At 76, and in her seventh decade of recording, my cousin (and subject of my 1994 biography) Dolly Parton is country music’s greatest star. Hank Williams died too soon. Johnny Cash never had an amusement park. And Tammy Wynette couldn’t deliver the quips that Parton rolls out with ease: “I like to buy my clothes two sizes too small and then take them in a little.”
However, beneath the wigs and the wisecracks of this self-described “backwoods Barbie” beats the heart of a mountain savant. Back in the Tennessee Smokies, where she grew up, people saw something special in her early: an advanced sense of perception for a child, an inherent wisdom. She got her first guitar at 7 or 8, and though she’d been making up words and tunes since she was 5, “that’s when I started to write some serious songs … pretty deep songs for a kid. Don’t ever remember thinking like a child.”
Hear the inimitable Parton reflect on life in general (and her new novel) live, with her coauthor James Patterson, on Friday, March 25, as part of AARP’s three-day AARP Celebrates You! online festival. (Find out how to join the free event here.)
Meanwhile, enjoy these eight inspiring examples of how Dolly’s inner compass has guided her through a remarkable life (along with some fun Dolly Parton trivia).
“I’m never going to be a Meryl Streep. But then, she’ll never be a Dolly Parton, either.”
The backstory: Despite starring in a handful of motion pictures (9 to 5, Steel Magnolias), Dolly says she’s not that great an actress, and doesn’t even want to be. She knows her strengths, and besides, she’s a character all her own.
Fun fact: Dolly turned down Elvis Presley’s request to record one of her songs because it would have meant giving up half her publishing rights.
“I make a point to appreciate all the little things in my life. I go out and smell the air after a good, hard rain.”
The backstory: Dolly has long practiced the art of positive thinking. It’s not only helped her get to where she is today, but remembering all the good in the world lifts her out of the occasional doldrums, as she wrote in her book Dream More: Celebrate the Dreamer in You.
Fun fact: If she hadn’t been a star, Dolly says she would have become a beautician or a missionary.
“I’ve always had a lot of confidence in my talent and in my personality. The way I am, the way I dress, the makeup, the hair — this is fun for me. I’m the perfect person to have had her own theme park. I love playin’ .”
The backstory: While she admits that as a child, she modeled her now-famous image on “the town tramp,” using Mercurochrome for lipstick and a burnt kitchen match for an eyebrow pencil, Dolly enjoys her look, finding “a little magic in the fact that I’m so totally real but look so artificial at the same time.”
Fun fact: She once entered a Dolly Parton look-alike contest — and lost!
“The music business is not what it used to be. 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.”
The backstory: In an industry that’s often cruel to women, especially those over 40, Dolly has beaten the odds and survived, thanks to steely fortitude, outsize talent and creative reinvention. Or by simply being herself.
Fun fact: Dolly asked Tennessee lawmakers to withdraw a bill to erect a statue of her at the state capitol in Nashville.
“I’ll always want to have something to do, and hopefully I can just fall dead right in the middle of it.”
The backstory: Dolly can’t imagine retiring, she insists. She gets antsy when she takes a lot of time off. There’s always a song, a book or a philanthropic project just waiting for her to “put wings” on it, and the ideas come so fast that she can’t get to them soon enough.
Fun fact: Her Imagination Library has donated more than 176 million books to children worldwide.
“To me, it’s about dreaming in the day and in the night. Dreams have always helped me visualize my goals and aspirations. When I was a child, I could see me onstage singing my heart out. I could see what I was wearing and where I was going. I would visit that dream every single day, and as I look back, my dreams kept me focused on what I wanted to do and the person I wanted to be.”
The backstory: Born with the gift of believing, of having all the biblical faith as a grain of mustard seed, as she puts it, Dolly believed as a girl that she could achieve her dreams. And then she made them happen. She’s still dreaming.
Fun fact: Dolly now has her own ice cream flavor, Strawberry Pretzel Pie.
“I get up way before dawn, usually. I have my coffee, do my spiritual readings and go over my paperwork. Sometimes I get real creative when the whole world is quiet and still. That’s my God time. I’m in a space that nobody else is going to occupy but me.”
The backstory: Dolly keeps a place of worship in each of her homes where she can kneel and pray as a way to remind herself that “it ain’t gonna hurt you to get on your knees and humble yourself before God.”
Fun fact: She wrote “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” on the same day.
“I’ll never be burning up the woods with old exercise. It’s so boring to me to get on a treadmill or to get on the floor. But my brain sweats. My mind goes all the time.”
The backstory: Although Dolly looks at herself “like a show dog” that she has to keep “clipped and trimmed and in good shape,” she flatly refuses to exercise. But there are other ways to burn up energy!
Fun fact: In 2021, Dolly re-created her 1978 Playboy magazine cover image as a birthday gift for her husband, Carl Dean.
Alanna Nash is a contributing writer who covers celebrity and entertainment. She has written 10 books, including several on Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton. She received a Country Music Association Media Achievement Award and a Charlie Lamb Award for Excellence in Country Music Journalism.