|Jeannie's Afraid Of The Dark||Just The Two Of Us|
|Coat Of Many Colors||Coat Of Many Colors|
|I Will Always Love You||Jolene|
|The Bargain Store||The Bargain Store|
|To Daddy||The Essential Dolly Parton Vol.1|
|Two Doors Down||Here You Come Again|
|Why'd You Come In Here|
Lookin' Like That
|Little Sparrow||Little Sparrow|
|Backwoods Barbie||Backwoods Barbie|
Contributor: Calvin Rydbom
Dolly Parton, the lady with the big hair, big personality and a style all her own. A style she has been known to comment on by saying, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap”. Unfortunately it’s a style which has often overshadowed her incredible success and talent. Too country, too simple, too flashy to be a great artist. When in actuality she is a giant, in both sales and talent. But as she has also said, “I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb, and I also know that I’m not blonde”.
One of the many things I enjoy about reading Toppermosts of our biggest of music stars is I often find undiscovered gems that have somehow gone unheard. But Dolly has reached No.1 on the Country Music charts 25 times, and has appeared in the top 40 a total of 89 times overall on those same charts. She has placed 41 albums on the Country Top Ten charts. She has received 47 Grammy nominations and won eight of them. She has been nominated for two Academy Awards and a Tony. She is a member of at least 15 Halls of Fame, most music related of course, and it should be pointed out, as a songwriter just as often as a performer. She also has an Emmy Nomination, and we don’t have time to go about mentioning all the nominations and awards she has garnered from organizations honoring just country musicians. By her count she had composed 3,000 songs by 2009, but by the time you get through the 89 hits you’ve got a really solid top ten without diving into the other 2,911. So be aware this is based on only the 500 or so I’ve heard over the years.
I started thinking about what an impact Dolly has had on American culture and music a few months ago when my friend Sarah and I were marveling at the new rendition of Jolene she recorded with the group Pentatonix. Then just recently I found out from my cousin that my late uncle, his father Bill, was Dolly’s No.1 fan and knew her quite well. Seems she is as genuine a person as comes across in her movies, TV appearances and live shows. After I saw some pictures of Dolly with my uncle, I figured I really needed to get this one written.
Dolly starting singing on local radio and television programs in Eastern Tennessee when she was just single digits. By 13 she had released her first single and had appeared at the Grand Ole Opry. She has mentioned in interviews having Johnny Cash tell her to follow her own instincts and nobody else where her career was concerned at that young age. It’s interesting to think this was 1960-ish young Johnny Cash, and not the superstar with a ton of hits behind him.
She moved to Nashville the day after she graduated high school in 1964 and signed with a publishing company as a songwriter not long after arriving in the country music mecca. Along with Bill Owens, her uncle and early songwriting partner, she wrote songs for Kitty Wells and Hank Williams Jr, as well as some big hits for Skeeter Davis and Bill Phillips.
She was signed as a singer by the label Monument Records, but they kept trying to turn her into a girl pop singer. She kept pushing back, as she wanted to record country music, but the label felt her uniquely strong voice wasn’t suited for country music and if she had any future it would be in pop. I’d like to think the person who made that decision had recently joined Monument after being a talent scout at Decca Records and rejecting the Beatles because guitar bands were done.
In 1966 though, a song she penned for Bill Phillips reached No.6 on the country charts, with Dolly singing an uncredited harmony. On the strength of that single she was allowed to record a country album.
Her first single, which of course was penned by someone else, was called Dumb Blonde and reached No.24 Shortly after that she became a featured performer, and frequent duet partner, for Porter Wagoner on both his television show and a series of albums. Then she recorded a seemingly unending string of hits that went on for decades.
These are my favorites.
Jeannie’s Afraid Of The Dark is the only song on this list from the the Wagoner and Parton duet partnership that wielded 20 Top 40 singles. And completely flying in the face of my earlier statement, this one didn’t chart. It’s a country tear-jerker that probably seemed a tad outdated, even in 1968. But the Parton penned song just hits a chord, no pun intended, for me. Of course you know about a minute or so into the song that young Jeannie isn’t long for this world. So the ‘twist’ at the end isn’t really much of a twist. But it’s obvious the 22-year-old Parton was developing her song writing chops.
It would be hard to justify a Toppermost of Dolly if I didn’t include the song she has often called her favorite, Coat Of Many Colors from 1971. As perfect a story as it sounds the song is certainly autobiographical. In fact the original coat is on display at the Chasing Rainbows Museum at Dollywood, which for the uninformed is Dolly’s theme park. Also in the museum is the Porter Wagoner dry cleaning receipt which the song was originally composed on in 1969. It’s another tear-jerker wherein Dolly relates the story of her mother making her a coat out of rags while telling her the story of the biblical Joseph and his coat.
But they didn’t understand it, and I tried to make them see/ One is only poor, only if they choose to be/ Now I know we had no money, but I was rich as I could be/ In my coat of many colors my momma made for me.
