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Interview: Dolly Parton

At 57, the country legend still brims with vitality

Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton

M. Caulfield/WireImage for Lifetime Television LA

Everywhere Dolly Parton goes, she sings. She’s somewhere in her sizable Nashville production company. But where? Then you hear it: an old hymn — “Peace in the Valley” — echoing down the hallway, that silk ribbon of a soprano along with the tap-tap-tap of her insanely high heels, a uniquely Dolly blend of sex and scripture. “Well, hello,” she chirps, a big grin on her face that says, “I know, I know, just take it all in.” The impossibly tiny waist, the high platinum wig, the long, glossy red nails, the famous bosoms (God-given, by the way, although she did have them lifted and augmented after she lost weight in the Eighties). At fifty-seven, Parton brims with vitality, and she is glorious in a clingy black velvet outfit, silver door-knocker earrings, a few shades of purple eye shadow, glossy pink lips and five-inch stilettos — this, God love her, for her trip to the chiropractor later in the afternoon.

“The way I dress, for the most part, is how most people would dress for a costume party,” she says in her silvery drawl, settling into a chair. “It would scare most people to death to look this cheap or whore-y, but to me, I’m comfortable.” Another twinkly grin. “The way I look was really a country girl’s idea of what glamour was. I patterned my look after the town tramp. I thought she was the prettiest thing in the world, with all that bleached hair and bright-red lipstick. People would say, ‘Oh, she’s just trash,’ and I’d think, ‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up.'”

It’s easy to be dazzled by Parton’s winking-rhinestone persona and cheerful self-parody — this is a woman, after all, who recently termed her breasts “shock and awe.” Indeed, there is so much to jostle for your attention — the film roles, the theme park — that her greatest talent is often overlooked. Parton is one of the most gifted and prolific songwriters in the business, a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Duke Ellington. Since she arrived in Nashville from the hills of eastern Tennessee in 1964, she has published more than 3,000 songs, ranging from country to pop to bluegrass to gospel. Her specialty is telling stories — of a poor child who is teased at school for her patchwork “Coat of Many Colors,” a woman who has been used but is still hopeful in “The Bargain Store” or the tale of a misunderstood mountain hermit, “Joshua,” a hand-clapping stomp that was released in 1971 but could have been out in the Thirties, or last week.

Some of her dozens of singles have become hits for others, most famously Whitney Houston, whose ear-bleeding version of “I Will Always Love You” pales beside Parton’s gentle original. Her songs have been covered by Patti Smith and the White Stripes, who put their stamp on one of her most celebrated tunes, “Jolene,” a stark plea to a man-stealer.

“Oh, Dolly’s big in Iceland,” says Björk. “Her voice is immaculate, really powerful. Her character is so warm and human, and she has a great sense of humor.” To Björk, Parton transcends her musical genre. “All my friends love Dolly, and most of them are people who would never listen to country music,” she says. “It doesn’t happen very often when you get a character that is sort of larger than life. I don’t like rock music, but I like Kurt Cobain. He could be playing any style of music and I would have been interested. You know? And I think Dolly is like that. She is an incredible singer, an incredible songwriter.”

Parton’s livelier tracks incorporate sly humor and nimble wordplay; on the more somber tracks, death hovers ominously nearby, reflecting her hardscrabble Appalachian upbringing. “Even when I’m writing a modern song, I’ll find myself pulling stuff from those days before I ever left home,” she says. “The days of Mama and Daddy and my grandmas and grandpas, and church days. All I ever have to do is close my eyes and just kind of go inside.” She is constantly writing (“It don’t ever stop”), so she keeps notebooks and tape recorders scattered all over the house — by the bed, the tub and in the kitchen when she cooks.

Parton is always in motion — as she sits and chats, her leg jiggles with pent-up energy. She applies this vigor to her career: Although it stretches back more than forty years, Parton refuses to be calcified into a “legend.” When the radio all but stopped playing her in the Nineties, she deftly avoided the fate of so many country veterans who are relegated to the county-fair-and-casino concert circuit, returning to tradition with a trio of bluegrass albums released on a smaller label. Freed up creatively without the major-label pressure to crank out hits, Parton has made some of the best music of her career, picking up a couple of Grammys and a host of new fans along the way, their interest kindled by O Brother mania.

