More than 50 years later, Dolly Parton is still pulling fans’ heartstrings

Jane Borden

THE WASHINGTON POST – “The Dollyverse is this idea that you can see every story through her,” said Jad Abumrad, Radiolab co-host and creator of the new podcast Dolly Parton’s America. While investigating the 73-year-old country music legend, he explores murder-ballad history, banjo origins and his father’s childhood home in Lebanon. In this last pursuit, Abumrad becomes like every Parton fan. He develops a profoundly personal connection with her work.

Over a music and screen career spanning more than 50 years, Parton has attracted a diverse fan and touches every generation from traditionalists to Zs. They all hear their lives in her songs; we see every story through hers. And we have more opportunities to do so now than ever.

Netflix streams Parton’s new anthology series, Heartstrings, as of late November; Christmas at Dollywood premiered on the Hallmark Channel on December 8; she co-hosted the Country Music Association Awards on November 13; NBC aired Dolly Parton: 50 Years at the Grand Ole Opry on November 26; and Abumrad’s podcast, co-produced with OSM Audio and WNYC Studios, launched October 15. Plus, her Tennessee theme park, Dollywood, opened a USD37 million expansion this year and she announced plans for a lifestyle brand.

Welcome to the Dollyverse.

“It blows me away that we’re not all celebrating her as a songwriter as much as we do, say, Bob Dylan,” Abumrad said in a phone interview. “From 1967 to 1973, she’s walking down the hall and number one songs are falling out of her head.”

Dolly Parton. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Parton has made 44 Top 10 country albums, and 25 number one hits on the Billboard Country charts. In 1973, she wrote Jolene and I Will Always Love You on the same night.

Television has always been intrinsic to the singer-songwriter’s success. A seven-year stint on The Porter Wagoner Show launched her career in 1967. In the aughts, her appearances as Aunt Dolly on Disney Channel’s hit Hannah Montana introduced her to younger fans. “My 17-year-old knows every word to Jolene, ” said Michelle Vicary, an executive vice president at Hallmark’s parent company, Crown Media.

Now, Parton is mining her songs for narrative content. Heartstrings, a Netflix series on which she is also an executive producer, comprises eight hour-long features inspired by and named after the artist’s tracks. She introduces each episode and appears in some. At the beginning of These Old Bones, starring Ginnifer Goodwin and Kathleen Turner, Parton speaks about growing up without a TV, saying, “Writing songs was like making my own little movies with my guitar.”

And while her musical canon contains the popular tropes – thrillers, Westerns, romances, family fare – you won’t see every hit song on Heartstrings. The project’s showrunner, Patrick Sean Smith, said Parton wanted to save I Will Always Love You and Here You Come Again for a second season. She also suggested they add a line to the Jolene episode that teases a sequel. “I was like, ‘Yes, and I feel like an idiot for not thinking of that myself,’” Smith recalls, “but I can’t think like Dolly Parton, and I accept that.”

The country singer is familiar with the process of adapting her music into other projects. In 2015, Parton and NBC turned her 1971 smash hit into the TV movie Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors. It broke records for NBC with 13.1 million viewers, and a Christmas-themed sequel followed in 2016. Talks to adapt Jolene bounced around Hollywood before morphing into the current Netflix series.

“She is egoless. I never even got a hint of it,” Smith said of Parton’s approach to the work. “I asked if the narrator (in the song) keeps telling Jolene she’s beautiful as a way to manipulate her. And Dolly was like, ‘No.’ I asked, ‘There’s not a power dynamic when she said, Oh you can have any man?’ And Dolly was just like, ‘No, that’s not in there.’ “What remains in the narrator is unadulterated vulnerability.