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Interview: Dolly Parton

What would you get if you crossed Mae West with Norman Vincent Peale?

Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton during Dolly Parton Performs at Georgia Tech, October 22nd, 1977

Tom Hill/WireImage/Getty

What a grand feeling it is to be heading out of town in a fast, sky blue rent-a-Mustang with a cold six-pack on the floor, the June sun streaming down, the radio turned up loud and Dolly Parton sitting beside me. She’s singing along with Jimmy Clanton’s oldie “Just a Dream” and it occurs to me that a certain amount of fantasizing is impossible to avoid. Let’s see . . . we’ll find a nice little meadow beside a stream for our picnic and as the day gets hotter we’ll want to go for a cool dip in the clear, inviting waters and since neither of us brought a swimsuit. . . . A battered Chevy pulls up alongside and two pimply teenagers do triple takes at Dolly with her cascading blond wig and tight-fitting shirt. I don’t even have to lip-read to get the message: “Hey, what a great-looking chick! She’s so fine. Lookit the creep with her.”

And I realize I’m ten miles out of town and instead of clear streams, all I’m passing is liquor stores.

“Gee, Dolly, maybe I shoulda made reservations somewhere or somethin’, I dunno.”

“What about this graveyard?” she asks.

“You serious?”

“Yeah, I love cemeteries, they’re so quiet. You know, people are dying to get into ’em. Really, I write in cemeteries a lot; nobody bothers you there.”.

I turn off into the Middlefield, Connecticut, cemetery and slowly cruise through. But the caretaker is slashing his way around the tombstones with a 100-decibel ride-a-mower. Clearly, this is not the spot for a quiet picnic.

I break into a slight sweat; adolescent memories. It is not at all cool to take the best-looking girl in school out for a summer picnic and then have to deposit her in a parking lot somewhere behind a Grand Union supermarket. Talk about a last date. Please, God, find me a patch of grass somewhere.

Finally, God leads me to a brook, a shade tree and a reasonable facsimile of a meadow. Dolly spreads a yellow blanket and we get down to serious business: the making of big, sloppy bologna and tomato sandwiches and the opening of wine.

Dolly stretches her arms out. “Oh, I just love it outdoors. You can just feel God all around you.”

You certainly can, I reply.

A loaf of Wonder Bread, a jug of Italian Swiss Colony and Dolly Parton beside me in the wilderness. Ah, that paradise should come so early in my young life.

“Ooh, you got cherries for dessert,” Dolly says. “Urn, good. I ain’t had a cherry in a long time.” She looks at me mischievously. “I don’t think I ever had a cherry. If I did, it got shoved so far back I was usin’ it for a tail-light!”

I must have looked shocked.

“I’m just kiddin’,” she winks as she throws a cherry seed at me.

I have heard singers called many things, from four-letter words to 27-letter words, but I have never heard one called a “purifier”. I always presumed that word applied only to such items as smog devices, our Lord Jesus Christ and Tareyton charcoal filter tips. But came one recent Friday morning when my own purifying sleep was disturbed by a phone call. I dispatched my helpmate to deal with it, but couldn’t help overhearing her end of the conversation, which was mostly astonished gasps.

“What was all that about?” I asked. It was, I was told, an editor of a certain women’s magazine and she was just calling to inform us that Dolly Parton had “purified” New York’s Bottom Line the night before.

“What’d she do, take an ax to the place?”

“No, her music purified the audience. She’s a purifier.”

Well, damn me. I have known Dolly Parton for some time and known her as someone who writes a hell of a good country song and sings with an achingly sweet soprano and looks like what heaven should be populated with. But I also know her as a good ol’ girl you can kid around with and not have to be too careful of what you do or say. Hardly someone, though, to get all mistyeyed or mystical over or go sobbing about in nightclubs. Further callers throughout the day, however, report similar quasi-religious experiences and cleansings of the soul. What is going on?

