I’d been warned she always arrives early: ten minutes before is her “on time.” So I showed up an hour in advance. And waited, sweating, in a worn rocking chair on the back porch of bluegrass legend Jim Lauderdale’s Nashville house.
I knew she had arrived even before I saw the blond locks of her wig or the silhouette of her very recognizable figure. The whole house had gone reverently silent. As she made her way in 5-inch heels from the champagne-colored Escalade up onto the front porch, she simply asked, “Where do you want me?”
Dolly Parton. She’s the kindest, funniest, sparkliest thing to ever come out of an East Tennessee holler. But don’t be fooled by all of those self-deprecating one-liners. This Backwoods Barbie is one of the smartest, most respectful professionals in the industry. An appointment is a commitment. Her image drives her business. And she takes the business of being Dolly very seriously.
She was there to talk to us about her newest album, Blue Smoke (released this past summer), the 25th anniversary of the film Steel Magnolias, and her forthcoming 307-room DreamMore Resort, an expansive addition to Dollywood scheduled to open in summer 2015. Her drive, her frankness, and her sense of humor preceded her. But when I sat down to interview her, I wasn’t prepared for her sincerity. Or the heartfelt way her eyes glistened when she talked about her Mama and Daddy while sitting cross-legged in a slipcovered chair. She always had the guts to be successful. Now I understood why it stuck.
Southern Living: You’re such a large personality, and yet, when you walk in a room, people feel very much at ease—you’re very hospitable. What does hospitality mean to you?
Dolly Parton: Well, I think it’s everything you said. Making people feel comfortable. I think that’s true of Southern people in general, but certainly in my family, we were always very friendly. People feel like they’ve known me so long because I’ve been around a long time. I’m really like an aunt or a cousin or a person you’ve grown up with—like somebody in the family. So I think they feel comfortable with me. I really think that is Southern hospitality. That’s one of those things we’ve always tried to promote at Dollywood, and we hope to expand and extend that in the new resort. It’s all about that good 'ol Southern, welcome home feeling.
SL: At your new DreamMore Resort, you’ve planned on front porches and rocking chairs. Why that feature?
DP: Not just in the South, but especially in the South, we’re very famous for [porches]. And even in one of my songs, “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” I talk about sitting on the front porch on a summer afternoon; I talk about sitting in a straight-backed chair on two legs leaned against the wall. We also had rocking chairs on our porch back at the Tennessee mountain home. But I think people just always used to gather on days like today when it’s too hot to be in a house. You get outside and sit on your porch—that‘s where you do your biggest dreaming.
SL: On your new album Blue Smoke, you have a song that’s all about home. You travel a lot. So, what does it mean to be home?
DP: I do, but even when I travel, I take all those things in suitcases. I take my favorite pillows, I take my favorite cups, my coffee cups—you know, the little things. I always try to make everything feel like home. But I think [home] is just where you feel like you can settle down, where you feel comfortable and feel safe.
SL: At DreamMore, you’re putting together a time capsule to be opened in 2045. You’ll have your University of Tennessee commencement address, a piece of wood from the porch of your childhood home...
DP: Oh there’s several things we’re going to be putting in that box! Wood from the porch, and I guess I’m going to be writing a song that’s going to be dragged out way down the road. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to give up a song like that! But that’ll be fun for people to open [the box] years from now. You never know what’s going to happen to you when you head out into the big world. And when you get older, you don’t know how you’re going to be thought of or seen. But I think anything from the past, certainly if you’ve done well—if you’ve been able to see your dreams come true and done enough to really touch the lives of a lot of people—people are really interested in that.
SL: You came from such humble roots and have done it your way, sort of unapologetically. Can you tell me what that piece from your home porch means to you?
DP: It just makes me think of Mama and Daddy and my childhood. It’s not just [about] being a star, but [about] who I was then—and who I still am—and the way [my parents] helped mold and shape [my brothers and sisters and me] into the kind of people that we’ve become. It says a lot about that family unit, about the people and the mountains. It’s from my humble beginnings; in America all things are possible and dreams can come true. All of those little pieces of your past, they’re all important. That’s why I’m so thankful I can write songs. I can capture all those memories in my songs and keep those memories alive.
