From BUST's June/July 2014 issue.
We caught up with country music legend Dolly Parton this past summer, and she opened up about her new album, her old-time religion, and what makes “I Will Always Love You” the greatest ballad of all time
“What better person to do BUST magazine than me?” It’s the first thing Dolly Parton says when she calls from her part-time home of Nashville, TN, before letting loose with a melodic laugh, as familiar as her Southern, honey-pie accent. It’s not surprising that the 68-year-old leads with a boob joke. Her larger-than-life chest on her petite five-foot frame garners as much attention from fans and the media as her platinum-selling singing voice and hit-making songwriting. And making boob jokes is kind of her thing. “I’ll just say something, you know, ‘Well, I’m glad to get that off my chest,’ right up front so then they can’t comment,” she says. “But of course, you don’t want people to just think that that’s all you are.”
Anyone with an inkling of Parton’s history knows she’s much more than her bra size (and no, her chest isn’t insured for half a million dollars as celebrity lore would have you believe). She’s a singer, a songwriter, a tireless performer, a musician, a movie star, an author, a philanthropist, and even an amusement park mogul (in 1986 she bought a Smoky Mountain–themed tourist attraction in Pigeon Forge, TN, and reopened it as Dollywood). She’s won eight Grammys and has been nominated for 46 of them (a female artist record tied only by Beyoncé). She’s recorded 42 studio albums and has had 26 number-one hits on the country music charts. She was even nominated for two Oscars for Best Original Song: one for “9 to 5,” the track she wrote for the eponymous, now-classic feminist flick she also starred in, and one for “Travelin’ Thru,” the theme from 2005’s Transamerica, which featured Felicity Huffman as a trans woman.
But somehow it always comes back to her looks. And her breasts. “I don’t mind. I’ve kind of exposed them. I had big boobs all my life, but I had ’em made even bigger, so why not just go along with the fun,” she says. “People hopefully now at least know there is a heart beneath the boobs and that’s one of the reasons my boobs are so big, it’s just all heart pushin’ out my chest,” she says, letting out another laugh. It’s this combination of “I do what I want” attitude, disarming graciousness, and an endlessly sunny disposition that make Parton one of the most loveable icons of country music. But after nearly six decades in the public eye, she’s become much more than that. Her body of work is so pro-woman, if BUST had a hall of fame, she’d be a shoe-in. And she doesn’t have a legion of gay fans for nothing—Parton has always been supportive of the gay community, even while championing a deeply religious worldview. In a culture of manufactured pop singers, she’s a self-made superstar who rose to the top exactly the way she wanted to. And her status as such is a feat in and of itself.
Parton was born in 1946 in Sevier County, TN, just north of the Great Smoky Mountains, the fourth of 12 kids. Legend has it she was delivered by a local pastor who was paid for his services with a bag of cornmeal. Her parents were sharecroppers and the family lived in a one-room farm cabin—money was scarce but creativity was free, and plentiful. Her aunt wrote songs, her grandmother was known in town for her singing, and her uncles played a variety of instruments. Her grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher and some of Parton’s earliest “performances” were in church. She wrote her first song about her homemade corncob doll when she was just a kid, and learned to play guitar shortly afterward. In 1960, she made her first recording at the studio of one of her musician uncles; the 45 featured two songs she co-wrote, “Puppy Love” and “Girl Left Alone.”
That was over half a century ago. Blue Smoke, released in May, marks her 42nd album. But she’s no less enthusiastic about this one than she was about the 41 others that came before. “I get excited about whatever my latest project is. Every time, I think, Well, this is the best I’ve ever done,” she says. “This album really has all the colors of my life and my personality in it, from gospel to mountain music to bluegrass to the country flavor and the pop stuff. It has duets too, so it kind of marks all the things I’ve done through the years.”
Obviously, the things she’s done through the years are plentiful. Not only did Parton build a world-renowned career despite an incredibly impoverished childhood, but she also did it during a time when women were second-class citizens, relegated to kitchens and secretary desks. After finishing high school (the first in her family to do so), Parton hopped on a bus and headed to Nashville. It wasn’t long before she was getting paid to write songs—she often talks about being the only girl hanging out in the basement of Monument Records, writing with the likes of Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson—and at 19 she landed her first record deal. But it was her addition as a regular on famed country star Porter Wagoner’s television variety show that truly acquainted America with Parton’s charisma, mile-high hair, dimpled smile, and heart-splitting vibrato.
