"Just because I'm blonde / Don't think I'm dumb / 'Cause this dumb blonde ain't nobody's fool." These lines from Dolly Parton's first country hit, "Dumb Blonde," were a clear warning shot: Don't you dare underestimate her.
Parton grew up in Sevierville, Tennessee, in the shadow the Great Smoky Mountains. She's described her family of 12 children as "dirt poor," though her music revisits her youth in warm golden tones. Her 1971 song "Coat of Many Colors" tells the true story of when her mother lovingly sewed her a coat from old rags, a tale Parton recently turned into a Christmas TV special of the same name.
Her rise to fame is similarly cinematic: She did a brief stint as a bubblegum pop singer (see 1962's "The Love You Gave") and, the day after graduating high school, moved to Nashville to pursue a career in country music. She joined Porter Wagoner's weekly TV show in 1967, and for five years the duo cranked out dozens of duets like "The Pain of Loving You" before she bookended their working relationship to embark on her promising solo career—a breakup that's immortalized in her tender kiss-off "I Will Always Love You," which was later revived by Whitney Houston's iconic cover.
Nearly half a century later, Dolly is still releasing new music, most recently last month with her 43rd solo record, Pure & Simple, a sterling dedication to her 50th anniversary with her husband.
Focus on the country queen has too often centered on her appearance, but, starting with "Dumb Blonde," it's proved good fodder for her songwriting. Over the years, some have tangled themselves in Parton's big hair and flashy style. In his 1982 review of her starring role as the madam Miss Mona in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, renowned film critic Roger Ebert found himself preoccupied with Parton's physique—the "awesome swell of her wondrous bosom," to be exact—yet ultimately decided the film didn't work because, in his opinion, Parton didn't act sexy enough. The same film found her flawlessly executing classics like "I Will Always Love You" and "Hard Candy Christmas" when she wasn't spouting precious bursts of wisdom like "I always just thought if you see somebody without a smile, give 'em yours!"
Throughout her career, people have tried to use Parton's exterior to limit her. This double standard is painfully evident in Ebert's review, where he both ogles and admonishes her body and sexuality in the same breath. But time and time again, the self-described "Backwoods Barbie" has openly celebrated her femininity and asserted ownership over her physical self. This is especially true when it comes to her affinity for plastic surgery. In a 2004 interview with CBS, she said, "I've had lots of work done. I'll have some more done when I need it. I always said, 'If I see something sagging, bagging, and dragging, I'm going to nip it, tuck it, and suck it.'"
As the whip-smart beautician Truvy Jones in the 1989 drama Steel Magnolias, Parton preached, "There is no such thing as natural beauty." Initially, this might appear to shun unadorned bodies, but Parton's character illuminates that the unattainable ideals women are expected to live up to are anything but natural. Why, then, should she be criticized for embracing an unnatural aesthetic? Parton doesn't seem too fazed by her critics, though—she's famously joked, "It takes a lot of money to look this cheap." She seems to have an arsenal of snappy one-liners designed to overpower venom with sweetness.
On-screen, Parton portrayed fictitious characters, but certain winking moments always leave you wondering if it's the real Dolly shining through. In her role as the secretary Doralee in the 1980 ode to working women Nine to Five, Parton teases a handsy boss, "I've been chased by swifter men than you, and I ain't been caught yet." But later, when the same bumbling dingus goes too far, she warns, "If you ever say another word about me or make another indecent proposal, I'm gonna get that gun of mine and I'm gonna change you from a rooster to a hen with one shot! And don't think I can't do it." Her biting emphasis on the last phrase echoes the warning shot of "Dumb Blonde": Whether she's a secretary, a madam, a beautician, or a rhinestone-adorned country star, Dolly Parton ain't nobody's fool.
Parton's film and music careers are inextricably linked; her song "9 to 5" was the film's theme, and The Best Little Whorehouse was a musical scored with her own original songs. But she shines brightest when she's singing—and oh can she sing.
On 1971's Coat of Many Colors, "Here I Am" finds Parton throwing her voice skyward like she's shooting up flares from the middle of a cornfield, while "Early Morning Breeze" showcases her folksy vibrato, fluttering with power and control like a kite dancing wildly in the wind. On albums like Burlap & Satin, Parton fused neon-lit 1980s pop with country, successfully bridging the two genres and proving she wasn't limited by her signature twang. This is best exemplified in her 1983 duet with Kenny Rogers, "Islands in the Stream," one of the highlights of Parton's career, despite the fact that it scoots into corny easy-listening territory.
Parton's country-pop sound persisted throughout the decade, until 1989's White Limozeen—a rockabilly record that's made great with woozy pedal steel and throwback finger-picking on tracks like "Time for Me to Fly" and "Why'd You Come in Here Looking Like That." And 1993 brought a most sacred union of three of country music's most hallowed voices: Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette. Their collaborative album, Honky Tonk Angels, returned the trio to their roots with drawled harmonies over player piano and fiddle. Parton's 1999 bluegrass record, The Grass Is Blue, features a jangly rendition of the traditional folk song "Silver Dagger." Her records tapered in potency until 2008's Backwoods Barbie, peaking again with the youthful playfulness of 2014's Blue Smoke, which opens with one hell of a title track.
Parton's voice is rivaled only by her knack for storytelling, which seems rooted in the mountain folk songs she grew up singing. In 1971's "Traveling Man," she's sneaking around with a traveling salesman, carefully evading the watchful eye of her mother, only to discover that her mother's been sneaking around with the same man.
In 1975's "Bargain Store," she's a thrift store, and everything—from her broken heart to old memories and dead-end dreams—is for sale, and "love is all you need to purchase all the merchandise."
But let's not forget Parton's most enduring hit, 1974's "Jolene": With tormented urgency, Parton breaks and twists the name "Jolene" like she's snapping twigs and peeling off ribbons of bark, kindling for the unholy fire that burns behind the words "Please don't take him just because you can." Beyond the song's haunting melody, the way Parton positions the strayed man in this narrative is especially intriguing—he's an infatuated pawn at the mercy of the two women, a rare power dynamic in popular music.
This subtle restructuring reflects the heart of Dolly, a woman who bucks any and all expectations that limit her. She's challenged listeners to look beyond her exterior and deconstruct their stereotypes with tracks like "Dumb Blonde," told men "My mistakes are no worse than yours / Just because I'm a woman," and with "9 to 5" shone a light on the plight of working women struggling to succeed in capitalism, where "they just use your mind and they never give you credit."
By kicking down all these fences, Parton hasn't just opened up new pastures for her country music contemporaries—she's proved these structures that tried to limit her weren't so sturdy in the first place.