Referral code for up to $80 off applied at checkout

Dolly Parton Became A Movie Star And Made An Iconic Album At The Same Time

Read the Listening Notes for This Month's Vinyl Me, Parton Selection

On July 20, 2023

“I can’t think of two more dissimilar women than Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton, and yet I hear they’re going to make a movie together,” wrote one would-be critic in a 1979 nationally syndicated Q&A column, summing up the views of plenty of skeptics when news broke that Parton would me making her Hollywood debut alongside Hanoi Jane herself. What could the activist-actress possibly have in common with the self-professed Backwoods Barbie?

Get The Record

VMP Exclusive Pressing

A lot, as was obvious to anyone who had been listening to the sharp and inevitably politically charged observations that punctuated Parton’s songwriting from the beginning. “I’m just an average working girl trying to get along in this old world,” she sang in 1972’s “A Little At A Time,” an eerily prescient ode to the inescapability of debt in the working class — in one uniquely topical example out of many.

But less than a decade later, Parton’s decision to kick off her movie-star turn with the effervescent 1980 Fonda-Parton-Lily Tomlin vehicle 9 to 5 still provoked the aforementioned head scratching. Parton was fresh off the biggest pop success of her career to that point, thanks to a quite-intentional crossover with “Here You Come Again” and the Hot 100 bait that followed; with the increase of her reach, as so often happens, came a contraction of her perceived persona into blonde, big-boobed bimbo. That persona did not feel like a natural fit into a movie inspired by the very real organizing of working women in the ’70s and ’80s, including a still-active organization 9to5, the National Association of Working Women.

Of course, Parton’s performance in the film was a coup. That coup, though, was somehow topped by what she accomplished with the album she made to coincide with the film’s release — not its actual soundtrack, but an ambitious collection of original and cover songs tied to the movie’s labor themes. 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs was received as a return to country form for the singer after her pop dalliances, but to Parton herself it was something even bigger and more ambitious than that. “Now I can write and record whatever I want, whatever way I want,” she told the Chicago Tribune shortly after the album was released, explaining that her pop success had freed her from the churn and expectations of Music Row.

What she wanted, it turned out, was both fun and smart, country and irreverent. The album’s politics and tone are established with its undeniable, era-defining title and opening track, which somehow distills the ideas of 9 to 5 even better than the movie itself does in an absolutely addictive pop package. There’s the perfect, signature chug-a-lug piano groove from the Wrecking Crew’s Larry Knechtel that dissolves into danceable lite funk that has just enough bite to be believable (punctuated by click-clack typewriter sounds courtesy of Parton’s acrylic nails) — an addictive instrumental even before Dolly turns it into a timeless anthem.  

When she does, with lyrics that are so deep and potent and even more relevant today than they were in 1980, it’s hard not to get almost emotional at the sheer force and power of her words. You can’t pick the best line: Is it the chorus, “Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’”? Or “You’re just a step on the boss man’s ladder”? Or my personal favorite, “It’s a rich man’s game, no matter what they call it / And you spend your life puttin’ money in his wallet”? It never, ever gets old because it’s never stopped being true — true in the most vivid, lucid, unsentimental way possible, even while it’s presented as a celebration of solidarity.

“I was writing it for workers, period,” she told Playgirl of the song in 1981, diffusing the idea that it was specifically for women in spite of the movie’s scope (as quoted in Randy L. Schmidt’s Dolly on Dolly). “I knew that I could write a song about myself and my dad and my brothers and my sisters and my friends and the people who work nine to five,” she added to Rolling Stone.

At the time, Parton attempted to diffuse the implied politics of working with Fonda, and practice the tried-and-true (if currently abandoned) Nashville tack of, “That’s none of my business”; “I wouldn’t have gotten involved if I thought it was gonna to be a sermon of some sort,” she said in the same interview. “I think it’s very obvious what it’s sayin’.” 

The album’s message is just as clear, tacitly tying the experiences of miners, factory workers, migrant workers, office workers and sex workers together by collecting their stories in a concise, 35-minute album (a rendition of Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” another tribute to unity against oppression, was even among the outtakes). Whether on Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)”) or her own gospel-inflected “Hush-A-Bye Hard Times,” Parton is equally convincing, laying out the lyric and aesthetic template she’d follow for the rest of her career: upbeat and genre-agnostic, but never naïve.

9 to 5 and Odd Jobs concludes with a throwback to Parton’s songwriting past — further proof, if any was needed, that singing about poor people’s problems and joys has been a career-long project for the iconic singer and songwriter. Parton originally recorded “Poor Folks Town” with Porter Wagoner with a considerably more traditional string band in 1972; alone, the song’s jubilant tone shines through far more. 

“Everybody in the community stuck together,” she remembered of her own youth, the inspiration for the song, in Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. “Nobody had any money, but our lives weren’t based on money. We needed just enough to get by. … I think it’s one of my best-written songs, ever.” 

As a whole, the album offers a rich portrait of a fearless artist at her most ambitious, inside and outside of the recording studio. Parton had begun giving longer and more in-depth interviews with each new success, starting to share the imminently quotable tidbits that would become known as Dolly-isms. Just before the album and movie were released, she did a lengthy feature with Cosmopolitan, in which she offered a perfect extension of the “9 to 5” ethos when describing how she tries to live: “I don’t want to own anything,” she explained. “I want to share.”

Profile Picture of Natalie Weiner
Natalie Weiner

Natalie Weiner is a writer living in Dallas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Billboard, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, NPR and more. 

Get The Record

VMP Exclusive Pressing

Join the Club!

Join Now, Starting at $36
Shopping Cart

Your cart is currently empty.

Continue Browsing
Similar Records
Other Customers Bought

Free shipping for members Icon Free shipping for members
Safe & secure checkout Icon Safe & secure checkout
International shipping Icon International shipping
Quality guarantee Icon Quality guarantee