Drag queens love her. Talk show hosts from Johnny Carson to Jimmy Kimmel adore her. Children raised on the Imagination Library thank her. Feminists know the high-gloss make-up and cotton-candy hair are all part of her insurrection. Carl Dean calls her his wife.
Ultimately, Dolly Parton, now 76 years young, is a force of nature who can straddle being a businesswoman, tackle complicated social issues like funding COVID vaccines in a way that dials down the anger, make her acting debut opposite Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin and hold her own – and create the most sex-positive persona that’s strung across seven decades.
“9 To 5” became a working person’s anthem, as well as feminist treatise. “Jolene,” about the sexier woman who could steal your man. “Love Is Like A Butterfly” embracing the heart’s redemptive power. “Coat of Many Colors” showing her mother’s ingenuity in the face of poverty, as well as society’s cruel judgements.
A dozen Grammys. Two Oscar nominations, plus an Emmy, Tony, Golden Globe and a pair of stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Her songs felt like they were snatched from dirt in the Appalachians, so pure and true; like Steinbeck, she understood the dignity of poverty, like Helen Gurley Brown, she could twist feminine wiles into a wink and a poke at the status quo.
She showed her inner and outer beauty in full technicolor and sparkle. Her hair and breasts jacked up; bright pastels and gilded looks front and center. She was a fantasy fairy who talked quick, wrote true and never kept it less than incredibly real. Who could resist any of that along with her classic catalog?
Her live performances, too, are legendary. Sure, there’s plenty of Rymans and Oprys, but she kept up with the times. Amidst her 268 Pollstar Boxoffice reports are concerts played during the pandemic on Twitch, Pandora Live and YouTube. From her biggest earning show – $4.1 million grossed over three nights at Australia’s Brisbane Entertainment Center in November 2011 – to her first shows in the Pollstar database in August 1982 where she played 10 shows at Cleveland’s Front Row Theater grossing $323,000 — Dolly is a global road warrior who’s captivated millions.
Already in the Songwriters, Grammy, Country, Gospel and Happiness halls of fame, her fierce embrace of individuality, her ability to turn severing a business relationship into a No. 1 country hit of her own, then a 14-week No. 1 pop sensation for Whitney Houston with “I Will Always Love You” is about as rock ‘n’ roll as it gets.
Pollstar: You’re working on a rock ‘n’ roll record?
Dolly Parton: Well, I am. When I got nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I thought “Well, no better time to do it.” I had always wanted to do it. My husband is a big hard rock ’n’ roll fan, and for years I thought, “One of these days I’d like to do an album mainly just for him, just to kind of do it.” When I got nominated, I thought, “Why not just go ahead and do it while the iron’s hot? Maybe have some of the greats, the legends of rock ‘n’ roll sing along with me.
I’m gathering all that stuff and notifying a few people. When I get leveled out from finishing the movie [“Run, Rose, Run”], hopefully I’m going to have a real good album. I’m looking forward to it.
I remember interviewing you for 1989’s White Limozeen. It had REO’s “Time For Me to Fly” on it. You said it was a request by your husband.
Yeah … I loved that song! I covered “Shine” by Collective Soul, that was my husband’s idea, and the Billy Joel song “Travelin’ Prayer,” and also “Train, Train.” All those things from the rock field were my husband’s idea. Though he did not like it when I was going to do “Stairway to Heaven.” But I’m going to redo that really on the money. I did it kind of bluegrass-style when I did it; but when I do the rock album, I’m going to actually re-record it – and do it more true to the regular record. I’m trying to see if Robert Plant might sing on it. Maybe Jimmy Page might do the pick-up part on it. I’m looking forward to dragging in some of the great classic people, girls and boys, to sing on some of the songs. I’m not far enough along to discuss who and what, but I am going to do an album.
There was all that confusion about what you were going to if you were voted in. In some ways, the way you followed your heart in your music and your career is as rock ‘n’ roll as anything anybody’s ever done.
I have to honestly say, I’m very grateful and honored, but I’m also the kind of person – I had to do a rock album, because if I’m going to be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I’m going to by God earn it! (laughs) That’s my attitude toward it. There’s no way I’m not going to do an album, so people can see that I could and can do it.