It was right around this time, in 1968, that Parton released the title track to her second album, Just Because I’m a Woman. Its prescient lyrics about sexual double standards are just as relevant in today’s slut-shaming culture as they were in the ’60s: “I’m sorry that I’m not/The woman you thought I’d be/Yes, I’ve made my mistakes/But listen and understand/My mistakes are no worse than yours/Just because I’m a woman.” The song debuted at the beginning of Parton’s rise to fame, and is one of the main reasons she’s hailed by many as a feminist icon. But this appointment isn’t without its complications. How many feminist icons have self-rendered their bodies to resemble a Barbie doll (or a Backwoods Barbie, the title of her 40th album)? The subject is open to debate, and debated it is, with lengthy diatribes—mostly defending her feminist-icon worthiness—appearing everywhere from Jezebel.com, to The Times of London, to the Huffington Post. (For her part, Gloria Steinem praised Dolly Parton in a 1987 issue of Ms. magazine, calling her a woman who “has turned all the devalued symbols of womanliness to her own ends.”) Even Parton’s style, which she often says was inspired by prostitutes, can be looked at from both sides of the lens. Is she parading herself as an object of the male gaze, or is her appearance a self-conscious, almost ironic, over-the-top gender performance? “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap!” is one of her favorite Dolly-isms (the capitalizing marketer even offers the phrase on an official Dolly Parton shirt), and her attire seems to be a sartorial middle finger to those who think they know what a “lady”—especially one of Parton’s age—should look like.
But many doubts about Parton’s feminist cred can be laid to rest with a simple viewing of her feature film debut in 9 to 5.In 1980, after a chance run-in with Jane Fonda helped land her the part, Parton starred in this screwball comedy drenched in the ethos of second-wave feminism—as secretary Doralee Rhodes. Alongside Fonda and Lily Tomlin, Parton played a woman fed up with her sexist jerk of a boss. The three decide to get even, and the film plays out like an absurd feminist revenge fantasy involving kidnapping, blackmailing, and the eventual liberation of the three women. The movie introduced the singer as a bona fide movie star—she’d go on to star in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas with Burt Reynolds and Steel Magnolias with Julia Roberts and Shirley MacLaine, among others—and helped Parton the musician cross over from country to the mainstream with the movie’s title hit, a tune that Parton supposedly jotted down on the back of her script between takes, tapping out the rhythm with her acrylic nails. The song went to number one on the country charts (nothing new for Parton), but also reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100, making her one of the few female artists to ever have a simultaneous hit on both the country and pop charts. It also solidified her place as a role model for independent women, in a part that wasn’t too far from the truth. Parton has said that playing Doralee, who threatened to change her boss “from a rooster to a hen with one shot” using the gun in her purse, reminded her of the attitude she had to take with Porter Wagoner, a man she described to the L.A. Times in 2008 as “a male chauvinist pig.” That’s presumably one of the reasons Parton left their partnership in 1974, even though he’d brought her so much success.
Despite 9 to 5’s undeniable inclusion in the feminist film canon and the blatantly feminist themes running through her work, Parton, surprisingly, tells me she doesn’t identify with the label. “I consider myself a female,” she responds, when I ask her if she’s a feminist. “I think of myself as somebody who’s just as smart as any man I know. I don’t think anybody should ever be judged by whether they’re male or female, black, white, blue, or green. I think people should be allowed to be themselves and to show the gifts they have, and be able to be acknowledged for that and to be paid accordingly. You know, I love men, but I love women too and I’m proud to be a woman. I just really try to encourage women to be all that they can be and I try to encourage men to let us be that.”
Parton will be the first to tell you that she’s pretty good at getting men to let her be all she can be. And you get the feeling that beneath all of the sparkle, shine, and Southern hospitality, there is a truly calculating businesswoman. But if she’s manipulating you, you can be sure she’s doing it with a wink and a smile. “I’ve always been proud of the fact that I was a woman,” she says. “I grew up in a family of 12 children and 6 of those kids were boys. I was very close to my dad, and my uncles and my grandpas, and my brothers, so I relate to men. I understand the nature of men. I always say that I look like a woman, but I think like a man, or I can think like a man. So at least I know who they are and how they’re liable to be. But through the years, I’ve always used my femininity to my benefit. I’ve never slept with anybody to get to the top, though. If I slept with somebody, it’s ’cause I wanted to, not to get from point A to point B.”
