You’d be hard pressed to think of a more pioneering woman in music than Dolly Parton, the singing, songwriting, producing, multi-instrumentalist country music wiz who’s had over 25 Number One singles on Billboard’s Country Music Chart.
Parton (full name: Dolly Rebecca Parton Dean) is the most honored female country performer of all time. In addition to those 26 Number One country singles, she’s released 41 Top 10 country albums, and has sold over 100 million records worldwide. Even more impressive than her record-breaking? Parton’s staying power: She is the only artist to chart in country radio’s top 40 in each decade from the 1960s through today.
Dolly Parton is the undisputed Queen of Country Music. So why has she been left out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Some speculate that she’s often overlooked as a musical pioneer due to her bombastic personal style. The famously blonde and heavily made-up trailblazer has an affinity for rhinestone-covered garments, and often jokes that “it costs a lot to look this cheap.” But according to Parton, she doesn’t actually see herself as a sex symbol. Her look is meant to be a gimmick; a way to make her recognizable to her fans. Considering that women performers are often pressured to look or dress a certain way, it’s actually an act of defiance in which Parton takes back her femininity, and presents it in a way that makes sense to her.
Despite the glitz and glam of her look, it’s easy to get the impression that Parton still sees herself as the poor girl from the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Born on January 4, 1946, Dolly was the fourth of twelve kids. Her family lived in a rustic one-room cabin, and she recalls that they were so “dirt-poor” that she had to bathe in a river and sleep in bed with two or three of her siblings at night.
Parton’s self-deprecating and approachable nature belies her true musical genius. Make no mistake: She is a natural-born musician and storyteller. She began playing guitar and writing music as a young child and proved herself to be a prodigy early on. At 10, her uncle Bill Owens introduced her to self-made millionaire Cas Walker, who ran a WIVK radio variety show called “Farm and Home Hour.” Parton decided to take her destiny into her own hands. She marched right up to Walker, and announced that she wanted to work for him. Walker couldn’t resist the determined little girl; he hired her on the spot.
Using connections she made while working with Walker, Parton landed her first appearance at Nashville’s famous Grand Ole Opry in 1959, at just 13 years old. Johnny Cash introduced her to the stage; she sang “You Gotta Be My Baby” by George Jones, and happily performed three encores. The day after she graduated high school in 1964, Parton left for Nashville to pursue her music career. The rest is, as they say, history.
Parton first made her mark as a songwriter, penning several hit singles, including two top-10s. In 1965, she signed with Monument Records, who originally pigeonholed her as a pop singer. At the time, men largely dominated the country music scene, and female singers were often pushed into pop music. But Parton saw herself as a country artist first and foremost, and set out to prove that she had the chops to top the charts.
Her big break finally came in 1966, when the demo for her song “Put it Off Until Tomorrow” caught the ear of country star Bill Phillips, who not only wanted to record the song, but also wanted to feature Parton as his backup singer. The track became a huge country hit, and was named the BMI Song of the Year, catapulting Parton into the public eye. Monument Records decided to allow her to record country music, and she never once stopped racking up the hits. After releasing her first album, Hello, I’m Dolly in 1967, Parton signed with RCA Victor, one of the largest record companies in the country.
Parton’s discography includes the smash hits “Jolene,” “I Will Always Love You,” “9 to 5,” and over 100 other charted singles. She has had more than two dozen albums awarded gold, platinum, or double platinum status, not to mention her eight Grammy Awards and countless nominations. Parton has also acted, written books, founded a charity to fight illiteracy, and has even opened her own theme park, Dollywood.
But what makes Dolly Parton a true groundbreaker is how she gave a voice to the female experience in country music at a time when it was largely dominated by men. She deserves to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for her impact on country and popular music, and her impressive list of achievements.