Dolly Parton: ‘I’m just a person, a human being with very sensitive, deep feelings’

Dolly Parton photographed by Stacie Huckeba
Through decades of fame and success – and emerging as a vaccine hero – Dolly Parton has remained universally loved. ‘I just think people relate to me,’ she says 

Mention to friends and family that you’re about to interview Dolly Parton – because, really, how could you not? – and the reaction runs a spectrum from burbling fangirl to weapons-grade shrieking. “Oh I adore her!” is the unanimous reaction, whether it’s your sixtysomething aunt in Donegal or your hipster drinking buddy.

And Parton has long been able to straddle diverse factions of the population, especially in her native America. Her political affiliations remain something of a state secret; almost as much as her marriage to former asphalt contractor Carl Dean has (although Parton did divulge this week that her husband, whom she married in 1966, is currently not in great health).

At a time when divisions in America are as entrenched as ever, Parton – the beloved child of the Bible belt, the cool Glastonbury headliner, the artist that Bjork and Nicki Minaj revere – remains one of the country’s most unifying figures.

Not that she has much truck with hyperbole like that, thank you very much.

“Well, I just think people relate to me as a person,” she says, in a Zoom call from Dollywood. “Just because I talk about how I grew up and my faith and my religion, I’m not telling anyone to be nice. People believe in what they believe in – I just know that works for me. I just think people know that I accept everyone and love everyone, and I don’t judge anyone – we’re all here for a reason.”

On the week we talk, the country icon is having a particularly heaven-sent week.

On Twitter, a poster called Jonathan Katz probably put the news that Parton had partly funded the research that resulted in the Moderna coronavirus best. “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vacciiiiiiiiiiiiine,” he wrote, presumably with the tune of Parton’s Jolene in mind.

The singer made the $1 million donation to Vanderbilt University Medical Centre back in April, while urging other artists to do the same. Incidentally, Parton learned that she’d funded the highly promising medical breakthrough last month, along with pretty much everyone else, reacting with her trademark “praise the lord!”.

“I was very proud to do this when the whole thing started,” Parton says. “It just felt like the right thing to do. My heart just said, ‘go donate a million dollars to try find a cure’, and because my name was attached to the programme, which they then called the Dolly Parton Programme, they got a $35 million grant to further it. They’ve done some amazing work. Someone’s going to find the cure sooner or later, but our programme is bridging that gap in between.”

When asked whether she’d ever run for office herself, Parton quipped: “I’ve got the hair for it, it’s huge, and they could always use more boobs in the race.”

While the world has roundly hailed the star as a pandemic hero, the singer’s own reaction to the Moderna news is sweetly unassuming. It’s what makes the Tennessee legend a beguiling, irresistible stew of contradictions. There’s the legendary Southern apple-pie niceness, and the old-fashioned values, for a start, which runs through Parton like words in Brighton rock.

You’d have to travel a fair way to find someone who hasn’t a nice word to say about the star, and some say this universally adored image has been a long time in the crafting. As her biographer Sarah Smarsh remarked to the New Yorker last month, “Parton hasn’t gotten this far without knowing exactly what she’s doing.”

Owing to a technical glitch, the visuals on our Zoom call kick in before Parton realises she is on the call; even at that, she appears to be charm personified with her team, before kicking things off with that recognisably big-lunged, “Hai! Hai! Hai!”

Coupled with the charming Southern Belle niceness is Dolly’s deliciously overblown personal style. Among her most famous one-liners – and really, there have been hundreds – is, “it takes a lot of money to look this cheap”.

Throughout our Zoom conversation, several bracelets on her wrists jangle furiously. Her make-up, never knowingly understated, is immaculate, as is her white blonde wig, teased in the higher-the-hair-the-closer-to-God tradition. Parton is seated beside a chocolate-box Christmas scene, with a fireplace and a humongous, twinkly tree. She turns 75 next year, yet shimmers with vitality.

I just called Miley up. I said, well - I wrote this song. Will you sing on it with me? She said, ‘Well, I guess’

Amid this scene of American dream splendour, Dolly is telling me about the Christmases of her childhood. Despite her hardscrabble provenance, Southern hospitality always underpinned the holidays.