Butch Rutter has been purified. He gets backstage to see Dolly after her show at London’s Rainbow Theatre even before Chita Rivera because Butch is a . . . very special case. Thus far, he is the only known human being on this planet to have his entire back tattooed with a full-color depiction of a Dolly Parton album cover, topped with her autograph and an inscription of love across his shoulder blades. He shows up in full cowboy regalia, accompanied by fellow members of his Alamo Club, a London group of Dolly Parton lovers. They are carrying, besides an air of puppylike devotion, a lovingly crafted brass plaque of Dolly’s entire body in accurate profile. They have come in committee to formally ask Dolly to be official queen of the Alamo. Butch gets a regal kiss for that and then he drops his shirt to exhibit the Parton chef-d’oeuvre: a well-done copy of her Love Is like a Butterfly album cover. He had the tattoo started in 1976, and when Dolly played Wembley he got her autograph above the butterfly. He spent 12 hours under the needle. He did it because he loves her.

“You didn’t get infected from tattooin’ over my ink, did ya?” Dolly asks. “Hmm, that turned out real good, didn’t it”. She winks as he pulls up his shirt and makes to leave. “Well, at least you’re gonna have one woman with you forever.”

Butch laughs. “I’ve ‘ad a fallin’ out or two wi’ me wife over this.”

“Is that for real?” one of her band asks. “Oh yeah,” says Dolly. “When I saw him last year he was still all scabbed over”. She shrugs and giggles and gets ready to receive Chita. Butch Rutter recedes into the dim regions of Parton acolytes. I am suddenly reminded of a scene in New York City. It was after the second night of Dolly’s purification rites at the Bottom Line and she was hosting an early-morning champagne party at Windows on the World, atop the 110-story World Trade Center. There was a long line of fans and celebrities waiting to shake her jeweled hand and be photographed standing next to that famous body. One of those celebrities was Mick Jagger. Dolly put a hammerlock on him and the second the strobes went off he looked for all the world like a 12-year-old schoolboy blushing and gawking the first time a truly beautiful woman hugs him. Mick Jagger may be beyond purification but he clearly experienced something.

Back on the yellow blanket in the Connecticut countryside, Dolly and I are swapping tales of childhood indiscretions. I do not feel in the least purified and do not mind it a darn bit.

A pre-adolescent boy ambles through the sun-dappled field, a fishing pole on his shoulder. He halts in his tracks and gives Dolly a long, questioning glance and then moves slowly on toward his fishing hole. Sweet dreams, Jack. Dolly is oblivious, just grooving on being outside and escaping the Holiday Inn and forgetting for a while the week’s booking as opening act for Mac Davis at the Oakdale Musical Theatre in Wallingford, Connecticut. Dolly and Mac will be followed there by Rock Hudson starring in Camelot.

As the young fisherman disappears, with one final glance over his shoulder, I take a moment to look at Dolly. She was not always as I see her before me; not always an angelic, creamy-skinned, honey-wigged, golden-throated, flashing-eyed, jewel-encrusted, lush-bodied, feisty enchantress of a songwriter and singer. Back there in Sevierville, Tennessee, she was thought at one time a rather unexceptional, born plain child. The fourth of Lee and Avie Lee Parton’s 12 children, she was born in the Parton cabin January 19th, 1946. She matured early and by ten ran the family during her mother’s illnesses. She had already recorded her first single, “Puppy Love,” (she rode a Greyhound bus to Lake Charles, Louisiana, to record it, where an uncle had arranged studio time) and had started appearing on regional TV and radio shows. Her vocal style was set then: a shimmering, childlike trill, influenced mainly by church music and by the Elizabethan ballads her mother sang.

She was also ambitious and knew even then — and still knows — just what she wanted and just how to go about getting it, even to taking an unprecedented step for a country-music singer: last year she totally shut down her career to retool for a wider audience. She got a new band, a new management firm, a new booking agency. She changed everything but her mind. And her music.

And . . . and all of a sudden she looks away from the leafy oak she’s been studying and finds me studying her. “I and I,” she says, invoking an earlier discussion of Rastafarian grammar, “had better get I-selves back.”

Back last fall, Dolly Parton was about as hot a country property as there was. Everybody from Patti Smith to Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris was singing her songs. She had already started her independence movement in 1973, when she left the Porter Wagoner Show after six years. She and Porter, the lean, lanky, pompadoured epitome of flash and glitter in country music, were as famous a C&W duo as George and Tammy and Conway and Loretta. But Dolly had wider horizons in mind. Then last year came the shift toward pop audiences.

