I got into Dolly Parton during the release of her extraordinary trilogy of bluegrassy albums: The Grass Is Blue (1999), Little Sparrow (2001), and Halos & Horns (2002).
Before that, I didn’t know much about Dolly, though I was aware of a few of her country singles, the films 9 to 5 and Steel Magnolias, her Dollywood theme park, and her unenviable role as the nation’s go-to example of a person with large breasts.
There have been a lot of jokes. Some of the funniest, in fact, have been made by Parton herself: “I was the first woman to burn my bra; it took the fire department four days to put it out.”
At the other end of the comedy spectrum, though, was the bit favored by my fourth-grade classmate Jeremy B. He’d tell this apocryphal tale about Parton that went with a mathematical equation you were supposed to punch into a calculator as the story progressed, and at the end the sum came out to 5318008, which, when you turned the calculator upside down, looked like BOOBIES.
This is always my first thought whenever my mother reminds me that Jeremy B. grew up to become a doctor.
I suppose I gave Dolly a chance with those bluegrassy albums because they marked a return to her roots in stripped-down, traditional mountain music, and I, in my early 20s, professed to prefer that sort of thing over the slickly produced country music that had become predominant on the radio stations of my Arkansas hometown by the time Jeremy B. was giggling over his calculator boobies.
Perhaps my tastes were influenced by my maternal grandparents, who knew so much about old-time country they could have taught a course at Juilliard on the subject. From about the early 1980s on, however, they didn’t like what the genre had become.
I recall watching Hee Haw with my grandfather a time or two, and he’d complain, “That’s not country—that’s rock ‘n’ roll.”
And he’d be talking about, like, the Gatlin Brothers. Evidently, any musician more current than Grandpa Jones was suspect.
But start listening to Dolly and you’re liable to find her whole burlap-and-satin thing irresistible, from her tangy-twangy voice to the astonishing range of her songwriting and its trove of intriguing tales that can be haunting, hopeful, heartbreaking, or horny as the occasion merits.
For an anniversary present one year, my husband, Frank, gave me a print of a Dolly drawing by Tom Bachtell, the former illustrator for “The Talk of the Town” in The New Yorker. Tom was the longtime partner of my friend Andrew Patner, a Chicago arts journalist and true bon vivant who died unexpectedly in 2015.
An exuberant extrovert, Andrew always seemed to take genuine delight in connecting with others, soaking up culture, eating in restaurants, dispensing opinions. It still strikes me as unfair that someone who lived with such relish should have to go prematurely.
He liked classical and soul music, so I don’t think he was a Dolly fan, but nobody’s perfect.
Because of this confluence of factors—Frank, The New Yorker, Dolly, Andrew—the Bachtell print, which hangs in a frame over the nightstand next to my side of the bed, is a strong contender for the title of My Most Prized Possession.