I Will Always Love You

I could not have been more than five when I acquired that album. I don’t remember if it was a birthday or Christmas gift, or if it was even a gift to me in the first place. It’s possible I just took ownership of it after coming across it in someone else’s vast 1970s record collection. What I do remember is studying it intently–the brightly colored photos on the front were fun and catchy, but the watercolor image on the inside looked like a painting of an angel. I carried it around and played it on various relatives’ turntables. I would carefully pull the record from it’s outer cover with the thin crepe sleeve still on, and then ease the vinyl out with my index finger and thumb, careful not to touch any of the tracks. I always started on the second side, listened patiently to the first track because I wasn’t allowed to place the needle in the middle of the record with my unsteady little hands, not for a few more years, and waited anxiously for my favorite song:

Two doors down, they’re laughin’ and drinkin’ and havin’ a party
Two doors down they’re not aware that I’m around
Here I am cryin’ my heart out feelin’ sorry
While they’re having a party just two doors down

That was easily 38 years ago, and I still know every word to every song on that album, from the hit single “Here You Come Again,” to the B-side of “Two Doors Down,” a bizarre nursery-rhyme ringer about a runaway child who dies in her sleep with her puppy after escaping her drunk parents and asking to stay with the song’s narrator, whom I can only assume was her neighbor. I had no idea what “Me and Little Andy” was about then, any more than I knew “Two Doors Down” was about a post-breakup one-night-stand hookup. I didn’t care. I sang along without missing a syllable and fell deeply, irrevocably in love with Dolly Parton.

A few years later, I’m guessing somewhere around 1982, everyone in my family got HBO, and one day when I was probably supposed to be watching “Fraggle Rock,” I stumbled across “9 to 5” and proceeded to watch every airing of it until it no longer appeared in the little “HBO magazine” that came in the mail every month. By the time I was eight I could pretty much reenact that entire film, right down to Dabney Coleman’s line about sending those three bitches to jail. I vividly remember responding to a question from my dad with the bold response, “How the hell should I know?” I think he probably smirked for a hot second before he told me I wasn’t allowed to say that word, and where did I hear that, anyway? “Dora Lee and Violet say it in ‘9 to 5’,” I replied matter-of-factly (although I don’t think they actually do, but who am I to debate my 8-year-old mind?). Much like every word to every song on “Here You Come Again,” I can start “9 to 5” at any point and pick right up with the script, much like Dolly herself, who was so nervous about her first film role that she memorized her own lines and everyone else’s, just in case.

My love for Dolly did not wane with time. It was not some Beiber phase. It was no NKOTB/Hanson/Menudo infatuation, only to fizzle and die and be replaced by some bigger name, some flashier, more popular band. No, it just grew, bigger and deeper. Even when she experimented with bluegrass, my least favorite genre, even when she made really bad movies (I’m looking at you, “Rhinestone”), even when she kept doing weird things to her face, I remained faithful. There is no one like Dolly Parton. Her image, her personality, her story, her way with words, her gift for songwriting, her unmistakable and incomparable voice–no one holds a candle to her. She has long been forthcoming about her desire to look a part, and she has perfected that part with knife and botox and gemstone alike, and it continues to work for her. She can change the slope of her cheekbones and the fullness of her lips, but she will always look like Dolly Parton. She has told her story in her native twang, which has never been supplanted by some contrived Hollywood English, and she has been honest about her success without once seeming to discount her roots. She has proclaimed her love for people and her love for Jesus, much like we are instructed to do in the Bible, and has consequently accumulated a fan base that includes a whole army of Dolly Parton drag queens as well as little old church ladies who still remember when she used to sing with Porter Wagoner. She is smart and funny and so ridiculously talented–nothing could convince me that she is not worthy of my adoration. I will sing her praises forever and ever, amen.

