new favourites, learn something about those you already love, and discover great music along the way!

Ask most people to name a country star, and it’s likely a fair few would say Dolly Parton. With her bleached hair, Tennessee drawl and rhinestoned costumes, she’s the epitome of what many think of as ‘country’. Yet Dolly is more than just her ‘dumb blonde’ stage persona. She’s also an actress, author, philanthropist and incredibly successful businesswoman. Plus she has the best one-liners in the business and isn’t afraid to take the mickey out of herself (classics include: ‘It costs a lot of money to look this cheap’ and ‘I look just like the girls next door… if you live next to an amusement park’).

She celebrated her 70th birthday earlier this year and is still going strong, so who better to kick off our beginner’s guide to series than the Queen of Country herself?

 

5 key facts about Dolly

1. Dolly Rebecca Parton was born on 12th January 1946, the fourth of 12 children, to a farming family in the Smoky Mountains region of Tennessee, where her Dollywood theme park is now located.

2. She’s released a whopping 41 albums, the most recent of which was her Best Of..Blue Smoke in 2014 (the same year she played the Sunday afternoon ‘legends’ slot at Glastonbury).

3. Dolly is a record holder – she’s tied for the most Grammy nominations (41 in total), is the female artist with the most Billboard Country chart number ones, and is one of only seven female artists to win the CMA Entertainer of the Year Award.

4. Her Imagination Library, which donates books to pre-school children, distributes over 10 million free books to children in four countries every year.

5. Dolly recently moved into movie production with her film Coat of Many Colours, a fictional account of her childhood as immortalised in her song of the same name. It won her the Tex Ritter Award at this year’s ACM Awards.

 

5 Dolly songs you should know

Frankly, Dolly has so many great songs that this could have been a top 50, but we’ve managed to whittle it down to five. Here are our top picks – are any of these on your list?

1. Jolene

Jolene is possibly the quintessential Dolly song. It tells of a woman whose husband is being seduced by the stunningly beautiful titular Jolene, and who begs her ‘please don’t take my man’. In contrast to the sassy side of Dolly seen on many of her other hits, it shows her vulnerability. Her pleading vocals contrast perfectly with the uptempo instrumentation and the simple chorus will get stuck in your head for days. I like the fact that it’s unresolved too – did Jolene ever give up the man? We’ll never know…

 

2. 9 to 5

Dolly contributed this title song to the 1980 film 9 to 5, where she played an office worker taking revenge on her boss alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. From the brilliantly sharp, almost jarring piano intro to Dolly’s I’m-not-going-to-take it-any-more attitude, it’s an anthem of empowerment – not just for working women of the 70s and 80s and the struggles they faced in getting equality, but also for everyone who’s held an underpaid, overworked job ever since. And I defy anyone not to dance to it whenever it comes on; it’s just too darn catchy, as Dolly herself might say.

 

3. Coat of Many Colours

It’s no secret that Dolly came from a poor background (she has said that her family home had ‘running water, if you were willing to run to get it’) and Coat of Many Colours is the best of her songs documenting her childhood. I love it because it shows off her storytelling skills brilliantly – you really feel like you’re there with Dolly and her mum as the coat is being made – and it’s emotional but without being overly sentimental. It’s also a testament to the power of positive thinking; as Dolly sings, ‘although we had no money I was rich as I could be’, an attitude that echoes through a lot of her music.

 

4. Islands in the Stream

Much of Dolly’s early career was characterised by her duets with Porter Wagoner, but arguably her most famous partnership is this 1983 collaboration with Kenny Rogers. It’s a bit more poppy than most of Dolly’s solo records, with a pulsing drum beat, background horns and shimmering production, but it still carries many of her hallmarks – particularly the fact it tells a story and gets in your head very quickly. Her voice blends perfectly with Rogers’ and she also gets to show off her range, which is seriously impressive. This is a song that demonstrates Dolly’s versatility in adapting to different styles – something that’s been a key part of her music, particularly in more recent years when she’s expanded into bluegrass and gospel.

 

5. I Will Always Love You

Many people will know this from the Whitney Houston cover, but Dolly originally recorded it for her 1974 album ‘Jolene’ to mark her separation from Wagoner to pursue her solo career. Her version is much more stripped-back compared to Houston’s, with simple instrumentation and Dolly’s sweet voice allowed to take centre stage. She balances the regret of the break-up with hope for the future perfectly and it’s a song that stays with you long after you listen to it. Plus the fact it has been covered so often stands as testament to Dolly’s power as a songwriter and her ability to convey a universal experience so simply and brilliantly.

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