Here She Comes Again

With Tennessee-born singer/songwriter Dolly Parton - who is about to receive the Kennedy Center Honors - what you see is definitely not all you get

November 26, 2006|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Dolly Parton has picked out her shoes, her dress and of course, her wig. But she isn't giving much away about the get-up she'll be sporting when she becomes a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors next Sunday.

What she does reveal, is that her dress - created for this occasion by Robert Bahar, who designs her costumes - is a flowing white gown with a train.

"If I can keep that president off of my train that'll be good. I don't want to have to slap that Texas guy. `Get off my dress, cowboy!'" she says, with a big, full-throated laugh.

Over the phone from the small apartment she keeps next to her Nashville office, Parton's voice is lower than the almost child-like quality it has on her records. But it's unmistakably Dolly - quirky, perky and with her Tennessee roots showing.

Parton - whose fellow 2006 honorees are Andrew Lloyd Webber, Zubin Mehta, Smokey Robinson and Steven Spielberg - is only the second female country star to receive the Kennedy Center Honors (the first was Loretta Lynn in 2003). But while Dolly may be getting all dolled up for her visit to Washington, the honors have hardly gone to her head. She didn't even realize what a big deal the accolade was until the flowers started pouring in - "every day I get another BOH-kay," as she puts it.

From the time she was 10 years old and appearing regularly on a local TV show in Knoxville, Tenn., Parton, 60, has made the most of her strengths - and her weaknesses - with no apologies to anyone.

"I'm confident in my talent. I'm confident in my personality. I know who I am, and I just am gonna be myself, and if you like it, that's great, and I hope you do. But if you don't, well, I'm not going to change just because you think I should be something else," she says.

Describing Parton as "one of the most successful [country stars] ever," Michael McCall, writer and editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, says, "She never tried to hide where she came from. She's always embraced being from Tennessee and the mountains. She uses it to distinguish herself - the way she talks, the way she dresses, certainly her accent has never changed."

Despite her confidence in her identity, however, Parton has often been seen as a contradiction or paradox. And she understands that. "If there's any magic about me, it's the fact that I look totally artificial, but I'm totally real, because I'm real inside, where it counts, and the rest is just like fun," she explains.

"I'm not a natural beauty, and I'm little, so I just try to make positives out of my negatives. I'm short, so I wear high heels. I've got short fingers, so I wear long nails. I've got [bad] hair, so I wear wigs ... I'm kind of a character, so I look like one. I'm more like a cartoon; I look like a cartoon. It's comfortable and fun for me."

Though her look hasn't changed much over her five decades in show business, her career has varied widely. "Part of her greatness [is] that she has always envisioned herself as someone who never put walls around herself or her imagination, beginning with the time she was a child in the Smoky Mountains. She always saw beyond the mountains," says Alanna Nash, author of Dolly: The Biography. "She knew that she had a talent that transcended categories."

Named "Female Vocalist of the Year" by the Country Music Association in 1975 and 1976, Parton set out to broaden her appeal - and faced backlash because of it. "Nashville was so aghast in the mid-1970s because they saw her thinking beyond sheer country music as a betrayal. She wanted to do more than country music and they thought she was turning her back on them, and she was very agitated that people mistook that," says Nash.

Parton's instincts were validated when her initial crossover effort, "Here You Come Again," became her first million-selling record. "I said when I was making that crossover, `I'm not leaving country. I will always take it with me,'" she says. And, as if to prove her point, the single was also her first Grammy Award winner - for "best country vocal performance by a female."

But though she has written thousands of songs and recorded hundreds, music hasn't been enough to contain Parton's creative energies. In 1980, she co-starred with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in her first Hollywood film, 9 to 5, followed by The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Steel Magnolias later that decade.

As she recounts in her 1994 autobiography, Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business, the famed Hollywood sign made a lasting impression: "I can remember looking up at the Hollywood sign the first time I was in L.A. and thinking I would like to change that H into a D." In 1986, she unveiled Dollywood, a 125-acre theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., which draws 3 million visitors annually to attractions ranging from Dollywood's Splash Country to Chasing Rainbows, a museum dedicated to her life story.

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