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Dolly Parton Is Universally Beloved. But Did She Ever Need the Validation?

Reflecting on the long, wonderful career of the Tennessee-born icon, who returns with a new Christmas special on CBS this Sunday

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“You don’t have to look like this,” says Barbara Walters to Dolly Parton in 1977, having just asked Parton to stand up and vamp a bit to better show off, well, you know. Walters air-traces a cartoonish female figure with her hands and everything, like a horny teenage boy, and yet she sounds almost pained, phrasing her underlying question to the bubbly country superstar like a plea, like an intervention. “You’re very beautiful. You don’t have to wear the blonde wigs. You don’t have to wear the extreme clothes. Right?”

Parton’s radiant baby-blue dress is not, by her standards, all that extreme; also keep in mind that Walters’s previous question was “Do you give your measurements?” (“No,” Parton replies politely, sitting back down.) The vibe is not great, but again: 1977. “No, it’s certainly a choice,” Parton allows, before explaining, with her trademark bottomless good cheer, why she has to look like this. “I don’t like to be like everybody else. I’ve often made the statement that I would never stoop so low as to be fashionable. That’s the easiest thing in the world to do.”

Yes, Barbara, one of the greatest singers and songwriters in American music history famously patterned her look after “the town tramp,” and proudly so. (“I thought she was the prettiest thing in the world, with all that bleached hair and bright-red lipstick,” Parton would tell Rolling Stone in 2003 of her famed rural-Tennessee upbringing. “People would say, ‘Oh, she’s just trash,’ and I’d think, ‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up.’”)

That stoop-to-be-fashionable quip, by the way, is a classic Dollyism, one of thousands that only grow more powerful with endless repetition. (“It costs a lot of money to look this cheap!” is a snappier variation.) And so: “I just decided to do something that would at least get the attention,” Parton explains to Walters. “Once they get past the shock of the ridiculous way I looked and all that, then they would see there was parts of me to be appreciated. I’m very real where it counts, and that’s inside.”

That’s they meaning men, and a country-music establishment she’d already conquered, and also, for good measure, Barbara Walters. “Show business is a money-making joke,” Parton concludes. “And I just always liked telling jokes.”

“But do you ever feel that you’re a joke?” Walters asks. “That people make fun of you?” The vibe has not improved.

“Oh, I know they make fun of me,” Dolly replies, unflappable. “But actually, all these years, the people have thought the joke was on me, but it’s actually been on the public. I know exactly what I’m doing.”

I have arrived at this clip thanks to an alarming line in Kansas-born journalist Sarah Smarsh’s new book, She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs. “During interviews in the 1970s and 1980s,” Smarsh writes of Parton, “both Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey asked her to stand up so they could point out, without humor, that she looked like a tramp.” (Here’s a vintage Oprah clip with a marginally cheerier vibe in which our host does ask Dolly to arise and show off her recent weight loss; “What size is this waist?” Winfrey inquires, and this question Parton does answer, to many incredulous audience groans.)

Smarsh’s tender but incisive book doubles as a tribute to her beloved maternal Grandma Betty, a Parton superfan who still cries when she hears the poor-but-proud 1971 smash hit “Coat of Many Colors” and who also, like Parton herself, embodies the take-no-shit-off-anybody tenets of feminism while steadfastly resisting the term itself. Published in October, She Come by It Natural is the latest—and best, and most affecting and convincing—component of what appears to be, at long last, the Great Dolly Parton Renaissance, that long-foretold tipping point wherein they finally get past the shock of the ridiculous way she looks and see that there are parts of her to be appreciated. As Smarsh writes on the very first page:

People can’t get enough of Dolly, who is now—as hagiographic magazine pieces, breathless tweets, and diverse, roaring audiences attest—a universally beloved icon recognized as a creative genius with a goddess-sized heart.

Not so long ago, she was best known by many people as the punch line of a boob joke.

Why, then, this new shift in regard?

This is likewise the premise of WNYC’s nine-part 2019 podcast Dolly Parton’s America, which relies heavily on Smarsh’s expertise (Grandma Betty tearing up to “Coat of Many Colors” yet again is the undeniable highlight of the first episode) and hails Parton as the great uniter (from staunch conservatives to drag queens!) amid the sociocultural rancor of the 2016 presidential election. “I missed this,” marvels star podcaster Jad Abumrad of widespread, boundary-crossing Dollymania, and while his gee-whiz introductions to such additional topics as murder ballads and third-wave feminism may rankle wised-up longtime Dollyphiles, he is genuine in his newfound enthusiasm as he aims to grace Dolly, finally, with star-podcaster-type prestige.

Did she truly need that validation, though? Has she ever needed any validation, from anyone? Has she ever needed prestige? Is she fashionable now? Has she ever not been? And as we shift into a delightfully Dolly-heavy holiday season, there is perhaps the most salient question of all, even if it applies to her alone: As categories, are Universally Beloved Icon and Punch Line of a Boob Joke mutually exclusive? Or is the greatest honor that America can offer to somehow be both?

It is true that a Dolly Parton headline in 2020 is a singularly awed and reverential thing. “Of course Black lives matter,” she told Billboard in an August cover story. “Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No!” And within a week that quote graced a joyful Dolly mural on the wall of a Nashville nightclub.