Parton’s next album — her seventy-third — moves into different territory. “I was just kind of piddling around, doing some demos,” she says, “when all of a sudden I thought, ‘This is the time to do a patriotic, gospel-type album.'” Thus, For God and Country. In a new tribute album, Just Because I’m a Woman: Songs of Dolly Parton, she is saluted by Sinéad O’Connor, Shelby Lynne and Shania Twain. “Shania said, ‘Don’t let anybody have “Coat of Many Colors,” and Dolly has to sing harmony,'” Parton recalls. It was a sentimental favorite for Twain, who brought up her siblings after her parents were killed and who related to the song’s message of pride in the face of poverty. “After she recorded it, I sang harmony on it,” says Parton. “And when they sent Shania the track, she just cried like a baby. And I thought, ‘Well, if you can live long enough and do something special enough to bring out that kind of emotion in somebody, that’s what it’s all about.'”

Despite all the modern trappings of her fame and success, Dolly Parton is a living link to what seems like an impossibly remote past. She was born the fourth of twelve children in a log cabin in Sevier County, Tennessee, on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The doctor who brought her into the world was paid with a sack of cornmeal. The Partons didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing, and her dad, a tobacco farmer, supplemented the family’s diet by taking his shotgun and heading off into the woods.

“People hear me talk about eating squirrel and groundhogs, but in the mountains like that, you really didn’t have much of a choice,” says Parton matter-of-factly. “There were twelve of us kids. We never ate possum — I remember Daddy saying, ‘That’s like a damn rat.’ But we ate everything — turtle, frogs. I just remember the big old groundhogs — whistle pigs, they called them — and you’d cook ’em with sweet potatoes, and you’d have different ways of making some of that gamy taste go away.”

Having to do without, wearing feed-sack dresses that her mother, Avie, sewed, didn’t make Dolly bitter. Instead, it fostered in her a sense of resilient optimism that characterizes so much of her writing. “People say, ‘You were so poor, what did you play with?’ Well, I played with David and Denver and Stella” — her siblings. One Christmas, young Dolly cried for a doll that walked and talked. Instead, she got a new baby brother, Randy. Look, you got a doll better than everybody’s, said her dad. This one walks and talks and pees and everything.

The whole extended Parton clan was musical. They sang at home; they sang at church, where anyone who had a mind to could bring in an instrument and make a joyful noise unto the Lord. Dolly’s grandpa wrote songs and played the fiddle, and her uncle Bill, himself a musician, gave Dolly a Martin guitar when she was seven. By age ten, Dolly’s performances at local gatherings led to a gig on a Knoxville radio and television program called Cas Walker’s Farm and Home Hour. Old Man Cas was a grocer, and frequently during a show he would walk behind the singers or the banjo pickers toting signs that said things like “Fresh greens, 19 cents a mess.”

The more attention Parton got, the more she seemed to crave (eleven siblings, remember). Even as a kid, she was irresistibly drawn to the trappings of glamour and earned a whipping from her dad when she painted her lips with Mercurochrome from the medicine cabinet. “I lied about it,” she says, laughing helplessly. “I said, ‘This is my natural color!’ The more Daddy tried to rub it off, the redder it was. It’s like, ‘This red ass of yours after a whipping, is that your natural color?’ Oh, I got lots of whippin’s over makeup.”

She graduated from high school — the first in her family to do so — on a Friday, and headed for Nashville on Saturday. The day she arrived, she met her future husband at the Wishy-Washy Laundromat. (Carl Dean is a shy, rarely photographed man who to this day stays well out of the spotlight.) Parton released a few minor singles before landing a life-changing invitation to join The Porter Wagoner Show, a well-known TV program, in 1967. The show often took to the road, and Parton recalls that the schedule was grueling and she lacked for female company. “It was hell,” she says. “But in the early days when I was traveling in the bus, Porter saw to it that I had my own little bathroom and a tiny little sink, where I didn’t have to pee in the same room with the guys.”

