Dolly Parton: How Dolly Does It
Country music's leading lady owes her big-time success to her small-town values.
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.' "
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."
Don't Just Hoard All That Money
Parton's philanthropic drive is intertwined with her desire to help her people, as she calls them—her siblings and nieces and nephews and cousins and friends from back home. "Her notion of giving back has always been 'When you make it, you help your family and your hometown,' " Dotson says.
When Dollywood opened in 1986 (the venture now includes a water park and three huge dinner theaters), Parton hoped the business might bring work to the economically depressed Great Smoky Mountains region. "I knew Dollywood would be a great business for me," she says, "but I also knew it would generate a lot of money in that area and provide jobs. That's true success—when everybody's making money."
Parton formed the Dollywood Foundation in 1988 and gave scholarships to students in her native Sevier County. The foundation's main philanthropy today is the Imagination Library, which this year will provide 6 million books to children in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The program salves the sadness Parton feels about her late father's never having learned to read. "My daddy was more proud of the kids calling me the book lady than them calling me a star," she says.
Keep Your Foot on the Gas
There are a few things that Dolly Parton doesn't do. Work out, for one. "I doubt I'll ever be burning up the woods with old exercise," she says, "but my brain sweats. My mind goes all the time."
She also doesn't sleep a lot, and she gets antsy just kicking back. "The last break I took was the longest two weeks I've ever spent," she says. "I was like, 'Enough already.' " Parton says she will never retire: "I'll always want to have something to do, and hopefully I can just fall dead right in the middle of it."
More and more of the projects she dreams up involve kids. She plans to put out a series of children's CDs and perhaps host a children's TV show along the lines of Paul Reubens's campy "Pee-wee's Playhouse."
"In my older years I'm going to go into that world of children," Parton says. "That's the way to keep yourself young. Be childlike, not childish."
The way Parton sees it, it's simple: "You can do anything you want to do as long as you keep a good attitude and keep working at it," she says. "But the second you give up, you're screwed."
West Coast editor Meg Grant profiled Dustin Hoffman in the March & April 2009 issue.