Our bees are doing well. We are on the cusp of a busy spring, but now there is nothing to do except wait for the weather to break and the flowers to bloom. I decided to use this time to write something from Left Field.
Yesterday I stumbled across a podcast called “Dolly Parton’s America.” The podcast sets out to answer this question: Why in a country that is deeply divided on everything does everybody agree to like Dolly Parton? Few public figures have what Dolly has. She has unbelievably high favorable ratings and unfavorable ratings that approach zero. Her popularity cuts across demographics. You can’t cateogorize Dolly. Now in her mid 70s, the blonde icon is everywhere including The Tonight Show, CMA awards, and Netflix. I just started the podcast, but it has already caused me to examine the influence that Dolly Parton has had in my life.
Dolly Parton entered my consciousness circa 1980 whenever the TV version of 9 to 5 was released. Before there was Disney Plus, Netflix, DVDs, laser discs, or VHS tapes you could either pay money to watch a movie in the theater or you could patiently wait for an edited version of the movie to play on television. 9 to 5 rocked my 8 year old brain. Dolly’s acting is similar to John Wayne’s acting. Dolly and The Duke are Dolly and The Duke no matter what characters they are supposed to be playing. Their real persona always shines through their characters’ veneers. Who can forget Dolly’s line in 9 to 5, “If you ever say another word about me or make another indecent proposal, I’m going to get that gun of mine, and I’m gonna change you from a rooseter to a hen with one shot!” Was that the character Doralee or was it Dolly? Sounded like Dolly to me. My aunt and uncle bought the album “9 to 5 and Other Odd Jobs” about this same time. I was captivated by Dolly’s music. I took guitar lessons, learned to play “9 to 5”, and performed the song in the elementary school talent show.
I grew up in a time when nearly all the women around me were either stay at home moms, teachers, nurses, or secretaries. Those are all great professions, but if you were a female who didn’t want one of those four vocations you had no role models. TV didn’t help with this. The only notable TV women I recall from my childhood were The Bionic Woman and Charlie’s Angels. (I’m excluding Wonder Woman because even I knew that an invisible jet and a lasso of truth were out of my reach.) Into this dearth of female role models came Dolly Parton. She did everything. She sang, acted, wrote songs, and ran businesses. She was articulate, and even a kid could tell that beneath the folksy talk was a smart woman. Much has been made of Dolly’s physical attributes, but I never saw any of that. (Much like I never understood why anyone would watch Charlie’s Angels for something other than the plot lines. I was young and innocent.) What Dolly was to me was this strong woman who wanted to be on a different path from everybody else. Dolly just did her own thing and launched like a rocket ship into the orbit she chose.
My parents took me to a Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton concert in the mid 80s. This was in the height of frenzy from their “Islands in the Stream” duet. Kenny and Dolly each did solo shows and then came together at the end for their big finish. I don’t want to criticize Kenny Rogers. Everybody knows he is a great singer with huge hits, but the dude forgot the lyrics to one of his songs in the show! You know who doesn’t forget lyrics? Dolly Parton. She knows how to put on a show. She is the PT Barnum of country music, and even as a kid I could see that Kenny was a great singer but Dolly was a star.
Dolly Parton’s achievements are vast. Along with all of her entertainment credits, she is a great philanthropist. She champions the cause of children’s literacy. She has worked to save bald eagles. When devastating fires struck east Tennessee, Dolly organized disaster relief and recovery efforts that were so effective I wondered why she was never asked to run FEMA. Perhaps one of her more improbable accomplishments was that she took a song from a broadway musical about prostitution and sang it in such a way that it became a Christmas song played every year on the radio. Nobody else can do that but Dolly Parton. (I’m talking about the song “Hard Candy Christmas” from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which is one of my favorite movies even though it doesn’t stand up well in the days of #metoo.)
What is often overlooked about Dolly is her songwriting. Truly great songwriters are both poets and storytellers who find a way to articulate deep felt emotions common to the human experience. Their songs give a way for the average person to express emotions that they could not otherwise express because they don’t have the language to do so. Regular people listen to these songs over and over because they resonate with something in the soul. That’s why Dolly songs like “Coat of Many Colors” and “I Will Always Love You” have such a hold on people. The song that did this for me was “Wildflowers” written by Parton and recorded by her and Linda Rondstadt and Emmylou Harris in 1986. I was 14 when it was released. It was a happy little song about a wildflower who felt crowded in the garden and decided to grow wild somewhere else. I listened to it over and over because it gave voice to this feeling that my teenage self had inside of me. (By the way, the Trio recordings are a true gift to humanity. I have never heard harmonies like theirs. Click here if you want to watch one of my favorite clips of the three singing together.)
For a while I have been wanting to write a post about how honey bees are a sort of spirit animal for me. I admire their industry and efficiency. Bees have only been in my life for about three years. Dolly has been in my life for 40 years. I had to face the fact that my spirit animal has a bleach blonde wig.
Dolly says, “Love is like a butterfly as soft and gentle as a sigh.”