Back then, says Parton, there weren’t many women in the music industry. “There was Patsy Cline and Loretta and Tammy and me,” she says. “There were just very few of us, and they were all under the direction of men.”

That included Parton, although her seven-year partnership with the often ornery Wagoner was popular and fruitful and made her a country star. It seems quaint now, but a few of her singles stirred up quite a bit of controversy. In 1968, for instance, “Just Because I’m a Woman” caused a fuss. “That song was based on a true story,” she says. “My husband doesn’t particularly like for me to tell this, but he’s old enough now, so he don’t really give a big shit.” She cackles. “See, I had had sex before we met, but I hadn’t mentioned it, and he hadn’t asked. We were married for eight months, happy as we could be, and all of a sudden he decides to ask. I told him the truth, and it broke his heart. He could not get over that for the longest time. I thought, ‘Well, my goodness, what’s the big damn deal?'”

Though some stations refused to play it in the U.S., it did hit Number One in South Africa, much to her delight. “I had a lot of fans in South Africa!” she hoots. “All those oppressed women! I found that so amusing, because somebody said, ‘Hey, my mistakes are no worse than yours, just because I’m a woman.'” She was still having these problems as late as 1991, when many stations refused to play “The Eagle When She Flies.” “Lots of DJs wouldn’t play ‘The Eagle When She Flies,’ because they thought it was such a women’s-lib song,” says Parton.

In 1974, Parton, feeling confined by her stormy partnership with Wagoner, stopped touring with the show, emboldened by her Number One country hit “Jolene.” Wagoner was not pleased, and he took her to court a few years later. “I will always be grateful to Porter, because I learned a lot,” says Parton, who wrote “I Will Always Love You” as a thank-you to Wagoner. “But he got as much out of me as I got out of him, let’s put it that way. Porter was very much like my dad and my brothers and the men I grew up with. They were just manly men, and a woman’s place was where you told her to be. And so I would always stand up to him. Because I had my own talent. I didn’t come here just to be the girl singer on Porter Wagoner’s show.” She sighs. “And we fought like hell, and he showed his ass about it, rather than just letting life flow. He had to sue me. And, of course, that broke both our hearts. And, you know, looking back on it now, he hates that he did that and has said so.”

After she was free, Parton began to diversify madly. The Eighties saw the establishment of her 150-acre Dollywood theme park in 1986. She starred in big Hollywood movies such as 9 to 5 and Steel Magnolias, and placed songs on the pop charts: “9 to 5” and “Islands in the Stream.” Her sexy, effervescent personality translated easily to the screen, and she sparkled even in clunkers like Rhinestone, with Sylvester Stallone. Though critics fricasseed it (“acres of unfunny dialogue,” went a typical review), she will always have warm feelings for Rhinestone. Before filming began, Parton was going through the worst period of her life. She was depressed and overweight and in the midst of firing some longtime business associates. After almost collapsing onstage in Indianapolis, she underwent surgery in 1982 for what she calls “female problems, hormonal disorders” and sank further into depression, filling notebooks with black thoughts such as “Why should I commit suicide? I’m waking up dead every day.”

Relief came, as it so often does, in the form of Sly Stallone. “Even though the movie didn’t do that well, that was one of my greatest projects,” says Parton. “Because Stallone was so full of life, and so crazy and so funny and he made me laugh a lot, which was real healthy for me. That movie got me back on track.”

Soon afterward, she found out that she couldn’t have children, which, over time, she has learned to accept. “I just think, you know, it ain’t meant for some people to have kids,” she says. “I don’t regret it. My husband don’t regret it. He’s like my only child, I’m like his only child. And the older we get, the gladder we are that we don’t have them now, because we take care of a lot of other people’s kids. We buy new cars for all the nieces and nephews that graduate, we send any to college that want to go.”

