Almanac Music: The Power of Persona and Why Dolly Parton Makes Me Cry

by J. Negri

Have you seen the trailer for the Dolly Parton biopic Coat of Many Colors? Dolly introduces the trailer with the tackiest red sparkly dress you’ve ever set your eyes on whilst sitting in a sleigh – yes, you read that right! Sitting in a sleigh. It will air in America on December 10 as a family Christmas movie and it tells the story behind the hit song “Coat of Many Colors” – of when Dolly was a girl in a large family and tragedy hit and Dolly lost her ability to sing and how about a homemade coat of rags, made by her Mother, with love in every stitch, healed the family. In a brilliance of casting genius Ricky Schroeder, yes the boy from the 70s failsafe tearjerker The Champ plays young Dolly’s father. I won’t watch the film. Just watching the trailer made me cry. Now just talking about the trailer makes me cry. In fact talking about talking about the trailer makes me cry. I’ll tell you why. But I warn you, get some tissues.

It has been a recent phenomenon for me. For the past few years, Dolly Parton’s voice never fails to move me to tears. I watch old clips of her singing wholesome duets with Porter Wagoner and cry and cry. I watch the old Dolly who still had dimples, singing about that coat her Mama made and I weep buckets. Over the years I have reflected on just why it is this tiny, tacky songstress has such power over me.

I used to sing in a country duo and loved it. When my Mum was diagnosed with cancer I knew I couldn’t sing anymore. To sing is to take a deep breath. To sing is to open the chest, expand the heart. To sing is to express vulnerability and emotion. To sing is to reach out to the audience and share something intrinsic to you – your voice. There was no way I could take a deep breath and open my chest like that with so much weighing on me. My mother died, and for years I couldn’t sing. Not even around the house. Nor did I want to. I had no desire to sing. For me, grief was mute; a sound unutterably awful.  With five kids and a partner I am hardly ever still or alone, and my tears wait in the wings for quiet moments to slip out and perform. Not often.

And then there’s Dolly. It’s so strange that she cracks this heavy stone-like heart of mine and lets a little sadness flow. I know it’s strange. Strange and hilarious! Part of it is the songs. Those old fashioned country songs remind me of a time in my own family when we lived in Beechworth through the 1970s. We were a big family with not much money. We didn’t have a phone and our car broke down all the time. Mum worked hard and cooked, cleaned and had babies and made us just about everything from toys to undies. Dad was a teacher who would give anyone the shirt off his back and actually sometimes did.  We loved music and singing together and Dad would buy us instruments and tell us to teach ourselves to play. My Grandma once gave him money to buy us all new shoes and he came home with a Pianola. So my tears are in part for another time that seemed brief for me, as my Dad died when I was five and we had just moved towns and it all seems like a dim lost memory of a dream. Those happy hillbilly days before grief was a filter over the lens through which we saw the world.

I know that Dolly is tacky. Yes, there are tassels, spangles, God and razzle dazzle. She “never leaves a rhinestone unturned,” she quipped at her concert as she sat down to a pink sparkle encrusted piano. In part, her look is understandable in the context of the Nashville scene through the 60s, 70s and 80s. But then Dolly has pushed it even further with plastic surgery and that’s not about context or culture, that’s about her.

Dolly’s persona shows her to be a control freak. I see something of her being trapped within her image construction. She sings about her sacrifices, “I said I’d be rich at any cost, said I’d win no matter what I lost” and you get a sense of her steely resolve to be famous; of her ambition. Yet she doesn’t say what she lost, or who, or what the cost was for her fame. And anytime the sentiment gets sad or too close to the bone she diverts the crowd with a joke and a toe-tapping number. She shakes those tassels and lets the rhinestones catch the light and blind us a little.

But it is her voice that is like a fishing hook that catches in my sea of emotion. Her voice is as natural as a bubbling brook that flows from a trickle to a waterfall, from quiet to strong and back again. It is completely unaffected, unforced and pure. She simply opens her mouth and out it comes. No trick of the light or smoke and mirrors there. Just out it pours, ringing true. She is an amazing singer with a strong melodic voice and a huge range that she works with effortlessly. To have that natural sound pouring forth from a body so fake, fries my brain a little.  That she is at once so fake and so true. So protected and yet so vulnerable. So hidden and so exposed. She’s a walking, breathing, paradox.