In September I went to talk to her about that. She was not, as the common misconception had it, leaving country music. “This is a new freedom for me,” she said. “Just total self-expression and daring to be brave, just to really see music the way that I totally feel it. I just had to make a total break in order to see this thing through and it was time. I am 30 years old. I mean, if you let so many years go by, then you miss out on your chance and I think that I am in my season now. I have a lot of big dreams and, before, I had a lot of people who couldn’t dream as big as me. I wouldn’t allow myself to, I didn’t understand what it was to dream, so I just wanted to dream free. . . .”

And what, I asked, would she do if she should fail? She looked up from where she was lying on the floor and trained those baby blues on me: “Well, I’m a brave little soldier.” I felt a twinge of purification.

A song that she wrote then became her declaration of independence and I hear it constantly invoked by women who discern more sense in it than in feminist tracts or Fear of Flying. It’s called “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” and it is a very revealing and moving song.

Driving back to the Holiday Inn in Connecticut, I ask her about that song. “That just told how I was feeling at the time, feeling like a captured eagle, and an eagle is born to fly, and now that I have won my freedom, like an eagle I am eager for the sky. And that is exactly how I felt. I just had to let the people know how I felt and that kind of eased my pain some. Can I have an ice cream cone?” We are, in fact, passing a drive-in, since I have gotten lost, so I wheel in and get her a double dip, to the envy of the other louts loitering in the parking lot.

I ask her about that purification business in New York and the converts she made there. She looks puzzled. “I wouldn’t know what purifying is, but it’s a nice compliment. City people, I think they get caught up with a southern, a country person who has a contentment and a peacefulness. I am certainly not pure, but I guess that depends on how you look at things.”

We finally regain the Holiday Inn and retire to her $16-a-night single that overlooks the parking lot and the setting sun. Dolly kicks off her five-inch, rhinestone-studded heels and curls her legs up. On the dresser is a supply of the liquid protein she’s been dieting with to get back to fighting weight of 110 pounds on her five-foot frame.

In person, she is stunning. I have seen people spontaneously break into applause when she enters a room. I tactfully suggest that she was probably the foxiest schoolgirl in Tennessee history and that, as a result, she may have had a tough time in school.

I get a smile of irony with her reply. “Well, I tell you, it was kinda rough for me because I was the most popular girl in school in the wrong way. Everybody talked about Dolly but I didn’t have as many friends as I should have had. My best friends were boys because they understood me and weren’t tryin’ to find fault. But, you know, I never dated the boys in school. I seemed so much older. I only had a couple of dates with boys from school and I felt like their mother or somethin’. I had a lotta stories told on me, a lotta lies, just because I looked the way I did. I always was big in the boobs, small in the waist and big in the butt. I just grew up that way and I had that foxy personality, too.

“I mean, I was real outgoin’, real friendly, I think it was scary to people. But I never felt I belonged. Never belonged in my whole life, even as a little kid. I was just different and so I never really found my place till I moved to Nashville and got in the music business. That was my real place, so I fit in. I was born restless, I really was. I guess I was born with gypsy fever. Now, there is nothin’ I like better than goin’ home to have a few weeks off, do as I please, go in the yard half-naked, without makeup and without havin’ my hair done, or play with the dogs or romp around with the cows. But when I am ready to go, there is nothin’ I like better than to pack it up and head it on out. I just couldn’t stay, and in my later years when I am writing books and poems mostly I think I will travel around and do that: I really wouldn’t want to stay at home all the time; that would be a bore.”

When Dolly lit out for Nashville the day after she was graduated from high school in 1964, she hit town with little more than a cardboard suitcase full of songs. It didn’t take her long to start selling those songs, to get a recording contract with Monument and then to switch to RCA when Porter Wagoner, impressed by her television appearances, tapped her to replace singer Norma Jean on his show.

The first thing she did when she hit town, though, was her laundry. In the Wishy Washy laundromat she met a man named Carl Dean.

She married him two years later. He is now an asphalt contractor and, so Parton mythology has it, has never seen her perform and their marriage is a very private thing and he is the stabilizing influence in her gypsy life. I teasingly ask her if he really exists.

“You know he does,” she half-explodes before she laughs at the absurdity of the question. “And the stories are wrong — he has seen me perform. And he liked it. So there.”

For a person who looks the way she does, it comes as a surprise when she claims that few men in the music business have ever seriously tried to put moves on her. She attributes that, naturally, to her fiercely independent nature. She does, however, write ingenuously sensuous songs. One of the more explicit ones is “He Would Know”. One line is “I would love to love you but he would know.”