SL: Is there a particular memory from your past that you carry with you as a touchstone, to remind you where you came from?
DP: Well, I’ve written so many songs about it. Even my little song “Coat of Many Colors”; whenever I sing that I just see my whole childhood. I see Mama and Daddy and how they were, and how people back then took time with their children, and how they relied on God and on faith to pull ‘em through. So all I have to do every night when I’m onstage is just to sing those songs and it really keeps me grounded. I’ve always been proud of who I was and of my people. I was proud of where I was from. Some people want to get away, to move and get out and don’t even want to be reminded, but that’s not me. And the older I get, the more sappy I get about my childhood.
SL: You joke sometimes about being a hillbilly. Is being called a hillbilly a compliment or an insult?
DP: [laughs] Well, it’s a compliment to me. I mean we were really Hill. Billies. To me that’s not an insult. We were just mountain people. We were really redneck, roughneck, hillbilly people. And I’m proud of it. “White trash!” I am. People always say “Aren’t you insulted when people call you white trash?” I say, “Well it depends on who’s calling me white trash and how they mean it.” But we really were to some degree. Because when you’re that poor and you’re not educated, you fall in those categories. But I’m proud of my hillbilly, white trash background. To me that keeps you humble; that keeps you good. And it doesn’t matter how hard you try to outrun it—if that’s who you are, that’s who you are. It’ll show up once in a while.
SL: How have you maintained your trademark optimism?
DP: Just being grateful for the things that happen to [me]. I think that also came from my childhood—my grandfather was a preacher—just having God, faith, and all that instilled in us. But I like to make things happen if they’re not happening. I like to get involved. So I like to think of myself as a Girl of Many Colors, not just a coat, because I have all kinds of moods and I experience them all. I think that’s what makes a human being. People always say “You seem to always be so happy.” But I’m not always happy. Nobody is happy all the time. I’m a very sensitive person. I’m a songwriter, so I have to live with my feelings on my sleeve. I have to not harden my heart, because I want to stay open to feel things. So when I hurt, I hurt all over. And when I cry, I cry real hard. And when I’m mad, I’m mad all over. I’m just a person; I like to experience whatever the feeling is and whatever I’m going through. But I have a good attitude. And I was born with a happy heart. I’m always looking for things to be better.
SL: Do you differentiate between dreams and wishes?
DP: Well, that’s kind of a critical little thing to do. But when you’re just wishing, that means you’re just sitting and thinking about things, but you’re not willing to get off your [tail] and do something about it. You can wish your life away. But if you’re going to dream, you’re going to have to get out and, like I always say, you have to put some wings on them dreams, and some feet and fingers and some hands—they gotta get into some stuff. You can’t just sit around and think of all the things you want to do. You’ve got to think of what you want to do, and then you’ve got to get out and make that happen.
SL: And if you meet an obstacle…?
DP: You try to make the adjustments and try to work through it. You take all the different things from [that dream] and try and reprogram it and put it into something else. Nothing’s ever lost with me. I’ve had a lot of things that I’ve wanted to do that didn’t exactly work out. But I applied it to something else and it worked out twice as good as I thought. You’ve just got to keep your mind on your business. You gotta just know what it is you want. And you’ve got to pray. I pray a lot. I pray that God will show me what to do and will guide me and lead me. And I try not to answer His prayers. I try to keep myself wide open to recognize what it is that I’m supposed to know and to see. I may not always like a route that something’s taken. I might prefer it to be something different. But I think, “Well, this is what I’ve got.” So you gotta make the most with what you’re supposed to be doing.
SL: You’ve really cultivated your image. I love that you joke that your look is based on your hometown’s trollop...
DP: Oh it’s true.
SL: So that’s not a joke?
DP: That’s not a joke. That’s the honest truth. But it fits my personality too. I was not a natural beauty, and I always wanted to be pretty. I just have such an outgoing personality that it’s fitting that I would be overdone.
SL: One of my favorite parts from Steel Magnolias is Truvy’s line that there’s no such thing as natural beauty.
