Chawnghilh's Blog

Dolly Parton’s Wonderful Coat of Many Colors

Posted in Qualitus : Habitus by chawnghilh on April 23, 2010

 

Dolly Parton  grew up in the Great Smokies of Tennessee knowing that she could make music. “All my people were musical,” she says. “My mama was the daughter of a preacher, and in my granddaddy’s little church in the mountains, we all sang and played our git-tars. We believed in makin’ a joyful noise unto the Lord, and I been makin’ a joyful noise unto the Lord ever since.”

In the past seven years that joy has raised sassy, flamboyant Dolly from country-music stardom in the main tent of the entertainment world. To such country hits as “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy,” “Jolene” and “My Tennessee Mountain Home” (which she wrote), she has added a string of “pop” successes: “Here You Come Again,” “9 to 5,” and a smash-hit duet with Kenny Rogers, “Islands in the Stream.”

As a movie actress, she appeared with Jane Fonda in 9 to 5 and won Burt Reynolds in the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. This year Dolly co-starred with Sylvester Stallone in Rhinestone, a film in which she plays a singer in a country-western bar in New York City.

Dolly Rebecca Parton was born on January 19, 1946, in a snow-covered log cabin near Sevierville, Tennessee —the fourth of 12 children of Avie Lee Owens Parton and Robert E. Leen Parton, a struggling dirt farmer and laborer. The doctor who delivered her got paid a sack of cornmeal.

“We had absolutely nothin’,” Dolly remembers. “But we did have a lot o’ love and fun. I had this little doll made out of a corncob, and daddy made her a corn-silk wig. I named the doll ‘Little Tiny Tassel-Top’ and I made up a song about her. My mama wrote it down, and that was my first song. I was five.”

Her mother, says Dolly, could turn anything into a song. “She’d sing us whatever was going on. For instance: ‘If you don’t get out from under my feet, I’m not gonna make you something sweet.'”

When Dolly was nine the one room country school-house that she and her bothers and sisters attended burned down, and they were transferred to a modern new school.

“We’d gone in the middle of the year—new kids and poor, real poor,” recalls Dolly. Unable to afford the school cafeteria, she and her brothers and sisters carried all their lunches from home in one sack, and would sneak off to eat them “because the other kids made fun of what we had.”

Dolly’s mother fashioned her a jacket to wear to school out of old corduroy rags of various colors. While she sewed the rags together, she told Dolly the Biblical story of Joseph and the coat of many colors. “I know now,” says Dolly, “that she told me the story so’s I wouldn’t be ashamed of my coat.”

But other children at school sneered at Dolly’s outfit, inflicting on her a hurt that stayed for years. “I kept sayin’, ‘Mama made me this coat. It’s like the coat o’ many colors in the Bible.’  They kept sayin’, ‘That’s just a bunch o’ old rags sewed together.’ “

A further source of embarrassment for the little girl was that she did not have a blouse to wear under her coat. “I had done well just to have a little jacket to wear,” she says. “But I developed kind of early, and when the kids said I didn’t have a shirt on, I said I did. So they broke the buttons off my coat, tryin’ to take it off to prove I didn’t have a blouse.”

Dolly fought them. “It was one of those thimes when you fight to survive,” she says. “But even with what I was goin’ through, they couldn’t make me not be proud o’ that coat.”

Avee Lee Parton told Dolly not to worry. “They’re only lookin’ with your heart.” And a year after they had ridiculed her, Dolly’s schoolmates were watching her on television on the Cas Walker show from Knoxville. At ten she was already an experienced singer, having sung in a church choir since she was six and accompanied herself on guitar almost as long. In young Dolly’s heartfelt way with a song, Walker’s country audience heard their kind of people. She could use her high, pure soprano to hoot and holler, or chirp with happiness like a carefree bird.

Dolly stayed with the Cas Walker show for eight years. The day after her high-school graduation in 1964, she headed for Nashville, determined to fulfill her dream of becoming a regular on “Grand Ole Opry,” the nationally broadcast radio show. On her first day in Nashville she met handsome young Carl Dean. Two years later he was to become her husband.

By 1967 Dolly was established as a singer on the popular Porter Wagoner show. Her voice blended well with Wagoner’s, and the two became a country-music institution. In 1969 she also made it as a member of the “Grand Ole Opry.” Meanwhile, Dolly was writing songs, sometimes producing 20 in a single day. Picking them out on her guitar as she sang them into her tape recorder, and then paying for them to be translated into written music.

One day in 1969, sitting in the Porter Wagoner tour bus, Dolly started singing :

Back through the years
I go wand’ring once again,
Back to the seasons of my youth.
I recall a box of rags that someone gave us
And how my mama put the rags to use

 

“Coat of Many Colors” became her biggest hit to date, and she discovered that by writing things out, “you can clean your own self from the hurt, and you also can help other people that may not be able to express that kind of hurt.”

Dolly spent seven years with the Porter Wagoner show, and a year more with her own group, “The Travelin’ Family Band,” including four of her brothers and sisters, an uncle and a cousin. In the mid-’70s she began to perform pop and rock as well as country music. “I’m not leavin’ country, I’m just takin’ it with me,” Dolly assured her fans.

The little song Dolly wrote in 1980 for her first movie, the office comedy 9 to 5, struck a sympathetic chord with working women :

They let you dream just to watch them shatter,
You’re just a step on the boss man’s ladder,
But you got dreams they’ll never take away …

 

The song went to the top of both the pop-music and country charts, selling over a million copies. Her 1975 “Best of Dolly Parton” album containing such country hits as “Coat of Many Colors,” had gone “gold” (sold more than 500,000 copies) in 1978. Dolly’s “cross-over acceptance” was confirmed. Her records are now best-sellers around the world.

Dolly didn’t change her outrageous appearance—her towering wigs and spangled costumes, skin-tight on a phenomenal figure—one whit after her transition from country favorite to national celebrity. “My exaggerated look is as an example of a talent she learned from her mother, “takin’ my negatives and makin’ them positive. I’m five-foot-none and a hundred and plenty. In all honesty, I’m not that pretty. But I dress in ways that make me feel pretty.”

In August 1982 Dolly had to cancel 30 dates of a scheduled 35-stop tour and undergo major abdominal surgery. “It was God’s way of sayin’, ‘Sit down an think about everything,’ ” she says. “Before that I had always gone full blast.”

He recuperation was slow; for a year, she stopped working. But when she finally began writing songs again, in August 1983, she hadn’t lost her touch: in three weeks she wrote 13 that were used in the movie Rhinestone.

“Those songs just fell in my lap,” says Dolly. “I was feelin’ great, just to get that energy goin’ again.”

As her health returned, she began ordering her priorities. She and Carl are planning to sell their 23-room Willow Creek Plantation outside Nashville and move to a smaller house in the city. “We raised five of my younger brothers and sisters at Willow Creek,” she says, “but now they’re grown.”

She and Carl can have no children of their own, but Dolly says, “My brothers and sisters are havin’ children, and I’m the best grandma in the world. All my nieces and nephews call me Aunt Granny.”

Currently Dolly is working on a musical called Wildflowers, which will be “about me and my life and mountain people, with the religion, the joy, the fun, the work—just a great Southern musical.”

She wants her musical to be on Broadway, but even there its soul, like the author’s, will remain in The Great Smoky Mountain where once, long ago …

I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My mama made for me.

 

Reader’s Digest : August 1984John Culhane

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