Twenty-one years ago, a Nigerian newspaper editor touring U.S. dailies stopped by Nashville newsrooms, a visit that coincided with the Country Music Awards. Asked to escort this studious political journalist to the event, I quickly found that he knew little about American music. When I ran down a list of country music legends, he recognized only two: Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. "You're in luck," I said. "Both are on the show tonight."
A broad smile shattered his solemnity. "I will see Dolly Pah-ton?" he exclaimed in accented English. "Quite a lot," I replied. "She's the show's host." When Parton opened with a cheerful sing-along, "If It's Coming From the Country, It's Coming From the Heart," he was among the first to start clapping along.
A sweet, upbeat ditty, the song couldn't have meant anything to this purposeful and burdened civic leader. But he wasn't responding to words—Dolly's spirit and charisma crossed all borders and needed no translation. It lifted him from his seat and provided all the reason necessary to shed the weight of his responsibilities for a few joyous moments.
Driving to his hotel, we discussed Parton's music: He couldn't name a song, and as I ran through a few, only "9 to 5" seemed to ring any bells. I wish we could have spent a few hours sifting song by song through the early years that made Parton such a respected and beloved songwriter before the world learned of her gifts as a personality. He had responded to her uplifting spirit as an entertainer—and no doubt to the curves of her famously outsized body. But I think his respect for her would have only deepened if he realized how powerfully she'd written of poverty, cruelty, betrayal and injustice, as well as that indomitable humanity people can muster in the harshest of circumstances.
The whole Parton picture—in all its brilliance and its occasional moments of corniness and misguided directions—comes into sharp focus on Dolly, a four-CD, 99-cut box set due out Oct. 27 on RCA Legacy. Surprisingly, it's the first extensive box set of her studio recordings. Although it leaves out the fine bluegrass recordings of the last decade, it does a good job of following her from her tentative beginnings on homegrown recordings (where she sounds inspired more by Brenda Lee than Kitty Wells or Loretta Lynn), through her formative period on Monument Records into the glorious star-making years on RCA and her superstar stint on Columbia.
That Parton's career hasn't previously received the honor of an in-depth collection illustrates how the full scope of her creative strengths sometimes gets downplayed in the klieg-light glare of her status as an iconic superstar. Even among music fans, she tends to get recognized for her classic duets with Porter Wagoner and Kenny Rogers and for her stories of enduring hard times ("Coat of Many Colors"), of postcards from down home ("My Tennessee Mountain Home"), of gothic drama ("Jolene"), of love and transition ("I Will Always Love You," "Love Is Like a Butterfly") and her crossover ditties ("Two Doors Down," "Here You Come Again").
But her darker material rarely receives the same celebration, although it should. Parton's ambition always has shot off in several directions at once, quickly assimilating her influences before distinctly stamping them with her own vision—often a distillation of both inspiration and calculation. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the street-level poetry of Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson, and Mickey Newbury drew reams of praise, Parton began reeling off story songs as fiercely realistic and gritty as anything by her contemporaries.
All of it stood out because Parton drew on the most desperate stories culled from her impoverished mountain roots. The betrayed innocent pregnant girl in "Down From Dover," the hippie mountain girl of "Just the Way I Am," the hobo misfortune of "Gypsy, Joe and Me," the prostitute who loses grip on her dreams in "My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy," the complete lack of romance in the bitter family tragedy of "Daddy's Mountain Still," the woman institutionalized by her lover in "Daddy Come and Get Me," the open sexuality of "The Last One to Touch Me," and the randy young girl who loses her older lover to her mother in "Traveling Man"—all of them bear the unmistakable touch of a gutsy young artist whose creative outpouring rivals the most distinctive writers of her generation.
Dolly serves as a crisp reminder of other aspects of Parton's career, from the outstanding arrangements and picking of Nashville's A-team players to just how goofily clumsy she sounded as a dance-pop diva in 1980s Hollywood. Through all her phases, Parton's never stopped—she just changed where she looked for inspiration. As the singer and DJ Laura Cantrell writes in the liner notes, whenever she's asked to recommend Parton albums, she asks, "Which Dolly do you want?" Finally, all of them can be found in one place.
Figure when the tour is played out and the line up blows. TN fairgrounds? weird…
I really want to get excited about the music scene here, but it's hard to…
There was a man named Jimmie Rodgers once.
PS#2: Gold, meant to ask, "Are you up to the task?" It does keep getting…