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Dolly or Bust


Dolly as a schoolgirl.  

And yet here she is in the isolation booth, trying to improve on it herself. As the engineers play back Block’s prerecorded track, along with the musicians’, she starts to improvise harmonies, calculating when to join Block’s line and when to cut out, when to match rhythms and when to counter them. You can almost sense her internal computer processing the choices: Higher or lower? Fill the pause or leave it? Whisper or wail? She keeps trying variations on her riffs, which she calls “my little curls”—an astonishing armamentarium of baroquely detailed turns, runs, melismas, appoggiaturas, and corkscrew roulades worthy of Joan Sutherland, except not so much performed as shed. You’d think you could pick them out of the carpet when she was done.

But she doesn’t ever seem to be done. She waves her fingers every few seconds to signal she wants to start again. She madly fidgets with the dials on her monitor as if it were a mandolin, trying to hear what she wants to hear. Her eyes are mostly closed. “I just gotta find the flow to it.” If she’s a tiny bit shy of a high note, she sucks on a Halls lozenge and tries it over. “It’s way up there,” she mutters. She is always dissatisfied. When the crew and Stephanie firmly believe they have more than enough good takes, she says, almost plaintively, “I’ll be happy to do it again.”

“But that one was gorgeous!” Block shouts.

“Let me find a gorgeouser one,” Dolly grouses. And sure enough, when allowed to sing the whole song through (“I’m not the kind that does things in bits and pieces”), she makes it all fall together: the madly fluttering vibrato, the eerie Sprechstimme, the piercing holler, the unanswerable woe.

By now Block is crying. It had not been her intention to ask Dolly to record: “I didn’t want to be one of the thousands of people who want things from her.” But colleagues convinced her and, after spending hours one day crafting the perfect e-mail, she woke up the next morning to an answer from Dolly saying “Of course” and even suggesting the song. “She said, ‘Perhaps you’ve heard it; it was the theme from The Bodyguard,’ ’’ Block recalls. “I don’t know whether it was humility or humor!”

It’s not clear that, for Dolly, the two are different. In any case, such contradictions are central to her character and, not incidentally, to her fame. They have made her tabloid fodder for most of her career: the wholesome advocate of family togetherness with no children, an invisible husband, and a ubiquitous “best friend.” The traditional country singer who scandalized Nashville by branching out into godforsaken pop. The woman of faith who eschews organized religion and modeled her looks on local prostitutes. The good-time gal who amassed a diversified entertainment empire that rakes in hundreds of millions a year.

She happily explains all of these, if asked: Her husband of 42 years, Carl Dean, hates publicity, but they are a happy couple who make room for each other’s needs. They wanted children but are now glad they couldn’t have any, because look at what kids get into! (They did, however, help raise many of her younger siblings.) The best friend, Judy Ogle, has basically been her sidekick and archivist since they met at age 7. Country music is her base, but a natural curiosity keeps her looking for new territory. She talks to God, but not in church, and judges no one, least of all about sex. As for the income: It takes a lot of money to look this cheap. “Now what else do you want to know?” she asks cheerfully. “I’ll decide whether to answer.”

But the explanations, most of them familiar from years of use, don’t make anything less mysterious. They don’t touch on the question of how she created this Whitmanesque character, admired well beyond her natural precincts as one of the great vernacular American songwriters, from a dirt-poor, hyperactive mountain girl in a family of twelve, whose sharecropper father couldn’t read, whose mother always had “one on her and one in her,” and whose first song, written at age 5, was called “Life Doesn’t Mean Much to Me.”

Everyone says that to get to know Dolly, you have to see where she came from. So one day at the end of March, in time for the annual reopening of Dollywood, her theme park in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, I fly to Knoxville, Tennessee, and drive an hour to Pigeon Forge, which sounds like the name of a hillbilly hamlet where you’d sleep in a tree and expect to eat squirrel. No such luck. The town amounts to a several-mile-long strip of family-fun venues, if your family enjoys waiting in lines to squeeze into bumper cars and rear-end other families. As for food, well, the hotel that Dolly’s people tell me is the finest in the area—and it does have nice rooms along with its year-round Christmas decorations and hourly glockenspiel concerts—tops off its complimentary breakfast of things-robed-in-gravy with a glistening pile of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

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