The undervaluing of women in country music has turned into a perpetual topic of concern, as male artists continue to thoroughly dominate what’s coming out of Nashville. But it was not always so, as proven by “Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives,” a new book of essays by female writers about the down-home divas that rocked rural America, if not the world. Edited by veteran music journalist (and Variety contributor) Holly Gleason, the compendium includes a few celebrity essayists — like Taylor Swift, Rosanne Cash, and Grace Potter — as well as preeminent journalists and authors weighing in on their country heroines.
The following excerpt from “Woman Walk the Line” looks at Dolly Parton through the eyes of an impressionable city girl. That “girl” is accomplished TV journalist Nancy Harrison, who helped launch “Access Hollywood” in 1996 and has overseen the show’s music coverage since 2005.
Growing up in a suburb of Manhattan during the 1970s and 1980s, I was weaned on a steady diet of teenybopper pop. Shawn Cassidy and Leif Garrett were my prepubescent appetizers (yes, my room was wallpapered with their posters) before I began indulging in heftier fare like Squeeze and U2.
My parents were a bit old-fashioned. If I wanted to explore, I had to look elsewhere. And so I did, turning to friends and, at times, their siblings and parents, for musical guidance.
During my formidable years, disco was king. While I was too young to get past the velvet rope at famed discotheque Studio 54 in Manhattan, I did manage to convince my parents to drop me off at the “teen” nights for the under-18 set at local nightclubs on the north shore of Long Island.
Decked out in sateen pants and glittery top, I did my best to mimic the style of the disco dancers I saw on TV. But my natural inclination was more preppy than disco diva, so I had trouble pulling it off. And while the Bee Gees and Donna Summer were certainly fun to dance to, I found their songs too glossy to listen to.
So I didn’t own any of their albums or tune into disco on the radio. Thanks to an older neighbor, I discovered the Beatles who had broken up years before. Their musical experimentation and diversity opened up my ears to a variety of sounds and genres I had never been exposed to. I began stretching beyond the limits of my environment.
It was 1980. My mother was driving me to the dentist for my annual visit. I was sitting in the front seat, searching the radio for a song I could sing along to. Near the end of the trip, I heard this angelic voice rising from the car speakers.
It was clear and strong and more pure than anything else on the radio. The song she was singing was catchy, the lyrics clever: “Tumble out of bed and stumble to the kitchen/Pour myself a cup of ambition.” Who was this woman singing about her 9-to-5 job? With the urgency only a teenager can feel, I just had to know.
We arrived at our destination just as the song was ending. I wouldn’t let my mother turn off the car’s ignition until the disc jockey identified the artist (there were no display screens or song identification apps back then).
A few minutes later, I had the answer. “And that was the new one from Dolly Parton,” the DJ said.
Dolly was already larger-than-life when I discovered her. A Grammy and CMA winner beloved by millions, she had a unique voice with a childlike quaver and underlying soul that delivered heartbreak and joy with equal aplomb.
Her delivery wasn’t as slick as the disco that dominated the airwaves at the time. It was genuine—almost sweet—and completely heartfelt. Whatever Dolly sang—whether it was about a 9 to 5 job, a colorful patchwork coat sewed by her mother or a woman competing for her man—it was totally believable.
I was hooked. I couldn’t wait to see her in the movie “9 to 5,” for which the song of the same name was written. It was Dolly’s feature film debut, but her co-stars were Hollywood heavyweights: Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dabney Coleman.
The actors were tasked with balancing the film’s humor with its serious message about gender equality. Jane and Lily delivered as expected but Dolly was a revelation, a natural who more than held her own.
In fact, she popped right off the screen. With her blonde wig, southern sass and innate charm, there was something real and relatable about her. She didn’t come across as a music star trying to act; rather, she inhabited the character with the skill and confidence of a screen veteran.
It was decades before the internet, search engines and music streaming. So I headed to the local record store.
I found a treasure chest of musical gems: “9 to 5 and Odd Jobs,” “Dolly, Dolly, Dolly,” and “Here You Come Again.” The more I listened, the more fascinated I became. What struck me most was the fact that she wrote the songs that she sang and she was a woman! At the time, few females were double threats (Carole King, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell) and certainly none looked or sounded like Dolly.
Intelligent, bold and confident, she conquered a male-dominated space and did so without camouflaging or hiding her femininity. She proved you did not have to look or act like man in order to be successful. In Dolly’s world, lipstick, wigs and high heels were immaterial to the talent that lies within.
Just a mere 5 feet tall, her talent was towering. She created an image and brand long before it was a cottage industry, paving the way for Madonna, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry.
Even more impressive (though less obvious) was the songwriting. Prolific even in the 1960s and 1970s when country’s biggest stars relied on hired hands for their biggest hits. Intuitively blending masterful storytelling with unforgettable melodies.
Never was that more clear than in 1992. Whitney Houston was the biggest pop star on the planet and, like Dolly a decade earlier, she was making the jump to the big screen in “The Bodyguard.”
She also sang the movie’s theme, a soaring love song called “I Will Always Love You.” Ubiquitous, it spent an astounding 14 weeks atop Billboard’s Hot 100. In my 20s, and I was beginning my career in entertainment news.
Getting the press notes on the soundtrack, I was shocked to see Dolly was the author of what became Whitney’s biggest hit. How could this have been conceived as a country song when it worked so perfectly as a pop song?
My most memorable interaction came years later after my anxiety melted away. I was far less starstruck. In 2014, working as a producer for “Access Hollywood,” we had a special segment where we asked songwriters about the story behind their classic hits.
For sentimental reasons, I chose “9 to 5.”
We did the interview in a dressing room right after her appearance at the TODAY Show in New York and there was activity all around us—until Dolly started revealing how she came up with the song idea.
She started tapping her long acrylic nails together as if they were instruments and said that’s what she was doing during a break one day on the set of the movie “9 to 5.” The room grew quiet as Dolly explained that sound reminded her of a typewriter—the writing instrument favored by secretaries before the proliferation of computers—and that inspired her to write the song.
I was struck by two things that day: first—Dolly kept perfect rhythm with her fingernails. And secondly—how amazing it was that she could turn something so mundane into a pop and country classic.
My most meaningful conversation came after an interview in New York in 2008, not too long after my mother passed away.
She and Dolly had the same birthday (though a few years apart). And I mentioned it to Dolly. I told her how special my mom was and that I had recently lost her to cancer. And I will never forget how Dolly responded.
She looked at me with compassion and asked if she reminded me of my mother. Although my mom was blonde and petite, she wasn’t southern or bold or done up (she favored the minimal make-up look). And yet, when Dolly asked that question, I found myself saying yes.
Because, like Dolly, my mom was strong yet feminine and candid but never mean. And she was enveloped by this ray of light that was bright and sunny no matter how nasty the forecast. (Not even cancer could dim it.) Dolly has that too.
So I told Dolly that, yes, she did remind me of my mom. With a lump in my throat the size of an apple, I wasn’t able to say much more. Dolly grabbed my hand and told me she was honored—honored!—to be compared to my mom.
In reality, though, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today without Dolly or my mom or the examples they both set. I wouldn’t be as independent or successful. And I certainly would not be as happy. And while I do believe that Dolly was truly touched that I would compare her to someone I deeply loved, it is I who was privileged to have even been in the presence of such true greatness.