I was like a whole lot of people, I always felt the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was for rock ‘n’ roll people, who spent their lives, time, energy and talent in the rock ‘n’ roll field. I didn’t realize all the people who had gotten in who weren’t really rock ‘n’ roll, but I still stand by my thing. When I said I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to take votes from someone who’d spent their life in that. But I said, if they put me there, I will accept gracefully. And I will. I even wrote a song about the whole situation to sing at the ceremony. A fine, cute little rock ‘n’ roll song that’ll probably go on the rock ‘n’ roll album. It’s called “Rockin’’: “You know I’ve been rockin’ since the day I was born…” You know, listening to Elvis and Journey and Chuck Berry, all those great people. It’s a fine little song, and it’s real rock-y, so I’ll have something fun to play off of, to ease some of the tension.
It’s so you. Even when you started out, you really told the truth about whatever the situation was. You did it with great writing, but you also knew how to be funny and poke people in the eye a little bit.
(laughs) I don’t mean to do anything – I just do what I do, the way that I do it. I have my personality. Whatever comes along in my life, I deal with it, according to me, what I think, what I feel; I do that in my songs or I do that about a situation, like the whole rock ‘n’ roll thing. I, of all people, would never want to stir up any kind of controversy, I am not that person. But also I am not the kind of person to avoid the truth of how I’m feeling about a thing.
Growing up, “Dumb Blonde” was one of my favorites. I had lots of friends who were blonde and smart, and I used to love playing that song for them.
I loved that movie “Legally Blonde.” I think a lot of people think we’re just bimbos or whatever, but that song said “…just because I’m blonde, don’t think I’m dumb, because this dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool!” (laughs). It doesn’t matter what color your hair is; if you’ve got the goods, you’ve got the goods.
In retrospect, we looked at that and went, “Wasn’t she a cheeky monkey!? Look at her tell the truth with a big smile.”
I still believe that. That’s why I think the song “9 to 5” and the movie “9 to 5,” of which I was happy to be a part of, mattered. I’m not one of those people – I don’t have to march in the streets or carry signs or anything – to state my truth. I just try to write it in my songs and live it everyday; in interviews, I say what I think and feel.
But I still think a lot of good was done with the “9 to 5” movie. Still, a lot of stuff needs to be done, but it brought a lot of attention to the fact that a lot of people didn’t even realize, men or women, that women weren’t actually being paid equally for the same work. It’s just not a fair thing as a human being: if you do the work, you should get the pay and the credit. I’m still all about that.
When you left Nashville, you took control, became a movie star, had pop hits, kind of a rock ’n’ roll move. But “9 to 5,” even “Steel Magnolias” and “Best Little Whorehouse,” those were feminist roles.
Well they were, but I just follow my heart with those things. I’m not trying to preach sermons, I’m not trying to do anything other than live by example. I’m a strong-minded woman; I work hard, I demand that I get credit for what I do, and certainly I make myself known if I’m working on a thing. I don’t think anything should be held back. Just because you’re a girl – I mean, if you’re good at something, you should be credited and paid for that.
I’ve been lucky. I don’t do it in a bitter way or in a snide way. I’ve got six brothers; I’m from a family of 12, six girls and six boys. I know every personality. Every man that I’ve met, I see someone in my family. I was very close to my uncles, to my dad and grandpas, so I’m used to that good ol’ boy stuff. I grew up in the country; I just know the nature of men, and I love men. So I know there are some bad ones out there, but there are some good ones, too. I always take all that into consideration. There’s a whole lot of men who are equally as for-women as there are the ones who are not. I don’t think we should just bash men because they’re men anymore than we want them bashing on us because we’re women. We need to balance that all out and recognize the ones who are being supportive and appreciate them for appreciating us as well.
The most feminist move is for everybody to respect everybody.
That’s who I am, I don’t think it should matter what color you are, what your religion is, whether you’re a woman or a man or transgender; if you’ve got something to offer, you should be loved. You should just be accepted for who you are and what you’re doing.
I wrote a song that’s in my new Christmas movie called “Be That.” It says, “Whatever you are, be that, whatever you do, do that, anything else is just an act, so whoever you are, be that…”
Don’t try to pretend. God is going to love us all either way. And we should be allowed to stand up and speak our minds and our truth – and be able to live our lives according to who we are, where we’re comfortable. So that’s how I feel about that, it shouldn’t matter. Whoever you are, be that.