What if Dolly didn’t have her persona? What if she was a little old lady with grey hair, sitting and singing and playing the dulcimer? What if she dressed in jeans and cowgirl shirt? Not a wig or sequin in sight? The voice would still be beautiful and graceful, soaring through the range of notes like a bird flying through her mountain home.  But would it be as powerful? As compelling? Dolly at once invites us in and pushes us away. She shares her down to earth humour and self-deprecating quips aplenty. She talks of her upbringing and her parents, but she never really talks about herself. She seems natural and friendly, but it’s all scripted and rehearsed. She is a good actress (Steel Magnolias anyone?)  Any person that needs that sort of mask and costume is surely more vulnerable than anyone else? There is a frailty to that little body weighed down with wigs, boobs, rhinestones and tassels.

For that little sculpted silhouette of plastic and fake hair to open up, take a deep breath and share her songs in that pure voice, hits me like a force field. That she can share her voice when she needs such props and buffeting seems to me to be a huge generosity. It reminds me that we all have a core that has to be heard. With the biopic “Coat of Many Colors” I now know that she too once suffered a grief that silenced her voice and my tears flow anew.

It’s been four years since Mum died and I have just started singing again. Just found my voice. I’ve even started a new band. We sing toe tappers and leaving songs in the key of heartbreak. I don’t know if I’ll watch the telemovie. I don’t know if I need to. I think I’ll just listen to the song. It’s all there, in Dolly’s voice. We all have vulnerability. We all suffer grief and carry on. In looking like such a freak and singing with such truth and beauty, Dolly Parton shows us humanity. Now go and listen to the song and I dare you to try to hold back your tears.




  1. David Brent says

    And people say she’s just a pair of tits

  2. Got to see past the tits and listen to the voice. You know she is a savvy business person. Elvis wanted to record her song “I will always love you” but wanted the rights to the song and she refused him. For a hilarious informative catch up with Dolly I recommend Drunk History about Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner

  3. Lovely J Negri. Songs that choke us up (even without the force of something as deeply sd and personal as your mother passing) are to be cherished.

    Love the line, in the key of heartbeak.

    Dolly is the real deal. Whatever the reason for her fixation on make-up and such her music has been of such a consistently high standard for so long it’s almost irrelevant to me. First time I saw her was in the 80s when she toured with Kenny Rodgers. I was more interested in seeing Kenny. She blew him outa the water. She walks with Johnny and George and Willie and Merle.

  4. Nice JN.

    Dolly is magnificent.

  5. A strong, brave story with plenty of good lines and images. Looking forward to more.

  6. I agree Rick – she’s up there with the legends Johnny, George, Willie and Merle! Dolly’s musicality is amazing isn’t it? I’ve seen her live twice and her voice is so true and strong. I love watching old clips of her on youtube with her fingerpicking. the guitar.

  7. and Emmylou

  8. and thanks for your candour and the Dolly clip – effortlessly beautiful

  9. Love your personal honesty Ms Negri. Dolly has always been that little bit too far western of country for me, but I admire her journey and work ethic. I have always been intrigued by singers who lose their voices for long periods. Fits in with my beliefs about the role of emotional trauma in many illnesses. Linda (I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight) and Oz/NZer Jenny Morris both lost their singing voice for many years due to something doctors call spasmodic dysphonia. Linda had 17 years between albums and her “comeback” Fashionably Late in 2002 is a beautiful record. Roseanne Cash got divorced, remarried and became pregnant and started working on what eventually became the wonderful Rules of Travel album, but became unable to sing for two and a half years due to a vocal polyp. The love that dare not sing its name?

  10. You know Dolly is even a bit western for me too Peter B which is why I found it so fascinating that she somehow got to my emotions – something beyond the tacky look and country with cheese which is that voice – and I think you’re on to something with your comment. Some intrinsic link between voice and heart – are vocal chords heart strings?

  11. Fabulous piece of writing Julianne!

    As vibrant and bubbly and heartfelt as Dolly herself.

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