“That is true,” she says. “You couldn’t be human, especially in this business, and not run across people now and then that really move you. And you have to be really strong to avoid temptation and even if you don’t avoid it you have to be smart enough to know how much of it you can take. So, when it’s more than I can stand, I just get my pencil and guitar out and I start writin’: ‘In my mind I make love to you often/But only in my mind can it be so/Because there is someone home who is counting on me/And if I did, I’m sure that he would know’. That’s not sayin’ I ain’t made mistakes and won’t make mistakes but if I can just write it and say this is a song about our situation, I hope you can better understand how I feel about it and why it can’t be.”

Another song Dolly wrote, the beautifully crafted “Bargain Store,” was banned by some country stations and that still rankles her.

“I just thought,” she says, “well, why don’t a person compare your body and your mind and your heart to objects, like an old broken heart sittin’ on a shelf and some plans and dreams as if they were things you could see”. She starts singing: ” ‘My life is like unto a bargain store/And I might have just what you’re lookin’ for/If you don’t mind the fact that all the merchandise is used/ But with a little mendin’ it can be as good as new’. That means that I have been in love before and kicked around and banged around and had my head and my heart broke, my cherry stole, but I can grow another one if that’s what you want.” She laughs a loud, exuberant laugh.

“When I said the bargain store is open, come inside, I just meant my life is open, come into my life, so I wasn’t even thinkin’ of it as a dirty thing. I just felt at that time I had been probably kicked around some. Not by my husband — he is the best person that ever lived. But you know, me and Porter, we just kind of said things, hurt each other’s feelings and, you know, trampled around on territory that was real sensitive, cut each other about songs. It’s just — I felt black and blue and I just wanted to heal back up and mend myself back together and get on with my life.”

Another of her better songs is haunting and Gothic and describes fears she herself might have: “Where Beauty Lives in Memory” is the story of a beautiful woman, a Cinderella whose heart and mind are stolen by a prince who leaves her. She waits before her mirror for 40 years until he returns and then she drops dead.

“I knew a woman who was beautiful and she was married to this man and she was crazy about him but he would do bad things to her and he got to tellin’ people she was crazy. She almost grieved herself to death and now she is like a child, she still talks about him, she has kind of gone back in time. She still thinks she is as young and pretty as she ever was. It just touched me so deep and I could just imagine that happening to me.”

I said goodbye Mamma
You’re gonna be proud of me
You said if I kept on growin’
I’d be a 38 double D
Well, I’m a 38 double D
And they all come to look at me
And if inches really count
Then I’m in luck from A to Z.

– From “38 Double D” by Blaze Starr as quoted in ‘Blaze Starr, My Life as Told to Huey Perry’

Common courtesy and a sense of fair play prevent me from asking Dolly Parton what her remarkable measurements might be but they don’t stop me from evoking stripper Blaze Starr’s song and how Blaze’s 38DD got her out of the mountains and that Dolly’s own configuration certainly hasn’t hurt her career and what does she think about that song and, while I’m at it, did she ever think about being a stripper?

She is somewhat taken aback and pauses to collect her thoughts. For today’s session in her motel room, she’s wearing a taut black jumpsuit and a hot pink shawl with a matching orchid in her hair. There is a pizza left over from last night and we are just contemplating warming it up a slice at a time on the bottom of her steam iron when Blaze Starr comes to mind.

“That [38DD] is a unique idea,” she finally says. “Bette Midler should record it, she could get away with it. I don’t think people would accept that from me. I have never been the one to play up that sort of thing about myself. It’s always been the public and the press. I have really tried to not promote nothing but my talent, and the way I look is the way I like to look. I’m just an extremist and so I like to dress the part — if I have extreme parts of my body, then I might as well have extreme hairdos or have extreme clothes to match the boobs and the hairdo. And, my personality is really extreme. I do just as I please, I always have and always will. I try to live my own life; I don’t try to live somebody else’s life, and I don’t like people tryin’ to live my life. Now there, how do you like that? Buddy, I mean that.”

It would be an understatement to observe that, through her songwriting and especially her image, Parton is very secure in her femininity. She espouses a very personal kind of femaleness which, despite her fierce independence, is in many ways very traditional. She carries no soapbox, delivers no rhetoric — though she’s not hesitant to speak her mind. And she enjoys being a girl.