That’s really what feminism should be: let’s all get around this table and figure it out.
There’s a lot of things that men do that I don’t appreciate, that I don’t particularly like, but I try not to think it’s just because they’re men. The same thing with women, too; there’s a whole lot of women I don’t particularly care for how they do things. I may not respect how they go about things, but that’s their right: whatever you are, do that! You’re just a phony if you aren’t doing what you think is right… Just open your heart, open your mind, and just let life flow.
So you’re back making movies again?
This movie I’m doing for NBC for Christmas, it’s really a special. It’s a show within a show. What we’re doing is focused on the dramatic side. It’s showing all the things that go on while you’re putting together a show. All the arguments you have with the producers, all the problems you have with the artists, all the problems you have with scenery falling down and all the things that go on backstage, people having to cancel and reschedule real quick.
I wouldn’t consider me acting, because I’m just totally myself in this. I’m just Dolly all the way, I’m not playing a character. But as far as getting back into the movies, I am going to be doing a leading role in the “Run, Rose, Run” movie, from the novel I wrote with James Patterson that was a No. 1 bestseller! We’re doing a movie with that, working with Reese Witherspoon, her company’s producing it. I am going to be doing that. But if I find good roles, I’d like to still be in good movies here and there, now and then.
Is that inspiring you as much as writing songs and making music?
I’m inspired by the fact I wrote all the music that is going in the “Run, Rose, Run” movie. I’ve written all those songs. It’s about two singers, an older woman and younger one, but there’s a lot of music. I did an album that went along with that book, which was the first time I think that’s been done.
There’s a song I wrote called “Run.” You know – run from the problems, based on the story. I’m inspired by that, but I love to write. That of course is my number-one love, less pressure than anything else. That’s something I can do just by myself, on my own.
I wouldn’t say that I’m trying to do anything other than what comes along that feels right at the time. I can kind of pick and choose these days, at my age and the years that I’ve been in the business.
Are you writing just to write?
I don’t unless I have a project. If I’ve been commissioned to do something or something I feel inspired like when I wrote 19 songs for the “Run, Rose, Run” book or the Christmas movie that we did. I write all the time. I’ll just scribble something down. I’m always coming up with an idea. That’s something that comes so natural to me. That is my greatest joy, to write songs and then record them and hear what I’ve done.
Over the last five years, you’re somebody who understood culturally we needed a good example. The COVID stuff, people who were hardcore “I’m not getting that shot” were like, “Wait! Dolly Parton’s helping?” People got the shot because of that. You’ve been good with the LGBTQ+ folks; I know people are a lot more accepting because you are.
If that’s so, that makes me proud. Because I don’t believe anybody has a right to judge another person – and they don’t have a right to even judge me when I do things that come from my heart.
Just like when I financed the COVID shots, the Moderna: I just knew when the pandemic started, I felt in my heart that it was going to be a bad thing. I try to always put my money where my heart is and where my head is. I felt I should donate some money to that cause, from myself or my family. I never tried to shove it down anyone’s throat – just the vaccine was there, and if my little dab of money helped get it out to more people that did want it, then fine. But I never judged anyone who didn’t get it or thought anybody should be not getting it or should be getting it. I’m not political on those things. I don’t do it for any other reason other than I feel personally led to do certain things. However people use it or look at it, that’s all fine. I just felt the need to help.
Do you think you’re going to tour in the next five years, will there be a rock tour?
I do not think I will ever tour again, but I do know I’ll do special shows here and there, now and then. Maybe do a long weekend of shows, or just a few shows at a festival. But I have no intention of going on a full-blown tour anymore. I’ve done that my whole life, and it takes so much time and energy. I like to stay a little closer to home with my husband. We’re getting older now, and I don’t want to be gone for four or five weeks at a time. Something could happen. I would not feel right about that, if I were gone and somebody needed me. Or I would feel bad if I had to leave a tour if somebody got sick at home and needed me and then I had to walk out on the fans.
With all the new technology and ways to reach your fans, you’re also instantly connected.