Parton’s refusal to call herself a feminist, while acting like one all over the place, may seem like a contradiction. But her life is full of apparent dichotomies. She’s as likely to be featured in Christianity Today—she’s said that songwriting is her “private time with God”—as she is in The Advocate. In 2006, she received that Oscar nod for penning the theme song for Transamerica, and the deeply spiritual singer often jokes about her gender. “I always say if I hadn’t been born a woman I’d have definitely been a drag queen, so there you go,” she says, with a giggle. “I’m gaudy and flashy and I’m probably gonna always be that.” And while those may be some of the main reasons she’s become a gay icon, she supports the community off stage as well, even vocally supporting marriage equality. “I always say, ‘Sure, why can’t they get married? They should suffer like the rest of us do,’” Parton once jokingly told Joy Behar when she was a guest on her show. Between her legion of gay fans, her country bombshell persona, and the songs in which she defends women and their sexuality, how does she reconcile this social progressiveness with her deeply religious roots? “I don’t care what people do. I’m not God and I’m not a judge and I just accept people,” she says. “I try to find the God-like in everybody and respond to that. I just love people and we’re all God’s children so I don’t pass judgment on anything or anybody; I just look for the fun and the joy and the light in everybody.”
We may be 2,000 miles apart while we’re talking, but Parton’s charm comes through the phone line in full force; she sounds so casual and warm, we could just as easily be sippin’ sweet tea and shootin’ the shit on a ramshackle porch overlooking the banks of Tennessee’s Little Pigeon River. It’s clear she’s made a business of her likeability, and though she’s likely given this same spiel to thousands of other journalists, she somehow still makes it seem authentic. It’s just another facet of her intriguing duplicity—Parton is a genuine person in exterior trappings that are anything but. She’s one of the few celebrities who is completely honest about the amount of plastic surgery she’s had. Much like her manufactured bosom, she cracks wise about nipping and tucking the rest of her body as well: “If I have one more facelift, I’ll have a beard,” she often jokes. She has a staffer employed solely to create her custom outfits (no label on the planet makes clothes to her measurements, especially as skin-tight as she likes to wear them), which are heavy on the fringe and kept in a humidity-controlled clothing warehouse spanning 24,000 square feet. She even has a full-time wig wrangler.
She also has a full-time husband, though you’d hardly know it. Parton met Carl Dean just hours after first arriving in Nashville, at a Wishy-Wash Laundromat, and the two were married in 1966. Dean apparently hates publicity and the two are rarely seen together. But Parton often talks of their marriage as a happy one, explaining repeatedly that the way they live is working out just fine for them, regardless of what anyone else thinks. (She also has an Oprah-Gayle-like relationship with her pal Judy Ogle, who’s been her best friend since the two were kids, sparking gay rumors that she’s often squelched). The couple never had kids, which seems to suit Parton just fine. They helped raise several of her siblings once her career was on the up-and-up, and her nieces and nephews seem more like grandchildren (they even call her Aunt Granny). And of course, she has her music, which she refers to in a very maternal way when I ask about the mix of covers and originals on Blue Smoke. “The covers are more exciting to me as a singer, but the content, you know, is more personal to me if they’re mine,” she says. The most surprising cover on the new record is Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands on Me.” But Parton has a way of making tracks her own, despite how disparate the original might seem, and this one is no exception. “I love Bon Jovi, first of all. So when I got ready to record this album, I thought, Well, which song am I going to choose to Dolly-ize? And that one popped into my mind,” she says at apress event the week after our phone chat. “I thought, Wow, now that sounds like it would make a great gospel song. ’Cause I grew up where we believed in laying hands on people, prayin’ for em.” But even after “Dolly-izing” songs she loves, the ones that come straight from her—nearly non-stop if accounts of her prolificacy are to be believed—are their own kind of special. “It’s like your own children—you love other people’s kids, but you love your own the best,” she says. “My songs are like my children and I expect them to support me when I’m old.”
