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Dolly Parton: Country's Rockstar Is On The Cover

Aug 09, 2023Aug 09, 2023

Her official title in her business empire is "Dreamer in Chief," and that's appropriate for the ambitious aspirations of Dolly Parton. Let's start, where she did — with her music. The superstar's latest metamorphosis is Rockstar, a 30-song opus that takes aim at the rock-music marketplace. Inspired by her 2022 unexpected election to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, it finds her tackling rock classics as well as showcasing her own songwriting for the genre. Dolly has previously devoted herself to such diverse styles as gospel, bluegrass, disco, children's music, pop, folk, musical theater, and rockabilly.

Rockstar, which comes out in November, is her 49th studio album and merely the latest in a long string of career dreams. This child of Appalachian poverty dreamed of becoming a country queen and a pop-music hitmaker. She dreamed of being a movie star, a tourism mogul, an author, a philanthropist, and a Broadway success.

“They say a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Well, I say a dream is a terrible thing to waste,” Dolly declares. “And I’ve always been a big dreamer. I was born a dreamer.”

During the past five years, Dolly Parton has extended her brand to encompass everything from perfume to pet products. She already has her own movie company, song-publishing business, soundstage, hotel, museum, and record label.

“Big business is not as scary as it seems,” remarks the platinum powerhouse. “I find my common sense and the fact that I was born and raised in the country are the greatest gifts that I possess. Just havin’ good horse sense, you can make more money and get more done than all the people that gotta fumble through their books to try and find an answer to somethin’.”

She has called her ambitions “putting wings on my dreams.” The butterfly is her symbol: She has emerged from one cocoon after another to spread her sparkly wings and fly.

When I first arrived in Nashville, conservatives in the county-music community were in a snit about Dolly moving to Los Angeles record production and aiming for pop-music stardom. You would have thought she’d stomped a kitten in the middle of Music Row. She memorably told her detractors, “I’m not leaving country music; I’m taking it with me.”

The success of “Here You Come Again,” “Two Doors Down,” and her other pop records of 1977-79 silenced the naysayers. Pop music was just a taste of what was to come.

She released the disco hit “Baby I’m Burnin’” in 1979 and continued to issue dance-club remixes during the next three decades. Her “Faith” collaboration with the Swedish act Galantis became a No. 1 dance-music smash in 2020.

Dolly’s Heartsongs album of 1994 featured her versions of mountain folk songs. Dolly turned to the bluegrass genre for The Grass Is Blue (1999) and Little Sparrow (2001). The former won a bluegrass Grammy Award. Her gospel bona fides go back to when she released her first gospel collection in 1971 and “The Seeker” as a big country hit in 1975. She took home Grammys for gospel hits in 2020 (“God Only Knows” with For King & Country) and 2021 (“There Was Jesus” with Zach Williams). She delved into children’s music with 2017’s I Believe in You. She topped the holiday hit parade with A Holly Dolly Christmas in 2020.

Dolly’s musical experiments have included duets with such diverse folks as Rod Stewart, Smokey Robinson, Julio Iglesias, Norah Jones, Don Henley, Neil Diamond, Solomon Burke, Kesha, Dionne Warwick, and dozens of her fellow country stars. One of her most memorable collaborations was with Kenny Rogers on the chart-topping “Islands in the Stream” in 1983. She sang with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris on the Grammy-winning, 2 million-selling, and stunningly beautiful Trio LP of 1987. It remains a landmark of women’s music.

I was in Los Angeles on business in 1986 when Emmylou told me that something extraordinary was happening in a recording studio across town. She was bursting with excitement about the music the three were working on there. When they staged a press event for the album at the posh Sheraton Premiere Hotel high above Universal City in the spring of 1987, it was a media feeding frenzy. The three posed together for photos then separated to occupy three different hotel suites to greet us smitten journalists, one by one.

“Dolly’s voice is almost the focal point of this record,” said Emmylou. “Dolly represents the finest of women’s traditional music.” The Trio album spawned four major country hits, including their version of Dolly’s brilliant song “Wildflowers.”

