Hello Dolly

Dolly Parton has many talents, but her real gift is playing the person we all think she is

Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility—unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it—that goes by the cult name of "Camp." ... It is not a natural mode of sensibility, if there be any such. Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric—something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.

—Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

Dolly Parton may be the perfect celebrity. After more than 50 years in the public eye, she's more famous now just for being famous than she is for anything else—and it's hard to overshadow everything she's accomplished, both as an artist and as a public figure. She's so famous now that she's nearly invisible, sort of like oxygen. She just is. She's beyond critical reproach. She's almost beyond commentary. It's like she exists outside of space and time, or as if all that surgery has been part of a scientific experiment to engineer the ultimate cyborg pop-country movie star.

Her popularity's not hard to account for. She's a brilliant songwriter, an equally gifted singer, and she's built her public persona around a down-home attitude and a herculean capacity for self-effacement. (Any joke you think of about plastic surgery or big boobs, she's probably already told to David Letterman or Regis Philbin.) She's always likable. And she's been a canny guardian of her image, leaving fans with the impression that they know her while never giving away any substantial details about her private life.

It's the cosmic scale of Dolly's one-name celebrity that takes some explaining.

The story of her early life—born into a poor family with 11 brothers and sisters in a sharecropper's cabin in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in 1946, membership in a holy roller Pentecostal church, a couple of older relatives who played mountain music and wrote songs—reads like a blueprint for how to make it in Nashville in the 1960s. But Dolly's rise was slow; she climbed up from Cas Walker's radio and television shows to the songwriting mills of Nashville in the mid-1960s and, finally, to her spot as Porter Wagoner's sex-kitten sidekick on The Porter Wagoner Show from 1967 to 1974. But even with that showcase Dolly initially had trouble getting her own singles on the chart. Most of her hits in the late '60s were duets with Wagoner.

In 1970, she hit the top of the country charts for the first time with "Joshua," and what followed was a frenzy of creative output: "Coat of Many Colors," "My Tennessee Mountain Home," "Jolene," "I Will Always Love You," "Love Is Like a Butterfly," and "The Bargain Store" were all hits between '71 and '75, and many of those fragile and melancholy songs, influenced by Dolly's mountain roots as well as the folk-rock movement of a few years before, still rank as the best material she's written. She's never again found the same delicate balance of sentimentality, vulnerability, and folky melody, perfectly matched to her crystal-clear soprano voice, that she showed during those four years. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau described her as "a hillbilly Louisa May Alcott." "At least half of these songs have an imaginative power surprising even in so fecund a talent—images like the bargain store and the coat of many colors are so archetypal you wonder why no one has ever thought of them before," Christgau wrote in a review of 1975's Best of Dolly Parton. "The psychological complexities of ‘Jolene' and ‘Traveling Man' go way beyond the winsome light melodramas that are Parton's specialty."

By the mid-'70s, though, Dolly, like most of the rest of the Nashville establishment, had pop crossover in her sights. "Here You Come Again," a bouncy single with a cheesy rock guitar solo, went to number three on the pop charts in 1977, and Dolly was primed for her biggest commercial success. She vamped up the old sex-kitten role, added a dash of kitsch to her act, and moved to Los Angeles. These were the years of 9 to 5, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and Rhinestone. She appeared on the cover of Playboy and was rumored to be romantically linked to Burt Reynolds. (Dolly's response to those allegations, in her 1994 memoir Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business, was, "Shoot, no!")

This is when she established the template for the celebrity she still enjoys, mixing a sometimes paradoxical cocktail of frank sexuality, giggling naivety, Hee Haw, camp sophistication, white-trash glamour, and good old country straight talk into a gigantic public relations artifice that she maintains today.

In the early 1990s, Dolly tried to reclaim her position as the queen of a mainstream country music industry that had shown it could be pop-friendly. It was too late—younger singers like Wynonna Judd and Reba McEntire, then Shania Twain and Faith Hill, had taken over the charts while she was in Hollywood. But Dolly had made a lot of money there. When Whitney Houston's 1992 recording of "I Will Always Love You" became the then-top-selling pop single of all time, Dolly made even more money. She could do whatever she wanted to do.

