See that? That little movie about a brothel getting shut down by an evil television celebrity is the movie that changed my life. And I didn't want to watch it.
Anyone who knows me knows I love Dolly Parton. Its one of the first things people learn about me. I have too many dogs and I love Dolly. Sometimes, when I tell people that she is my hero, people say "Who is Dolly Parton?" and I die a little inside. Even before my conversion experience, I knew who she was! But the next question I get is usually Why?
So here it is.
One summer, I was home from college and my brother suggested we watch a movie. When he selected The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, I protested. Seriously, it doesn't sound like a movie I would have enjoyed. I was 19 and pretty innocent. I thought a movie about a whorehouse would be inappropriate for me to watch. But my brother knows me well.
I begrudgingly agreed to watch the movie. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is a musical. I will enjoy almost any story if it is a musical. Except Cats. That movie was awful. But this musical also stars Dolly Parton as Miss Mona. She sang about her no-no rules and Sneakin' Around and I knew I had to know more.
One of the things I do when I find something I like is to learn everything I can about it. When I was young, fell in love with the movie Sister Act and went on a quest to see every Whoopi Goldberg movie. Some of those are ... not good. Especially as a kid. That was before YouTube. Now I can spend hours watching every television appearance, interview, concert, performance there is. And I do.
So I went on a quest to learn what I could about this new discovery. My brother lent me a greatest hits CD to start out. Guys. Dumb Blonde? Just Because I'm A Woman? Country Feminist Anthems in 1968! Coat of Many Colors! Jolene! Here You Come Again! Two Doors Down! 9 to 5! Guys! "I Will Always Love You" is just the beginning!
I went deep into a rhinestone rabbit hole and I dragged my brother with me. It was his fault after all. We saw all the movies. Yes, we saw 9 to 5 and Steel Magnolias (good) and we saw Straight Talk (mediocre) and Rhinestone (Sylvester Stallone can barely talk, but sure, have him sing some Dolly songs). I sat through an hour and thirty minutes of Frank McClusky, C.I. for one scene with Dolly. No one else do that. Dolly is perfect, but that movie is awful.
I devoured the music too. Old Timey duets with Porter Wagoner like Two Sides to Every Story, religious songs like Shine and Raven Dove, country legends like Islands in the Stream. The more you look, the more there is. Songs that feel your pain like "Starting Over Again" and songs that make you hopeful like "Light of a Clear Blue Morning." A bluegrass cover of Stairway to Heaven? Why not?
Wanna feel incredibly depressed? Check out Jeannie's Afraid of the Dark or Me and Little Andy. But, you know, trigger warning, because children and puppies die in those songs.
Did you know Dolly has written more than 3,000 songs? She literally writes music every day. You could spend hours and hours on spotify listening only to Dolly and not have to repeat songs. Oh, and she owns a theme park. And a charity that sends one book each month for the first five years of a child's life to every kid born in a participating city for free. All you have to do is sign up.
I could go on and on about the music. I could describe the movies in detail. Or my pilgrimage(s) to Dollywood. 9 to 5 The Musical! Her charity work.
As Dolly says, "there is a brain underneath the hair and a heart underneath the boobs." She is smart, building a business and a brand that has endured for more than 50 years. She is kind, giving away millions of dollars to rehome people after a fire hit her hometown. She is a musical genius: she plays guitar, banjo, piano, violin, dulcimer, autoharp, and even a little bit of saxophone.
But the real reason I love Dolly and continue to love her more than 15 years later is that Dolly is exactly who she claims to be. When she gets up in front of people and portrays herself as a person who tries to be good, to treat people right, to love her neighbors AND her enemies, that is the truth.
"Find out who you are and do it on purpose"
Most of the time, the more you learn about someone, the less shiny and perfect they seem. Eventually you find out about the things they said that you don't agree with, or the racist thing they said, or the affair they had, or that they aren't nice to people who work on their talk show. Whatever it is, they always end up being regular humans who messed something up. It doesn't mean you can't enjoy their product. Sister Act is still the greatest movie ever made. But its harder to keep looking up to them.
That is not the case with Dolly. Everything I learn confirms that she is who she claims to be.
And here is the story I learned that cements that character for me. Before I tell it, let me make it clear I have never heard Dolly tell the second half of this story. I heard it once, in a rare interview with Porter Wagoner shortly before he died. And once on an episode of drunk history.
Ok, here is the story:
Dolly Parton joined Porter Wagoner's television show after his previous "girl singer" became pregnant and had to leave. Because you can't have pregnant people on tv. It was 1967. They sang and performed together for 7-8 years. The way Dolly describes their relationship was that they loved each other and fought like cats and dogs. It seems like Porter wanted to control the relationship, the type of music Dolly recorded, where she toured, etc. Dolly, being who she is, had other plans. She was going to be a Star and she couldn't let Porter's plans for her get in her way.
This is the origin story of the song I Will Always Love You. After years of working together with Porter, Dolly decided it was time to venture out on her own. But she didn't know how to tell him she wanted to leave. So she wrote her feelings into a song:
If I should stay
I would only be in your way
So I'll go
But I know
I'll think of you each step of the way
And I Will Always Love You
That is all I'll be taking with me
Please don't cry
We both know I'm not what you need
And I Will Always Love You
I hope life treats you kind
And I hope you get all you ever dreamed of
I wish you joy and happiness
But above all this
I wish you love
And I will always love you
So she recorded the song. And she left.
Porter knew, though, that Dolly was a song writing machine and that she would be successful on her own and he wanted a piece of that action. After she left, he sued her for $1 million, claiming he was entitled to 50% of the money she made from her career for...well...basically forever. Cool move, dude.
Now this was 1974. $1 million then is more like $5.5 million today, and she didn't have it. But her husband owned a business, so they borrowed the money, paid Porter a million dollars and settled the lawsuit. Porter also frequently said unkind things about his former costar in the press, calling her greedy and ungrateful.
Dolly did not reciprocate the bad feelings or the unkind words. She went on her way, writing songs, filming movies, making all her dreams come true. Her star shone bright, while Porter's started to fade.
Years later, Porter had a little trouble in the not paying his taxes department, and needed some cash. (Really, famous people, you have to pay taxes). So to get the money, he was forced to sell the rights to his music. Knowing he needed a hand in a low time, old friend Dolly Parton showed up with the cash and bought the music library. Even though there had been lawsuits and angry words, Dolly had promised she would always love her friend, Porter. So she bailed him out.
Later, after more time had passed, Porter had recovered a bit financially and wanted to get his music back. After all, as Dolly says, "My songs are like my children. I expect them to support me when I'm old." So Porter reached out to his friend, then enemy, then friend again, and asked what she would charge him to repurchase his music.
Dolly responded with a fax to her friend. Dear Porter, you can have it back for free. Love, Dolly.
The wording might not be 100% correct, but that was the way Porter told the story. He still had the fax when he recorded the interview. She GAVE his music back. The music she had bought from him to help him out. The guy that had sued her and bad-mouthed her.
This is a person who kept her promise. When she told Porter "I will always love you," she meant it. She loved this person, who treated her as an enemy. She forgave him. She was with him when he died.
When I hear "I Will Always Love You," I don't hear Whitney Houston belting it out as only she can. I hear a quiet, aching, heart-broken woman telling her friend she loves him, but she has to move on.
I wish you joy and happiness. But above all this, I wish you love. And I will ALWAYS love you.
This is the person I look up to. This is my hero.
And I found her in a movie about singing prostitutes fighting the television. And that's how The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas changed my life.