Songs are the basis of Dolly’s empire. She has written more than 3,000 of them. In 1974, she’d formed her own publishing company to control sole ownership of her copyrights. She founded her own record label in 1994.

“I thought, Well, shit, this is the music business — why not think of the business end of the business?” she recalls.

“I figure if God gave me this talent, he also meant for me to have good sense with it. And that means good business sense.”

“Jolene” is her most recorded composition, with versions by everyone from bluegrass bands to punk rockers. An arrangement of it pairing Dolly with the a cappella group Pentatonix earned her a Grammy in 2017. “I Will Always Love You” has been a hit for Dolly four times and became one of the biggest pop successes in history when Whitney Houston recorded it. Houston’s single remained at No. 1 on the pop charts for four straight months in 1992-93, bringing its songwriter an enormous financial bounty in royalties.

Those are just two of the songs that made me a Dolly fan. I wept the first time I heard “Coat of Many Colors.” I thought, If this is what country music is now, I need to move to Nashville.

When I first started interviewing her, I was so thoroughly in awe of dazzling Dolly that I couldn’t even look at her. I stared down at my reporter’s notepad or at the tape recorder. She was so beautiful that I was afraid I’d forget my next question, become a babbling fool, or turn to stone if I looked into her gray-blue eyes.

I met Dolly Parton when she was fulfilling one of her biggest dreams. No female country singer before Dolly had been so nervy as to imagine herself as a Hollywood movie star. Her silver-screen debut was 9 to 5 with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. It became the third-highest-grossing film of 1981 (trailing the blockbusters Raiders of the Lost Ark and Superman II). Moreover, her mega-hit title song earned Dolly two Grammy Awards and an Oscar nomination.

She followed 9 to 5 with 1982’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, costarring Burt Reynolds. It became her second box-office smash.

Rhinestone (1984) and Straight Talk (1992) were flops, but her 2012 gospel musical Joyful Noise with Queen Latifah broke even.

“I don’t judge things by how much money they make or how good the reviews are,” Dolly says. “I just base it on how much fun it was or how much I got out of it. ... Money is not what motivates me,” adds the woman who is worth, they say, more than $440 million. “The opportunity to achieve is even more important to me.”

The female-ensemble film Steel Magnolias (1989) — costarring Dolly with Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, and Julia Roberts — was a triumph. It was also a box-office bonanza, grossing nearly $136 million. “I don’t know, I seem to have my best luck working with other women,” she says, referencing 9 to 5, Steel Magnolias, Trio, and her 1994 Honky-Tonk Angels album with fellow legends Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.

She wrote the vibrant “Eagle When She Flies” for Steel Magnolias, but it didn’t make it into the film. When Dolly released the song as a single and video in 1991, country radio’s male programmers said it was “too feminist.”

Dolly was nominated for her second Academy Award for her song “Travelin’ Thru,” which she wrote for 2005’s Transamerica. The film centers on a transgender character, and she has long been an open supporter of LGBTQ+ issues. “I believe in rights for all people,” Dolly says. “I just think we’re all God’s children and should be treated with respect.”

Always dreaming up new ventures, Dolly teamed with manager Sandy Gallin to form a movie-production company in 1986. Sandollar Entertainment won an Academy Award in 1990 for the AIDS documentary Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt. Her film firm has also been behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina, and Father of the Bride, as well as many of her own projects.

She has been particularly successful with TV movies. A Smoky Mountain Christmas (1986), Wild Texas Wind (1991), Unlikely Angel (1996), Blue Valley Songbird (1999), Coat of Many Colors (2015), Christmas of Many Colors (2016), Christmas at Dollywood (2019), and Christmas on the Square (2020) all earned solid ratings. In 2019, Netflix aired eight films based on her songs.

One of the star’s best-known ventures is Dollywood. In 1986, I traveled to East Tennessee for the theme park’s grand opening. So did 20,000 others, including hundreds of journalists. The Sevier High School band struck up “9 to 5” while Dolly cut a red, white, and blue ribbon with giant shears as 1,986 balloons were released carrying free tickets to the park. “Oh, I feel good!” she crowed to the crowd. “Dollywood’s aim is to make you feel as important every day as I feel today.” A bright-yellow billboard in Sevierville read “Dollywood: A Dream Come True.”