That freedom led her to the surprising bluegrass albums The Grass Is Blue (1999) and Little Sparrow (2001). Besides the 1987 album Trio, recorded with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, it was the most substantial music she'd released in more than 20 years. She's done pretty much what she's wanted since then, too, from an album of classic rock covers (2005's Those Were the Days) to a song for the soundtrack for the controversial movie Transamerica, about a transgender woman seeking to reconnect with her teenage son (the Academy Award-winning "Travelin' Thru").

Earlier this year, Dolly released the sort-of pop/sort-of mainstream country album Backwoods Barbie. It was described as a comeback, an effort to regain a new hold on the country charts in the post-Dixie Chicks era of Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, and Taylor Swift. The unspoken assumption about Backwoods Barbie was that it was an entirely mercenary enterprise. The title track was written for the stage adaptation of 9 to 5, which opened this month in Los Angeles and will move to Broadway next spring. The disc is unabashed pop country of the sort she recorded in the late '70s, when she was reinventing herself for Hollywood the first time. It's the exact opposite of The Grass is Blue and Little Sparrow, and displays little of the finely wrought folk-influenced songwriting Dolly showed in the early '70s. The production is often garish, and Dolly's covers of Fine Young Cannibals' "Drive Me Crazy" and Smoky Robinson and the Miracles' "The Tracks of My Tears" are misguided. Backwoods Barbie isn't a very good album.

But it's a mistake to think that it's just a cash-in, or that it's somehow inauthentic compared to her bluegrass albums. It's not quite a vanity project—her voice is in good form and the songs she wrote are solid, if unremarkable—but it is much more personal than it seems on first listen. The songs are split just about evenly between heartbreak ballads ("Made of Stone," "The Lonesomes," "Cologne") and self-referential motivational mantras built around Dolly's own mythology ("Better Get to Livin,'" the title track, "Jesus and Gravity"). It sounds like it's exactly the album Dolly would have wanted to make. It seems fair to guess that Backwoods Barbie is just as genuine an expression of her tastes and sensibility as the bluegrass albums were. Framing it as a comeback album misses the point. Dolly's already got more number-one country singles than any other female artist, and she knows the industry well enough that she can't expect any more at her age. She's bigger than Billboard, bigger than GAC, bigger than any radio station. What's Dolly got to come back from, or to?

There was grumbling when Dolly moved away from straight country in the late '70s, and a few conservative fans were outraged at "Travelin' Thru." People who like "Jolene" and The Grass Is Blue might wince at "Islands in the Stream," her maudlin 1983 duet with Kenny Rogers. She's become a model for drag queens and a gay icon, both for her personal flamboyance and her support for gay rights, and at the same time she's revered for recording gospel songs and for her simple country values. Rumors about her own sexuality and about the nature of her relationship with her husband, Carl Dean—all denied by Dolly, but never exactly proven untrue—have persisted throughout her career, but that's never been enough to sway her Bible Belt fan base.

It's not just that everybody likes Dolly. We can all claim some part of her. Southerner, hillbilly, songwriter, diva, philanthropist, pop star—almost anybody can identify with some aspect of her celebrity, and we usually embrace the rest of it, too, at least on the level of camp. But nobody navigates that kind of demographic minefield on personality alone. Dolly's calculated manipulation of her public image—she never gets involved in politics, keeps her religious convictions vague enough that they don't offend anyone, and jokes about herself before anyone else can make fun of her—is perhaps her one overarching genius. It's not that she's good at being herself. It's that she's so good at playing the person we all think she is.

The line between Dolly as a real person and the Dolly we know from her music and TV appearances is one we'll never cross. But her blank-slate public image—the way she courts and embraces fans without regard for age, class, or sexual orientation—is more than just a clever marketing ploy. It's almost an artistic expression itself—a manifestation of simple joy and optimism from a country girl who made good and appreciates what she has and wants to share it, in the ways she can, with people who love her.