And yet. When my daughter was born I vowed I would never attempt to force my likes and dislikes on her. I gave her food I didn’t care for, dressed her in every color, even the ones I never wore, bought her all kinds of toys and books, and exposed her to a variety of experiences. And I played her every kind of music. Traditional children’s music, children’s music by contemporary artists who were suddenly creating songs for their own offspring, classics and hits, classical masterpieces and funky jazz, all with my own favorites thrown into the mix without bias: The Carpenters, Johnny Cash, The Beastie Boys, some tame Will Smith rap, Reba McEntire, and of course, Dolly. According to plan, she made her own choices along the way: she loves broccoli and eventually developed a taste for avocado but despises tofu; she wears All The Colors (often at the same time) and mostly turns up her nose at my reliable grays and blacks; she rejected my beloved Laura Ingalls Wilder but fell hard for Harry Potter; and her taste in music is as eclectic as my own. But I will never forget the day, three or four years ago, when she asked me to “play that one song that has the loud piano at the beginning. Nine something.” It was a pinnacle parenting moment, y’all. She wanted to hear Dolly.

Despite my lifelong love of Dolly, I have never read a biography of her–but my daughter has. When the 3rd grade genre unit rolled around and a biographical subject had to be chosen, it was Dolly she picked to research, write about, and present to her classmates. She knows her age, her humble history, and how many songs she has written. When the movie about Dolly’s coat of many colors aired last Christmas, we watched it together and cried when Baby Larry died. We are fond of ogling Dolly’s wardrobe choices and rhinestone-clad guitars and over the top stage backdrops in countless YouTube videos, and I’ve lost count of the times my junior researcher has Googled “Dolly Parton with no wig” or asked Siri, “What does Dolly Parton’s real hair look like?” I love every second of this borderline obsession, because not much has changed for me. Twice now my husband and I have vacationed at a cabin resort in Sevierville, TN, Dolly’s hometown, and twice I have spent hours of our car ride and a nice chunk of Verizon data regaling him with Dolly trivia. What else is one to do in such proximity to the Parton homestead, I ask you? I think my daughter would agree.


Which is how it came to be that when she asked me one day on the way home from school if we could ever go see Dolly live, in person, at a concert, I vowed to her that I would make it so, even if we had to get on a plane and fly to Nashville to do it. And then, as if by some miracle, I saw a post on Dolly’s Facebook page (because of COURSE I follow her on every social media outlet available) announcing an upcoming 2016 AMERICAN TOUR, OMG, WHAT??? How can this be, I thought. I wonder how far we will have to go to see her, I asked the venue gods. A few weeks later the tour schedule was posted, and this is the conclusion I reached regarding this iconic firework of a woman I have loved my entire life: Dolly Parton is really a Guardian Movie Star like she was in Charlene’s dream on Designing Women that time, and she heard my child’s heart’s desire and launched this tour JUST FOR US, because the first stop of that tour is today, June 3, 2016, and it is here in the city where we live, and we are going, and our excitement cannot be contained.


For weeks now she has asked to “hold the ticket, just to look at it,” and I have obliged because, could this ticket BE any more representative of Dolly Parton? It is pink and sparkly and holographic in nature, and the only reason my girl has not attached it to a lanyard and worn it on her person before today is that it is literally her ticket in the door and losing it would be devastating on many levels. This morning when I went to make sure she was awake, a task I usually don’t care for given her usual demeanor at 6:15 a.m., I leaned in and whispered, “We’re going to see Dolly today!” and from deep within her cocoon of blankets and pillows she squealed with joy. I have no doubt she is working her evening plans into every conversation she has today. She cannot contain her excitement. I, on the other hand, have cried spontaneously at least three times at my desk today just thinking about the moment a few hours from now when Dolly Parton and I are in the same room. Forty years of abject adoration, and I have never seen her live, and the anticipation is more wrought with feeling than I thought it would be. I am afraid I’m going to be like Kristen Bell on her birthday when she found out a sloth was coming to her party. That is the level of emotional intensity I am operating on today.

I have a vague memory from very early childhood that involves a conversation with my grandfather about Dolly Parton. It is so vague that I can only recall thinking she was not real, like one of those characters walking around an amusement park in costume, a giant mask in a state of smiling, laughing, and singing, her hair and makeup and sparkly clothes no more than a television costume, her songs just recordings like the ones on my record. I remember (I think) him explaining to me (I think) that Dolly Parton was a real live lady, and then I remember–this I remember clearly–being awed by the understanding that I could actually meet her, or at the very least, see her in person, that she could sing and talk and laugh in my presence. It has taken a lot of years, but she is going to do just that in a matter of hours–and I am going to share that moment with my daughter, and if Dolly Parton really is our Guardian Movie Star, she will play “Two Doors Down,” and my girl and I will sing every word.

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