Dolly Parton is standing in a dressing room at The Tonight Show, regaling visitors with anecdotes from almost 50 years in show business. Meanwhile, a sound person quietly circles her while holding a clip-on microphone, like a pilot surveying so much acreage and so few appropriate landing spots. Finally, Parton points to a rip in her bodice and suggests the aide clip the mic there, where it can also provide a safety-pin function. ”I tore the lace because I was trying to pull at ’em and get ’em up where they belong,” she explains, the ‘em being exactly what you think they are. ”It ain’t easy wagging these things around.”
There’s Dolly in a nutshell: all glitz, with designer outfits hugging her legendarily sculpted physique; all grit, with practicality that comes naturally to a gal who grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains without electricity or running water; and all guffaws, acknowledging elephants in the room — the bust, the wigs — before anyone else can crack the first joke. The tangle of contradictions extends to her audience, since the 63-year-old may be the only star equally venerated in the Bible Belt and midtown Manhattan.
The latter is now home to Parton’s first Broadway musical, 9 to 5, based on the 1980 film that marked her acting debut. The secretarial revenge comedy — which just earned four Tony nominations, including one for Parton’s score — stars West Wing veteran Allison Janney (in the Lily Tomlin role), Stephanie J. Block (in Jane Fonda’s part), and Megan Hilty as pistol-packing Doralee (originated by Parton herself). Fans no longer have the star’s Tennessee theme park as their sole mecca: The Marquis Theatre has become Dollywood East.
The show caps a couple of years in which Parton has busted her way back into the public eye. After being dropped by her last major label in the mid-’90s, she abandoned mainstream country for a series of humble acoustic bluegrass albums that restored her cred with roots purists who hadn’t approved of her pop-crossover streak in the late ’70s and ’80s. Lately, though, she’s regained her commercial appetite, re-upping her concert schedule from 15 gigs a year to more than 60 in 2008, including a sold-out arena tour in twang-resistant Europe. Opry-loving old-timers now compete for seats with clusters of gay men, indie rockers, and even kids who know Parton from Hannah Montana guest spots.
Last year, she made a new stab at mainstream hitmaking with a self-released album, Backwoods Barbie. Though country radio largely ignored it, she relied on TV talk-show appearances and a spring 2009 promotion with the restaurant chain Cracker Barrel to push sales to a respectable 185,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The title track was actually written for the stage musical; it’s the one solidly country tune in 9 to 5‘s otherwise pop-leaning score. But Doralee’s anthem is autobiographical enough for Parton to include on her own album: ”Don’t judge me by the cover, ’cause I’m a real good book/The way I look is just a country girl’s idea of glam.” Says Hilty, ”What I love most about that song is how completely unapologetic it is.”
As is Parton — her self-deprecation perhaps being the only thing skin-deep about her. Writing ”Backwoods Barbie,” she remembered being ostracized for her appearance. ”I know that rejection. But I’ve also always thought that a certain bit of what magic I may have in the minds of people was that I look completely artificial,” she says. ”People ask me, ‘Are you the real Dolly Parton?’ I say, ‘There’s no such thing as a real Dolly Parton!’ But even though I look phony, my heart ain’t.”
The real Dolly Parton’s journey from Locust Ridge, Tenn., was hard fought. Though her molasses-sweet persona comes first in the public mind-set, a subtle but strong feminist streak has always driven her songwriting. For all its tenderness, ”I Will Always Love You” — a tune Parton made a hit twice, prior to Whitney Houston — was composed as a kiss-off song to Parton’s former mentor and duet partner Porter Wagoner after she left his employ in 1974. And while Loretta Lynn often gets credit as country’s preeminent female firebrand, Parton’s sadder songs were just as pointedly pro-woman.
Parton’s first RCA hit, 1968’s ”Just Because I’m a Woman,” boldly demanded a level sexual playing field: ”I’m sorry that I’m not the woman you thought I’d be/But listen and understand/My mistakes are no worse than yours/Just because I’m a woman.” The idea for the song came from a conversation with Carl Dean, her rarely seen spouse of nearly 43 years. ”My husband had never asked me if I had ever been with anybody else, and I certainly wasn’t gonna volunteer it, because I assumed it didn’t matter,” Parton recalls. ”But I guess it did. Eight months into our marriage, he decides one day out of nowhere to ask. I figured the truth was better, because I didn’t want to start a marriage out with a lie, and I wasn’t ‘like a virgin.’ And it just crushed him. But he got over it pretty quick, and never bothered to ask me anything he didn’t want to know the answer to again!”
The resulting song ”had a lot of good old boys at radio thinking it was too much of a women’s-lib thing,” Parton recalls. After releasing another song about a slightly used sweetheart, ”The Bargain Store,” she says ”a lot of stations wouldn’t play it because they thought it was about a whore.” It still went to No. 1. One of her faves, ”Down From Dover,” remained an album track, ”because RCA said, ‘There’s no way we can put out a single about a woman having a baby out of wedlock.”’ She had better luck with the wronged woman in her hit ”Jolene.” ”All those songs were a little controversial at the time, but came from an honest, sincere place.”
In her 9 to 5 score, Parton revisits feminine empowerment — cheerfully. But she most enjoyed capturing the misogyny of the story’s sexually harassing villain (played by Dabney Coleman on film, Marc Kudisch on stage). ”My dad and brothers and uncles were all a lot of rednecks, so I knew exactly what to write,” she explains. ”And I know all about bosses from Porter Wagoner. He was a male chauvinist pig too! We worked through our differences later, but those years we were together, man, we fought like cats and dogs.”
No interspecies battles or cracks in the star’s honey-beatific facade emerged during the creation of 9 to 5. ”There’s never any public Dolly versus private Dolly,” says 9 to 5 producer Bob Greenblatt. ”The Dolly you see on TV is the same Dolly who’s bringing fudge to the cast.” It’s the same Dolly she’s been playing for years both on screen and off — and she can’t imagine trying on another persona, even for an acting job. ”How do you do a character when you are a character?” she says. ”I could tear down all the garb, but I’m most comfortable being me.” She pauses for effect. ”The big phony.”