The Unsinkable Dolly Parton

She's a working girl going from nine to five but she's doing a lot more than staying alive... she's a movie star

December 11, 1980
Dolly Parton on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Dolly Parton on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Richard Avedon

There are few vistas more majestic than Central Park in autumn from the twenty-sixth floor of a Fifth Avenue apartment. Late-afternoon sunlight softly gilds ocher trees, and stray sunbeams shoot through the canyons between elegant apartment buildings on the far side of the park. My attention drifts to another majestic sight: Dolly Parton silhouetted against the windows of her apartment. Part of her beauty is external – the extraordinary body, alabaster skin and delicate features – but much of it comes from within. She turns, and with a dazzling smile and a little girl's voice asks what she can get me, then pads barefoot past her Claes Oldenburg painting to pour me a drink.

About four years ago, Dolly Parton was a country singer churning out one-nighters on the C & W circuit. Back then, Fifth Avenue was a movie fantasy to her and Oldenburg just a foreign word. In a few short years, she has turned her career around. Now she is hotly pursued by TV; she has a multimillion-dollar contract to play Las Vegas; and she commanded more than a million to be teamed with Burt Reynolds in her second movie, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, before her first one, Nine to Five, had even been released. If ever somebody figured out the American dream and made it work, it's Dolly Parton.

One of the lesser noticed of twelve children in a poor Tennessee family, Dolly began planning her escape to the world of money and glamour as soon as she heard about it. The minute she was out of high school, she was on a Greyhound bus to Nashville to try to be a country star. But girl singers – that's what they called them then – in country music were rare and generally regarded as so much flesh. Parton used her iron will, her incredibly seductive and powerful voice, her ability to write songs and her self-confidence and ambition to knock down the brick walls that stood between her and her goals. She also played up her beauty and her hourglass figure. She started to make secret lists of the fairy-tale futures she sought. She is a fiercely positive thinker, and her private lists worked like voodoo. Nashville never knew what hit it. She became a country star.

Still, Nashville wasn't enough, so she plotted her superstar map and left Nashville for Los Angeles and full blown pop management. Her husband, Carl Dean, a seldom-seen Nashville contractor, approved, and she set out to become superfamous. She deliberately made the kind of pop music she thought would gain her both a new audience and the power to do whatever she wanted. She thinks the strategy is working.

The test should come with her new album, Nine to Five. She wrote the title song for her first movie, in which she costars with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. "She was wonderful; she's so quick, so natural, dazzling, down-to-earth, bigger than life," Tomlin said of Parton. "She's just the quintessential . . .  whatever it is. She ended up giving me lines. You could have replaced Jane or me in a more satisfactory way, but once you got the idea for Dolly to be in her role, it would have been more of a disappointment to not have her."

It was, in part, Fonda's idea to make a movie about secretaries. Once she decided that it should be a comedy, she knew immediately that Dolly had to be in it. "I had never met her," said Fonda, "but I was really into her music. Anyone who can write 'Coat of Many Colors' and sing it the way she does has got the stuff to do anything. This was not a woman who was a stereotype of a dumb blond. I felt that she could probably do just about anything she wanted, that this was a very smart woman. We developed a character based on who she is and what she seems like. Did we coach her? No. Her persona is so strong, you get somebody mucking about with that and making her self-conscious, and it could be negative. Even though we're from different backgrounds and different classes, we're very alike in many ways. Dolly's not political, but her heart, her instincts – she's just on the side of the angels. Very often someone will wow you, but as you get to know them, the mystery wears off. One of the things that just flabbergasts me about Dolly is the amount of mystery she has. She's a very mysterious person."

Back in Manhattan at sunset, Dolly brings me a drink and sits back on her white cotton sofa in her skintight jeans and ready-to-bust, low-cut sweater. Even though she's only five feet tall – the heels and wig add almost a foot – she can take your breath away real quick. My first question is out before I can even think about it.

Are you ready to give it all up and run away with me now?
If you're ready – but let's wait and see how much money you make from your book!

