Unlike the lyrics in the opening lines of “9 to 5,” one of her most familiar hits, Dolly Parton never needed a cup of ambition to jump-start her dreams of superstardom.
Why would she need an artificial stimulant when she’s been driven from her earliest years by an indomitable pursuit of fame?
“I never thought of being anything other than a star, and I never had a Plan B,” the bubbly down-home diva said last month during an early morning call from her Tennessee home. “If I had become something else, it would have been either a beautician or a missionary. But I never thought about giving up and always knew I’d succeed.”
Now, after 40 years in show business, she is coming to Washington to have her success — a remarkable rags-to-riches tale — certified by the nation’s cultural establishment. This weekend Miss Parton — complete with her trademark billowing platinum tresses and shimmering gowns that hug her ample curves — will be among this year’s five recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors recognizing outstanding career contributions to American culture.
Prior to Miss Parton, only four country artists — Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson and fiddler Roy Acuff — have been tapped for the prize since the honors began in 1978.
“I never thought I’d be coming to Washington for this,” the 60-year-old Miss Parton says. “My favorite joke about the Kennedy Center Honors is that now I’ve gone from the outhouse to the White House.”
As always, Sunday night’s performing arts gala (which will be taped for a CBS broadcast airing later this month) will feature a roster of luminaries paying homage to Miss Parton’s achievements. “I have no idea who they’ll choose to do this,” she says, “and I’m dying to know.”
No matter who shows up, there’s much to celebrate.
As a singer, Miss Parton gave voice to such hits as “Jolene,” “Here You Come Again” and “Islands in the Stream” (performed with Kenny Rogers). As a songwriter, she’s published more than 600 tunes and earned two Oscar nominations: for the title song from 1980’s “9 to 5” (she’s now composing the songs for a Broadway version) and again this year for “Travelin’ Thru,” from the gender-bending dramedy “Transamerica.” And Whitney Houston’s 1992 cover of Miss Parton’s tender ballad “I Will Always Love You” topped the Billboard charts for 14 consecutive weeks.
As an actress, Miss Parton graced the big screen as Truvy Jones, the kindhearted beautician in “Steel Magnolias” (“Of all the characters I’ve played, she’s the one I’m most like,” she says) and Mona Stangley, the Southern-bred madam in the 1982 film adaptation of Broadway’s “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”
Dolly Rebecca Parton was the fourth of 12 children born to Robert Lee and Avie Lee Parton, a working farm couple, in January 1946 in Sevierville, Tenn., a small, impoverished community about 200 miles east of Nashville. Her parents, both devout members of the Assembly of God Church, a Pentecostal denomination, raised their brood in a one-room cabin. That early hardscrabble life, which seems tailor-made for a country song, remains her touchstone.
“My uncle, Bill Owens, played the guitar, and he saw that I loved music early on,” says Miss Parton, who actually made her first guitar (fashioned from an old mandolin and two bass guitar strings) by hand at age 7.
Mr. Owens presented her with her first real guitar the following year, and the outgoing youngster with the infectious smile was soon making her presence felt. By then, she already knew her way around a tune after performing in her grandfather’s church and composing her first song at age 6. By 10, she’d become a regular radio performer on “The Cas Walker” show on WIVK in Knoxville, Tenn.
She was barely 13 when her first single, “Puppy Love,” was released by Goldband records, a small label in Lake Charles, La. “That record didn’t do anything because it wasn’t good at all, but it was a start,” says Miss Parton, who today is a big fan of 2002 “American Idol” winner Kelly Clarkson.
In June 1964, she became the first member of her family to finish high school and headed to Nashville the day after graduation. That first day, she met her future husband, Carl Dean. (The couple wed two years later and celebrated their 40th anniversary this year.) She soon signed on with Fred Foster and Monument Records, but the experience wasn’t what she expected.
“They recorded me as a rock singer,” says Miss Parton, whose unique sound embraced both traditional and contemporary country genres.
While awaiting her big break as a singer, Music City record honchos latched onto Miss Parton’s songwriting talents. Two compositions, “Put It Off Until Tomorrow” and “The Company You Keep” (penned by Miss Parton and Mr. Owens) were recorded by Bill Phillips and charted in the top 10 in 1966. Then, Dolly the singer finally got a hit with an up-tempo single, titled, ironically, “Dumb Blonde.”
But 1967 would be her breakout year. Just 21, Miss Parton released her first full length album, “Hello, I’m Dolly.” She would also gain national attention through the syndicated “Porter Wagoner Show,” seen weekly by 45 million viewers in 100 markets. Their partnership would last seven years and produce a string of hits.
Yet Miss Parton’s flamboyant look — towering hairstyles, skin-tight clothes and flawless makeup — often took center stage. “My look was patterned after the town tramp,” says Miss Parton, once dubbed “the hillbilly Mae West.”
“I started dressing like that in high school. My granddaddy was a Pentecostal, Holy Roller preacher. I used to get [spanked], but I’d always find a way to paint my lips and wear tight clothes,” the superstar says. “And when they tried to get me to tone it down, I just exaggerated it more. I was a backwoods Barbie. The way I looked was a country girl’s idea of glam.”