Country music is a uniquely American sound, and Dolly Parton is perhaps its greatest ambassador. As a songwriter she is wondrously creative and astonishingly prolific. As a performer she is magnetic and effervescent. Her voice is an instrument of hope and joy when it isn't breaking your heart. "She towers above generations of artists influenced by her vocal and songwriting gifts," says one critic. Some of the best singers today, including Melissa Etheridge, Shania Twain and Norah Jones, have paid tribute to her through their own music. "I can't imagine anybody, especially in country, who doesn't try to emulate Dolly in some way," says singer Emmylou Harris. She is adorable in a literal sense and perhaps that is her greatest gift. It's easy for people around the world—no matter what language they speak or what land they call home—to love this American art form when the artist is Dolly Parton. To her homegrown fans she is at once the ultimate celebrity and the girl next door.
Parton has been performing for nearly half a century. She is a music star with deep roots in Nashville and a Hollywood star with movies and television on her resume. More than 20 of her albums have gone gold and platinum. She's been nominated for an Oscar, an Emmy, a Golden Globe, countless Grammy, People's Choice and Country Music Association awards. She crosses back and forth from country to pop and each time introduces a whole new world of music to her fans in both, and a singer who has given voice to other women through fiercely progressive lyrics that express a unique perspective and create a female identity.
She was one of 12 children born to a sharecropper and his wife in the mountains of Tennessee. Her career took inspiration from the music she heard performed by the major female stars of Country music-Rose Maddox in the '40s, Kitty Wells in the '50s, Patsy Cline in the '60s—as well as from the traditional Appalachian folk and bluegrass that formed the soundtrack of her girlhood. These all come through in her own music, which is a dazzling tapestry of hillbilly, honky tonk, gospel, jazz, bluegrass as well as blues, sometimes all rolled into one single verse of a song.
While still a kid she was on local television, recording on a small label, and appearing at the Grand Ole Opry. As a young adult, from the mid-'60s to the early '70s she was a hit at the Opry, on TV, and on tour with the famous "Porter Wagoner Show." Her recordings of "Joshua," "Coat of Many Colors," and "Jolene," made her nationally famous and her first Grammy in 1977 was for Best Female Country Vocal Performance for her song "Here You Come Again."
Her movie debut was in 1980 in Nine to Five, which earned her not just sterling reviews for her acting but also an Oscar nomination for writing the title tune, her first No. 1 Top 40 record, and her second and third Grammy. She has gone on to appear in more than 15 movies, including The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Steel Magnolias, the theme song which launched her as a pop artist and turned her into an international star. She spent most of the '80s spinning out one pop hit after another, but returned to her acoustic roots in 1987 for the landmark album Trio with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. She traveled further home, to the music of her mountain childhood, in the '90s with Heartsongs and Hungry Again. She wrote her autobiography, My Life and Other Unfinished Business, in 1994 and finished the decade with The Grass is Blue, a critically acclaimed album of genuine bluegrass (her first) that yielded the hits "Grass," "Halos & Horns," and "Little Sparrow," and won her two more Grammy Awards. This year she earned her second Oscar nomination for "Travelin' Thru," which she wrote for Transamerica.
In the last couple of decades country music has changed from an art form that appealed to a regional audience to music that is fervently loved by people across the country and around the world—and Dolly Parton's critical role in this transformation cannot be underestimated.
Parton's songs tell stories. They speak of her Appalachian background but are universal in their meaning and appeal. They are about man-stealing women and about love gone bad, about mistakes people make, and about trying again and again. What they say is important but how they are sung is what makes people want to hear them, and that's what makes Dolly Parton a true artist." 'Coat of Many Colors' is a song that has the power to change you subtly, forever, maybe not so much for the subject matter as for the way Parton sings it," writes Stephanie Zacharek on Salon.com. "Her voice stands alone among living country singers, but it also stands as one of the greatest country voices of all times...her voice tears your heart in two, not because it's sad but because it's so relentlessly hopeful."
Updated September 5, 2006