There’s a fantastic opening two lines to 9 to 5, the theme tune Dolly Parton wrote for the ground-breaking 1980 comic movie which Dolly later transformed into a stage musical, that always stop me in my tracks. “Tumble outta bed and I stumble to the kitchen/ Pour myself a cup of ambition.” It’s genius!
Somehow Dolly manages to bring a gritty positivity to the battle of sexes while also being ironic, all to a thigh-slapping beat. And as I talk to the global sensation that is Dolly Parton, I constantly catch sight of the razor-sharp mind and wry sense of humour, cloaked in those famous perky Southern vowels and big hair, that power this country music icon.
“That’s one of those lines as a songwriter when you just think, thank you, God,” Dolly explains. “When I wrote that song, I was thinking about how you’re getting up and stumbling to the kitchen because that’s what you always do to pour a cup of coffee, and then all of a sudden that line just came to me. I got so excited. It’s all about your first cup trying to wake up, whether it’s coffee or tea or cola, to get you started and motivated. And I said, ‘oh my God, a cup of ambition!’”
When she played the song on set for her co-stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, they were blown away. “Lily and I had goosebumps,” Jane has said since. “We knew it would become a huge hit and anthem.” It did. Today 9 to 5 is a feminist anthem, a term Dolly doesn’t identify with even though she says she’s “all for women”.
Since the film is about three female employees who plot to get even with their “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot of a boss”, who in Dolly’s words later in the song is one of those executives who, “just use your mind and they never give you credit”, it’s ironic that Dolly opts to pass the line off as a gift from a higher – male – power. “I was thinking, that must have come from somewhere else, because that’s one of my more clever lines, so I always try to credit that to those powers that be. I always say, yes, thank you a lot for that one, up there!” she says.
Dolly does this undercutting a lot. It’s not that she doubts her own powers, nor that she’s afraid to put them on parade. Rather, I think it’s an inbuilt humility learned from her pious upbringing which clicks in whenever she feels she being too boastful. Her maternal grandpa – Jake Owens – was a Pentecostal preacher and she was raised on “love, spirituality and creativity” and – of course – that pride is a sin.
Dolly says that her own morning cup of ambition “involves a lot of stuff. I’m a very early riser and I’m a very spiritual-minded person. I really like to start my day with my meditation and my prayers and my little ritual that I do to get myself anchored. So, I pour myself a cup of ambition in a lot of ways, through prayer and making little plans, communicating with God as I perceive him to be. I ask for guidance for the day so my cup runneth over with a lot of good things, and ambition is one of them.”
That ambition – and significant talent – is what catapulted Dolly from poverty in the Great Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee, the fourth of 12 children born to Avie Lee Owens and tobacco farmer Robert Lee Parton, onto the lucrative Nashville country music scene. “We were very poor people but the thing is everybody in those parts was poor. It’s more a personality trait back then than it was anything with me,” explains Dolly. “I was always a dreamer, talking about how I was going to be a star and sing on the Grand Ole Opry. The other kids just thought, that’s far-fetched – so I think it was more that people didn’t understand dreamers at the time. I’ve thought about that a lot. I was different in that I always thought that I was going to do something else and go somewhere else and be something else. I really wanted to do something more.”
The Opry was a famous country music stage founded in 1925 as a weekly one-hour radio barn dance to showcase local music talent. It later morphed into a concert hall and it did indeed prove pivotal in launching Dolly’s career.
“I actually got to sing on the Grand Ole Opry when I was about 10 years old. For me, the Opry is like the song New York, New York – if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere,” says Dolly. And at 13, Johnny Cash introduced Dolly on the Opry stage. She was on her way.
Music was like breathing in the Partons’ house, but for Dolly it held a special fascination. It was part of her heart and soul, a means to express herself and to tell the stories swirling round her head. As the story goes, she composed her very first song at five years old. Little Tiny Tasseltop was all about the corn doll with corn silk hair that her mum made for her. By age seven Dolly was playing the guitar and started to glimpse life beyond Locust Ridge.
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