Dolly Parton’s Songs

After a stint as director of Reese Palley Gallery and editor of Art in America in early ’70s New York City, Dave Hickey moved to Nashville to write songs and music criticism. This newly revised and expanded essay on Dolly Parton originally appeared in Country Music magazine in 1974. Its insights and concerns relate to a series of conversations I had with Hickey about language, the first of which is published this month in the San Francisco Art Quarterly. —JE



The instruments have been moved out. We are lying on the carpet in Porter Waggoner’s studio looking up at the speakers in the ceiling. I am on the left. Dolly Parton is beside me, then Emmylou Harris, then Linda Ronstadt. We are listening to playbacks of Dolly singing Emmylou’s song “Boulder to Birmingham” with Linda singing back up. Between takes, the women chatter about the problems of managing a band on the road, of keeping the band sober and out of custody, of accommodating the exotic menu preferences that musicians are prone too, of running a corporate business in Nashville from some highway in North Dakota. Part of Dolly’s solution to this problem is to take her friend and accountant, Judy Ogle, on the road with her.

I asked Dolly how Judy is doing. Dolly says fine, but she shakes her head. “Bad boyfriend?” I asked. “Oh no,” Dolly said, “He’s fine. He’s a real ‘go getter.’” “Go getter?” I asked. “Yeah, when she gets off from work, he’ll go getter.” Everybody laughed, and I said, “That’s a song.” Dolly said of course it’s a song, unless your whole band is go-getters. With this I began to understand the delicate job of being a woman artist singing country songs on the road, although Dolly handles it with ease. Face-to-face she is the sheer embodiment of gaudy adolescent desire. (Those hugs! Those boobs!) Unfortunately, Dolly’s jokey openness and friendliness completely defuse the erotic dazzle, and you are left befuddled, fully aware that Dolly Parton is smarter than you are. That she is a freer spirit, a better songwriter, and a better business-person, too.

It’s no secret that beautiful, talented women put West Texas boys on the defensive. Even when we praise their achievements, we tend to come down awfully hard on the “God given talent” part. That’s the tradition, anyway, but when I started writing about Dolly Parton’s songs, I soon discovered I was going to have to abandon that particular part of my heritage. When you begin to realize just how much Miss Parton has done, and how well she has done it, it doesn’t take long to decide that she has the right to take a two-by-four to the next cowboy who pats her on the head and says, “My, my, Puddin.” By any standards, the range of subject, language, and musical form in Dolly Parton’s songs are incredible. Within the canon of country music she has tried literally everything and has usually succeeded gracefully enough to hide the difficulty of what she has attempted. When the resources of country music seemed too narrow she has borrowed and mixed from other sources. Take, for instance, a country lyric, a modal Appalachian melody, and a rock bass line with a syncopated bridge, and combine them into songs like “Early Morning Breeze” and “Greatest Days of All.”

It’s not rocket science, but it’s close to revelation. Country music is like good grammar. You know it when you hear it, and you know what it’s not. When you start talking about Dolly Parton’s songs, however, they are at once so various and so rooted in the country idiom that you can’t help making distinctions between country songs and the other kinds of music you hear. Country music shares qualities with folk, rock, and pop, and like any good songwriter, Miss Parton takes what she needs where she finds it. So the things her songs have in common with other types of songs make it easier to see how they are special.

Musically, for instance, country songs have the same tight musical format, and the same limited set of harmonic options that pop songs do, but lyrically pop songs present the world as it ought to be, as it exists in the dreams of various record executives and adolescents. Country lyrics are about the world as it is; they are made by adults and for adults—not rich and famous ones, just grown-up people making it from day to day. Even when country songs do their special kind of dreaming about life “In The Good Old Days,” there is always that realistic parenthesis in the title—“(When Times Were Bad)”:

No amount of money could buy from me,
The memories that I have of then.
No amount of money could pay me to
Go back and live through it again.

Although pop music and soul music use much more complicated musical forms and harmonic structures, sophisticated country lyrics by artists like Miss Parton, Roger Miller, or Willie Nelson are easily as complex and as subtle as their pop and soul counterparts. Most professional lyrics, however, are made from literary, written English while country lyrics are made from the language as it is spoken. So what a country lyricist gives up in vocabulary, she gains by being more sensitive to the interplay between the sound and meaning of the language. Miss Parton, for instance, within eight lines of lyric, plays off six shades of meaning from the verb “will,” in the song “Will He Be Waiting For Me.”

This sensitivity to the spoken language allows Miss Parton to do what she does best: to capture the complexities of life as it is lived in the ambiguities of language as it is spoken. People who say that country songs are made of clichés don’t realize that clichés are dead language that a writer like Dolly Parton takes, slaps on the bottom and brings back to life. In “I’m Doing This For Your Sake,” Miss Parton tells the story of an unwed mother placing her child in an orphanage. Into four lines of lyric, she fits three clichés and breathes new life into each of them:

In this home so far away from home/,
I leave my heart today,
‘Cause home is where the heart is/,
And with you my heart will stay,
Because I love you so much,
Why, I can’t make you pay/,
So I’m doing this for your sake/
I’m giving you away.

If you are going to write about life as it is, in the language as it is spoken, you are going to come up with some fairly unsavory examples of both. Miss Parton’s ability to deal with this kind of material goes back to the basic distinction between pop songs and country songs, simply: pop songs are “you” songs; rock songs are “me” songs; country songs are “we” songs. The difference is real. I remember a good pop singer singing Dolly Parton’s “Just The Way I Am,” and she sang it all right, hit all the notes, etc., but she used the song to dramatize herself on stage, and she sang it to the men in the audience:

Even though you may not understand me,
I hope that you’ll accept me like I am,
For there are many sides of me,
My mind and spirit must be free.
I might smile when other folks would frown,
I don’t know why, it’s just the way I am.

When Miss Parton sings the song, the difference is enormous. However much the song may express the way she feels, ultimately it is a “we” song. She is singing it for the other women in the audience. You get the impression that she has made the song out of her feelings, but that she has made it because she thinks other women might feel the same way.

This sensitivity, I believe, allows Miss Parton to write sympathetically about subject matter that is considered taboo in the world of pop music. Just off the top of my head I can think of songs she has written about suicide, adultery, madness, drugs, betrayal, illegitimacy, incestuous desire, and worst of all (in the pop music land of plenty) poverty. Down on the page those words look pretty wicked—more like the synopsis of a Faulkner novel than the repertoire of a young lady who sings. But if you are going to look straight at the world, you are going to see the things that Faulkner saw; and if through your talent and skill you can make them into music, you might give someone a song who only had words before.

Contributor

Dave Hickey

DAVE HICKEY is a writer currently living in Santa Fe, NM. His many books of criticism include Air Guitar (1997) and the recent Pirates and Farmers (2013). His forthcoming collection 25 Women: Essays on the Work of Women Artists will be published later this year by the University of Chicago Press.

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