For my thirty-third birthday in 2007 I drove down to Nashville from Wisconsin to see Dolly Parton on the hallowed stage of the Grand Ole Opry. After the curtain came up, a stream of Nudie suits, cowboy hats, and colorful boots kicked off song after song like a well-oiled fiddle & steel guitar machine. Little Jimmy Dickens came out and sang about getting his birds-and-the-bees education out behind the barn.
I usually eat this kind of stuff up, but that night I was growing terribly restless for Dolly, who was going to showcase the televised part of the program later in the evening with Marty Stuart, Patty Loveless, and Porter Wagoner.
I sat for over an hour, politely applauding, politely waiting.
The announcer finally called her name after a commercial, and Dolly came strutting out in a white fringed mini-skirt and jacket and mile-high stilettos, all done up in glitter and sparkles and a great big smile.
The whole place just went nuts.
I don’t know what was brighter, Dolly or the thousands of flash bulbs popping at once. Everyone jumped out of their seats for the first time all evening and cheered and hollered so long we couldn’t hear her start her opening song, “Jolene.” Then she slid into “Coat of Many Colors,” followed by “9 to 5,” the audience clapping and singing along in awe because we were witnessing Dolly upstage every single performer of the night.
At the end she serenaded a teary-eyed, visibly moved Porter Wagoner with “I Will Always Love You,” which, in hindsight, was one of the most profound moments of my life, because little did all of us in the audience that evening at the Grand Ole Opry know it was to be their last televised performance together. Porter died a few months later.
Of course this could be the story of any fan and any star at any place. Fill in the blanks how you will. But to me, there is only one star on this planet, and it’s Dolly Parton. The first time I noticed her it was 1987, when I was thirteen years old. My father hauled me, my brother, and my mother down to Tennessee to visit some distant relatives, and we stopped at Dollywood on the way. From the gift shop my mother bought a tape of her Trio album with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. About halfway through, Dolly takes the lead on “Wildflowers,” one of her own compositions. I remember the Gatlinburg traffic jam, and sitting in the back seat of our car, a boring gray Chevrolet Celebrity. It was like Dolly just reached right in and pulled me out through the window when she sang, “I grew up fast and wild, and I never felt right in a garden so different from me.”
The song is about feeling out of place. It is about taking to the road. It is about trusting the wind. “Wildflowers don’t care where they grow,” sings Dolly, with harmony from Linda and Emmylou, “just a wild mountain rose seeking mysteries untold.”
That was me. I was on the cusp of teenage angst, mad at the world, sheltered in books, and withering in the drought of a small-town, middle-class, Catholic-school childhood with no room or time for frivolous dreams. And Dolly was someone who understood me. I’d suddenly found my wind, and Dolly was telling me to hitch a ride with it. She wasn’t content either to be lost in a crowd.
As I write this I can’t stop thinking about how the Opry House never really caught fire the night of my thirty-third birthday until Dolly grabbed the stage. In a line-up of country music clichés, she stood out, even though she’ll happily tell you she’s a bit of a country cliché herself (just look at all those sequins and rhinestones). But she entertained us like no one else because she was herself and we knew that. When she said “Good night” we knew she’d been sincerely happy to treat us to the one and only Dolly Parton.
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the museum reviewed Stephen Roger Powers‘s collection Hello, Stephen and interviewed him for Issue Six: