In my other life, I am a musician. It is a tough gig, and I rarely get paid for it . . . but I adore music in many different forms. I have played dozens of piano recitals, sang in choirs, marched in high school band and college, performed in concert band in high school and college – was even section leader my senior year of college. I have sang in a ton of dive bars, restaurants, churches, homes, backyards, receptions, and more than one biker rally. I decided I wanted to learn to write music, so I did – and love it. I live in Nashville – Music City USA, and I’ve had my share of interesting musical experiences here. I’m singing at a writer’s night next week, in fact. And I have choir rehearsal this Saturday. I’m writing a musical. I love love love love music. And it all started with one woman.
I lie vehemently about my age. It is the only thing I lie about. So we’ll just pretend I watched this show in reruns.
My parents love country music, so it is what I grew up with. They didn’t just play current (for the time) country, they played what they grew up with as well. So I listened to Hank Williams Senior, and Patsy Cline, and Glen Campbell, and other wonderful wonderful classic country. My Dad liked this show. I remember sitting on the floor in front of our big console television, sitting in the glow of warm lamplight, eating peanuts in the shell, and watching this gloriously glamorous lady come down in a swing and sing about butterflies. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and she made me so happy. I wanted to make people feel that way.
Dolly Parton has a way to make you feel like she is singing just to you – that when she’s sweetly crooning, “And I willllll alwaaaaaaaaays loooooove yoooooooooou . . . ” she is looking right at you – that she’s singing only to you. She has an intense entertaining style I’ve never seen in anyone. Dolly reaches out an immaculately-manicured hand and grabs an entire audience. She is businesswoman brilliance and a songbird showgirl wrapped in boobs and a blond wig. I adored her. I still adore her.
I stumbled into Nashville eleven years ago, and wound up living in a shabby little house that had been converted to apartments. The landlord lived in a basement apartment. I affectionately called him the downstairs hermit. The day after I moved in, he told me that Dolly Parton had made a movie in the house. I was busy unpacking, and listened to him talking while I unpacked. It seemed to me there was maybe one shot in the movie of the corner of the house or something. A few days later, he gave me a video tape he’d recorded of it, and I put in on the shelf, promptly forgetting about it.
Several months later, I had an evening to myself and decided to watch the tape. Image my surprise, when less than ten minutes into the thing, THERE SAT DOLLY IN MY KITCHEN. Not only that, she had an autoharp and WAS SINGING.
(Jump to 7:30 if you don’t want to see the beginning.)
I watched her sing, entranced. When the scene was over, I paused the tape and stared at the television. Looking to my right, it was not lost on me that I was bathed in the lamplight of the very lamp that had brightened that living room so many years ago. I stood up as if in a trance, and walked to the kitchen. I drug a chair over to where I’d seen Dolly sitting just moments before, and sat in the very same spot. I touched the linoleum, trying to reach back in time so I could grab a piece of Dolly Parton. She was there. She had been RIGHT. THERE.
The movie was horrible. One of those made-for-tv-movies that have no sustenance. But it was proof that I walked the same rooms that my childhood idol did. It still boggles my mind.
A few months after moving to Nashville, I found myself working at a publishing company on Music Row. I never sang a note or wrote a song behind those walls. I was a front desk girl, lackey, and fixer of anything technological. I answered phones, stopped the coffee pot from catching on fire (twice), threw people out of the lobby who weren’t supposed to be there, and removed a dead squirrel from a closet. I worked for Buddy Killen – the man who helped launch Dolly Parton’s career. Half the office didn’t like me. I have that effect on people. I can be weird and reclusive and then sometimes outgoing and obstinate. I suppose some of them knew I was a singer and was suspicious of my motivations for being there. I tried not to care – and was kind and cheerful to everyone. I lit candles in the lobby and restocked the toilet paper in the bathroom. I bought the correct lightbulbs for downstairs at a hardware store across town. I gritted my teeth when a songwriter whined about how miserable their life was and restrained the urge to punch them square in the face for shitting on their life that was my dream. I gave everyone little baskets of Easter candy on their desk, and carefully planned an office party for everyone’s birthday – even as they all forgot mine. I knew there were shenanigans going on being closed doors, but I hated the politics game and hated dishonesty even more, so I stayed out of it and tried not to appear as if I picked sides. Then Buddy was gone. The office shut its doors for the very last time, and none of it mattered anymore anyway.