Meanwhile, Parton’s philanthropy and charity work—from monthly relief checks for victims of the 2017 Tennessee wildfires to her Imagination Library that donated its 100 millionth book in 2018—has long been so extensive, so gracious, so life-affirming, if not outright life-saving, as to appear superhuman. But she reached full deity status with the November revelation that her $1 million donation to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center—spurred in part by her friendship with Jad Abumrad’s father, Dr. Naji Abumrad, a professor of surgery at the college—helped fund a potential coronavirus vaccine. This is reductive, and in fact entirely factually inaccurate, and yet it feels so good, so right to type that I’m typing it anyway: Dolly Parton cured coronavirus. It sounds like a god-level country song, and just the country song that our fractured country needs to hear.

Parton is keeping busy this year as a mere-mortal 74-year-old artist, too: Her latest holiday-themed Netflix venture, Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square—a full movie musical featuring 14 original songs and costarring Christine Baranski (!) as an extra-fashionable Scrooge type (!!)—premiered in November. (It’s, uh, fine.) On Sunday, CBS will air a prime-time one-hour special showcasing her new album, A Holly Dolly Christmas. (Dig the Miley Cyrus collab.) My wife is Gchatting me as I type this to make sure I’m aware of Parton’s holiday-themed Williams-Sonoma collection, including a $130 cookie house inspired by the one-bedroom Tennessee log cabin in which she was raised. As Christmas-Industrial Complex content, you wouldn’t call any of this essential, but then again, who doesn’t want to hear her flirt with Michael Bublé on a song called “Cuddle Up, Cozy Down Christmas”?

You wouldn’t call that mildly ribald song prestigious, either, and thank goodness for that. But if you prefer the old stuff, great—pretty much literally nobody’s old stuff is better. A Dolly Parton rabbit hole will forever and always be a blessing to fall into. Come to 1971’s Coat of Many Colors for the permanently weep-inducing title track; stay for the infectious buoyancy of the B-side “Here I Am.” Come to 1974’s Jolene for the flabbergasting tag team of the fiery title track and the searing “I Will Always Love You,” both national monuments that generated literal songwriting fortunes and long ago transcended country music entirely; stay for her immaculately heartbreaking delivery of the lines “What do you do / What do you say / When you know they want to leave / As bad as you want them to stay?”

Her smash-hit 1980 comedy 9 to 5 is a nearly-40-years-early preview of the #MeToo movement; even her 21st-century work has a shrewd spunk that feels both classic and futuristic. (Out of her mouth, at least, “Your attitude stinks and I hate it” is a killer line.) In 2016, she offered up Pure and Simple, the rare country music plea for calm and decency amid that aforementioned sociocultural rancor that didn’t sound craven and timid.

And yet there’s that other Dolly-themed rabbit hole, inspired by that cringe-inducing Barbara Walters summit: Parton’s five decades of talk-show appearances. Johnny Carson, also in ’77: “I would give about a year’s pay to peek under there.” David Letterman, in 1989: “You look terrific! And upstairs earlier today, we were discussing your weight.” Jay Leno, in 2003: Holy moly. Let’s just say the phrase “big juicy melons” is involved. Graham Norton: [Pulls out a customized “tit pillow.”] Craig Ferguson: “You’re not built like any Scottish women I know.” Conan O’Brien: “They do seem like they’d be heavy.” We’re firmly back in Punch Line of a Boob Joke territory, and it’s easy to fear that all this lewdness (including from the 60 Minutes Australia dude who straight-up asks for her bust size and gets the sweetest “Up yours, buster!” imaginable in response) obscures the greatness of, y’know, the songs. The philanthropy. The unity. The true greatness.

Except that in Conan O’Brien’s defense, he hadn’t brought up the, uh, heaviness—she had. And Parton can historically give as good as she gets: Here she is inviting Tom Selleck to take off his pants on her own talk show in the late ’80s. (“You’re easily embarrassed! Look at your face!”) The first episode of the Dolly Parton’s America podcast is affecting when Abumrad asks her about her early “sad-ass songs” (her words) and she talks up 1970’s crushing “Down From Dover,” a personal favorite of hers, though radio wouldn’t play it not because it ends with a stillborn baby but because that baby’s mother wasn’t married. But it’s just as striking when Abumrad asks her if she’s ever upset that these randy talk-show hosts don’t slobber all over, y’know, her work.

“Why would I go out with my tits hanging out, showin’ ’em, pushin’ ’em out there, and not expect somebody to make some kind of a comment on it?” replies Dolly Parton. “And I know what they’re thinkin’, so I’d rather say it before they do, and then we get that off their chest, so to speak.”

“That’s a good pun, by the way,” Abumrad tells her.

“Yeah, I know,” Parton says. “I’ve said it before.”

Indeed, she’s said it all before, and heard it all before, but just know that she’s knowingly and gleefully goaded people into making every last joke they’ve ever made about her. It is a thrill, even now, to watch new people discover the greatness, the timelessness, the fashionableness of Dolly Parton, but it’s more thrilling to realize that she knew her worth from the beginning, and she knew how little mere fashionableness was worth. She can be both the punch line and the icon; one role can strengthen the other. She has to look like this; it’s one of her crucial superpowers, even if it still distracts from her various other superpowers. And she’s never not joking, no. But she’s never just joking, either.