More than 50 years later, Dolly Parton is still pulling fans' heartstrings
"The Dollyverse is this idea that you can see every story through her," says Jad Abumrad, Radiolab co-host and creator of the new podcast "Dolly Parton's America." While investigating the 73-year-old country music legend, he explores murder-ballad history, banjo origins and his father's childhood home in Lebanon. In this last pursuit, Abumrad becomes like every Parton fan. He develops a profoundly personal connection with her work.
Over a music and screen career spanning more than 50 years, Parton has attracted a diverse fan base that's equal parts Christian conservative and LGBTQ, and touches every generation from traditionalists to Zs. They all hear their lives in her songs; we see every story through hers. And we have more opportunities to do so now than ever.
Netflix streams Parton's new anthology series, "Heartstrings," as of late November; "Christmas at Dollywood" premieres on the Hallmark Channel on Dec. 8; she co-hosted the Country Music Association Awards on Nov. 13; NBC aired "Dolly Parton: 50 Years at the Grand Ole Opry" on Nov. 26; and Abumrad's podcast, co-produced with OSM Audio and WNYC Studios, launched Oct. 15. Plus, her Tennessee theme park, Dollywood, opened a $37 million expansion this year and she announced plans for a lifestyle brand.
Welcome to the Dollyverse.
"It blows me away that we're not all celebrating her as a songwriter as much as we do, say, Bob Dylan," Abumrad says in a phone interview. "From 1967 to 1973, she's walking down the hall and No. 1 songs are falling out of her head."
Parton has made 44 Top 10 country albums, and 25 No. 1 hits on the Billboard Country charts. In 1973, she wrote "Jolene" and "I Will Always Love You" on the same night.
Television has always been intrinsic to the singer-songwriter's success. A seven-year stint on "The Porter Wagoner Show" launched her career in 1967. In the aughts, her appearances as Aunt Dolly on Disney Channel's hit "Hannah Montana" introduced her to younger fans. "My 17-year-old knows every word to 'Jolene,' " says Michelle Vicary, an executive vice president at Hallmark's parent company, Crown Media.
Now, Parton is mining her songs for narrative content. "Heartstrings," a Netflix series on which she is also an executive producer, comprises eight hour-long features inspired by and named after the artist's tracks. She introduces each episode and appears in some. At the beginning of "These Old Bones," starring Ginnifer Goodwin and Kathleen Turner, Parton speaks about growing up without a TV, saying, "Writing songs was like making my own little movies with my guitar."
And while her musical canon contains the popular tropes - thrillers, Westerns, romances, family fare - you won't see every hit song on "Heartstrings."The project's showrunner, Patrick Sean Smith, says Parton wanted to save "I Will Always Love You" and "Here You Come Again" for a second season. She also suggested they add a line to the "Jolene" episode that teases a sequel. "I was like, 'Yes, and I feel like an idiot for not thinking of that myself,' " Smith recalls, "but I can't think like Dolly Parton, and I accept that."
The country singer is familiar with the process of adapting her music into other projects. In 2015, Parton and NBC turned her 1971 smash hit into the TV movie "Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors." It broke records for NBC with 13.1 million viewers, and a Christmas-themed sequel followed in 2016. Talks to adapt "Jolene" bounced around Hollywood before morphing into the current Netflix series.
"She is egoless. I never even got a hint of it," Smith says of Parton's approach to the work. "I asked if the narrator (in the song) keeps telling Jolene she's beautiful as a way to manipulate her. And Dolly was like, 'No.' I asked, 'There's not a power dynamic when she says, Oh you can have any man?' And Dolly was just like, 'No, that's not in there.' " What remains in the narrator is unadulterated vulnerability.
This kind of authenticity enables Parton's work to live in different media and feel the same, and is of course what endears her to a legion of fans. "Her songs are inclusive while being personal at the same time," Smith explains.
This is one of what Abumrad describes as "an absolute smorgasbord of contradictions that are somehow cohesive." She connects to people with opposing belief systems, yet none believe she chose a side. As a result, he adds, "Nobody dislikes Dolly."
In his podcast, Abumrad mentions her Q Score, a measurement of a celebrity or brand's public appeal. "She is in the top 10 globally in terms of everybody's favorites. But she's almost No. 1 when it comes to lack of negatives," he reports. An episode titled "Dollitics" considers her ability to star in and write the anthem for the 1980 film "9 to 5" (basically a feminist call to arms) alongside Jane Fonda (still despised at the time as "Hanoi Jane" for Vietnam War activism) and remain apolitical.
"She's able to tap dance around political decisions in a way that is extremely shrewd," Abumrad says. "Part of it is super real. There is something deliberately spiritual about it - the fact that she will never say an unkind word about anyone, even Porter Wagoner," who tried to keep Parton from leaving his show in 1974 to pursue her solo career, eventually suing her.
In one of Abumrad's interviews with Parton, she says of Wagoner, "He didn't know how many dreams I had." That means "she forgives Wagoner and forgives her own ambition simultaneously," Abumrad explains. This sort of radical forgiveness has led many of her fans to worship her as Saint Dolly.
Did Abumrad ask her about that? "Yes. She laughed and shrugged at it," he recalls. "At the same time, in Dollywood, she appears as ethereal characters throughout the park, like a fairy godmother. She is playing with these archetypes." He also describes her spiritual-figure status as "genuine" but frustrating: "Worship flattens someone into a symbol. Dolly should be taken seriously, and that means people study you and you get to be a complicated person who is not 100 percent good, and that's healthy."
He believes the real reason Parton hasn't been accoladed in the same way as Dylan has more to do with "the whole backwoods-Barbie, country-girl, boob-jokes thing. That's distracted people from looking at the songwriting." Parton leans into these distractions and self-deprecation, titling a 2008 album "Backwoods Barbie" and never missing the opportunity to make a joke about her figure.
"Johnny Carson would make a boob joke, and she would double it," Abumrad says of Parton's talk-show appearances in the '70s and '80s. Of a bit that didn't make the podcast, he adds, "She told me she thought to herself at the time, 'I know one day people will look past this and see me for who I am.' "
During the opening segment of last month's CMAs, co-host Carrie Underwood recognized Parton as the first woman to have solo-hosted the awards ceremony, and the second to win the prestigious entertainer of the year prize. But first, Underwood joked about the hassle of sharing a dressing room with Parton and their other co-host, Reba McEntire.
"There are racks of clothes and dresses everywhere," Underwood said, feigning confusion. "For some reason, Dolly's rack is so much bigger."
Parton stepped forward, sticking out her chest. "Well, Dolly's rack is so much bigger," she declared. Then she had to pause, waiting for the applause break to subside.