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It's hard to imagine a time when the music industry didn't know what to do with Dolly Parton — before she was instantly acknowledged as not just a self-evident musical genius, but a larger-than-life multimedia icon. But when a 19-year-old Dolly Rebecca Parton first signed to Monument Records in 1965, those men who thought they held the keys to her musical future were befuddled.
"My voice is pitched real high and people thought it sounded childish," Parton explained in her first major interview with the Music City News in 1967. "They thought it sounded young — too young — so they thought I might have a better chance in rock 'n' roll since you really didn't have to sing any certain way to be rock 'n' roll," she quipped, laughing. Indeed, Parton's first singles are a mishmash of '60s pop stylings, a little rockabilly and a little in line with the era's girl groups, with her irrepressible voice shining through all the while.
Luckily, Dolly herself was never confused about why she came to Nashville the day after she graduated high school from her tiny hometown in Eastern Tennessee. "I really came to do country because I always sung country," the 21-year-old said in that same first interview, with characteristic gumption. "That's what I was and what I wanted to be."
That self-awareness and assurance makes Dolly's debut album Hello, I'm Dolly, which was released not long after that interview, sound entirely of a piece with her later work — and all her work. Almost entirely written or co-written by Parton herself, the release was an ideal opening salvo, brimming with conviction and spunk as well as hard-to-shake pathos. The icon's album-length introduction to the world makes it obvious that Dolly always knew who she was — her sound, her strengths and her ambitions — from the top of her teased and hairsprayed hair down to the tips of her toes. She just had to wait a few years (or decades, really) for the industry and the world to catch up.
While Parton was humoring her label by recording those early pop singles, she was writing songs — specifically, country songs that were getting picked up by other artists. The Nashville songwriter-to-country performer pipeline was somewhat established by the time Parton got to town. But that pipeline, for the most part, was only working for men. With the exception of Loretta Lynn, whose brash songwriting and powerful voice were starting to make her a sensation (and set the stage for Parton's boldness), there weren't many successful women singer-songwriters in country music in the mid-'60s — and Lynn hadn't spent much time writing for other people the way that Parton was.
The Music City News interviewer asked her about her writing, asking whether she'd sing or write if she was forced to choose. Parton seemed almost irritated by the question. "Well, I couldn't really make a choice because I have to write and I have to sing and I'd rather do both," she replied. "I don't really care to sing my own songs, but I do like to sing 'em because I think I can put more of the kind of feelin' I want in it, rather than a song that someone else has written for me."
Fittingly, Parton's breakthrough — the song that compelled her label to let her record the country music she'd been wanting to make the whole time — almost immediately became a standard of the genre. Her uncle and manager Bill Owens got a song they had co-written, "Put It Off Until Tomorrow," to little-remembered country singer Bill Phillips; by the end of 1966, it had been recorded by no fewer than six other artists (including Loretta Lynn and Skeeter Davis) and Parton's voice, which had appeared uncredited on Phillips' recording, was the talk of Nashville.
"Everybody heard that harmony part and said "Who is that?'" producer Jack Clement recalled in the Parton biography Smart Blonde: The Life Of Dolly Parton. "No one cared about Bill Phillips…she's a natural-born show-stealer."
Parton's version, as it appears on Hello, I'm Dolly, is raw and instantly recognizable. "I like ballads — real strong, pitiful, sad, cryin' ballads," she said in that same early interview, and on her debut album she anticipated any number of classic heartbreak tunes that she would write and perform over the years. One of those country songs that sounds like it's always existed, "Put It Off Until Tomorrow" is the first entry in the Parton canon.
The album's first single, though, could hardly have sounded more different from the weeper that got her noticed. "Dumb Blonde," written by Curly Putnam, was just as fitting for the singer, though, whose bright blonde hair and sharp wit are as much her signatures as her songs. "We went pickin material and wanted somethin' that would be different and gimmicky that would get me on the road and we thought that suited me," she told the Music City News. "I am a dumb blonde! No, but…." Her performance, conversational and teasing, showed her range and charisma; she'd just signed on as Porter Wagoner's "girl singer" before the album was released, and was developing her on-camera and on-stage persona in real time.
That same humor is evidenced across the record's A-side. "Your Ole Handyman," an ode to a woman who does all the work; "I Don't Want To Throw Rice," whose chorus continues, "I want to throw rocks at her"; and "Something Fishy," about a lover's suspicious fishing trip, all tap into the same kind of whimsical, borderline-novelty tone that Parton wore so easily.
The album's B-side, by contrast, almost tells a story about the trials and tribulations of a young woman's love affairs — feeling lust ("Fuel To A Flame") and subsequently potentially unfair regret ("I've Lived My Life"), and warning other women away from that same regret ("The Company You Keep"); feeling used ("The Giving And The Taking" and "The Little Things") and hurt ("I'm In No Condition").
The throughline on Hello, I'm Dolly is the 21-year-old Parton's consistency as a performer and writer. No matter the topic or style, on the album she is unmistakably herself from cover to cover — she told her story, her way, through her songs from the very, very start.
The only thing that's changed about Parton from the way she approached music when she was 21 years old to now, as she moves through her eighth decade, is the way she views those songs. No longer does she see the singing and the writing as two equal parts of the same impulse: "If I had to choose just one thing to be, I would choose to be a songwriter," Parton wrote in her 2020 volume Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. "I could happily just sit in my house forever, enjoy life and write songs. The songs lead to everything else."
Natalie Weiner is a writer living in Dallas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Billboard, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, NPR and more.
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