Dolly came to Buddy’s funeral. Dressed in black, wearing her standard stiletto heels (I’ve heard she’s walked in them so much her feet aren’t comfortable in anything else), she sat in the front row, surrounded by people to protect her. I watched her after the funeral as she walked out, surrounded by the protection people. She was wiping her nose, and wiping her eyes. She was human. And she was sad. And I’ll bet her day was filled with reporters and interviews asking her about how she felt about losing someone important to her. And for a second, I got mad at the entertainment world. But it is what it is, and people in that world do what they do and people like Dolly do it exceptionally well.
I did see Dolly sing at the Grand Ole Opry. She was hosting. It was at the Opry House at the edge of Nashville, which I learned was where Dolly had filmed her show I loved so much. Usually a business hosts the Opry, and that night it was some airline. I got a package of pamphlets and stuff as I walked to my seat. I didn’t open it. I was too wired to see Dolly. She came out and sang a little, and hosted a lot, and I was just tickled to finally see the beautiful bouffant-haired one. Intermission came too soon, and I decided to check out my packet while I was waiting.
Inside was a little package of peanuts.
It took me a moment to realize that this was a promotional item from the airline that was sponsoring that night’s show, and not a reminder of my childhood from the heavens above. I held that tiny package of peanuts, eagerly waiting for the lights to dim and Dolly to come back on. I waited until she started singing again to eat my peanuts. I didn’t have to crack them out of the shell like my Dad and I did, but the nostalgia was the same.
Yes, I am a nostalgia nut. It makes for interesting stories, don’t you think? I’m gonna guess yes, cuz you’re still here.
Years later (and by that I mean last week), I was poking around on YouTube, and it dawned on me that someone might have uploaded a clip or two from the Dolly! show. (The exclamation point was seriously part of the official title.) It wasn’t easy to find it, because she had done another show in the 80’s. I finally stumbled across a clip, and then a whole playlist of clips, and even though I was missing the lamp and the peanuts, I was transported back to that same feeling of childhood cheerfulness. I happily watched video after video of Dolly in her horrifically 70’s outfits, singing along with the songs I knew, tapping my foot with the ones I didn’t, and marveled at how the lighted swirls of the backdrops could still look so familiar after all those years had passed. After some time, I decided to research the show a bit, to see what interesting things I could learn about it. And I found a Wikipedia article dedicated to the show “Dolly!”.
Towards the beginning of the article was this passage:
Despite the work that went into the show and the diverse collection of guests, Parton was said to have been less than pleased with the end product, as she found herself singing standards like “My Funny Valentine” (which she felt didn’t suit her voice or musical style), and interacting with guests with whom she had little in common. She told Nash during a 1977 interview for the biography Dolly:
- “I liked all of the people that were on… but I would have had a totally different lineup of guests myself. It was really bad for me, that TV show. It was worse for me than good, because the people who didn’t know me who liked the show thought that’s how I was… I mean, I still come through as myself, even with all the other stuff, but not really like I should. Not my real, natural way. And the people who did know me thought I was crazy. They knew that wasn’t me. Including me. I didn’t know that woman on TV!”
The show lasted only one season despite very high ratings, falling apart when Parton asked out of her contract for a variety of reasons, including the toll that eighteen-hour days were taking on her vocal cords.
I cried. I actually cried. The beautiful lady, the opening about butterflies, the gorgeous costumes, my childhood dream . . .
She hated it all.
Dolly. Hated. It. All.
AND THEY WORKED THE POOR WOMAN TO PIECES. Eighteen hour days?!?!?!?!??!
I went back to YouTube and continued watching clips. Suddenly they had a different overtone.
Is that smile just a little forced? Does she think it’s ridiculous to sit on a HUGE sparkly version of her first name for five minutes? Those are definitely bags under her eyes. But her showmanship covers all that up, and halfway through I forget she’s miserable and I’m tapping my foot and humming along.
While I’m sad at this new information, I’m not sad that I loved that show. I still love watching clips from it. It was what introduced me to Dolly Parton, and introduced me to music, and I love both those things. The show stands as a symbol to many things – in 1976, it was the most expensive show that had ever come out of Nashville. It was a female-lead show in a time where that was (and still is) a rarity. It was silly, and it was sweet. It was corny, and it was clever. It was fluffy, and it was fantastic. It was a pop cultural icon of that time, and I will always look back at that show fondly. Even now as songwriting is a dying art . . . . there are 80% less full-time songwriters in Nashville than when I moved here . . . even now as I struggle to find a place where my creative brain can happily survive, even now as more people than ever are struggling to find ways to survive – much less follow their heart, I can sit at my brainless independent-contract desk job and jam in my headphones.
Love is like a butterfly . . . as soft and gentle as a siiiiigh . . .
See you at Day 7.