Here’s the one big rule of the music business: You can make a pretty nice living writing love songs, but the way to get seriously rich is to write breakup songs. Consider “I Will Always Love You,” which was written by Dolly Parton in 1973 and re-recorded many times since, most famously by Whitney Houston in 1992. It’s one of the most loved (and profitable) songs ever, despite not being a traditional example of the genre. There’s no hit-the-road-Jack bitterness, no I-want-you-back pleading. It’s an elegy, really: one lover singing a sweet and final goodbye to another, with grace and resignation.
At the time, Parton was the popular female singer on The Porter Wagoner Show, a country-music program. She made her debut in 1967, but by the early 1970s she was an undeniable star on her own and wanted to leave to see just how big she could be. Wagoner, the host and impresario, resisted. His performers were under pretty ironclad contracts, and he wasn’t about to let his star attraction walk out.
One day, Dolly put her thoughts and feelings about Porter into words and music. She marched into his office, took out her guitar, and sang “I Will Always Love You.” Wagoner listened, silently, and then said, “That’s the best song you’ve ever written,” followed by, “I guess you have to go, then.”
A powerful breakup song, without question—but what was being broken was a contract.
Parton has told this story many times, most recently on Dolly Parton’s America, a podcast produced by WNYC and Radiolab. The multipart series investigates the enduring and broad appeal Dolly Parton has enjoyed for nearly her entire career. The producers begin by describing the audience at a recent Dolly concert in Brooklyn—an unlikely kaleidoscope of skinny hipsters and MAGA hats and lesbians and families, multiethnic and multi-everything. The sight of all of that diversity surprised the producers from public radio, for whom the concept of “diversity” often means its opposite. Here was a Barclay Center–sized audience that voted differently, dressed differently, ate differently, prayed differently, and loved differently from one another, all cheering for the same five-foot-tall woman from Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, with the big hair and the hillbilly accent, who is now 74 years old.
How does she do it? they asked. For almost six decades, she’s been a star of television, movies, concerts, recordings, theme parks. There isn’t an entertainment medium Dolly hasn’t dominated. Her net worth is estimated to be $500 million, though when I mentioned this figure to a producer she’s worked closely with, he rolled his eyes and silently pointed up. “Much more,” he mouthed to me.
How does she do it? It’s a version of the question everyone in show business is asking all the time: How do we stay popular in a fractious country? How can you keep packing them in like Dolly when the culture itself seems so bitter and divided?
For one thing, she resists labels. When the podcast producers cheerfully suggest that she’s a “feminist,” Dolly hesitates. She doesn’t like that word and wouldn’t use it to describe herself. This reaction sends the producers into a deeply confused state. They love Dolly and they love feminism, so by the Transitive Property of Politically Aligned Entertainment, Dolly must also love feminism. An entire episode ensues wherein the producers—who are genial and thoughtful and utterly ingenuous—interview as many women as they can who identify as feminists and Dolly fans, and then they present this evidence to Dolly as if to say, See? You’re a feminist!
Dolly laughs and sighs. Okay, she says, I guess if it’s that important to you, maybe I am. But you can hear the half-hearted tone in her voice. Dolly refuses to be claimed.
“I Will Always Love You” appears on Dolly Parton’s 1973 album Jolene, and it’s an example of Parton’s astonishing genius at songwriting that she wrote “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene” on the very same day. Dolly sings “Jolene” from the perspective of a woman speaking directly to the Other Woman who is stealing her man. And just as “I Will Always Love You” is graceful and understanding, so too is “Jolene.” It’s not a song about anger and threats. Rather, it’s a plea from one woman to her more alluring rival:
Your smile is like a breath of spring
Your voice is soft like summer rain
And I cannot compete with you
For nearly 50 years, people listened to that song and thought, Yeah, been there. When you’re being tossed aside, it’s easy to feel less attractive.
Or, maybe it’s a proto-lesbian anthem. Which is where the producers go with it—hey, wouldn’t it be amazing if the woman singing the song and the Other Woman get together at the end? They imagine that maybe Dolly meant it that way, meant to keep that idea up in the air. Maybe Dolly is not only a secret feminist but a lesbian activist, too. They go so far as to commission a final verse to the song in which the Other Woman takes the singer to a lesbian bar and the two of them end up happily together.
“You’re overthinking it!” Dolly says with a peal of laughter. Sure, she says, maybe, okay, whatever! Dolly laughs. If that’s what some people imagine, fine with her. The producers are vaguely dissatisfied with this response. They need Dolly Parton—a person whose work they enjoy, a person they admire—to proclaim her allegiance to contemporary progressive politics, which she cheerfully and laughingly refuses to do. They keep asking How does she do it? And she keeps answering them By writing songs that are emotionally true and not being a political activist…and they just don’t hear it.
At the 2017 Emmy Awards, Dolly was reunited with her co-stars from the 1980 hit comedy Nine to Five. It was nine months into the Trump administration, and two of the presenters weren’t about to let you forget it. Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda let loose mini-screeds against Trump. Dolly looks uncomfortable, then defuses the awkwardness by making a joke about the size of her breasts. And the podcasters want to know—they need to know—why Dolly didn’t attack Trump along with her co-stars and friends. Doesn’t she hate the guy? (Translation: Please tell us you hate the guy!) For the first time in the podcast, Dolly seems confused. She doesn’t hate Donald Trump. She prays for Donald Trump.
And if the podcast producers thought they were frustrated by her refusal to be a feminist or an LGBTQ activist, they’re stopped cold by this admission. Dolly prays for Trump, by which she means, she’s not praying that he wins reelection or lowers his handicap. She prays that God will grant him wisdom and foresight and guide him as he leads the nation. Praying for the president—any president, every president—is actually part of the official liturgy of the Episcopalian church. But this is problematic for Dolly’s interviewers, for whom basic religious faith seems weird and baffling. They keep asking How does she do it? And she keeps answering them By writing songs that are emotionally true and not being a political activist and praying for God’s guidance. And they just don’t hear it. Can’t be that. Gotta be something else.
Dolly Parton’s singing “I Will Always Love You” to Porter Wagoner is one of those moments you hear about and think, This is going to be an Oscar-winning movie scene someday. But what came after the song wasn’t so nice. Porter Wagoner sued Dolly Parton for $1 million and trash-talked her for years. And then, a few years later, when she was a superstar and he had fallen on hard times, she bought his music-publishing company from his creditors and gave it back to him.
Weren’t you furious with him? the podcast producers want to know. He sued you. He took your money. Some have said he abused you. Again Dolly demurs. See it from his side, she says. Wagoner made her a star. He took a chance on her, introduced her to an enormous audience, stood by her. She was grateful to him. And she forgave him. She helped him financially and reconciled with him and was there at his deathbed to remind him that the words she sang to him years before were still true.
You forgave him? they ask, as if the word is strange and foreign and written in a different alphabet. Forgiveness, she says. “That’s all there is.”
Forgiveness. Fairness. Grace. Openness. Gratitude. Simplicity. Prayer. The public-radio producers ask, How does she do it? Hollywood asks, How does she do it?
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