‘Dolly Parton: Here I Am’ Is A Testament To The Artistry And Image Of Country Music’s “Backwoods Barbie”

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Dolly Parton is a national treasure. She embodies the best of us, a poor girl from rural Appalachia who conquered Nashville, then Hollywood; a woman who upended gender norms and a country singer who is an LGBTQ icon and supports Black Lives Matter. Impossibly beautiful, ridiculously voluptuous, and confident enough to make fun of herself, everything about Dolly is big. Big smile, big hair, big breasts and most importantly, big talent. If all she ever wrote was “I Will Always Love You” and “9 to 5,” she’d still have written two of the biggest songs of all-time. She’s written thousands.

The new Netflix documentary, Dolly Parton: Here I Am, examines her life and music and makes a good case that she’s one of the most important figures in American music. Directed by Francis Whately, the man behind David Bowie: Finding Fame and its two film predecessors, it uses Parton’s biggest hits and favorite songs to frame her story and figure out who she really is. Famous friends and not-so-famous backing musicians fill in the gaps and elucidate on her abilities, personality and songcraft.

The story begins with Parton celebrating the 50th anniversary of her first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, that holy cathedral of country music. As a little girl, her greatest ambition was to appear on the Opry stage. She grew up the fourth of 12 children and talks about needing more attention than her parents could provide. She felt different, even at a young age, which fostered her humanism and sense of self.  

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Dolly came to Nashville at 18, hungry for success and fearless of failure. She learned to stand up for herself, especially as a girl, “and a country girl that did look like a dumb girl,” she says with a laugh. “I know the nature of men,” she says ominously, having grown up with lots of brothers and uncles, though later flips it around in true Dolly fashion, saying, “I know the nature of women,” having had lots of sisters and aunts. One-liners, Dolly’s got in spades. 

The point of Parton’s first single, 1966’s “Dumb Blonde,” was that she wasn’t one. As the years passed she got blonder, her hair got bigger and her outfits got tighter, accentuating her famed ample bosom. Parton played with her sex appeal, usually with a wink, but was always in control of it. In a sense her outrageous appearance became her armor, protecting her from slings and arrows by putting it out front. Despite her hillbilly sex pot image, she’s been married to the same man, Carl Dean, since 1966. While Parton lives in the spotlight, Dean runs from it and true to form doesn’t appear in the film.

In 1967, Parton joined syndicated country music television program The Porter Wagoner Show, raising her profile considerably. She left in 1974 to pursue a solo career and a crossover into the pop charts seemed inevitable. Viewing her as “a natural actress,” her manager pushed her into acting. The 1980 comedy 9 to 5 dealt with sexual harassment and was one of the biggest films of the year. Parton agreed to star in the film if she could write the theme song, which was a huge hit, and emerged from the experience bigger than ever, “A queen, an empress…,” in the words of co-star Lily Tomlin.

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Here I Am deep dives into Parton’s artistry, highlighting lyrics and discussing her songwriting process. Her own words are illuminating and display a knowledge of country and folk music that is instinctual but also well informed. Left behind by the country music industry at the turn of the century, she turned to bluegrass and released three well-received albums which included some of the most esteemed musicians in the genre. They did it out of respect. Real recognizes real.   

There’s another theme running through the film, about who the real Dolly Parton is. Even her closest friends say they’ve never seen her without her wig and makeup and wonder where her dark side is. For her part, Parton mentions the sacrifices of fame but quickly moves on. “All my life, all I’ve ever wanted was to be a big star and this is just part of the deal,” she once told singer Mac Davies while besieged by autograph hounds. I think that says more about her character than any insight Jane Fonda or Linda Perry might have.

It’s hard to dislike Dolly Parton but it’s easy to take her for granted. Dolly Parton: Here I Am is a testament to her artistry and work ethic and a reminder that underneath the blonde wigs and plastic surgery lies one of America’s great singers and songwriters. Besides her momentous talent, her warmth and wit make her someone that feels like, “a family member to most people, in her words. “I know I look totally bizarre and artificial but I’m totally real inside.”

Benjamin H. Smith is a New York based writer, producer and musician. Follow him on Twitter:@BHSmithNYC.

Watch Dolly Parton: Here I Am on Netflix

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