Dolly Parton has written and recorded hundreds of songs over the past 50 years. No tune is as personal to her as “Coat of Many Colors,” written in 1969 while she was on the road with Porter Wagoner. It’s based on her own story of growing up in poverty and her mother sewing her a coat made of colorful rags.
“It’s more than a song,” Parton says. “The whole point is that this little story encompasses so many things.”
Things like the importance of family. That’s why Parton is hoping that moms, dads and their children will get together and watch the NBC television movie based on the song and her life. “Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors,” airing Thursday, Dec. 10, stars Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland fame, Ricky Schroder, Gerald McRaney and Alyvia Alyn Lind.
The movie looks at the tight-knit Parton family struggling to overcome devastating tragedy and discovering the healing power of love and faith as exemplified by the patchwork coat that helped make Parton who she is today.
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Parton, an executive producer of the made-for-TV movie, faced a lot of emotions during the filming.
“This is a very emotional song for me, period. Sometimes, when I sing it on stage, when I’m in concert, like during the time my mom was sick and especially after my mama passed, it was really, really hard for me to sing this song without just kind of breaking down or just really having to self-contain it,” Parton says. “But that little coat is just a symbol.
“Now that I’m older, I see all those colors and it’s kind of like the girl of many colors, like a life of many colors. It kind of symbolizes all that.”
When Parton’s mother was making the coat, she told the youngster the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors. The fact that her coat was tied to a story from the Bible made her mother’s creation even more special to her.
The actual coat that was made for her when her family was living in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains in 1955 doesn’t exist anymore. Parton is certain her mother took the coat apart to make a quilt. But, years later, her mother recreated the coat from memory.
The memory of that coat has never faded for Parton. Because this story is so dear to the singer, she wanted to make sure the casting was perfect, especially when it came to selecting the right person to portray her mother, Avie Lee Parton. She knew as soon as she heard Nettles audition for the role that she was the one for the part.
“It just touched me. I just started to cry when she started saying some of the lines that they were doing. I said, ‘Oh, my God, that must really be right.’ And so when Jennifer did that, I called and I said, ‘Oh, she’s fantastic. We’ve got to have her,’ ” Parton says. “The fact that it’s just her own talent, her own gifts given to us is one thing. But the fact that she’s going to pull this off is another.
“She’s a great actress. I think people are going to be real surprised at that.”
Parton knew Nettles had the look. She had the talent. She had the personality. And she had an incredible voice. These were the elements Parton had been looking for in the actor to play her mother.
Nettles, a Georgia native, hasn’t done a lot of acting unless you count music videos. But she has a long history of musical success, especially as part of Sugarland. She’s won numerous awards, including being named Duo of the Year in 2009, 2010 and 2011 by the Country Music Association.
Despite her lack of acting experience, Nettles knew as soon as she heard the project was tied to Parton that she wanted to be part of it.
“Everybody loves her so much, and everything she touches is so special,” Nettles says.
There may be another chance for Nettles to play the role again as Parton is working on a Broadway musical based on her life. The music legend’s life is full of stories like the one about the colorful coat.
Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors
- 9 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 10, KSEE24