Dolly, I will always love you

In 2019, the Dolly-verse expanded yet again. One direction it took was the streaming series Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings which stretches and reimagines eight of her most successful songs as stories. “Family, faith, love and forgiveness come to life” according to Netflix promo material.

The other is a podcast called Dolly Parton’s America. Here’s the promo for that one: “In this intensely divided moment, one of the few things everyone still seems to agree on is Dolly Parton—but why? That simple question leads to a deeply personal, historical, and musical rethinking of one of America’s great icons.”

After watching Jolene, the first of the Heartstrings stories, I thought, “Okay, I might watch some more of these, but the phrase ‘binge-worthy’ doesn’t leap to mind.”

The podcast is another story. If you care about music – and more importantly country music – love, women, men, LBGTQ, forgiveness, bringing people together, and whatever your version of a Tennessee mountain home might be, you should give it a listen. It’s largely the brainchild of a second-generation Lebanese man from Dolly’s part of the South. His father became Dolly’s friend after he stitched her up following a minor vehicle accident in October, 2013.

I first encountered Dolly in the flesh when I reviewed her concert at the Peterborough arena for the Peterborough Common Press in October, 1975. Before writing this column, I perused that review for the first time in 44 years. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever written. I bemoaned what the acoustics of the arena did to her voice, captured some of what her stage presence meant to her fans, favourably commented on the power of songs like Tennessee Mountain Home and I Will Always Love You and mentioned her figure without descending into what Dolly herself calls “tit jokes”.

I turned down the opportunity to go backstage after the show. For 44 years off and on, I’ve occasionally wondered why. At the time, I told myself that I had my story from the show itself and didn’t need to speak to her. True, but not the whole truth.

I grew up on a farm near West Lorne, attended a one-room school and a church that were the centre of the community. We listened to the Grand Ole Opry on AM radio when my brother could pick it up from Nashville on Saturday nights. On weekends, we occasionally had dances in the school to the music of a fiddle, guitar, piano and sometimes banjo. Some of the songs were from Scotland and some from the Deep South. My uncle and my grandfather ‘called square dances’. Until Grade Seven, we kids walked to school barefoot on gravel roads in spring and fall and ran barefoot all summer – my dad’s idea, don’t ask. We may not have been tough kids, but we had the toughest soles for miles around.

My background wasn’t all that much different from Dolly’s. Listening to Dolly Parton’s America in 2019, I was struck by something else. She comes across as essentially kind. If I had had the nerve to go backstage and admit I was too shy to ask a question that made any sense, I think she might have given me a huge smile, and said, “Don’t you worry about that, hon. Come over her and let me tell you a little about myself.”

It could have worked out just fine, like waking up to the light of a clear blue mornin’.