When it comes to women in music, few are as recognizable, beloved, or as mighty as Dolly. Every now and again I stop and think about what Dollywood is, just in concept. For somebody to grow up in poverty only to chase her dreams and use her passions and talents to the fullest of their ability, and later in their life open a theme park in their hometown is a ridiculous notion. Although what really does it for me is that Dollywood isn’t just a park with rollercoasters and carnival games; it is actually themed after Dolly herself. I mean how bold can you be?
When it comes to discussing why I selected this particular record for today, I’ll just defend my choice by saying that of the Dolly records I’ve listened to, this one is the purest. I will be totally transparent and say that I felt obligated to include a Dolly album because of her story outside of music, and I began this blog talking about Dollywood because it is such a fascinating and remarkable testament to Dolly’s success and power, not just a woman in music, but as a cultural icon. Dolly is one of those people who is just flat out recognized, regardless of whether or not you know anything about her music. Her story is one that we’ve heard a number of times in a number of ways, it’s a gold standard result of the American Dream, but that familiarity doesn’t make it any less wonderful. Dolly embodies an ideal, she is ferociously proud of her home and her roots, remains ever optimistic and hopeful, and while you can say what you will about what percent of Dolly’s body mass is made of plastic, she made a lot of nice music that’s brought a lot of people a lot of joy. This album contains 27 minutes of that music, and oh boy do I enjoy it.
Dolly’s 1971 album lacks any true unifying concept or theme, but it doesn’t suffer from it. Dolly presents a collection songs which serve as independent stories, none of which really play into a greater overarching narrative or meaning, but all of which are really fun. In my opinion, the best song on this album in just about every way is the opener, the titular track, “Coat of Many Colors”. This song is a rare case in that it is pretty much entirely autobiographical. It tells the story of a young Dolly, growing up in poverty in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, but isn’t at all of a downtrodden mood. Dolly sings how her mother made her a coat by stitching together a number of rags and patchwork, the best they could do without being able to afford a store bought coat for her daughter. The young Dolly loves the coat and feels like she’s on top of the world, so proud of her new gift, excited to show it off to the world. The kids at school make fun of her, one of the worst things that can happen to a child’s ego, and Dolly’s response is, to say the least, unusual. Where most children would grow embarrassed or get mad at her classmates, Dolly feels bad for them and tries to get them to understand the beauty of the coat. Whether or not Dolly realized it at the time, this story illustrates exactly how she became so successful and beloved: by sticking to her guns and not worrying too much about what anyone else thinks. She’s just unapologetically Dolly.
Coat of Many Colors manages to touch on a number of different ideas despite its lack of a concept. Motherly love, heartbreak, the beauty of nature, with a splash of sex and spirituality (not at the same time, though) make their ways into the songs on this classic record. While none of the songs stray much from early 70’s Dolly’s country sound, the album doesn’t go stale as long as you’re paying attention to the lyrics. Dolly’s instantly recognizable voice and style shine through on this album and by the time the extremely brief 27 minute runtime comes to its conclusion, your ears will feel like they’ve just had a perfectly portioned meal. Not stuffed, not hungry, just about as perfectly filled up as anyone could ask for.
Before I wrap up this blog, I’ll just offer a quick tie in to this month’s theme. Dolly’s power comes from within; from her belief in herself which earned her the status as a cultural icon that she enjoys today. Dolly Parton made her own way, coming from pretty much nothing, in a literal rags to riches story. As I’m sure we’ll find in some capacity with each of this month’s albums, the girl part of the girl power here is incidental. Yeah she’s a woman, but that part is a lot less important than the power of Dolly’s story. Like I’ve said before, the best strong female characters are just strong characters who happen to be female. That’s just exactly how Dolly comes off to me.
Thanks for reading, I hope you like the record.
Oh boy oh boy, we’ve got some good stuff up ahead.