The 1974 album Jolene introduced two out and out classics. The single Jolene is not only a classic but a contender for best country song of the 1970s. One of the first songs released after she left her partnership with Wagoner, the emotions pouring forth from it should be hard to connect with someone as larger than life as Parton. But the singer’s, who probably isn’t Dolly herself, obvious feeling of inadequacy connects so easily. She has remade it several times, and it has been covered by many others over the years. But the desperation in Dolly’s voice in the original makes it so clearly the best version for me. I prefer her use of a really brooding minor key in this song, with very repetitive lyrics; it was a change from her really big hits that came before it.
Most know the story of the other No.1 single from the album, the beautiful I Will Always Love You. Parton of course wrote it to convince Wagoner to stop fighting her desire to go off as a solo artist, and for him to stop acting as if he knew what was better for her career than she did. She claims he actually was moved to tears when she sang it for him, calling it the prettiest song he had ever heard. He was so touched he agreed to let her go off on her own, if he was allowed to produce it. Lyrically it’s an amazing song, so much more because the entire chorus is simply the title of the song, sung with unequaled passion. Sadly, Wagoner and Parton’s relationship did sour, even though they managed to reconcile on some level later on.
The Bargain Store was her fourth consecutive No.1, with Love Is Like A Butterfly sandwiched between this and the two previous songs. It has a melancholy tone that isn’t present in a lot of her songs. In it she uses second hand clothing to sing about potential relationships and really herself. Oddly enough the line in the song, “You can easily afford the price,” made a fair amount of people think the song was about prostitution. A number of stations reacted by pulling it off the air, yet it still made it to No.1. Dolly was unstoppable. It’s a much more sophisticated song then most would give Dolly credit for writing. She specifically recorded the song in a minor key, and used words such as “unto” instead of “a”, as she felt it enhanced the old-time and lonesome drone of the song.
To Daddy is an odd song to put on this list, as she recorded it in 1976 but it didn’t appear on a Dolly album until 1995. In 1979 though it was a big hit for her friend Emmylou Harris. And as wonderful as that version is I prefer Dolly’s original, or sort of original. The song, sung from the perspective of a teenage girl, tells the story of a daughter watching the frustration of her mother dealing with her father’s affairs and lack of affection. Also supposedly autobiographical, it ends with the mother leaving when her children have been raised, as opposed to staying with her husband as her own mother did.
Two Doors Down, from 1977 is the first really up tempo song on my list, even though it does mention crying and such. But it’s a song to move to, and all before this are clearly slower numbers. But therein lies a pretty interesting story. It was included on the 1977 album Here You Come Again, but before Dolly could release it, another country singer released a cover of it with quite a bit of success. In the meantime the title song from the album had become Dolly’s first Top Ten on the pop charts. Dolly went back in the studio and re-recorded Two Doors Down with a more pop sound to it, and registered her second hit outside the Country charts. She changed quite a bit of the music to the song, giving it even a slight disco beat. It sounded dramatically different than the original and it turned into the pop song she wanted as opposed to a competitor to the recent country hit.
The next decade was an incredible time for Dolly. A couple of hit movies. Two songs, 9 To 5, and Islands In The Stream with Kenny Rogers, that hit No.1 on both the country and pop charts. But you have to speed pass all that incredible success to find my next song; 1989’s Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That. It’s one of the few songs on the list not written by Dolly. In a way it was the opposite of the 1977 move. This time, when the pop hits started to slow down, she returned to more traditional country and charted a few more No.1 country singles, including this one.
About a decade after this move she signed with Sugar Hill Records and recorded a number of bluegrass albums, further showing her great range as both a songwriter and as a singer. Little Sparrow, off the album of the same name, has been recorded by countless artists going back to the Carter Family. I enjoy that the instrumentation doesn’t start until about thirty seconds into the song, Dolly’s voice is an instrument unto itself.
In 2008 she released her first traditional country album in a decade, after releasing four bluegrass or at least bluegrass-tinged albums, and it became her highest charting album in years. One of the singles from the album, the title track Backwoods Barbie, could serve as a statement of intent for Dolly. It would be a great cap to her career, if she wasn’t finding herself recording her 25th No.1 single as late as 2016. A collaboration of a number of country stars, it’s a mash up of three country classics, including her own classic, I Will Always Love You.
In an industry where people come and go, Dolly Parton has appeared on a top 20 country single during the past six decades. That sort of longevity can only be sustained by talent of the highest level. That alone should make you stop and spend some time listening to Dolly. These ten songs should make you appreciate that talent. The other 3,000+ should leave you in awe.
This is Calvin’s 32nd Toppermost. His third book “Modern Images of Akron” was recently released by Arcadia Publishing. In it Calvin spends a good deal of pages covering the history of music in Akron with images and commentary on the Black Keys, Devo and Pretenders among others. He has also recently signed on to be the Archivist and Contributing Author for the Akron Sound Museum, which celebrates the history of Akron Music from the early 1960s to present. In the meantime he is working on his 4th book before starting a fifth on the history of Akron Music.