DP: Yeah! Well, there’s beauty...I mean I see beauty in all kinds of people. There are some people who physically are not beautiful. But the way they are, the way they treat people, they become beautiful, and you forget all about [their looks]. To me, when I talk about not being a natural beauty—I’m not. Trust me when I say: In the mornings, I gotta get up and paint on stuff. Those people who wake up and they’re just beautiful, they’re just born that way. Well that ain’t me. I gotta work for everything I’ve got.
SL: And you do all your own makeup?
DP: Yay-uh. [laughs] Um, too much of it. Sometimes if I’m doing photo shoots or movies or such, they’ll use some other people. But I usually sneak off in the dressing room and re-do it. [laughs] ‘Cause I have a certain way I like to look. And if I don’t have my eyes a certain way or my lips a certain way, I’m just not comfortable, so I go play in it.
SL: Earlier in your career, you were…let’s just say you didn’t readily admit you’d had plastic surgery. But now it’s like “Yeah, plastic surgery!” What was the change?
DP: Well, I never would have said I did it if I hadn’t got caught at it. But I wasn’t gonna lie about it! So then after I got caught and I didn’t lie about it, people started asking me [more often]. And I thought, “Well, you know, what the hell?” After so much time, after you get older, it can help people. I’m not being the poster child for any of that, but people know you do it. If they ask me, I just say “Yeah, whatever. And I ain’t done yet!”
SL: You have such a special brand of femininity. You’ve shown that people can be strong and smart and beautiful, like a real Steel Magnolia. What makes a strong Southern woman to you?
DP: I guess somebody that’s confident in who they are. I’ve always believed in my talent. And I’ve always had more guts than talent. [laughs] So I’ve always had to go that extra mile. I’ve always wanted to be a star. I’ve always wanted money and wanted to travel. So I knew there was a price to pay for that. I knew I wasn’t going to be sitting around and somebody come along and say “Hey I’ve got it all figured out for ya.” I figured I was going to have to work for all that. And I have. But I’ve loved that. I’ve loved the work as much as I’ve loved the success. I mean, I love to work. I LOVE what I do. I love thinking, I love coming up with great ideas. I just get excited. Sometimes if I get a big idea, I’m just like a kid, like I’ve found a new toy. I’m just like “Oh my gah, this is a GREAT idea.” And then I try to get other people excited about it. I love to make things happen, I love to see things happen, I love to be a part of things that are happening. And I’ve been blessed with great GREAT people in my life. God has been so good to me to put me in the right places and surround me with all these great people. So I get a lot credit for a lot of work that a lot of other people do. But I’m in there doing my part. I’m just so grateful that I got to enjoy the journey too, just by working with such great people.
SL: You’ve never had any children. But you helped raise some of your siblings and some of your nieces and nephews. Some of them even call you Aunt Granny?
DP: Yes, that’s right.
SL: You’ve had such an influence, whether as a maternal figure or just a great role model. With Miley Cyrus famously being your goddaughter, I loved what you said about her in TIME magazine…
DP: ...I did it my way, why can’t she do it hers?
SL: Yes, exactly. As someone who’s had such a maternal influence on people, what does that connection mean to you?
DP: It feels good. I feel more like a godmother, like a fairy godmother, than I do like a real mother. I think probably I make a better godmother and an aunt than I would a mother because I was always so involved in my own things. I probably would have been like my sisters and my mom. I probably would have given up my dreams for that. But I guess God has His reasons for doing things. I really am a great aunt. And I really love kids. I love the energy of children. It makes me feel young. I’m just drawn to them. They’re like magic to me. And they’re drawn to me, the childlike part of me that never did grow up. I look kinda cartoonish, and look like a Mother Goose or a Cinderella or a Fairy Godmother—kids kinda respond to that. Almost like a cartoon. And my voice is small. My energy is like that. I think it just works. And it’s great for the Imagination Library and all that.
SL: Why did you start the Imagination Library?
DP: That’s one of the things I’m proudest of, of anything I’ve ever done. You can’t educate enough children. A lot of that came from the fact that a lot of my own relatives didn’t get to go to school because we were mountain people. You have to get out and work and help feed the family. My own dad couldn’t read and write. And my dad was very proud of me. He got to live long enough to see the Imagination Library do well, so he felt like he had done something good too—that he was the inspiration for it. And if you can read, you can find books on anything you want. You can self-educate even if you can’t afford to go to school.
