The Gospel of Dolly Parton

On a regular Saturday back in 2014, I was hanging out with some friends, doing some Sacred Harp singing (just casual). One of my friends, Jonathan, played guitar, and so I asked if he wouldn’t mind showing me some basic chords. Years of wishing and not doing left my dreams of musical stardom unfulfilled, so I figured hell, better late than never. After figuring out some basics, he sent me off to practice with a blessing and encouragement, and I was hooked. I browsed the internet for chords of songs I loved, and those which I could take a decent stab at playing. Of course, there are millions of said songs, but I had to start somewhere.

“Love Is Like a Butterfly” by Dolly Parton would be that first somewhere. A song so simple and sweet that I felt confident I could play it and enjoy it, but more importantly, it would spark an even greater love in me-my love of Dolly Parton.

Love is like a butterfly 
As soft and gentle as a sigh 
The multicolored moods of love are like its satin wings 

from “Love Is Like A Butterfly”

I didn’t grow up on country music. My childhood was mostly filled with the music of ManΓ‘ and Shakira; Oscar D’LeΓ³n and all the pop hits of the 90s (and the occasional Eagles when I visited my dad’s house). Of course, you can’t be an American and not know who Dolly Parton is, but I never listened to any of her music (I thought “I Will Always Love You” was a Whitney Houston original). It wasn’t until coming across that song on that day when I was 22, guitar and bad form in hand, that I realized what I had been missing. Dolly was my first real introduction to country music. Up to that point, my only impression of country was that of songs about tractors and trucks (looking at you, Gretchen Wilson). By way of exploring Dolly’s music, however, I realized that the heart of country music is storytelling. Some songs are poetry, others are more straightforward, but at the core of them all is that ability to lay it all bare and tell the story of the human heart.

It’s been a long dark night 
And I’ve been a waitin’ for the morning 
It’s been a long hard fight 
But I see a brand new day a dawning 
I’ve been looking for the sunshine 
You know I ain’t seen it in so long 
But everything’s gonna work out just fine 
And everything’s gonna be all right 
That’s been all wrong

from “Light Of A Clear Blue Morning”

I’m not going to get into the history of Dolly; you can read the many biographies about her or her Wiki if you’re curious. Not only is she a generous, kind-hearted philanthropist, and talented musician (who has released over 60 albums over her career btw), but she’s also just Dolly. If there’s one thing to be said about Dolly Parton, it’s that she is always Dolly Parton. She is always honest, forthright, and sincere about herself, her life, and everything that she does, and there’s nothing I admire more in a person. She’s also very glam, and you know I’m all about that sequin life.

I’ve always been misunderstood because of how I look.
Don’t judge me by the cover ’cause I’m a real good book.
So read into it what you will, but see me as I am.
The way I look is just a country girl’s idea of glam.

from “Backwoods Barbie”

However, it is Dolly’s positive outlook that draws me to her music. Whether it’s about heartbreak, falling in love, or pain and trauma, her relentless optimism is something I have identified with, and am comforted by. That is Dolly’s gospel – the tenacity to get up when you get knocked on your ass, and try to find the beauty and joy in this short life while you’re doing it. Let me be clear about optimism – this doesn’t mean we don’t all feel like hell. Us brightside people have plenty of moments where things are an absolute nightmare. But being optimistic means, to me, that deep down, no matter how dark things are, there is still a little part of you saying that it’s going to be fine. You will survive. You will be okay. And at some point, you’re going to have to get it together and move forward, and so you do. It’s okay to go down to that dark place, just don’t stay there. As she wrote in her hit single from 1977:

I think I’ll dry these useless tears and get myself together
I think I’ll wander down the hall and have a look around
‘Cause I can’t stay inside this lonely room and cry forever
I think I’d really rather join ’em two doors down

from “Two Doors Down”

Dolly Parton has played such an important part in my musical life that I wanted to do something as an ode to her. Her song “Tennessee Homesick Blues” talks about, as many Dolly songs do, her homesickness for her Smokey Mountains and how the big city just can’t compare to the life she really loves. In my adult life, I’ve often been encouraged to go to such cities by family and friends to find success. After all, there’s a reason people go to places like LA and New York in search of it. But then, what is success? Every person has to define what it looks like to them, as we are all tasked with finding and fulfilling our destinies and purpose in this life. That looks different with each individual person. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that sometimes it’s hard to stay true to who you are and what you want.

Good Lord have mercy on a country girl
Tryin’ to make a livin’ in a rhinestone world
It’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world
Tennessee homesick blues is runnin’ through my head.

from “Tennessee Homesick Blues”

That line, it’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world, always stuck out to me. I think of how hard it is to be true and authentic to yourself, instead of the version of you that might arise from outside pressure or expectation. It’s hard, but it’s a must, to be a diamond, raw or polished, but always real. So as my ode to Dolly, and a reminder for myself to see the positive and stay raw, I finally got this piece added to my collection.

My arm has since stopped looking like Popeye’s

Find out who you are, and do it on purpose.

Dolly Parton

In terms of staying true to yourself, being a diamond, you’ve gotta know who that self is first. I had an ex-boyfriend once say to me that by 26, a person is who they are going to be. I thought that was really interesting, and in many ways, I think he’s right, but then I also believe in kaizen, the Japanese concept of continuous improvement. So find out what you love, what you don’t love; do things that you want to, even if other people don’t like it and realize that it’s all part of your journey. Be that diamond, always.

Hopefully my own road will be long, but I know that there’s always a Dolly song for every moment.

Hitched a ride with the wind
And since he was my friend
I just let him decide where we’d go
When a flower grows wild
It can always survive
Wildflowers don’t care where they grow

Just a wild rambling rose seeking mysteries untold
No regret for the path that I chose
When a flower grows wild
It can always survive
Wildflowers don’t care where they grow

from “Wildflowers” by Dolly Parton, Linda Rondstadt, and Emmylou Harris

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s