Dolly Parton? I know a lot of people hate her, but I think maybe that’s a reaction to all the Hollywoody glitz stuff. She’s an incredibly intelligent woman and an ace songwriter. Don’t let her dumb blonde schtick fool you. Her songs are like a documentary of hillbilly life.
These Old Bones is one of my favorites, a story about an old witch woman who lives outside of town who throws bones to tell the future. “These old bones, I shake and rattle; These old bones, I toss and roll…..” While everyone uses her abilities to find out their destinies, they also say she’s crazy to the point where the county comes and takes away her new baby.
As someone who grew up with folks who talked about telling the future with tea leaves and bones who’d then later deny ever even discussing such things, I can appreciate her story of an old lady being both exploited and ostracized at the same time. I saw the discomfort that my own family had for these old tales, their obvious feeling of being drawn to the magic but then just as strongly distancing themselves from the old folkways. It probably doesn’t hurt my love for this song that the prophet woman keeps goats for livestock. Knowing which side my own bread is buttered on, I must confess that each day I pour fresh nanny goat milk from the old chipped blue creamer to make my morning chai. Maaaaaa.
Continuing to document the old fashion ways, Parton wrote Coat of Many Colors about being teased at school for wearing a coat quilted and patched for her by her mother. The meanest, most onery people I know melt at the combination of gumption and poetry found in this song. If you’ve never listened to Parton before, listen to this one first. Not all of Parton’s song are ones that you’ll recognize as hers, though. She, not Whitney Houston, wrote I Will Always Love You (which I personally hate). It doesn’t help me that Parton originally wrote it for her musical breakup with Porter Wagoner who gets on my nerves probably more than he should.
I can forgive her the glitz cause I’m tickled every time she says, “It’s mighty expensive to look this cheap.” But, Wagoner’s guy glitz, I really can’t do. There are so many classic things I enjoy, but that’s one retro experience I’ve never been interested in reviving.
Probably most famously, she wrote the ’80s crossover classic Nine to Five while clicking her long fingernails together like a musical instrument. They kept this same idea for the final version of the song, where it’s mirrored by the sound of typewriters clacking. To me, Nine to Five is the urban working woman’s Sixteen Tons. “Tumble out of bed and I stumble to the kitchen; Pour myself a cup of ambition……” Isn’t that most folks waking up in the morning trying to get themselves into work each day?
If you ever venture offline and into the land of real books, consider My Life and Other Unfinished Business, Parton’s autobiography. It’s very well written and definitely not the typical celebrity ghost written crap.
Musicians as diverse as Melissa Etheridge credit her with inspiring them as children. In the ’60s, Parton was not only a girl singer, Etheridge remembers, she was a girl singer with a GUITAR. Miranda Lambert honors Parton for sticking to her East Tennessee roots while still becoming an amazing business woman. Lambert wrote a special tribute on grammy365.com when Parton received the 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award.
Parton is one of many country musicians who came from a religious background. It formed her, but she did not let it constrain her. She will always have that home training to draw from, but she doesn’t need to hold tight to the narrowness of some aspects of it. Her brand of gospel fits me well. She is by turns sincere, bawdy, reverential, and colorful. But always the consumate storyteller transforming the lives of her people into songs that even city folks who don’t begin to know how to pronounce Appalachia can cherish.