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Dolly or Bust

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Dolly recording with Stephanie J. Block in February.  

Except, of course, that she didn’t. She certainly left the mountains, as quickly as she could; she moved to Nashville the day after she graduated from high school, in 1964, and met her husband a few hours later outside the Wishy-Washy Laundromat. By 1967 she was a rising country star. But the other “mountains” arrived later, as photos of her as a young woman prove. In a group portrait from her senior-class trip to Washington, D.C., she is dead center in the front row: a small, pretty, well-proportioned girl, with big hair, a nice but not freakish bust, and perhaps a tendency to facial plumpness.

Not anymore. There is nothing on her face today that is not streamlined and taut. “If I have one more face-lift,” she likes to say, “I’ll have a beard.”

Dolly has an apartment in Manhattan, but often prefers to stay in her deluxe tour bus, which she moors in New Jersey when she’s visiting the city. One day in February, a black Escalade ferries her to a 9 to 5 work session at the New 42nd Street Studios. She’s in her version of office attire: a teal leather jacket with a matching T-shirt, knee-length pants, and buff open-toe platforms. After offering more MoonPies and GooGoos, she sits down to discuss changes to the score since the show tried out in Los Angeles last fall. She puts on a pair of glasses that are so heavily trimmed in rhinestones they appear to be made of nothing but.

For someone who had never written a show tune—and who, by her own admission, had slept through some of the few Broadway musicals she’d seen—the prospect of composing the songs for 9 to 5 was daunting. She wondered if it was “beyond my country, white-trash nature.” But not for long; directly after Robert Greenblatt asked her, she “went home and dragged out my old script and just kind of piddled around to see if I could even do it,” she says. “And I wrote a few things, sent ’em to him, and I said, ‘Am I anywhere in the ballpark of what types of things you’re needing?’ ” If not, she assured him, she wouldn’t be offended; they could go ahead with the production using another songwriter and still feature the title song.

But the woman who had improvised that exuberant tune and jotted the lyrics on the back of her script during a quick break in filming the movie—the rhythmic figure was worked out on her acrylic nails because she didn’t have her guitar nearby—turned out to be as fluent in this genre as she had been in the many others her restlessness had led her to over the years. You don’t put out 75 albums and write some 3,000 songs (“But only three of ’em are any good,” she jokes) if your imagination is stingy. She knew how to find musical and lyrical hooks for dramatic situations. As a description of a harried office worker’s morning routine, “Pour myself a cup of ambition” is hard to beat, even if ambition is meant to rhyme, in country music’s less-exacting style, with kitchen. Finding new ways to allow for dramatic development within a song—not just variant restatements of the same theme—turned out to be harder: “I’m even more limited than most ’cause I just know a few chords and I done wore them out!” But the show’s music staff helped her, taking her recorded demos and fleshing them out into Broadway-style routines.

The limiting factor for Dolly, as always, wasn’t inspiration—she’s a melody machine—but organization: keeping track of all the lyric phrases, title possibilities, guitar licks, and snippets of tunes she’s constantly scribbling on legal pads or recording on the kind of key-chain gadget you use for remembering what groceries you need. “I’ve written as many as seven, eight, ten songs a day,” she says—and indeed, at Dollywood I heard her hum a tune unconsciously while waiting out a commercial break during a televised interview and then suddenly take note of it. Steve Summers says he often finds scraps of paper covered with writing when he checks her outfits after they’ve been worn, on their way to her 24,000-square-foot, humidity-controlled clothing warehouse.

When I ask her on another occasion how she makes use of material that could so easily be lost, she says that she used to let it lie around in boxes. “But my little friend right there”—she points to Judy—“she’s got her little crowd together now, and they go through it, put them all on a tape and then title them. Or they just write if it’s a slow song or a fast song or a slow-fast or half-assed!” She guffaws. “In fact, we went over to see Jane Fonda’s show the other night”—she means 33 Variations, in which her 9 to 5 co-star plays a musicologist doing research in the Teutonically organized Beethoven archives. “And we got such a kick out of it because of how they categorize. We got so many good ideas of how to file and store things!”


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