“I think that women have it made, if they know how to go about it,” she says. “A woman don’t have to work, really, if she don’t want to and if she is smart enough to make a man a good wife he’s gonna take care of her. I know that I couldn’t be a stay-at-home woman, just raise kids and keep the house, that’s not in me, but I’m just sayin’ that women by nature do have it easier because they were made to be a man’s helpmate, so to speak. Just to be a companion. But — if a woman is smart enough and she has a desire and an ambition to do something else, that’s fine too. I would prefer to be a woman because a man has to get out and work because that is just the law of the land. And a woman doesn’t have to unless she wants to.”

But how did her own exaggerated feminine image come about? Wasn’t she more of a tomboy as a child?

“Yeah, I was mean as a snake. I’m still a tomboy, a lot more than you might think. But I always loved to be feminine, I always liked frilly things and perfume. I used to use Merthiolate for lipstick and there wasn’t nothin’ daddy could do to get that off.”

On her lips? Surely that hurt. “It was worth the pain. I was 15 when teased hair came out and I loved that and I loved makeup. I always wore tight clothes. When I walked down the hall, everybody was a-lookin’ to see how tight my skirt was that day or how tight my sweater was. I never did like to go around half-naked but a lotta people said I might as well be naked, as tight as my clothes were. But even as a little bitty kid, if my mamma made me wear somethin’ that was loose on me, I used to just cry. I wanted my clothes to fit me. Even though they was rags, I wanted them to fit close to me.

“When people started changin’ their hair styles, I wasn’t ready to quit — I just kept makin’ it bigger and bigger. I just thought, well, somebody is noticin’ it and I’m enjoyin’ it. I liked it and still do. I teased my own hair for years and years and it’s real damagin’ to your hair so about three years ago I started wearin’ wigs because it’s convenient. But people come to expect that of me and I come to expect it of myself, the flashy clothes and jewelry and all the gaudy appearance. I guess I did invent that part of me. I was always fascinated with fairytale images. Half of a show is the lighting and the shine and the sparkle. Stars are supposed to shine and maybe I just want to be a star.”

Surely, though, she might become trapped in the carefully sculpted Dolly Parton image?

“No. If I wanted to get out of it — you know how stubborn I am — if I get ready to quit it will be of my own choice and I’ll quit it in a minute. I love my audiences but I don’t fear the public. I do what makes me happy first and hope that I can make them happy with it. So my music will stand on its own and in a while everybody will see what it is I am tryin’ to do.”

About her breasts Dolly drops a line on me with her usual smile and a wink. “There are going to be those who will say, ‘I know that they’re false; I knew her when’ and there will be some who say, ‘I know they’re real’. I say: ‘Let ’em guess‘.”

She’s smiling hugely but those big eyes are flashing. So I get back to Blaze Starr for a minute. In the mountains in the South, the traditional and only ways for a woman to escape poverty were either to marry or to run off and become something like a stripper.

She giggles at that, very childlike. “Okay, I thought about bein’ a stripper. But I decided that I really better not. I didn’t want to get married. All I had ever known was housework and kids and workin’ in the fields. But I didn’t want to be domestic, I wanted to be free. I had my songs to sing, I had an ambition and it burned inside me. It was something I knew would take me out of the mountains. I knew I could see worlds beyond the Smoky Mountains.”

Dolly’s first country hit was a song called “Dumb Blonde” (one of the few songs she’s recorded that she didn’t write or cowrite) but she is light-years away from being that. Even though she hated school and is not a heavy reader (though she can — and does — quote easily from the Bible), she is clearly well endowed with street smarts. She also, I discover, was born with a natural gift for intense positive thinking and that, coupled with her burning ambition, makes her a fearsome force.

I discover this in a late-night session in her motel room in Connecticut. We are eating Big Macs and washing them down with Budweisers and I make some remark about setting goals. That sets her off on a 45-minute discussion on achieving and how to do it.

“I’m always sure of the goals I set for myself,” she says, reaching out for some more french fries, “but I like for them to be flexible because I may get midways and get a big brainstorm. Then I can change. I just set new goals. There will never be a top for me — other than the one I am famous for.” I try unsuccessfully to avoid glancing at her chest while she laughs at me.