I don’t ever feel separated from my fans because in this high-tech world, you can be right with them. You can do special shows in special ways. I will be doing some of that. But you’ve got to work for weeks to work up a great new show, a new tour they haven’t seen. It takes months to actually plan a tour, as far as booking dates and all that. Then you’ve got to be gone for all that time, too. It’s more involved than people have any idea. You really need a year, and certainly six months, to plan a great tour, just preparing to get ready to go hit the road. So you can’t just go out and do a few shows, you really have to commit to doing enough shows to make all that time and effort pay off.
Do you have a favorite live performance?
The Glastonbury Festival I did two years back really stands out. I was scared to death to do that show! I didn’t think that was really my audience because I do a lot of talking, I do a lot of songs that tell stories and I know they love to go to have a big time! I thought they just wanted the music to just go steady with no let-up; but when I did it, I was absolutely amazed. When I was talking and telling the stories and singing the songs that I thought they would not be interested in, they were all standing on their feet. They were so respectful and it was such a huge success. So many people came, that I was really adored and felt honored and emotional about that whole thing. You do remember things that stand out like that. They did know who I was. And I thought, these people are not going to be that familiar with my music because, you know, it’s country and all that. But they were! That’s as close as I’ve felt to being a rock star, was at that Glastonbury Festival (laughs).
Dream duet partners? Anybody you haven’t sung with yet?
There’s a couple people that I love, and I’m going to be asking them maybe to sing with me on my rock album. Ed Sheeran: I’ve always thought our voices would blend so beautifully together. And I have a particular song I’m going to ask him to sing with me. And, of course, I’ll ask Miley (Cyrus, her goddaughter). I love the Wilson sisters [of Heart]! There’s a lot of people I hadn’t thought that much about until I started putting together this rock album. I’m going to be thinking seriously about that now.
This gives you license to go explore other worlds.
It does, but also, Chris Stapleton is one of my favorite people ever. I have always wanted to do something with him. Even though he’s not considered rock ‘n’ roll, he’s kind of like me, he’s accepted all the way around. I’m thinking that certainly out of the country field, when I do my rock album, I’m going to maybe ask him.
Most left field?
Jimmy Fallon. The first time I ever worked on his show, we just had a connection – and it’s just been magical. I recorded a song with him, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas” for my Christmas album a few years ago. He’s on my Christmas special. We sound really good together; Jimmy is a really good singer. He doesn’t think so, but I do.
I think Jimmy Fallon is one of the special people in the world. When he’s on the set, when he was doing the movie, he’s just got such an energy about him. And everybody just fell in love with him. He was there for two days, and when he left it was like a light switch flipped off. “Oh no! Where’d that great light go?!” He’s a magnificent human being.
So now you’re going into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, what does it mean to you?
It means a great deal. More than anything, I tried to really see what they said it was all about. I thought I could accept the belonging there with those people when I heard all the reasons they gave. I was honored about that.
I’ll do my best to honor this. I’ll continue to love rock ‘n’ roll, I’ll continue to respect and appreciate what the rock ‘n’ roll artists put forward. Just like I would have no trouble at all accepting any kind of award or accolade from the country, bluegrass or gospel field, this was a new one on me! I didn’t think I deserved it, and I’m still not certain I do, but I’m going to accept it gracefully and be proud, and do my best to try to live up to it somehow.
When I do the math on this, you’re a lot like Stevie Nicks.
I love Stevie Nicks, I’m going to ask her to sing on my rock album, too.
You two are like the two good witches, you know?
Well I love her. I’ll tell her you said we were two good witches. (laughs) With a “W,” right? Not a “B?”(laughs)
Definitely a “W.” She brings that larger-than-life thing, too. Everywhere she goes, people see her, and they light up.
I understand that about her. I love her persona. I love her songs. I love her voice, I just love her. As people do! Somebody else I love like that is Lady Gaga. She is so talented, so gifted, and she knows exactly what she’s doing at all times! I really think she’s an incredible person as well. And my Miley! I love women who know who they are, stand their ground and live up to who they are in their own mind, as well as trying to just stand up for what they believe and trying to be there for the people who are moved and inspired by them.
Everybody we’ve talked about has really pushed the envelope.
But we did it our way, I guess, is what you’re saying. There’s all kind of ways to do it, but when you’re a true individual and you’re true to your own self, your own personality, your own gifts, that makes you kind of stand out a little bit. I always said I don’t want to be vanilla. I want to be rocky road.
A much more delicious flavor.
Well much more interesting.