Since the late 1960′s the incredible soprano of Nashville’s “Iron Butterfly” has been a staple of American country music. Alternately praised, imitated and condemned, her curvaceous, painted silicon persona is equally a fixture of the media. Dolly Parton is warm, amazing, lovely, flagrant, epic, strange.
And I love her, and not just because I grew up in Lake Wylie, South Carolina. She comforts me. I basically spent the last decade walking around in New York in the freezing cold listening to The Grass Is Blue. There is strength in her musical narrative, and there is struggle and commiseration, too. Dolly Parton feels like a mother tucking you into bed.
And yet, I have another memory of Dolly Parton from my southern childhood, which is that I used to get her confused with Tammy Faye Baker, the grossly made-up wife of the ignominious televangelist Jim Baker, who built Heritage USA less than ten miles from the house I grew up in.
In Charlotte, there was a t-shirt meme that caught on around 1984. It looked like… (Ohmigod I love the internet. Words wouldn’t do this justice.) …this:
Now, I don’t know how up you are on the rise of the religious right during the Reagan administration, but Jim and Tammy Faye Baker were way in the thick of it. And while they were at it, they also managed to steal millions of dollars from a lot of people. Jim Baker went to jail for it. Hence, why people living in and around Charlotte, NC “ran into” them at the mall a lot. They had some spare cash.
In retrospect, it’s notable that the jokes being lobbed at Tammy Faye Baker were similar to the criticisms of Dolly Parton. Both women were mocked for their appearances, even though Dolly Parton is clearly an artist playing with a larger-than-life identity, whereas Tammy Faye Baker was, well, a sham artist.
People could be really mean, I remember. You know those childhood moments where kids talk about boobs and sex or whatever stupidly, because they’re like eleven, but still manage to pick up on the themes of misogyny they’ve learned from adults? One girl I knew who hit puberty early was called a “Dolly Parton” and “slut” interchangeably. Awesome.
Now, I first started this piece, because I read that Dolly Parton and her long-time husband Carl Dean were in an open marriage. Of course, that fascinated me.
Some information: Dolly met Carl Dean on her first day in Nashville at the Wishy Washy Laundromat. He drove by her once in his white Chevy pickup, and then again for a second look. The couple is famously private, and Dolly Parton is quoted as saying he’s seen her on stage only “a time or two.” They have been married for 45 years.
“Wow,” I thought, “no one has ever told Dolly Parton what to do or how to do it.” And it’s true. Her music is like infusing Patsy Cline with a little bit of Riot Gurl. Nine to Five is basically a feminist movie. And, she is one of the top stars in country music, yet she advocates for gay rights.
It would make sense then, that she would also define the terms of her romantic interactions. Add that to the reasons that I love her.
I needed to know more.
But, then came the yuck. I sat down to do research on this supposed “open” marriage. And what did I discover?
As far as I can tell, libel. Or, at least a lot of statements that could be interpreted a lot of ways such as; “I don’t want to know it, if he’s cheating on me. If I’m cheating on him, he wouldn’t want to know it.”
And, “If we cheat we don’t know it, so if we do cheat, it’s very good for both us.”
These quotes would then be partnered with quotes about how she designed her aesthetic after a “hooker.” No mention of whether or not the statements were made in the context of each other. Sigh.
This 2007 article in The Daily Mail was particularly nasty. Note, she was in Rotherham for a charity mission when this article was written.
One choice line: “Goodness knows what she might have worn had she not been launching a children’s book programme.”
In 2010, Dolly refuted accusations of her open marriage on Oprah. Her statements were taken out of context, she said. “That just means we let each other be who we are and how we are. But I’d kill him if I knew he was with somebody.”
She adds, “I’ve never had to worry that he loves me because I’m a star and I’ve got money or make money or whatever. I know he loves me for me, and that means a lot to me.”
Dolly Parton and Carl Dean have been together 45 years, raised five children and survived the pressure of worldwide celebrity. Open or not, it appears their marriage is happy. In addition, Dolly Parton has also sustained forty years in the music industry through a blend of talent, business acumen and flair for celebrity. That’s one successful, modern, lady. And instead of inference based on physical stereotypes, I want to focus on that.
Alison Steedman is the editor at The Gaggle. She lives in Los Angeles with her boyfriend and their histrionic cat, Charles Dickens, where she still carries on a nostalgic and long-distance love affair with her 20's in Brooklyn, NY. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @yosteedman, and you can also send her your writing at firstname.lastname@example.org, both of which make her very happy.
The-Gaggle.com is a website that explores modern romance in the Millennial era – which, let’s be honest, looks nothing like we were taught to expect. We feature essays, advice and social commentary with humor, compassion and brains, and we vow never, ever to publish a piece called “The 10 Best Ways to Satisfy Your Man in Bed”. Do click here to submit your work to us. We love you.