Happy birthday Dolly. We don't deserve you.
75 years of Dolly Parton, her influence on a younger generation, and a personal connection
I grew up in an almost exclusively non-musical household.
It wasn’t by design or purpose, just chance. Both my parents had really no musical skill. My mother continues to exercise musical muscles through church and similar hymnal singing, but apart from that, I had no internal guide to understand or predict the role that music would play in my life.
What I did have, was a region and people drenched in music.
Eastern Tenessee, and Tenessee at large, has some iconic musical roots. The state’s capital is dubbed Music City, USA, and continues to be a breeding ground for future country stars, producers, and pedal pubs.
Even though my family has no strong musical capabilities, the enjoyment of the live entertainment and connection to the place we grew up in often brought my family to the Carter Family Fold, a live music venue ran by the Carter family, noted bluegrass legends, including June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash’s second wife. There are photos of this somewhere, but I couldn’t find them.
Additionally, my family’s regional connection to music is forever historicized in this Johnny Cash b-side, “Tiger Whitehead” about a mountain-man named Tiger who raised and hunted bears in the mountains of Eastern TN. My mother’s maiden name is Whitehead and the family tree can be traced back to Tiger. I don’t much about his story besides this song, but I have seen a decaying cabin along a mountain road where family members would point and say “that was Tiger’s place.”
A little bit to the south of that decaying cabin is a small town called Pigeon Forge. A mountain town previously known for its lumber industry and now known globally as the birthplace of Dolly Parton, Tennessee’s patron saint.
Growing up, I can not count the number of times I visited Dollywood, Parton’s aptly named rollercoaster/water park that featured historical reenactments, musical performances, and an abundance of fried, battered sweets.
As a young person, Dolly Parton was a mythical figure. Watching her movies with my parents showed her timeless nature and unchanged physical appearance. In rhinestone cladding glory, Parton shimmers across any stage, TV set, late-night talk show chair, or platform she finds herself in.
To me, her power was universally known. You don’t know much about the origin story of a goddess as a youngin.
There’s been a million think pieces, a new book, even a previous newsletter about her profound impact on the world, socially and politically, the eminence of grace and love she emits, and all of her wonderful attributes. I don’t think I can offer much new about Parton. I sincerely don’t believe there is a single thing she can do wrong. She has been single-handily healing the literacy gap in our country for decades. What are you doing?
What I can give is a perspective of watching the once and future Dolly rise and struggle through the ranks.
At least it gives the paper somethin' they can write about
I’ve always had a strong love/hate relationship with Miley Cyrus.
I didn’t care for much of Hannah Montana because I was a child who didn’t watch a program keenly crafted for the opposite gender. I probably missed out on some key Disney Channel humor.
The 2009 single “Party in the U.S.A.” dominated the airwaves and became an earworm that I played, and covered with friends, constantly. I can still sing the majority of the lyrics.
Cyrus’s life has been an absolute whirlwind and she has done some questionable things. She received rightful criticism for her hip-hop phase on Bangerz and her ability to “pretend to be black.” She has since apologized for her role in musical and cultural appropriation.
Cyrus has been in the spotlight since she was a literal child. Rising to TV fame and having a famous father alongside her own musical talent has made her a constant source of content and criticism.
Her 2020 album Plastic Hearts is a cathartic trip through her life. She speaks clearly about the struggles, how she sees herself, how the world sees her, and what it means to be in the constant spotlight.
When listening to this album, I thought a lot about Parton’s controversial interview with Barbara Walters in 1977. She talks about her highly scrutinized body and how she is real. She talks about moving past the shock and awe of her glitz and glamour.
Walters grabbed onto the notion of Parton’s physical appearance and the way she holds herself as a joke to the public and to women. Parton was quick to retort and show that her confidence and self-awareness.
“Oh I know they make fun of me, but all these years the people have thought the joke was on me, but it’s actually on them,” says Parton. “I am sure of myself as a person. I am sure of my talent. I’m sure of my love for life and that sort of thing. I am very content, I like the kind of person that I am. So, I can afford to piddle around and do-diddle around with makeup and clothes and stuff because I am secure with myself.”
On “Golden G-String”, the closure to Plastic Hearts, Cyrus sums up her relationship with the being an outward spectacle.
There are layers to this body
Primal sex and primal shame
They told me I should cover it
So I went the other way
I was tryin' to own my power
Still I'm tryin' to work it out
And at least it gives the paper somethin' they can write about
The relationship to the media with young women musicians is poisoned and it isn’t new. Parton has been fighting it for decades and Cyrus is another product of that system. Both were silo’d and portioned off into their own boxes to be ogled and proded. Both weren’t taken seriously for years and now those who mocked and discarded Dolly have swallowed and chocked on their own tongue.
Even in the famous 1977 interview, Walters admits that she “doesn’t know much about country music.” So, why are you interviewing this star? Parton said that she wasn’t trying to make her way into pop from country music, but trying to be taken seriously as overall as an artist.
“I want to be able to walk into any place and have people say ‘well there’s Dolly Parton.’”
Much like Parton, Cyrus dabbled in a variety of genres and sounds, trying to find her voice.
Cyrus’s voice is truly unique, much like Parton. It is gravelly yet sweet, with hoarse and tarnished vocal cords that can hit high notes and fill arenas.
I truly appreciated Cyrus’s voice on her 2012 cover of Parton’s classic single “Jolene” and started to see the talent behind the tabloids.
This week I didn’t even realize it was Dolly’s birthday, but for the past two days, I’ve been listening to Plastic Hearts and thinking of Miley’s arc. It’s bewildering to think Parton is 75 today. Three-quarters of a century has been blessed with her voice, philanthropy, investment in the real, working people of the South.
Cyrus is only three years older than me (which is insane) and Parton was of my parents' generation. Parton held a special place in the hearts of my family, especially being born and raised within the same mountain ranges. My parents made a continued commitment to pilgrimage to the mountains in my early days to visit Dolly’s world and sometimes making it to the Grand Ol’ Opre in Nashville.
I wonder if I’ll be making trips to CyrusWorld when my son is old enough to ride roller coasters. Will her birthplace of Franklin, TN become a bustling hub of cotton candy, newly paved roads, tourist attractions and their adjoining pamphlets in the decades to come?
Do people really understand the gravity of a 28-year-old pop artist with Cyrus’s expertise and portfolio? Her recent album has features from Dua Lipa, Joan Jett, Billy Idol, and Stevie Nicks. Sit with that.
What Dolly has done is inspired a generation of self-confident musicians, especially women, who come as they are. Her presence in the industry did not trickle down into future generations, it drowned all the young hearts spinning her records and dreaming of bigger places.
Today she penned a letter reflecting on her birthday and the past year and offered some words of encouragement to a turbulent world.
“I always encourage people to dream big but I also take great care to follow that up with the message to work hard. We can’t just hope for a brighter day, we have to work for a brighter day. Love too often gets buried in a world of hurt and fear. We have to work to dig it out so we can share it with our family, our friends and our neighbors. So today, January 19th, let’s get to unearthing love.”
We should be so lucky as to experience 75 years of Dolly.
p.s. - Younger Now is 100 percent an underrated Miley Cyrus and it has a track with both her and Parton. Spin it.
I Found This. is a poor attempt at cataloging epiphanies regarding music, media and Midwest living.
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