Decades from now, we might reflect on these sweltering few months as the Summer of Dolly—a time when everyone’s favorite rhinestone-studded, sky-high heel wearing, bleach blonde beehive-sporting songbird showed that she can still cause a ruckus even at 68 years old.
Even if you scoff at her role as a theme-park mogul, National Medal of Arts winner, and head of the production company that helped create Buffy, there’s no denying that Dolly helped blaze a trail for the kind of brassy feminism in country music that’s trickled down through generations of women tackling social issues and speaking truths about the struggles of womanhood with a Nashville twang.
In the midst of an international stadium tour, she’s made headlines with rumors of secret tattoo sleeves, playing Yakety Sax, speaking out in support of same-sex marriage, hinting at a biopic in the works, and having an open discussion about her decision not to have children. Last month, she hand-delivered the one millionth book from her global reading initiative, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, to a child in Liverpool, England. (Really, what can’t Dolly do?)
What has perhaps grabbed the most headlines recently has been her defense of goddaughter Miley Cyrus. She spoke out in support of Cyrus’s sexy dancing when she told The Sunday Times, “Back in the day, doing my own things my own way, and dressing sexy and showing my cleavage and all that, I got a lot of criticism. Lots of people thought I was making a mistake. So I did go through that… everyone has to walk this journey according to their own rules.”
Since Dolly first blossomed into the big-bosomed, flamboyant singer-songwriter we know today, a contingency of people—including many feminists—have focused exclusively on her outward appearance, deriding her as a poor role model for women because of provocative outfit choices and an unapologetic attitude towards plastic surgery. Part of Dolly’s aesthetic and appeal is that fact that she is unafraid to shy away from the style of make-up and clothing that makes her feel confident and comfortable, no matter what anyone has to say on the topic. While at first glance the combination of bleach blonde hair and breast augmentation might seem to be an attempt to fall in line with a hyper-sexual, appearance-driven society, Parton turns this concept on its head, chocking it up to a devil-may-care attitude: it’s her choice, her body, and her way of doing things. Parton holds other women to a similar standard, asking them to dress, think, and feel however they damn well please, whether that’s in push-up bras or cargo pants (or both).
This 1976 headline in Country Song Roundup magazine pretty much sums it up.
In response to a career’s worth of these short-sighted comments, Dolly has perfected the art of brushing haters off her shoulders long before Jay-Z could’ve considered the move. In the process, I believe she has shown generations of women that empowerment can come in many forms, including some that are sequin-covered. Her loud-and-clear message is that it’s okay to be embrace your own style—which in her case, is being a defiantly independent and honey-sweet boss lady who is unafraid to own her Southern roots—despite the fact that it might contain some contradictions. It’s okay to be complicated, Dolly assures us.
Her highly specific appearance, in tandem with her rural upbringing, has led to people stereotyping her as “silly.” This label has been a particular hurdle for Parton in her business dealings, with the singer-turned-entrepreneur famously stating, “I’ve done business with men who think I’m as silly as I look. By the time they realize I’m not, I’ve done got the money and gone.”
Touché, Ms. Parton.
Just two of Dolly Parton's 42 studio albums, all of which feature amazing covers.
Of course, Dolly’s country music foremothers were no slouches on the feminism front. There’s a tendency among people who aren’t country fans to see the genre as being just home to redneck tunes along this lines of Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue.” On the contrary, there are numerous feminist country singers who came around long before either Dolly or Toby Keith. Kitty Wells’ near-perfect anthem, It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels, was a tit-for-tat answer to Hank Thompson’s belly-warbling lament about a woman who “would never make a wife” because she was wrapped up the glitter of nightlife. Wells sings:
It's a shame that all the blame is on us women
It's not true that only you men feel the same
From the start most every heart that's ever been broken
Was because there always was a man to blame
The song—which made Kitty Wells the first female country star and pushed back against the overwhelming prevalence of songs about female scapegoating for the poor behavior of men—was not only banned from the NBC airwaves when it was released in 1952, but from the Grand Old Opry.
Dolly’s first radio hit, Just Because I’m a Woman, arrived on the scene 15 years later and plays upon the same theme explored in Wells’ battle cry: the sexual double standard between men and women. Singing to her boyfriend, Parton chastises him for his attempts to shame her about her past:
Just let me tell you this
Then we'll both know where we stand
My mistakes are no worse than yours
Just because I'm a woman
From the late 1960s onward, female country artists began to follow Parton’s lead, with a sea of songs tackling hot button issues head on. The 1970s found Loretta Lynn (14 years Dolly’s senior) at the heart of this movement, with aggressive, feminist songs about divorce (“Rated X”), alcoholism (“Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’”) and—most notably, birth control, with Lynn stating in numerous interviews that rural doctors credit her song “The Pill” with educating more women about birth control options than all the literature they could’ve offered.
Dolly was once again at the forefront of creating pro-women anthems in the 1980s, speaking for her sisters in the workforce with the perfectly campy, painfully relatable “9 to 5” which outlines the struggles of the glass ceiling with a karaoke-ready refrain:
They let you dream
Just to watch 'em shatter
You're just a step
On the boss-man's ladder
But you got dreams
He'll never take away.
The struggles of sexism in the work force and the day in, day out hurdles of working women has found a home in country music that’s been unable to replicate in other genres, from pre-Dolly days (Peggy Seeger’s “I’m Going to Be An Engineer”) to the slew of songs addressing the topic in the 1990s, including Trisha Yearwood’s XXXs and OOOs:
Phone rings baby cries TV diet guru lies
Good morning honey
Go to work make up try to keep the balance up
Between love and money.
While the 1970s saw a rise in the number of men also taking a feminist turn in country music, the past twenty years have seen a reversal of this trend. While female country singers continue to hit on the issues of female self-worth, empowerment, and socially conscious issues (domestic violence is a particularly frequent topic of song).
Dolly Parton’s ability to simultaneously stay true to herself and stay relevant over the course of six decades has assuredly inspired the women of country music to continue making songs that are pro-women, with Parton as a kind of mother hen and feminist touchstone for the likes of feminist torch-bearers Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, Miranda Lambert, and Neko Case (who, much like Kitty Wells, is banned from the Grand Ole Opry).
When Musgraves performed at the Grammys earlier this year—decked out in a hot pink, rhinestone-covered dress and cowboy boots, singing her song “Follow Your Arrow”—it was easy to recognize how Parton’s supportive, pro-female stance has helped craft country music’s next generation of leaders.
Related Listening: We made a mixtape of 15 versions of “Jolene.” That's right.
Sarah Baird is a writer, restaurant critic, and culinary anthropologist living in New Orleans. Her first book, Kentucky Sweets: Bourbon Balls, Spoonbread, and Mile High Pie came out earlier this year.