You told me once you wanted to be a superstar.
Yeah, I did and I still do, and I think I'm on my way. It's not just a selfish thing; I've thought a lot about it, about exactly what makes me want to do it. I've always felt like everybody was born for a reason. Everybody has a purpose. Lots of people don't ever really find it, but I was luckier than a lot of people. I was born the fourth in a family of twelve, so I was kinda independent and really didn't have a lot of things pulling at me. I was always kinda free to think, and I had the opportunity to do more than I realized for a long, long time.

Anyhow, I worked in Nashville, where I did well and was known as one of the big country artists, but I still wasn't really selling any records.

Around 100,000 or something like that?
Yeah, I think Jolene, which I think was my biggest record at that time, sold like 200,000. So after takin' all that into consideration and knowing that I had the freedom to do what I wanted, that I had the talent to back it up – and I had more personality and guts than I had talent, I guess – I just tried to figure out what things were workable and usable and tried to combine them to make something special.

I'm certainly not your greatest writer, although I feel one of my strongest talents is songwriting. And as a singer, I'm just differen – I don't always hit true notes and all, but I'm a stylist. So I went all out and tried to find good management, which I did, and to record stuff that I don't particularly even like and am not even particularly proud of, other than the fact that it worked.

Well, to be frank, I didn't like your last few albums.
To be even franker, neither did I [laughs]! But, the thing is, it got me where I wanted to be. Now you will like, you will like the next one, because I finally got myself to a point where my personality was strong enough. And I got to the point where I could have a big deal in Vegas; I didn't want to work Vegas until I could go there as myself with good music, until I could have the power to draw people and also have enough power to say what kinda show I would do.

Movies were another thing I didn't want to do until I felt I was ready. Sometimes if you jump into something too quickly, you can screw up something that might have been good two years down the road.

Now, was this on one of your lists? You were telling me before about your lists . . .
I never really had a big desire to be in the movies, although I knew if my career went the way I wanted it to, Vegas and the movies and all that stuff would eventually come.

The main thing is, now I've got the freedom to do my music without havin' to worry about whether I'll make money or not, and because I don't have to worry about money, I will make more from it because it will be good. From here on out, I'll be involved in producing my own records. I wrote about half of the songs on the Nine to Five album. I wrote all of the songs for the one that will follow that. You know, people thought I had sold out: what's this piece of shit that Dolly's done now? Or what's this and that? I'm very aware of all that stuff. The reviews of the last four or five albums were not good, but I still knew that I was tryin' to accomplish the right thing.

Now I've got their attention; now I have to prove myself. Every day I feel like I'm just startin' my career. But yeah, it's on my list!

What is the price you have to pay to be a superstar?
Well, I'm not really sure, because I doubt that I'll even know it if I am. It's just that I'm tryin' to do everything I'm capable of doin' and have a perfect balance in my life – to be successful at my work, and at bein' a wife and a sister and a friend. I have to have all of those things in their proper place. I don't want to be a star if I have no life. I'm not willing to be like Elvis, who had no personal life. If I want to go out to a movie, I just go out to a movie. If I want to go out to supper, I go out to supper, because I happen to feel that I have no reason to be afraid of the people.

I've observed a whole lot since I've been in the business. I've seen a lot of people who panic at the thought of somebody runnin' after 'em on the street; instead of takin' it as a compliment, they take it as a threat.

If I can't sign autographs, I can always speak and be friendly and say, "I can't right now, I'm late for a plane." Because I do appreciate it. I don't believe we owe everything to the public. I think I have a right to my privacy, and I also feel that people have a right to the time I'm in public. That is their time; that is not my time.

So I provide for my own personal time a little differently than that: camping trips, traveling cross country in a station wagon, camping out with no wig and no makeup. I mean, there's always a way to do it if you want it bad enough.

I think one of the big mistakes celebrities make is that they think because they are so popular, it sets them apart and makes them like gods instead of just extremely lucky people. I really feel sorry for a whole lot of stars, and I hope and pray I never get that way. I don't really believe I will.

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