Lookin' Swell, Dolly
Parton's Down-Home Heart Underpins Her Ample Talent, Charm

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 3, 2006

PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. When you're in Dolly Parton's presence, you can't help but become transfixed by her, um, abundance. It's her dominant trait, and it's particularly astounding when examined up close. From two feet away, for instance.

The country legend has invited you to sit down beside her on a couch, backstage at the theater that bears her name, in the Dollywood amusement park that celebrates her Smoky Mountain roots. She is saying something serious about Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, a decade-old program that sends free books to kids every month until they're 5. My dad couldn't read. I saw how cripplin' that can be, not gettin' an education . Started it for my own people, here in Sevier County. We've expanded to 42 states, and, now, Canada.

And then, the zone-out. Parton is still talking -- you can see those glossy, red lips moving at an incredibly rapid clip -- but you're not really hearing her. Instead, you're consumed by her immensity, spellbound by the natural wonderness of it all.

By this, of course, we mean Parton's huge . . . personality.

At 60, the performer remains an international icon, in large measure because of her mammoth personality. Parton, one of this year's five Kennedy Center honorees, is ebullient, boisterous, ferociously funny and endearing; and she's a good many other things, too -- fearless, sexy, cornpone, clever, candid, folksy, trashy, ditsy, brilliant, self-deprecating, animated, squeaky -- all of it adding up to a larger-than-life figure who oozes so much stardom that you can more or less swim in the wake of her celebrity. Though you might just as easily find yourself adrift in its overwhelming amplitude.

Where some performers have an uncomfortable relationship with their stardom, Parton embraces hers, celebrates it, magnifying her magnetism.

"Dolly takes up a big space," says Kenny Rogers, whose 1983 duet with Parton, "Islands in the Stream," was an enormous hit. "When she walks into a room, she changes the tenor of the whole room in such a great way. She has this spirit. But she also has an honesty that not many other people have."

By this, he means that Parton's personality isn't a put-on. While she certainly plays it up for the public -- which has adored her in varying amounts, and in various mediums, for most of the past 40 years -- it's rooted in reality. "Dolly is who she says she is," Rogers says from his Georgia home. "I've always said that if you like her on television, you'll love her in person because she's that and more. But if you don't like her on television, you won't like her in person because she's that and more."

Says Parton: "It's just my nature to be that way. I have a lot of love to give, and I want a lot of love back. "

It's the Dolly Parton paradox. So outsize is her image that her incredible talent is eclipsed by all the Dollyness: The infectious, goofball personality. The spangled outfits and high heels and platinum wigs. The synthetic nails and generous slatherings of makeup. And, yes, that cartoonishly proportioned body. (As Parton herself says, "I don't look real." Which, in truth, she isn't, at least not in certain areas: She readily admits to having had multiple cosmetic surgeries over the years, "to fix whatever's saggin', baggin' or draggin'.")

Revel in her presence, and it's easy to forget about her other great gifts, which she's been utilizing since she first started making music as a schoolgirl in nearby Locust Ridge. Not only is Parton a prolific songwriter with a knack for finding incredible emotional depth in lyrical simplicity, but she can flat-out sing, too, a trilly soprano with great purity and range. She's also made a mark in the movies, earning two Golden Globe nominations for best motion picture actress.

But Parton hardly minds that she's sometimes better known for image than artistry. Because, quite frankly, that she's known at all is something like a blessing for a girl who grew up in a run-down cabin in eastern Tennessee, where she fought for attention as the fourth of 12 kids.

"I enjoy it, I really do," she says of her image. "I'm very secure in who I am. I've always had a lot of confidence in my talent and in my personality. The way I am, the way I dress, the makeup, the hair -- this is fun for me. I'm the perfect person to have had her own theme park. I love playin'. When it's time to work, I take my work very serious. But I don't take myself serious. And it all works for me."

Parton is seated next to a Christmas tree that's decorated with peacock feathers. She's petite -- not even five feet tall, and alarmingly tiny of waist -- and she's wearing a frilly, bejeweled velvet green ensemble with towering high heels. It's one of four outfits she'll wear during a half-day at Dollywood, where she's come to introduce a million-dollar production of "Babes in Toyland" and then perform at and host a private barbecue for a contest winner. (Her hosting duties will include serving slices of white bread to the guests while wearing a rhinestone-flecked gingham apron.)