“I mean there is no top and no bottom to my career because once I accomplish the things I decide I’m going to, then I want to get into other things. I am a list maker. I like to write my goals and plans down and keep them in a secret place where people can’t see them. You’d be amazed that even years ago the things I’d written down on my list, that I just mark ’em off as they come true and I think, boy, if that ain’t proof that positive thinkin’ is a marvelous thing. I mean if there is something I really want, why, I write it down on a piece of paper and I look at the list and I concentrate real hard on it, try to visualize it happening, and I just go through all the motions as if it’s already been done.”

And, I ask, a bit cynically, does it work?

She jumps forward in her chair, excited. “Yes! It does! If I get sick, I think myself well. That’s why I never did worry when my throat was botherin’ me. I tell you, it is strange the way it works.”

I get us out two more Buds and ask her if she possesses any . . . special mental powers or something.

“No more than anybody else, if they develop and exercise it. I was born with that gift and that great faith and it wasn’t until about two years ago that I discovered that there were books written about positive thinking. But, you see, I had practiced that all my life, that’s what got me out of the mountains. Even as a little child, I daydreamed so strongly that I just saw these things happen and sure enough, they would, so it was just a matter of growing up to meet that. We can be whatever we want to be, the Bible says that, that all things are possible to those that believe. It don’t say some things are possible, it says all things are possible and it says that if you have faith even as a grain of mustard seed then you shall move mountains and that nothing shall be impossible unto you.”

Well, I say, beginning to believe, would you please write down on one of your lists that you want me to become a rich and famous writer?

She smiles a Madonna’s smile. “I could think you into that, but you have to help me some. That is within everybody. People just neglect what they got to work with. But — I ain’t near where I’m goin’. My dreams are far too big to stop now ’cause I ain’t the greatest at what I do, but I become greater because I believe. What I lack in talent I make up for in ambition and faith and determination and positive thinking.”

Thursday afternoon, I call on Dolly in room 347 and find her, as usual, curled up before the picture window. Today she’s reading — a book on fasting. I barely get settled opposite her when she throws the book down. “Have you had supper yet?” she asks. “Well, let’s go down to the restaurant. I am sick and tired of fastin’. I want some food.”

She draws three autograph seekers in the restaurant, and lowers her voice as they walk away: “Just goin’ out to eat is the hardest thing now. Just about the time you get somethin’ chewed up real good, just when you got it good in your teeth and everything, they come up for an autograph and you got mashed potatoes on your thumb. I never go anywhere without bein’ recognized. But — ” this with a philosophical shrug — “that’s part of success.” She polishes off her stuffed shrimp and starts in on the strawberry pie.

We had talked earlier about her religious upbringing and I bring up one of her songs that is closest to being pure gospel, “The Seeker.”

“I tell you, that’s a song I love. I do believe, I know there is a God and He is still the best friend I got in the world. I talk to Him often, but I’m one of the world’s sinners. I think I’m a vanilla sinner — too bad to be good and too good to be bad. Because it wouldn’t be all that hard to be good but I just don’t know that I want to be. I think I won’t have no fun if I’m too good. But I had some friends that had just been renewed and they were real happy about it and so religion was real heavy on my mind. I just could not decide whether I wanted to be a Christian or not.

“So I was out in the kitchen a-cookin’ and I started thinkin’ about how serious that was, so — I am a seeker, a poor sinful creature, there is none weaker than I am, I am a seeker and you are a teacher. So I was just thinkin’, ‘Lord, you’re gonna have to hit me with a bolt of lightning because I ain’t gonna do it on my own.’  So I wrote that out of a heavy heart. Because I am certainly not a Christian. I will try some of anything, I mean I will.”

She would make a great singing evangelist, I say — a singing Kathryn Kuhlman.

She looks at me very seriously. “Are you jokin’? I often wonder what my calling really was because I often thought I was born for a purpose other than just to be a country singer. My mamma always predicted that someday I would lead a lot of people to the Lord. She said, ‘I don’t care where you go or what you do in this world, you are one of God’s children and someday you are going to do a great work for the Lord’. ” Dolly laughs shakily. “So, maybe I will. Someday”.

We leave the Holiday Inn for the Oakdale Theatre a good two hours before her curtain time — or ramp time in this case. The Oakdale is what is commonly called a hardtop tent. It’s a dome that’s open all the way around and the inside slopes down to a revolving stage, a feature Dolly is not fond of. “I got to put my band in the pit and I just stand out there like a sore thumb. And I never did like to go around in circles.”

