Her breakthrough hit, back in 1967, was called “Dumb Blonde.” But there’s never been anything stupid about Dolly Parton. The fourth of 12 children born to a poor Tennessee farmer and half-Cherokee mother, she rose from her Appalachian roots to build an empire on self-penned songs like “I Will Always Love You,” a massive 1992 hit for Whitney Houston, starring roles in Hollywood movies and her Dollywood theme park.
Much of Parton’s appeal is due to her humor—joking about her flamboyant fashions and voluptuous figure. “I’m not offended by dumb blonde jokes because I know that I’m not dumb,” she once said, adding quickly, “I also know I’m not blonde.” Never one to deny her reliance on elaborate wigs, heavy makeup and plastic surgery, she called her 2008 album Backwoods Barbie and often quips that “it takes a lot of money to look this cheap.”
But behind the jokes lies a shrewd businesswoman and a deeply spiritual person. Parton has always recorded gospel music. The Gospel Collection gathers 18 songs reflecting her lifelong faith, dating back to “Daddy Was an Old Time Preacher Man,” her 1970 popular duet with then husband Porter Wagoner. The collection also includes such well-known covers as “Wings of a Dove” and “How Great Thou Art.” Some of the best tracks are the singer’s own compositions, including “The Seeker,” which she describes as her “talk with God.” A 1975 hit, it proves that hugely talented Parton can turn even a candid confessional into commercial gold.