Dolly’s prolific songwriting abilities, sparkling personality, self-effacing humor and, of course, her ability to fill out a sweater managed to seep into pop culture enough to provide markers for virtually every phase of my life . She and Porter Wagoner(festooned in an amazing Nudie suit) advertised Breeze detergent boasting a “free towel in every box”, even as a child I doubted the quality of the towel that could fit into a cereal-sized box full of detergent. She was a fixture on the daytime talk shows my mom would be watching as I got home from school, later made memorable appearances on The Midnight Special and Hee Haw and when I was in high school her signature giggle could be heard on all of the late night talk shows. I recall the commotion when Johnny Carson offered “a years salary to peek under that sweater” and discussing her 1978 Playboy cover, when he asked if it had been airbrushed she quipped “Airbrushed? Heck, I think they had to use a blowtorch”.
By the time I was in college she had a string of hit movies and was a bonafied superstar. After my freshman year at Texas A&M I drove to Kentucky to visit my parents. After a long day on the road, rain coming down sideways and barely able to stay awake I checked into a motel and stumbled to the phone booth in the parking lot to call my dad. When he asked where I was I didn’t have a clue. I looked around and saw plastic letters on a lit-up sign across the street “Union City Welcomes Dolly Parton”. “Union City” I said with conviction. Apparently there are several Union Cities so when he asked what state I was in, again I was stumped. There was someone in the adjacent booth so I stuck my head out in the rain and tapped on the foggy glass door. As the door snapped open I felt like a mental patient asking Dolly Parton what state we were in. “Why Tennessee Honey” she said with that smile usually reserved for less sentient beings like animals and toddlers. I sheepishly thanked her, ducked back into my booth and recovered the dangling receiver, “According to Dolly Parton I’m in Tennessee”. As both Dolly and I stepped out of our booths I could tell she was sizing me up to see what state I was in other than just Tennessee. After a moment she kindheartedly suggested that I “sleep tight and be careful driving”. By the time I got to my parents’ home their small rural Kentucky town was buzzing about the event.
While getting established in L.A. Dolly’s label commissioned me to shoot stills for a music video she was filming. Dolly was incredibly playful, personable, down to earth and witty – kind of exactly what you would expect. About half way through the day she asked if we had met before. “No. Well, yes…you wouldn’t remember.” I told her about Union City and her eyes lit up, “Let’s call your Daddy!”. You would have to ask my dad what that conversation was about but over the years I’ve learned that it’s a rare person that take’s the time to brighten a stranger’s day like that.
Dolly has been crowned the most celebrated female in country music history with career sales of more than 100 million albums worldwide. In 2006 Dolly was a Kennedy Center Honoree along with other notable artists, one of which was Smokey Robinson. Someone at the organization discovered that I had photographed the two of them together years ago and requested that the above image be included in the program.