Dolly Parton
Santa Rosa Press Democrat
February 9, 2007
Hello, Dolly!
By John Beck

When Dolly Parton looks out from her traveling two-story stage Wednesday night, she’ll see one of the most diverse crowds this region has to offer.

Young and old, gay and straight. Castro drag queens in platform shoes beside Sonoma County ranchers in Wranglers and boy-howdy belt buckles — all singing “I Will Always Love You” while gathered under the same roof for a Valentine’s Day hootenanny.

“When you go to one of her shows, homophobia just disappears,” says Gary Wilson, an accountant and fifth-generation Healdsburg resident whose family was one of the first to plant grapes in the Dry Creek region back in the 1880s.

At the other end of the spectrum, 23-year-old gay Web designer Chris Walls is flying out from Manhattan for the kickoff of Parton’s latest tour at the Grace Pavilion. He’s been maintaining — the largest Web site devoted to the country singer — since he was 13. Her greatest hits album turned him on at the age of 8.

“Hands down, she has the most diverse audience at her shows,” he says. “You have everyone from the elderly who followed her since the ’60s — the grandma crowd — to the younger crowd like me and the middle-aged gay crowd and the rednecks. There’s literally someone representing every section of society.”

It’s old news to Dolly.

“Even drag-queen ranchers,” she says, taking a break from the recording studio in Nashville. “I bet I got a few of them.

“Sometimes I look out and see Dolly look-alikes — drag queens who look more like me than I do. But it’s always so funny, those drag queens usually they’re about 6 feet tall, plus they put those high-heels on and they’re about 6-foot-5. I’m a tiny little ol’ thing. I think that’s my dream of what I oughta look like.”

A gay icon and a country legend, all propped up under the same wig, she’s accustomed to a circus wherever she goes.

“I love them all. The little kids kind of relate to me because my name’s Dolly and my voice is squeaky and little and I have a childlike nature and I’m cartoonish looking.

“The middle-aged and older people relate to my stories from rags to riches and my spiritual background.

“And the gays and the lesbians and the drag queens, they love me for accepting everybody as they are.”

For decades, Parton has scoffed at gay rumors second-guessing her relationship with her longtime personal assistant. When People magazine asked her about it in 2003, she made it clear: “We’re not lovers. Never have been. I love men.”

Especially gay men. More than any other Nashville star, she’s managed to cultivate a huge gay following in a genre that’s never been accused of being particularly gay-friendly. Ask singer k.d. lang, who started out in country back in the ’80s before fleeing to pop in the ’90s when country fans and radio stations didn’t really take to her. And country music icon Willie Nelson’s 2006 recording of “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly (Fond of Each Other),” almost revolutionary in its title alone, was more of a “Brokeback Mountain” joke than a confession.

But, at 61, Dolly’s appeal transcends genre. Five decades into her career, the Smoky Mountains songbird is as relevant today as when she hopped on the Grand Ole Opry stage at age 12.

RCA just announced it would reissue three early classics: “Coat of Many Colors” (1971), “My Tennessee Mountain Home” (1973) and “Jolene” (1974).

In December, when Parton was honored in a Kennedy Center ceremony, both pop and country stars turned out to pay homage. Performing her songs: Carrie Underwood, Kenny Rogers, Alison Krauss, Shania Twain and Jessica Simpson (even if she couldn’t remember the words to “9 to 5”). But it was veteran country singer Reba McEntire who summed up Parton’s pioneering legacy: “Once, a woman in Nashville was told what song to sing, in what clothes and just how to sit on the stool while singing it. ... Because of Dolly, we’re here writing, producing and singing our own music.”

At the time, Dolly wasn’t aware of blazing trails.

“I’m one of those people who didn’t know it couldn’t be done until I already had it accomplished,” she says.

By the numbers, she’s unparalleled. From “I Will Always Love You” and “Islands in the Stream” to “Here You Come Again” and “9 to 5,” 25 of her songs have hit No. 1 on the Billboard Country charts, an all-time record for a female artist. She has 41 career top-10 country albums, a record for any artist, and 110 charted singles over the past 40 years. She’s won seven Grammys and been nominated for 42.

She’s working on a new album, “Backwoods Barbie,” due out this summer, featuring a cover of the Fine Young Cannibals song “She Drives Me Crazy” and a reprisal of her 1966 hit “Put It Off Until Tomorrow” with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. She would also like to start her own cosmetics line and a weekly children’s television show.

Parton single-handedly inspired the Wells Fargo Center to book its first large-scale show outside its Mark West Springs Road venue.

When she came through Santa Rosa on her “Vintage” tour in 2005, she couldn’t fit her massive stage production into the 1,500-seat former church — “tiny and cute,” as she called it. So when her manager offered a return date, WFC programming director Rick Bartalini sought out a larger venue, settling on the Grace Pavilion at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa. It paid off. Three thousand tickets, ranging from $39 to $149, sold out in less than two hours.

Parton just sold out two nights at Wembley Stadium in England, and Bartalini estimates he could have sold at least another 3,000 tickets here in Sonoma County.

Her charming hillbilly tale — the fourth of a dozen kids, born and raised in a tiny cabin in the Tennessee hills, grows up to be a global phenomenon — is universal. Whether in the country or the city, she appeals as both a simple woman of the people and a timeless, showy gay icon.

“It’s the same sort of thing as Cher — she’s a survivor,” says Rialto Cinemas owner Ky Boyd, who saw her 2005 show in Santa Rosa. “She’s come from nothing and she’s made herself glamorous. And she’s easy for drag queens to imitate.”

When she sings “Drag Queen” to the tune of “Jolene,” well, “you just got to laugh along with that,” says dairy farmer Ralph Bettinelli, whose family has worked the land outside Petaluma for four generations.

At 68, he’s never seen her in concert, but he knows she would be right at home on his farm, where “us ranch kids all grew up listening to Western music.”

“When she was a young kid, if I remember right, she followed her ancestors behind the house chasing varmints. I did that in my younger days,” says Bettinelli, who is paying $149 to see Parton in Santa Rosa. “She’s just down-to-earth. She’s herself. You don’t find too many people like that.”

Or, as Wilson says, “You can take the girl out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the girl.”

The same charming honesty, all bundled up in her “Frederick’s of Dollywood” facade, is exactly what the gay crowd loves in her.

“I think more than anything, people respond to me because they know I accept them,” says Parton. “I accept myself as I am. I accept them as they are, and I think people sense I have a heart full of love.”

Source: Santa Rosa Press Democrat