In her dressing room, she's surrounded by her own legend: The walls are covered with her album covers, of which there are more than 70. On the whole, they've done well commercially and critically. Parton has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide during her recording career, and she's been recognized with enough awards, honors and proclamations to fill a henhouse. So be it, then, if some people think of her as little more than a wig.

"I have my sense of humor and the way I look with the big boobs and the big hair, and a lot of people just dwell on that, but I don't mind, I really don't," says Parton, who talks a country-mile-a-minute, with a sharp Tennessee twang. "People who've really followed me a long way know I've done a bunch of stuff. And how much bigger do I need to be?"

The issue of Parton's image overshadowing her art isn't exactly new. When she broke into the music business in the 1960s, she was told that people around Nashville wouldn't take her songwriting seriously if she insisted on looking like the town tramp. But Parton had long loved the look and wasn't about to change.

"It was just a poor country girl's idea of glamour," she says. "It came from a very serious place, 'cause I didn't have the stuff I wanted growin' up in a family of 12, being dirt poor. I longed for that glamour, and soon as I got a chance to do it, I did, puttin' on makeup and stuff. I'm from a very religious family -- my grandfather was a Holy Roller -- and in the early days, that was a no-no. But I didn't care. After I'd wash the makeup off, I'd go put it back on and get another whippin'. But people noticed me. And I realized that I was onto somethin', and that I could just do more and more. And I still do that."

She defiantly refused to change her image, but Parton slowly gained acceptance as a songwriter and singer anyway. Her rise to stardom, to the eventual role of country music's leading global ambassador, was accelerated when Porter Wagoner invited her to co-star on his syndicated television show in 1967 -- though she initially got pushback from viewers who'd grown fond of her predecessor, Norma Jean. Never mind her look: It was Parton's voice that was difficult for them to digest.

"It's like blue cheese or liver: You either love it or hate it," says Parton, whose vocals sometimes suggest a little girl singing into an electric fan after sucking the helium out of a balloon. More often, though, they're simply the sound of high lonesome heaven.

Norma Jean, she says, "sang very good, very on pitch, but she wasn't a stylist. I'm a stylist, and so here I come, lookin' like a freak and soundin' like a freak. So it took me a little bit. But they responded."

Wagoner and Parton had tremendous success as a duo, charting a long string of hits until Parton decided to strike out on her own after seven years. It was a brilliant decision not only because it allowed her to achieve even greater success as a solo star in country and pop, but because it inspired Parton to write her most famous (and profitable) song, "I Will Always Love You." A tribute to Wagoner, it was a No. 1 country hit for Parton in 1974, though Whitney Houston had even more success with the tune in 1992 when she covered it for the soundtrack of "The Bodyguard." Houston's version became one of the best-selling singles in pop music history.

"Just think of the power in that song," says Parton's friend, the retired country singer Barbara Mandrell. "That expression is something we all like to hear, but I don't think it's ever been expressed as profoundly as Dolly did. I mean, who in their life could write a song like that? She's a brilliant writer. She just has a way with words."

That's true whether she's writing or talking. Parton has been doing plenty of both lately, but especially writing: four dozen new songs for a new album, "Country Is as Country Does" (due next year), in addition to working on new music for a Broadway adaptation of "9 to 5," the movie that launched her acting career.

"I write all the time," Parton says. "My pencil is my therapist. I can work all my feelings out in my notebook, and I just really feel close to God. Plus, I get so excited. 'Cause I always feel like I'm writin' somethin' that wasn't in the world yesterday. It's somethin' different, or somethin' new. Time will tell whether it's good or bad, whether it will wind up touchin' people for years and years like 'I Will Always Love You.' I'm writin' all these new songs and I think some of them are the best things I've written in years, if not ever."

Before you can even raise your eyebrow, Parton has broken into song. She's previewing a new tune for her audience of one. It's an unfair fight.

You asked me not to wear cologne, she sings in that pristine voice of hers. 'Cause I'm a scent you can't take home.

She'll know you've been with me alone / So you asked me not to wear cologne.

She winks from across the couch. You stare back, transfixed.

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