SL: What’s your favorite book?
DP: Well, to be honest, it’s the first little book that’s in the program. It’s The Little Engine That Could. Because I’m the little engine that did. I always say that “I thought I could, I thought I could” and “I think I can, I think I can, and I still think I can.” So I think that’s a great little inspirational book. It really kinda sums me up pretty good.
SL: You spend a lot of your downtime at home in Tennessee. What are some of your favorite things about the state?
DP: Everything. I like everything. My husband and I have a camper. We travel around all the time. Every weekend. Usually a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We travel all over Tennessee. We try to see all the little, out-of-the-way places [where] other people don’t go. ‘Cause he’s great with maps. He loves to travel around. So we really get to see a lot of little towns that people don’t see or don’t realize [are there.] Just like our little Rugby. You know up around Knoxville? There’s a little town up there called Rugby. We find all the little Rugby’s all over Tennessee. All the little places that are just out of the way and have a little history. Or are just exceptionally beautiful. And sometimes we just get a wild hair and say “Let’s drive down to Graceland.” We went down not long ago and saw Carl Perkins’ childhood home. We’ll see something in a magazine or see something in the newspaper, and say “Why don’t we go down there one weekend?” ‘Cause there’s a lot to see about Tennessee.
SL: Do you enjoy seeing other notable personalities’ homes? Do you feel you learn more about them as a person by seeing where they come from?
DP: Yeah, I do. You know it’s just like we went to Elvis’ in Tupelo too. His little house there. I just like doing that kind of stuff. Just seeing. I think it says a LOT about the people. I always think about their childhood.
SL: Do you cook?
DP: Oh, I cook all the time. A lot of times if we’re doing something special, I’ll cook at the house and pack it up like a picnic and we’ll take it in the camper.
SL: What’s your specialty?
DP: Well, my husband loves those little Cornish hens, and I fry them. I take ‘em and fry ‘em, and I make potato salad, and I make homemade green beans. So if I’m making a real picnic, like Mama and my aunts used to back home, I’ll make like a whole special treat for us to have a basket of homemade stuff that I love.
SL: Country cooking.
DP: Yeah, country cooking. We stop and get tea and whatever to go with it.
SL: You’re so known for your style. Do you have any cherished pieces that you’ve held onto over the years?
DP: I’ve held onto everything. A big part of it is up in our Chasing Rainbows museum. I still have a lot of clothes that I still wear. These pants are probably 20 years old. They’re bell bottoms, they’re not even in style, but I don’t care. They fit with this vest, and so I wore them. I’m just that kind of person; I don’t care if it’s stylish, I don’t care if it’s fashionable.
SL: How about a quick lightning round? George Jones or Johnny Cash?
DP: [pause] Oh, both. That’s a hard choice. But I love Johnny Cash as a person and I love George Jones' singing. So I love them both.
SL: “I Will Always Love You” or “Jolene”?
DP: “I Will Always Love You”
SL: If you had to pick one: big boobs or big hair?
DP: Uhhhhh….I couldn’t pick one. I’d have to pick three. [laughs]
SL: What’s more important: beauty or a sense of humor?
DP: [long pause] Well...I guess beauty with a sense of humor.
SL: Cornbread or biscuits?
SL: Cake or pie?
SL: Madonna or Beyoncé?
DP: I’m not going there.
SL: More or less?
SL: One last question. Back in 1977, when Barbara Walters interviewed you, you told the tale of your life as a fairy princess, of your hopes and dreams. If I were to ask you today, “What is your fairytale?” what would you say? Complete the line, "Once upon a time…"
DP: Well, I’m still going to complete it. Once upon a time...the fairy princess continued with her life, and now she’s doing her life story as a musical. And I’m also doing my life story as a feature [film]. I want to continue with that while I’m still alive and can do that. I would love to make some more records. I’d love to do some TV. I’d like to do some producing. I still want to have a cosmetic company of my own. And so this fairy princess has a lot of dreams to still come true.