In the Nineties, as the country-music industry became a sleek machine that cranked out twenty-two-year-old blowdried insta-stars, Parton found doors closing on her all over Nashville. “Back in the older days, it was just a more friendly, personable, one-on-one business,” she says. “Now it’s just whoever is selling.” Parton cast a hard eye on her situation and figured out what to do next. “When the new country came along, any artist over thirty-five was thought to be a has-been,” she says. “And, Lord, I’ve been around for so long that people looked at me like a legend. But I wasn’t near done. I felt like I was better than I ever was. I feel like I’m just now seasoned enough to know how to be in this business. And I thought, ‘Well, hell, I’m not going down with the rest of them old farts. I’m gonna find some new ways of doing it.’ And that’s exactly what I did.”

She started her own label, Blue Eye Records, and now she records and pays for her own albums, then leases them to small labels such as Sugar Hill. “I thought, ‘Well, now I can record the stuff I really want to,’ and I don’t have fourteen managers and record executives saying, ‘Oh, you gotta be more commercial, you gotta be more pop.’ I thought, ‘I don’t care if I write a song like “Mountain Angel” that’s six or seven minutes long — I’m gonna tell the story.’ I’m not gonna think, ‘Oh, I have to cut this down to fit the radio.’ If they play it on the radio, fine. Doubt if they would, and don’t care anymore.” She catches herself. “Well, I mean, of course you care and wish you could be accepted everywhere, but I’m not catering to that anymore. And I’m happier than I’ve ever been doing it like that.”

All three of the bluegrass albums Parton has released — 1999’s The Grass Is Blue, 2001’s Little Sparrow and last year’s Halos and Horns — sparkle with the unadulterated fun of simply making music. On Halos and Horns, she passed up the usual seasoned session players for lesser-known musicians, some of whom work at Dollywood. She has covered Gershwin, Collective Soul’s “Shine” (“Everybody thought I was nuts when I said I was going to do it, and I won a Grammy off that”) and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” of all things. (The Zep camp was complimentary: “They said they never thought of doing it like that, but it was a job well done.”)

Parton jokes that she had to get rich to sing like she was poor again, and she has: Underneath the folksy demeanor beats the heart of a notoriously shrewd businesswoman, one who is worth an estimated $300 million. “I think that if I am smart in business, it’s just that I’m smart about who I am,” she says. “I know what I can, can’t, will and won’t do, and if I have to be strict about that, I will.” Her role model is her father, who wasn’t able to read and write, “but Daddy was real smart when it came to knowing the value of a dollar and how to make a deal, whether it was a horse trade or whatever.”

Her ventures over the years would humble P. Diddy: a restaurant in Hawaii; a children’s book; a TV variety show; a 1996 sitcom called Mindin’ My Own Business, about a Southerner who moves to Los Angeles to start a party-planning company; an autobiography; and a clothing line, 9 to 5ers, for working women. When something doesn’t work, she tries something else.

Her most successful endeavor has been Dollywood, located in Pigeon Forge, a few miles from her birth site. Many people who are raised in near-poverty try to distance themselves from their upbringing, but not Parton, whose ticket out turned into a round-trip. Dollywood has given hundreds of people jobs in Pigeon Forge, including many in the Parton clan. Along with the usual rides, there are Appalachian craftsmen, a Dolly museum and a replica of Parton’s childhood home with the furniture her family used. “I love Dollywood, because I love to go shopping up there in the stores,” she says gleefully. “I think, ‘Oh, good, I don’t have to pay for this.’ I’m taking advantage of myself.” Parton also owns a chainlet of dinner theaters called the Dixie Stampede, which are doing quite well, thank you: She just opened her fourth, to the tune of $28 million, in Orlando.

“I’ve been very fortunate and have made some good choices and good investments,” she says. “And I’m not having to do any of it for the money now. That’s a good feeling, but the thing is, that just goes to show you how passionate I am about the music. I have to write and sing. See, that was my first love, and I have to do that forever, however I have to do it.”