“In the very early days, we didn’t have a lot of money so we had a lot of homemade toys,” Parton recalls. “I still love and remember those Christmases with Mama and Daddy, even though they’re gone. There was the chicken, and the dressin’, and the hams, the taters [potatoes], the pumpkin pie – all the stuff that Mama made.”

Several decades and some $600 million later, Parton’s Christmases haven’t changed much: “We do our singin’, and go and see neighbours, and spread as much joy as we can muster up,” she trills.

We are talking today in tandem with the release of A Holly Dolly Christmas; her first festive album in 30 years. In true crossover style, Parton has enlisted Jimmy Fallon, Willie Nelson, Michael Bublé, Billy Ray Cyrus and her god-daughter Miley Cyrus to appear on the album. Of the latter, she notes: “I just called Miley up. I said, well, I did this – I wrote this song. It’s actually in my Netflix movie called Christmas on the Square, but I want to put it in my new Christmas album. Will you sing on it with me? She said, ‘Well, I guess.’ And I said, ‘Well, I guess you better!’ She was kidding of course.”

Also in the mix is her brother Randy, with whom she has previously duetted.

“He was our December baby,” Parton says fondly. “One year, my Mama said, ‘you’re gonna get your own walkin’, talkin’ doll’. So I wrote You Are My Christmas for him.”

They know in my voice that I know what I’m talking about. And when I arrived in Ireland I especially felt that

Saving the world aside, it’s been an eventful year for Parton. This year, she became first country artist to chart a top 20 Billboard single across seven consecutive decades. Dolly’s Netflix musical film, Christmas on the Square, premiered last month to favourable reviews. Her lyric book Songbook was released along with Dolly Parton bakeware and greeting card lines.

A new documentary, The Library That Dolly Built will be released this month, charting the story of Dolly’s Imagination Library, which has sent more than 145 million books to more than 1.6 million children across the globe. After arriving into Tallaght in Dublin in 2019, the Imagination Library gifted books to more than 3,000 children in Cork last month.

Childhood literacy is a big preoccupation for Parton, who has also penned a children’s book, Coat of Many Colours.

“It did start from a very personal place,” Parton reflects. “My Daddy was a country boy who grew up in a very big family way back there in the mountains. The schools were far away, and in a lot of the families the kids had to work just to provide for the rest of the family, or just to get by.”

The Partons, of farming stock, were hardworking Tennessee people: the Owenses, on Parton’s mother’s side, were the musical ones. Parton was born and raised as one of 12 in a one-room cabin in the Great Smoky mountains in east Tennessee.

Her extraordinary rise from the depths of poverty to the pinnacle of global celebrity is well-known, thanks in no small part to Parton’s own songs about her life, like Tennessee Homesick Blues and The Bargain Store.

Her life story certainly has the charm and grit of a folk song. She first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry stage at 13. Aged 18, she took the bus to Nashville to make it as a country star and met Carl Dean outside a laundromat the very same day.

For Parton, the songs came very early to her.

“Since I have been able to form words, I have been able to rhyme them,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I could catch on to anything that had a rhythm – peas snapping, honking geese – and make a song to go with it.”

“Daddy was always embarrassed by [not being able to read],” Parton continues. “I said, ‘Daddy, there’s a lot of people who can’t read or write. It doesn’t make you any less of a person or any less of a man’. So Daddy and I started the Imagination Library, and I asked himto help me build it. He took such pride thinking we were doing something good for kids. He got such a kick out of the kids calling me ‘the book lady’, but it was just a way to honour my father.”

Coat of Many Colours, incidentally, is the true tale of a school-aged Dolly parading about on a too warm day in a homemade coat whose magic no one else saw. It’s also the song that Parton famously sang in Páidí Ó Sé’s Kerry pub when she was in Ireland on holidays back in the 1990s. The video footage of the performance, watched by a handful of star-struck locals, still crops up online from time to time.

“I went to Ireland with a dear friend of mine, Walter Miller,” Parton recalls. “His mom was buried in that area so he told me, ‘I want to take you to Ireland’. He wanted me to meet his family and friends, so we went there on holiday.

“We stayed in this little house and went to every little pub,” Parton continues, her Southern accent somehow getting even stronger. “There was a pub in every house, and even in the shoe store. I write about it, ‘there’s a pub on every corner, and a church to worship in’ [in the song We Irish].

