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Country Is As Country Does: Dolly Parton's Backwoods Barbie

On August 17, 2023

By the dawn of 2008, the world hadn’t received a mainstream, pop country album from the godmother of country in roughly a decade. After over 30 years in music and dozens of acclaimed albums to her name, the early 2000s saw Dolly Parton returning to her Appalachian roots. While she’d always been influenced by the music of her home, she ushered in a new sonic era era with her acclaimed bluegrass trilogy. 1999’s The Grass Is Blue is as straightforwardly bluegrass as they come, while 2001’s soul-stirring Little Sparrow and 2002’s Halos & Horns blend bluegrass with a wider range of folk and vocal harmony-centric roots music influence, from Celtic music to gospel. The trilogy was followed by 2003’s For God and Country, Dolly’s 38th solo record and a collection of classic and original patriotic songs that grappled with the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks. A couple years later, she teamed up with a slew of other artists, from Kris Kristofferson to Judy Collins, to put a bluegrass spin on pop and folk hits from the ’60s and ’70 on 2005’s Those Were the Days

While Dolly worked to honor the genre’s foundational sounds, we witnessed the concurrent mainstream rise of a new generation of pop country stars, women for whom Dolly had long been laying the foundation throughout her whole career: Carrie Underwood, The Chicks, Miranda Lambert, Shania Twain. And by February in 2008, Dolly Parton made a return to pop country. 



If there was ever any debate as to whether our rhinestone-encrusted pop country monarch was going to return to the realm she practically invented, Backwoods Barbie was here to clear that right up. Dolly’s image on the cover appears almost superimposed on Barbie’s physiologically impossible proportions. She’s sprawled out on a truck bed and wearing a leopard print dress, fuchsia trench and clear pumps. (And it absolutely goes without saying but: Her blonde locks are piled as tall as one of the hay bales she leans on.) Much like the album’s contents, the getup is miraculously equal-parts fearless exaggeration and proud sincerity — a balance Dolly does best. Recall Susan Sontag’s 1964 observations in “Notes on ‘Camp’”: “The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious.”

In many ways, Backwood Barbie reads like an abridged sonic thesis of her career up until that point — an appropriate statement considering that it’s the first record she released on her Dolly Records label. The relentlessly uplifting album opener “Better Get To Livin’” provides an ode to action, her personal philosophical manifesto and some damn good advice. If her dedicated commitment to positivity in the opening track tricked you into assuming she couldn’t span a full spectrum of human emotion in her songwriting, her weeping heartbreakers “Made Of Stone,” “Cologne” and “I Will Forever Hate Roses” are classic honky-tonk ballads fit for 2 a.m. jukebox speakers and find her stepping into an array of forlorn characters. 

“Sometimes, I write a song just so I can sing differently than what people might expect,” she wrote in her 2020 book Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics about the song “Cologne.” “I also like to act in my songs, and in this one I got to be the colorful ‘other woman.’ I usually complain about another woman taking my man, but this was the other way around.” 

Sparkling and unexpected covers of Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks Of My Tears” and Fine Young Cannibals’ “Drives Me Crazy” also grace Backwoods Barbie, each recalling Dolly’s polished ’80s sound. Of everything on Backwoods Barbie, “Only Dreamin’” most resembles her immediately prior folk output; it’s a hushed and haunted tune inspired by a mountain ballad. She later told American Songwriter the song came to her in the back of a car in New York City, on the way home from a rehearsal for her then-forthcoming Broadway show, 9 to 5: The Musical

“All of the big city lights and all of the big music and it was my birthday and I usually try to write something on my birthday every year and so I was just riding in a limousine and I was looking out at the skyline, and I was thinking ‘lord here I am in New York City!’ all the way from the Smoky Mountains. And I was just singing in the back of the car while we were getting to the place and I started singing ‘Oh I know I am only dreaming,’ just to take myself back home. And it kept getting gooder and gooder! I thought wow! This is kinda an unusual feeling to [be in the big city writing something that ‘mountainish,’” she shared, recalling that she started to scribble “Only Dreamin’” on the back of her 9 to 5 script after she exited her limo. “This woman said ‘do you need anything?’ and I said ‘no I’m writing a song. I need to get somewhere,’ and she said ‘do you need a piano?’ and I said ‘no you don’t have a dulcimer do you?’ And so I just put it down.” The song’s a cappella origins remain palpable in the song’s final arrangement.  



She penned the album’s title track for the same Broadway show, which would premiere the September after Backwoods Barbie’s release. In addition to its narrative placement in the production, the song closely traces Dolly’s retort to the real-life judgements passed on her during the span of her career. The song’s opening verse describes the way she coveted the trappings of femininity as a young girl growing up dirt poor in Appalachia. 

“Womanhood was a difficult thing to get a grip on in those hills, unless you were a man. My sisters and I used to cling desperately to anything halfway feminine,” Parton explains in her 1994 autobiography, Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business. “We could see the pictures of the models in the newspapers that line the walls of our house and the occasional glimpse we would get at a magazine. We wanted to look like them. They didn’t look at all like they had to work in the fields. They didn’t look like they had to take a spit bath in a dishpan. They didn’t look as if men and boys could just put their hands on them any time they felt like it, and with any degree of roughness they chose.” 

Extending the teachings from her 1971 breakout, Coat of Many Colors, the rest of the song warns against passing judgements about her character based on her “excess” of the glamor and femininity she craved as a young girl. “When I wrote this song, I talked about all that I am and all that I wanted to be,” she shares in Songteller. “I might look artificial and corny to you. You might think I have no taste. But underneath the look is a person. There’s a brain and a heart underneath the hair and the boobs. The song is really about that.” 

Especially in the context of Dolly’s recent departure from pop country music, her discussion of feminine aesthetics in “Backwoods Barbie” also holds water as a lasting metaphor for the way pop sonics have been maligned in country music. The same way perceived “tackiness” or “cheapness” might be used to disavow someone’s talent or character, pop influence has a history of being leveraged by fans, critics and institutions alike to determine what deserves to be taken seriously as country music — and to delineate what is and is not classified as “real country.” Last year, members of the Recording Academy’s country committee rejected the eligibility of crossover country star Kacey Musgraves’ star-crossed for 2022’s Best Country Album, while allowing it to remain a contender for the Best Pop Album and Best Album categories. Before that, Billboard removed rap-country smash hit “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, a Black and queer artist, from its Hot Country Songs chart. According to a 2021 Billboard article, the Academy has a long history of classifying pop-infused country songs as pop instead of country. 

It’s fitting, then, that Dolly originally reported the title of this album would be Country Is as Country Does, featuring a track of the same title. Though she eventually changed the album’s title to Backwoods Barbie and the original title track wasn’t released until years later on her 2011 album Better Day, in many ways “Country Is as Country Does” feels like a mantra for Backwoods Barbie: a celebration of country music in all of its brilliant and varied forms, and entirely real where it counts. 

Profile Picture of Amileah Sutliff
Amileah Sutliff

Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.

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