Dolly Parton
Oxford American
July/August 2000
Dealer's Choice: Lunch With Dolly Parton
By Hal Crowther

Would you rather hang out with a swarm of New South Writers or Dolly Parton, queen bee of Music City?
      I was lucky to have another engagement in Nashville, an invitation to lunch with Dolly Parton.  This is definite name-dropping, but no kind of A-list boasting.  Of the several writers in my family, one of them is Parton's favorite writer, and it's not me.  After only thirty seconds in a crushing hammerlock, with my knee wedged firmly against her spine, my wife was kind enough to suggest that I join her and Dolly for lunch.
      I wouldn't have missed it.  One thing New South writers could agree upon is that the marketplace starves talent and smothers genius.  Every effort to rise above poverty seems to involve humiliating compromise with a ruthless establishment of philistines and mercenaries.  But Dolly Parton is a walking, glittering rebuttal to all this grousing (in which I often join) that the cream never rises to the top.
      Sometimes it rises.  Parton came to Nashville as a starstruck teenager, went through the wringer like all the country girls, and found herself in the deep and troubled waters of celebrity.  Instead of drowning, she learned to swim real well, thank you.  Pressed into a Grand Ole Opry stereotype, a singing version of Li'l Abner's Daisy Mae, she took it to a level beyond imitation:  "The dumb blond act didn't bother me because I know I'm not dumb," she said, "and I know I'm not blond, either."
      She knew, as well, that she could sing and write songs a little better than the competition and that the business side didn't scare her.  ("Many an old boy has found out too late that I look like a woman but think like a man.")  At fifty-four she looks like a woman who loves her work, her fans, and the considerable responsibility of being herself, even though she can't walk into a restaurant without drawing a round of applause and a couple of hard-breathing autograph hounds.
      "They love for me to touch them," she told us after the waitress requested a laying on of hands, and she isn't stingy with herself.  Her latest CD, The Grass Is Blue, wins extravagant praise from the most exacting critics; she also markets wigs and cosmetics.  A serious reader and a philanthropist for literacy programs, Parton may be more comfortable with Nashville's splintered consciousness—pickers and poets, rural roots and rhinestones—than anyone I've ever met.
      She's remind me to say that she looks great, too.  Where her appearance is concerned, Parton takes a humorous, creative approach to that confining word real.  What you see is not exactly what time and gravity would have produced, unchecked.  In her autobiography she gives her plastic surgeon's phone number and writes, "My spirit is too beautiful and alive to live in some dilapidated old body if it doesn't have to."  She doesn't know how long it takes to do her hair, she says, because she's never there when it happens.  Dolly wears her image the way Minnie Pearl wore her hat, like a favorite joke among old friends.

      I couldn't help noticing some new criteria for authenticity among the Writers of the New South.  Where the Fugitive generation might have claimed ancestors who carried swords and planted cotton, these Subterfugitives claim recent ancestors who dipped snuff and lived without benefit of plumbing.  One of my litmus tests for Southern authenticity would be the ability to appreciate the paradox of Dolly Parton:  Beneath a blinding surface of deliberate, exaggerated, self-satirizing artifice lurks one of the most engagingly authentic individuals in the Nashville pantheon.  Restoring her parents' old home place in the Smoky Mountains, Dolly designed her new toilets as a faux outhouse—an irony she understands on the same level Robert Penn Warren would have understood it.  She just gets a much bigger kick out of doing it.