Just before she gets on her bus, a cluster of young girls runs up for autographs. She gives them a dozen red roses she’s carrying and the next morning comes a letter from a mother, a letter that’s almost dripping with tears of appreciation. “I just love kids,” Dolly says on the bus. “But I don’t really need one of my own. I’ve written a lot of children’s stories, though. I never show them to anybody—not till I get ready to publish ’em. I’ve got trunkfuls of things I’ve written. I’ve been writin’ poetry since I was in grammar school. When I was a teenager I wrote a lot of real hot and heavy love stories, I was just so horny myself.”

Well, I say, she should write a book. Her life story might be interesting and . . .

“I’m already doin’ that,” she says, turning in her seat to train on me the butterfly-encrusted Christian Dior shades that Porter Wagoner gave her. “I’m gonna call the whole thing Blossom, ’cause I used to be called Blossom when I was little, which I think will be a great movie and the whole thing — you know, to blossom into this and blossom into somethin’ else.”

We ride along in silence for a while. This is the least ostentatious and most decorous musician’s bus I’ve ever seen. Country singers’ buses are more often closer to being re-creations of Tijuana whorehouses or explosions in a Sears furniture department. Dolly’s is very understated—the bus does not even carry her name. All that makes it distinct from any GMC bus is the destination window or whatever those things are that say “Des Moines” or “Salt Lake City”. Her’s says “Coach of Many Colors,” a play on her favorite song. “I just don’t like to advertise myself,” she says of that. Which is consistent with her inconsistencies. Flamboyant while within the public eye proper, she values solitude (because of oglers she does not go swimming and seldom goes shopping).

Her musicians and backup singers are orderly, too; what one would call well-mannered men and women in their 20s. They are sitting in the lounge area of the bus listening to a Lou Rawls tape. They unanimously praise Dolly as the finest person in the world to work for. Still, she has considerable turnover as she looks for musicians who are both competent and compatible. The latter is just as important. There was the time she took the band out for dinner after her London show. I was at a table with Dolly and Gregg Perry, her piano player. Perry does not drink and one of the other musicians started razzing him about that. No one said anything, but Dolly’s expression changed. When I caught up with her in Connecticut, the offender was no longer with her. “I’m gonna have to make changes musically. I love everybody in my group, but I don’t have the right group yet. I’m willing to sacrifice to get the right group. I cannot let friendship or nothin’ enter into it. But it’s not a matter of whether they can pick or not; it’s a matter that it’s not the right combination.”

She gets up and heads for the back of the bus to put on her makeup and get dressed for the show. It’s an unstated thing that she prefers staying on the bus until showtime. Nor does she stick around for the Mac Davis show, nor does she stay for an Oakdale custom: the “Reception Line”. At the end of the evening the performers are expected to stand like horses in a stall and shake hands with the public. No autographs, just genteel handholding and murmuring of compliments.

“It’s a typical Mac Davis audience,” she would say later. “But I wouldn’t continue this, wouldn’t let this be my career. This whole year has been an exception to all rules for me because of needing the money to run an organization. But after this fall I’ll be working more to contemporary and country audiences. This is not my type of audience and I say it’s good for me because they all remember seeing me. Whether or not they come back is beside the point.”

She’s certainly right about the crowd. With all the white shoes and burgundy sport coats and gowns it looks more like the clubhouse of a race track. Latecomers linger outside to chat while Dolly gamely tries to get some feeling out of the crowd. She is partially successful and would later joke that “it’s too bad we can’t pipe marijuana smoke into the place; maybe they’d giggle durin’ ‘Me and Little Andy.'”

The latter is one of her Gothic children’s tales, about a little girl and her dog who run away from a wayward mother and drunken father and show up at the narrator’s house to escape the bitter cold. During their sleep, “the angels take them both to heaven.”

That’s a common thread in many of her songs: unhappy kids dying off left and right and going on to glory. Dolly did not have a happy childhood and she seems destined to continually rewrite it.

