I’m considering myself on windshield-time blog duty this week, so only two things:
1. I think I ruined this song with the last line. Up til then it was a funny or fun song, and the last line makes it a joke song. It took me awhile to decide that, and it was too late to change everything by the time I came to that conclusion. That’s what I get for doing these things too fast. (But it’s not like you can understand the lyrics anyway.)
2. I can’t stop watching this video of Dolly Parton doing “Coat of Many Colors.”
Most people probably know the outlines of Dolly’s career: born in a one-room shack in the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee, one of twelve children; first big exposure was on The Porter Wagoner Show as the replacement for Norma Jean; writer and singer of a string of hits in the seventies (“Coat of Many Colors,” “Jolene,” “I Will Always Love You”); international pop and Hollywood mega-stardom in the eighties; return to bluegrass and spiritual music in her most recent years. If she’s not the most gorgeous woman with the most gorgeous voice in American history, she’s certainly the most charming human being to ever walk the planet. Nobody doesn’t love her.
I remember watching The Porter Wagoner Show when I was very young (Dolly joined it the year I was born and stayed with it for about seven years), and of course I grew up as Dolly was becoming one of the more major lesser Elvises as far as cultural impact goes (in fact, Elvis wanted to record “I Will Always Love You,” but Colonel Tom Parker wanted Dolly to give up half the publishing rights; she refused and is still laughing about that, I bet.)
But I don’t think I ever heard her on her own like this, and I know I’ve never seen her play guitar like that.
That video (the pop-up stuff and the announcer are annoying, I know) is from the British institution Top of the Pops in 1979. Dolly is the queen of country music by then, and just around the corner is the pop crossover success she’ll have with Kenny Rogers (among others) and the string of movies she’ll make in the early eighties and into the nineties, Nine to Five, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Steel Magnolias. And there she is singing a song that could be among the worst songs in history if it weren’t one of the greatest in country music—that is, the song is a perfect litmus test for determining how you feel about country music: Do you hear truth or do you hear sentimentality in that song?
I don’t know how I’d have answered that question before seeing this clip, and for me the tell isn’t in Dolly’s performance. Great singers can fake the feeling and make you believe the song; that’s their job. No, it’s the way she’s playing that guitar. That style of playing, bass notes forming the melody, index finger scratching the treble strings in a syncopated strum, is pure Mother Maybelle Carter. It’s a style dignified in its austerity and somehow beautiful in its un-prettiness and near-clumsiness (those dizzy, wandering bass notes trying to find a place to settle before the next beat or the next one), the style of people who learned how to make do, whether with cheap instruments, dead guitar strings, minimal talent or minimal everything. It’s the most influential style of guitar-playing in country and folk music, but it is strange to hear it today in its pure form outside of those olde-tyme 78s from the 1927 Bristol sessions. From this clip it’s clear that that style comes as naturally to Dolly Parton as the sung notes come to her angelic voice. It’s clear that she’s not thinking about it as a style at all. To somebody born in a one-room cabin among eleven siblings in the Smoky Mountains of the 1940’s, it’s just the way you play guitar.