By 1977, Dolly Parton was no longer country superstar Porter Wagoner’s “girl singer.” An independent woman and an extraordinarily gifted singer-songwriter, the bubbly blonde had no shortage of oversized assets. The biggest of them were her dreams. Convinced she could, in fact, have it all, Parton redefined her sound, put a slicker pop sheen on her records and signed with new management in hopes of raising her visibility. Although she repeatedly told naysayers she wasn’t leaving country music, but was instead taking it with her to exciting new places, plenty of people still scoffed — especially in the conservative Nashville music community, which a few years earlier had taken exception to country’s embrace of pop singers (and CMA award winners) John Denver and Olivia Newton-John.
Fresh from her first-ever million-selling LP, Here You Come Again, with a title track that was a massive crossover hit, Parton’s transformation was a musical highlight of 1978. She donned eye-popping dresses and heavenward-pointing wigs to make frequent appearances on the Tonight Show and other TV staples of the day, which included the still-popular variety programs that were peppered with special guest stars, lavish musical numbers and silly comedy sketches.
In April 1978, Dolly was among the guests (with Rod Stewart and punk-leaning band the Tubes) on Cher… Special, a big-budget network showcase for another multi-hyphenated performer constantly reinventing herself. In addition to a performance of her hit single “Two Doors Down” and a clever “conversation” with Cher that consisted entirely of sentences strung together with song lyrics, Parton participated in a now-infamous medley titled “A Musical Battle to Save Cher’s Soul.”
Throughout the bizarre nine-minute clip, Cher is torn between good and evil, as both sides tempt her by using music to present their case. Naturally, the East Tennessee native with the angelic voice is on the side of heaven, donning a flowing white outfit and joined by a choir singing Curtis Mayfield’s R&B classic “People Get Ready.” Cher herself takes a turn, covering George Harrison’s spiritual hit “My Sweet Lord,” and the Tubes, done up in evil black leather, make their bid to send Cher straight to hell.
In spite of the campy, full-tilt weirdness of this particular performance, Parton earned an Emmy nomination for her appearance on Cher… Special. She further proved that her efforts to gain greater acceptance hadn’t alienated everyone in Nashville, when, on October 9th, 1978, Johnny Cash and Ronnie Milsap revealed Parton as CMA Entertainer of the Year. At the beginning of her acceptance speech, however, Parton mused that she nearly revealed more of herself than she intended, since five minutes earlier the front of her specially made evening dress had “busted” open, causing her to quip, “My daddy said that’s what I get for putting 50 pounds of mud in a five-pound bag.”