Sometimes Dolly Parton feels like she's lived more than one lifetime. "When I think back to my childhood," says the still-reigning queen of country music, "it's like we were in the Dark Ages."
It was the kind of no-way-out poverty you might find in a particularly aching country song. Parton grew up the fourth of 12 children in a tin-roofed shack in East Tennessee's Appalachian Mountains. The home had no electricity, no running water, no phone. "You knew you were worse off than some," Parton says, "but there were no really rich people around us." One memory runs especially deep: "We grew our own food. Daddy would get up in the morning and work till he had to go to his job doing construction. Then he'd come home and still be workin' on the farm till way after dark. We used to soak Daddy's old feet. Mama had some kind of salve she'd made up for Daddy's hands because they'd crack and bleed, and I remember rubbing Daddy's hands with it."
As she talks, Parton flicks the tips of her bright-red acrylic nails. She is in her office in Nashville, wearing a gold-lamé bustier and a black sequin-studded pantsuit that hugs her larger-than-life curves. Though her appearance is about as overdone as they come, she looks tiny and tender and, despite the makeup and the wig, real. And she actually chokes up—"Whoosh," she says, and takes a deep breath—when she notes, "Back in the early days, what we had was each other."
She has walked a long country mile to get to where she is today, but she hasn't forgotten where she came from. In fact, she owes her success to those humble roots.
Today, Parton, 63, is an icon, a legend, and a brand. She's made 80 albums, had 25 number one singles, and published more than 3,000 of her own songs, including "I Will Always Love You," made even more famous by Whitney Houston in the movie "The Bodyguard." She's also had some notable turns as an actress ("Nine to Five" and "Steel Magnolias," among other films) and oversees a business empire that includes a very profitable entertainment park called Dollywood, located in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. And she helms a foundation that offers scholarships to students in East Tennessee and supports early-education efforts.
What's more, she's still churning out new material. She wrote the score for "Nine to Five," the musical, which opened on Broadway in April. Last year, on her own record label, she released "Backwoods Barbie," which debuted at number 17 on the Billboard 200 chart, her highest start ever. She did a European tour last summer that sold out major arenas and grossed in the tens of millions of dollars; DVDs of two concerts are due out in June. She's got a children's book coming out the same month, and a line of clothing and accessories debuting later this year. According to "The Palm Beach Post," she's worth between $200 million and $400 million, up there with Madonna. And, most important, she's happy.
"I'm happy now in a special kind of way," says Parton. "I've been fortunate to live long enough to see that I have made it, that people do have some respect for the things I've achieved. Some people say that I've been an inspiration."
There's a lot we could learn from Dolly Parton. At a time when many Americans are, if not hardscrabble poor, still struggling to live for today and plan for tomorrow—and with a lot less than they had a year ago—her folksy aphorisms hold especially true.
Aim Crazy High
Parton first started writing songs when she was just seven, imagining she would one day be a musician. "I never had any doubt that I was going to spend my life in music," she says.
During her teenage years Parton and her mother's brother, Bill Owens, also a songwriter, would venture into Nashville and try to get signed. "We used to come down in his rickety car any time we could beg, borrow, or steal enough money for gas," Parton remembers. "We'd clean up in service stations. I'd wash my hair in those old, cold sinks and put my makeup on in the mirrors in the car." Through it all, she says, "there wasn't ever a time I thought I wasn't going to make it."
And when she did make it, Parton kept dreaming. "I wake up with new dreams every day. And the more you do, when you're a dreamer, the more everything creates other arenas you can go into. It's like a tree with many branches, and branches with many leaves."
Parton's dreaming has always been informed by an abiding faith. In a corner of her sprawling southwestern-style office complex is a ten-by-ten-foot chapel with walls of backlit stained glass. "I have a place of worship in each of my homes," says Parton. "Even in my apartment, I have a little pray-do where I can kneel. I pray as I walk around, but it's a way to remind you that it ain't gonna hurt you to get on your knees and humble yourself before God."
Over the years Parton has fashioned her own personal spirituality, but the roots of her faith go back to her childhood. Her maternal grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher. Her father's family was Baptist. "I'm not some crazy Holy Roller, though I grew up with that," she says. "I've learned through the years to communicate with God as I perceive him. I pray for guidance, and I accept the things that come as an answer to prayers."
"Her faith drives her," says Danny Nozell, Parton's manager. "She thinks about things, she prays on them, then she makes a decision. And the decisions more often than not go her way."
When they don't, Parton still keeps the faith. "I think, 'Well, maybe God's got something better for me.' "
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