Standing at the back of the Oakdale, listening to two geriatric cases rambling on about Mac Davis during “Little Andy,” I remember her talking about that song. “I love that. Pitiful, though, ain’t it? When child molesting and child abuse was in the news, it bothered me a lot and I just got that idea to write a nursery rhyme. Story of a little kid, kinda switchin’ back and forth. You know how a little kid will do if it’s mind is scattered—it knows the real hurt but it’s still child enough to go like, ‘Ain’t you got no gingerbread, gitty-up trotty horse goin’ to the mill, and London Bridge is fallin’ down and Daddy’s drunk again in town. ‘I just cry ever’ time one of those things is in the news. That is a sad song but even long before that I was writin’ sad songs like ‘Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark’ [Dolly herself will not go to sleep without a light on], ‘Silver Sandals,’ ‘I Wish that Milena Had Wings’. Milena would run and play every day in the meadow, she would chase butterflies and she would say with a smile, I wish I could fly that-a-way. And she always wanted wings so she could fly like a bird, so on her birthday she died — the song didn’t say she died, it just said the angels came for her and they gave her wings. Usually, if you notice, all my sad songs have happy endings. They go to a better place where they’re real happy.”

That’s straight out of her fundamentalist upbringing, of course. She grew up in the House of Prayer, a Church of God in Sevierville where her grandfather, Jake Owens, was the preacher. “Oh,” she had told me, “I remember the hellfire and brimstone he used to preach and how I used to be real scared of that and I think that inspired me or depressed me into writin’ all these sad, mournful songs. You kind of grew up in a horrid atmosphere about fear of religion. We thought God was a monster in the sky”. But then, I remember, in the next breath she had a bright smile as she recalled how she would sit in the last pew in church and the boys would come and scratch at the window, trying to get her to go outside. “Sometimes I would go to church just to see who would walk me home.”

Just listening to her talk, I reflect, has become pure delight, especially when she’s so open. It’s almost like she’s 31 going on 12, a remarkable combination of childlike innocence and joy and adult bravery and determination. How extraordinary to encounter a gifted performer who is exactly what she seems; nothing more and nothing less; one whose vulnerability is her strength and vice versa. I have never, I realize, looked at her before with city eyes. In the South, she had seemed to me a good buddy, one whose talents I took for granted. Seeing her working her ass off before an indifferent audience that demanded to be convinced, I start studying the crowd and picking out those who are willing to listen and are telling their neighbors, “Well, isn’t she corny but charming” and those who by God came to see Mac Davis and anything before Mac Davis is an irritation that will be endured with scant patience.

She finishes “Me and Little Andy” — which is corny — and gets moderate applause. From behind me, I can hear oohs and ahhs as Mac Davis arrives at the dressing room. Dolly, a tiny figure on the revolving stage, with a pink spotlight silhouetting the tight red pants outfit under her flowing, spangled chiffon, pauses to introduce her most autobiographical song: “This means more to me than any song I wrote.”

With that, she begins her haunting “Coat of Many Colors”:

Back through the years I go wand’ring
Once again back to the seasons of my youth
I recall a box of rags that someone gave us
And how my Mama put the rags to use
There were rags of many colors but ev’ry piece was small
And I didn’t have a coat and it was way down in the fall
Mama sewed the rags together; she sewed ev’ry stitch with love
And made my coat of many colors that I was so proud of.
So with patches on my britches and holes in both my shoes
And my coat of many colors I hurried off to school
Just to find the children laughing and making fun of me
In my coat of many colors that my Mama made for me.

She is clearly singing from the heart, her voice constantly on the edge of breaking and I remember what she had told me about the episode that led her to write that song.

“That was a very sad and cutting memory that I long kept deep within myself. I remembered all the pain of it and the mockery. How the kids had tried to take my little coat off and I was just sprouting . . . boobs, you know, and I didn’t have a blouse on under it because I had done well just to have a little jacket to wear. So when the kids kept sayin’ I didn’t have a shirt on under it, I said I did because I was embarrassed. So they broke the buttons off my coat. They locked me in the coat closet that day and held the door closed and it was black dark in there and I just went into a screaming fit. I remembered all that and I was ashamed to even mention it and for years I held it in my mind.”

When she hits the last note she looks up defiantly and I find that I am glad it is still dark in this hardtop tent, for I seem to have drops of water coursing down both cheeks. Damn you, Dolly, I silently swear. You finally got to me, too. Purification, indeed. I’ll tell you off about this. But of course I never do.

In This Article: Coverwall, Dolly Parton

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