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Dolly Parton: How Dolly Does It

Country music's leading lady owes her big-time success to her small-town values.

dolly parton

— Photo by Lorenzo Agius/ Contour by Getty Images

Know Who's on Your Side

Along with hope and faith, Parton always knew the value of keeping the company of folks she trusted. "You're not going to see your dreams come true if you don't put wings, legs and arms, hands and feet, on 'em," she says. "You gotta have people to help carry out those dreams, and, Lord, I've been surrounded by great people." That's partly because Parton knows how to avoid negative people, says Ted Miller, her business manager at the Dollywood Company.

Parton counts her childhood girlfriend Judy Ogle, and her semireclusive husband of 43 years, Carl Dean, whom she met outside a Nashville laundromat in 1964, as "special rare gifts." She says: "They knew me before I became a star. They still see me as me."

After Parton and Dean married, they took in five of Dolly's younger brothers and sisters. The couple never had children of their own, though not for lack of trying. "It wasn't meant to be," Parton shrugs. "Me and Carl are each other's children."

Parton and Ogle, her personal assistant, have been best friends since the third grade. "We're absolutely, totally honest, open, and comfortable with each other," Parton says. "We've been accused of being lovers. We do love each other, but we've never been like that." Ogle tours with Parton, since Dean, retired from the construction business, stays home.

That, in part, is key to the longevity of their marriage. "We're not together enough to get on each other's nerves," Parton jokes. In all seriousness, she adds, "Carl has always been proud of me. As long as I don't drag him into my work, he's fine and lets me do what I want to do.

"I know we'll never divorce," she says. "He always knows I'm coming home."

Trust Your Gut

In 1974 Dolly Parton parted ways with mentor Porter Wagoner, the country music performer who had introduced her to a national television audience. She has never looked back, and she has been a brilliant guardian of her career. (In fact, Elvis Presley wanted to record "I Will Always Love You," which she wrote as a farewell to Wagoner, but Parton said no when his manager demanded they share royalties. That decision alone has made her millions.)

Parton says she inherited her savvy from her father, who never had any formal education. "He had that good old common horse sense," she says. "Daddy could look at a person across the yard and tell if they were honest and sincere or a crook. I'm like that, too."

David Dotson, president of the Dollywood Foundation, says his job interview with Parton consisted of a ten-minute chat in the back of a van, followed by her pronouncement: "I like you." He's been in the position for ten years now.
"Dolly is, in my opinion, canny about life and people," says Jane Fonda, who has stayed in touch with Parton since they costarred in "Nine to Five" in 1980. "She is extremely smart."

One recent example: Last year Parton spent roughly $1 million to launch her own label, Dolly Records, when the industry wasn't willing to support her. "I thought, 'It's an investment in myself,' " she says. "If it pays off, great. If not, I'll count it as a tax loss." With the release of Backwoods Barbie, Dolly Records recouped its start-up costs in three months.

"The music business is not what it used to be," says Parton. "After you reach a certain age, they think you're over. Well, I will never be over. I'll be making records if I have to sell them out of the trunk of my car. I've done that in the past, and I'd do it again."

Run True and Deep

The irony of Dolly Parton is that, despite all the reinventions—the plastic surgery, the late-'70s foray into pop music, the entrepreneurial projects—she has never really changed. She still maintains a look and sound connected to her early Nashville days. And her personality is pure backwoods girl.

"The secret about Dolly is that the artifice has only to do with the outward appearance," says Patricia Resnick, who cowrote the screenplay for Nine to Five and wrote the book for the new musical. "Her greatest strength is how real and accessible she remains, even after so many years of being insanely famous."

Recently Resnick and Parton joined Robert Greenblatt, producer of the musical version of Nine to Five, for lunch at his home. After Parton finished eating, she took her plate to the kitchen sink and rinsed it. Resnick commented that most superstars wouldn't bus their own dishes, to which Parton replied, "Well, then, they don't deserve to eat!"

Parton says she has no interest in following fashion trends. "When I fix up," she says, "I look good to me. I don't try to be something else." Still, people connect with her. "I always feel like I'm going to a family reunion when I go out there with my audience," says Parton. "I often say they don't come to see me be me, they come to see me be them."

Says Fonda: "Dolly has got such self-humor that she can do and say things no one else could get away with. She's totally honest about her roots, and it makes you love her. She is clearly real in all that matters—her heart and soul."

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