When asked if she is an expert on Dolly Parton, singer-songwriter Addie Brownlee very decisively says “yes.” “I prefer to call it ‘Dollypologist,'” she continues. With the way she can rattle off facts about Dolly’s music and film career–as well as her insight into some of the iconic country singer’s most complex songs–there’s no doubt Brownlee’s devotion comes from a very loving and real place.
That is partially why the NYC based artist has been hosting her own celebration of Miss Parton’s birthday for four years in a row with a full show of Brownlee and friends performing covers of Dolly hits and deep cuts. Besides her own personal devotion, the idea for the annual concert had been spurred by the reaction of an attendee at one of Brownlee’s shows who responded to Addie’s cover of “Jolene” by saying that her “love for Dolly Parton is not ironic.” Already inspired by the honest writing of Dolly in her own lyrics, Brownlee set out to honor her musical heroine by tackling those often hard-to-sing songs on her own.
In preparation of the fourth time she hosts this show for Dolly’s 68th birthday, Addie has compiled a list of songs to help a person begin to understand and appreciate Dolly’s music. “Everybody loves Dolly,” explains the singer. “If you don’t love Dolly, it’s probably just because you haven’t heard of her.”
Here is Addie’s Beginner’s Guide to Dolly Parton:
10. “9 to 5”
“This song was really the working person’s anthem. [9 to 5] was just such a great movie and in many ways it spurred on a lot of worker movements. She wrote the song sitting there on the set. I love the story that Dolly had never been in a movie, and she showed up the first day with all of her lines memorized and everybody else’s lines memorized because she thought that was how it worked. She had all the women on the set sing on the record, so when you listen to “9 to 5,” all the female cast-members are singing in the chorus. Then she was nominated for an Oscar for that.”
“This was her first #1 hit, which was big for her. She had had hits previously that other people had written. Every writer has themes, and Dolly definitely has a sort of semi-scary, mountain man theme in her writing. “Joshua” was one of the first of those. It’s very interesting. She must have known a particular character like that in her youth. That’s why it’s important to hear that one.”
8. “Coat of Many Colors”
“‘Coat of Many Colors’ just talks about what her life was like when she was little. She was about as poor as you can get in the U.S., and it’s a story about her mother making her a coat from a box of rags. It’s such an uplifting songs, and I think it speaks a lot to who she is as a person. There’s a line in the song, “one is only poor only if they choose to be,” and I think she really lived her life like that.”
7. “Just Because I’m a Woman”
“I love this freaking song. The lyrics are very mild by today’s standards, but it was a big deal in the ’70s. The radio stations would not play it because they said it was too “women’s lib-y.” You know, but she continued to sing it, and it was a hit for her despite the fact the station’s wouldn’t play it.”
6. “Down from Dover”
“This next song, “Down from Dover,” which is also just a beautiful song that she wrote, the stations wouldn’t play it either. It’s about a young woman who got pregnant and was alone without the father. So it’s just interesting to understand that as she was writing, there was actually a lot of controversial stuff in her lyrics back then, though it doesn’t seem that way now.”
5. “Two Doors Down”
“I put this one in because it’s just a freaking fun song. It’s like, Disco Dolly. I think I listened to that song a thousand times when I was little and danced around my room [to it]. People should hear it!”
4. “To Daddy”
“I wanted to put in a couple of songs that aren’t some of her mainstream songs to get a flavor for all of her songwriting. It’s a complex song, not just about someone taking his partner for granted, but that person silencing herself and the effect it has on the whole family.”
3. “Appalachian Memories”
“This might be my favorite Dolly song; I’m not sure. It’s kind of a parable and very similar story to what her and her family experienced growing up. Her father went away to try and make money up North. It’s just such a tragic song about how hard it is to make it away from home. Again, it’s a very hopeful song. I’m an Atheist, and she does talk about God and Jesus in [the song], and in a non-sarcastic way, I still enjoy listening to it.”
2. “I Will Always Love You”
“It’s important that folks know that Dolly wrote this huge hit for Whitney [Houston]. Before it was a hit for Whitney, it was a huge hit for [Dolly], twice actually. It’s for Porter Wagoner, who was her musical partner at the time and had given her a spot on his variety show. It’s this amazing, timeless love song that was actually written about a business break-up. It endures.”
“I just think this is probably everybody’s favorite Dolly song. It’s just amazing. It just…loosens all of those things we’re supposed to think about ourselves and the ways we’re supposed to act as “self-possessed women,” and it’s just very real. It’s a very real song, and I think that’s one of the things that is most alluring about Dolly.”
“I Beg Your Parton: Addie Sings Dolly” starts at 7:30 p.m. tonight, Friday 1/17, at Joe’s Pub. Tickets cost $14.