“Walter got a kick out of it, so we went to this little nightclub because of Paddy Ó Sé. We went to meet some friends in that saloon, and they had a band there, they knew my song and asked if I would get up and sing. People still say they’ve watched that video now and then, especially in Ireland.”

On the Irish people’s enduring love of, nay obsession with, country music, Parton adds: “I think it’s the stories. And I think that’s why people have related to me so much through the years, because I grew up very poor and humble, and we love to tell the stories. All the songs I grew up on were brought over from the old world. People feel those songs; they feel those stories. They know in my voice that I know what I’m talking about. And when I arrived in Ireland I especially felt that.”

Parton is known the world over for being perky and sparky, but it wasn’t necessarily always so. Not long after the success of her film Nine to Five, Parton reportedly became depressed and suicidal.

This period coincided with a string of disheartening professional experiences. While filming The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Parton was reportedly made to feel “too fat” for the role opposite Burt Reynolds.

It doesn’t matter what size you are - it’s how big you are as a human being that really matters. You can be a skinny ass and still have a fat head

Reflecting on that period, Parton says now: “I’m just a person, a human being with very sensitive, deep feelings. Back at the time, I had a lot of things going on. I was going through the change of life. I was having a lot of family problems – not my husband and I, but I was having problems. I was having problems with some business people, and some people near and dear to me were having problems. Just the fact that everything in my whole body and mind was changing.

“At the time, I really realised that people can get so depressed that they get on drugs and alcohol and can do damage to themselves,” Parton adds. “Thank God I didn’t – my faith and my family and friends pulled me out of that. I never slowed down until that time.

“I was there so I know how everyone feels,” Parton continues. “I’ve been where everyone has been, and it makes me able to write, and communicate with people more than most people.”

Was feeling suicidal scary? “I don’t know if the word is ‘scary’,” Parton reflects. “It was not a good feeling. It was just depressing, more than anything.”

On being made to feel fat during her stint in Hollywood, Parton recalls a moment from the set of Nine to Five.

“That was the first time I’d ever done a movie, and they had the craft food table,” Parton recalls, referring to the spread of snacks and drinks that are always available on a film set. “Boy, I thought that was great. Jane Fonda, who was co-producing, said, ‘you’re gonna have to watch your weight because we film these scenes out of sequence, and you’re gonna walk in the door skinny and walk out fat. So I had to stop, and that’s when I started having to watch my weight.

Dolly Parton and Burt reynolds in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
Dolly Parton and Burt reynolds in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

“I was pretty hefty in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and I gained even more weight from there,” Parton adds.

Her own body image soon started to trouble her. “Just for myself, for my personality, to take pride in who I am, I started trying to take care of it,” she recalls.

“But yeah, it bothered me. It always embarrasses you when someone says you need to lose weight. I didn’t like being heavy myself. It wasn’t comfortable for me. I mean, I was comfortable being fluffy! And my husband liked me better when I was heavier.”

We talk a little about new artists like Lizzo and Billie Eilish; both of whom refuse to kowtow to the music industry’s bodily ideal. It’s a different time, Parton surmises, and one that couldn’t come quick enough.

“I think it’s absolutely wonderful that these new artists are being accepted for their talent and their person and who they are,” Parton enthuses. “It doesn’t matter what size you are – it’s how big you are as a human being that really matters. You can have a skinny ass and still have a fat head.

“Before, if you were overweight, there was no way, you were going to get a deal. People weren’t interested in you. You had to be perfect. But if we are perfectly comfortable with who we are, we are perfect in God’s eyes, either way.”

2021 looks to be every bit as eventful for Parton. “I would like to continue doing what I’m doing – doing more movies, writing more songs… I’ve signed a new contract and I’ll be putting out wigs, hairpieces, make-up, perfumes, all sorts of wonderful things.

“I’ve been grateful for everything I’ve achieved in this business,” Parton surmises. “I don’t apologise for anything. Things happen for a reason. And God has led me into that.

“And thank you for the time you’ve spent with me,” Parton adds, ever the mannerly Southern belle. “These people here are telling me to wind it up. I wish I could stay talking with you all day…”

I tell her the same, and sign off by admitting that so many people are envious that I’ve gotten to talk to her today. Dolly Parton smiles back graciously, like someone who has heard the very same thing every hour, on the hour for the last 50 years.

Dolly Parton’s album A Holly Dolly Christmas is out now via Warner