One of the songs that’s certainly supporting her now is a little ditty called “I Will Always Love You.” Despite Parton’s acclaim in the country music scene, for some of us who came of age in the ’90s, our first introduction to Dolly actually came via Whitney Houston, who sang this Parton-penned tune as the theme song of the 1992 film The Bodyguard. Parton released the original—inspired by her professional split from Porter Wagoner—in 1974, and it’s since become one of the most famous love songs of all time. Houston is only one of many who have covered it. Even Elvis Presley wanted to record a version when he first heard it, though Parton told him no when he also asked for publishing rights—a wise decision, since that tune alone has made her millions of dollars since. When I ask her why she believes that song has resonated for so long with so many people, her reply is thoughtful. “Well, I think it has for two reasons. One is, it’s a very simple melody, really easy to sing, like holding the notes. Even if you can’t sing, you can sing, Iiiiiiiiii-Iiiiii will alwaaaaays love yooou,” she says, singing the chorus to demonstrate the song’s ease, as if we could all break into a wrenching soprano on command. (It should be noted, that having Dolly Parton herself croon those words straight from her mouth into your ear is an entirely surreal, amazing experience.) “Plus there’s the message,” she continues. “I think everybody can connect with it, whether it’s their lost love affair, or a partnership, or when children go off to college, or when people die. I’ve had so many people say, ‘Oh, we played “I Will Always Love You” at my dad’s funeral or at my mom’s funeral,’ so I think it’s something everybody can relate to for one reason or another.”
Being relatable is another characteristic on which Parton has built her career. She may own homes in Nashville, Malibu, and Manhattan, have an estimated net worth of $450 million, and a theme park named after her, but that’s not what people think of when it comes to Parton’s carefully crafted legend. They remember her origin story, the one-room cabin and the 14-member family she helped support; they think of her tune, “Coat of Many Colors,” about the jacket her mom made from rags that parallels the Bible story of Joseph. She’s someone who came from nothing, who will never forget her roots. It helps that reinvigorating her hometown is a top priority for Parton (hence Dollywood), and that giving people jobs is something she takes great pride in (the business of being Dolly employs nearly 3,000 people). The superstar also created a nonprofit called Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which sends books to underprivileged children, one a month from the day they’re born until their fifth birthday. “The Imagination Library really came from a serious place in my heart,” Parton says. “My dad and a lot of my relatives were not able to go to school ’cause they were all from big poor mountain families, and when kids were born, they had to get out and work the fields and do whatever they could to keep the rest of the family going. My dad was so smart, but he couldn’t read and write. I just knew how crippling that was to him.” The organization now serves over half a million kids in the U.S., the U.K., and Canada. “My dad was so proud of that,” she continues. “He got to live long enough to see the Imagination Library do well, and hear the kids call me the Book Lady.” Parton refers to “Try,” the plucky closing track on Blue Smoke, as the theme song for the Imagination Library. But it also acts as a type of soundtrack for Parton’s life, a manual for success the Dolly way. “Yes, I have always been a dreamer, and yes, I have always tried,” Parton says when asked about the song. “And dreams are special things. But dreams are of no value if they’re not equipped with wings and feet and hands and all that. If you’re gonna make a dream come true, you gotta work it. You can’t just sit around. That’s a wish. That’s not a dream.”
Mini pep talks like this one are simply part of Parton’s being. If she ever decided to retire from music (God forbid), she could undoubtedly travel the world as a motivational speaker. Following her on Twitter is like having a super-smiley life coach, cheering you on with her sweet Southern charm. “We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails! J” and “When someone shows you their true colors, believe them! J” are just a couple of representative Tweets. But it’s her tongue-in-dimpled-cheek humor that knocks the saccharine down a bit, just before it gets cloying. “Well, Danny’s holding up one finger,” she says toward the end of our conversation, referring to one of the many team members keeping her on a well-greased press schedule. “He gave me the other one before and I didn’t acknowledge it, so I think this is the middle one,” she says, laughing at her own joke. I squeeze in one more question: As someone who’s made such a name for herself by being no one but herself, what advice would Parton—who happens to be Miley Cyrus’ godmother—give to young women coming up in the music industry now? “Well I tell you, it is hard to be yourself, especially this day and time. There’s so many managers, so many people telling you what to do and how to do it and when to do it, how to say it, how to sing it. I just really kind of feel sorry for a lot of the artists today. It was different in my day,” she says, her voice lilting musically. “If you can be yourself, stay as true to that as you can. Like I say, I don’t usually give advice, I just pass along some information ’cause I know everybody has to do it their own way and everybody has their own road to walk and all that. But if you can, just like that old saying, ‘To thine own self be true.’ It’s just about knowing who you are and standing up for that as best you can.” We may never know who Dolly Parton truly is, but lucky for us, we don’t have to. She knows, and that’s all that really matters.
By Lisa Butterworth