Parton will be fifty-eight in January but feels like she is just starting out. She percolates with new plans: a tour, which starts early next year; a dance album; a Broadway musical based on her life. “I feel like a child,” she says. “Seriously, I do. I don’t feel any different than I did when I walked down these streets the first time I came to Nashville, in 1964.” Parton and the elusive Dean, who have been married thirty-seven years, have an easy, joking relationship. His nickname for her is Catfish, because, he tells her, she’s all mouth and no brains. Parton claims they’ve never had a major fight. “Swear to God,” she says. “We get pissy, but it would scare me to death if Carl ever screamed at me.” The two often lead separate lives: Dean doesn’t accompany his famous wife when she goes on tour, nor does he join her at any glitzy events. In 1966, a miserable Dean put on a tuxedo and escorted Parton to an awards ceremony. Afterward he told her, “I love you, and I will support you in your career any way I can, but I am not going to any more of these wingdings.” He has pretty much kept his promise.

When Parton isn’t in front of the public, she says, the pair’s day to day life is “simple and ordinary.” They live in a house outside Nashville that Parton had built thirty years ago to look like Tara from Gone With the Wind — because, she has said, when you grow up poor, that’s what you think rich Southern folks would do.When Parton is kicking back, the makeup stays on, but the wig comes off (her real hair is shoulder-length), the feet come up, and she wears sweats and thermals. “I call ’em my baby clothes,” she says. She rarely plays the radio or puts on the TV, preferring to read a book instead.

“I look so totally artificial,” she says, “but I’ve always been the simplest person in the world.” Indeed, for Parton the past is tangibly, comfortably close. It’s right there in front of her — in her music, in the woods outside, even at Dollywood (mythologized, to be sure, but either you grow up wearing flour-sack dresses or you don’t). When she was a girl, she had a grandma who was an invalid. Most of her siblings wouldn’t stay long to visit, but Dolly would, dutifully emptying her grandma’s bedpan and brushing her false teeth. Why? Because she had a Sears, Roebuck catalog and loved to order things for herself and for her granddaughter.

“I got a lot of stuff staying with her,” Parton remembers. “I love catalogs to this day. You know those damn gift catalogs on airplanes? I’ll pick out twenty things that I don’t need, and I know it goes back to my childhood, because I wanted everything I saw in that book. It’s embedded in my psyche, I guess.” The mountains are around her and within her, and what sustained her at age seven sustains her at fifty-seven — her family, her time with the Lord and the music. She may have adapted to the seismic shifts of the industry, but throughout she has stayed defiantly herself.

She will always remain, she says cheerfully, “a white-trash person. I still eat Velveeta.” Yeah, right. “I do!” she crows. “You want me to show you in my apartment next door? I fried some Spam yesterday morning!” She leaps up. “You come take a look!” She races past a room that houses some pristine-looking exercise equipment. “Do I use it? Hell, no,” she snorts. “But I buy everything that comes on the market.” Good Lord, she moves fast in those heels. How does she do that?

She opens the door to a small apartment adjoining the larger building. Racks of spangly clothes line the hallway, and there is a dressing table crowded with lotions and potions. She heads for her kitchen, a homey place with magnets on the fridge and blue Mexican tiles lining the walls. “Look,” she says triumphantly, throwing the cabinet doors open. It’s magnificent: cans of corned-beef hash, tins of Spam, loaves of white bread, a Costco-size brick of Velveeta. “I have to have my Spam,” she says. “And look at this!” It’s a pig-shaped ceramic jar. Inside is a baggie of bacon grease, neatly labeled with a date. “The people who come to clean my house every Thursday have to fry up bacon, so I have bacon grease to cook with. I have to have it in all my houses.” She brightens. “You want some Velveeta?” She saws off an orange hunk and offers it. “You didn’t believe me, did you?” she says. “I grew up with that stuff and I never got over it. Good, ain’t it?” 

In This Article: Coverwall, Dolly Parton

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