The park contains a replica of the mountain cabin she grew up in. Her rags-to-riches saga is also depicted in her Chasing Rainbows museum there. I was delighted when I discovered that one of its displays included a film clip of me talking about her. The park also offers thrill rides, an eagle rehabilitation sanctuary, Appalachian craftspeople, theaters, and a gospel-music museum. Dollywood is visited by about 3 million people each season. Does she ride its roller coasters? Not on your life: “My wig would fly off!”

Between 2001 and 2018, she acquired the nearby Splash Country Water Adventure Park, Smoky Mountain Cabins, Pirates Voyage and Stampede dinner shows, and the luxurious DreamMore Resort hotel. Dolly says that one mission of her tourism complex is to create jobs for the many impoverished families in this pocket of Appalachia.

“You should put pride in people,” she says. “Everybody that’s fortunate enough to make it ought to give something back. Dollywood is providin’ jobs for so many people.”

The Dollywood Foundation supports scholarships and nonprofit organizations that improve the quality of life for people in need. The foundation’s My People Fund was established in 2016 when the Great Smoky Mountain wildfire killed 14 people and burned down thousands of homes and businesses in Sevier County. Dolly hosted a telethon that helped to raise more than $9 million in assistance.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Dolly donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University Medical Center for research. This led to the development of the Moderna vaccine. She released her pandemic-inspired “When Life Is Good Again” the week the U.S. death toll topped the 100,000 mark. (As of this June, there have been 1,167,622 U.S. coronavirus deaths.) Dolly’s many charitable ventures resulted in her receiving the prestigious Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy in 2023.

Dolly’s Imagination Library is her foundation’s best-known charity. Launched in 1995, the program promotes literacy by gifting free books monthly to infants and children up to age 5. Nearly 2 million children are enrolled. In 2018, the Library of Congress celebrated the Imagination Library’s donation of its 100 millionth book. The first book a baby gets is The Little Engine That Could, because, Dolly says, “I am the Little Engine that did.”

Many children call her “the book lady.” She is also a book author. Her autobiography, Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business, became a New York Times bestseller in 1994. So she dreamed up a string of others. These include her debut novel, Run, Rose, Run (2022). Co-written with the prolific mystery writer James Patterson, the book debuted at No. 1 on the fiction lists of The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post. Her positive-thinking advice volume Dream More: Celebrate the Dreamer in You (2014) became a popular audiobook. Dolly has also written the children’s books I Am a Rainbow (2009), Coat of Many Colors (2016), and Billy the Kid Makes It Big (2023).

I’ve done dozens of feature stories about her, penned her press kits, written liner notes for her records, and created Dolly documentaries for TV. But nothing topped collaborating with her on Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. Released in late 2020, it became another New York Times bestseller. The book features stories behind her hits, as well as such topical tunes as her 9/11-inspired “Hello God,” her “A Woman’s Right” celebrating the 100th anniversary of votes for women, her self-descriptive “Backwoods Barbie,” and her Imagination Library theme “Try,” as well as her COVID-inspired lyric.

Working with Dolly, I learned that her energy level is astonishing. After interviewing for a full day, I’d be exhausted, but she’d want to keep going into the evening.

“I might look like a show pony, but I’m a workhorse,” she says.

While we were working on Songteller, I suggested that her flamboyant costumes should have a book of their own. Dolly will issue Behind the Seams: My Life in Rhinestones as a collaboration with Holly George-Warren coming out this fall.

Dolly Parton has also written for the stage. 9 to 5: The Musical opened on Broadway in 2009 and earned four Tony Award nominations.The musical continues to be a popular road-show attraction.

I’ve always speculated that the hardest part about working for Dolly would be simply keeping up with her. During the past three years, she has been dreaming in overdrive. She launched her Duncan Hines Dolly Parton Baking Collection of cake, biscuit, brownie, and cornbread mixes. Doggie Parton is a line of pet apparel and accessories. Dolly: Scent From Above is her fragrance brand, available at Walmart. Dolly Parton Kitchenware (dishes, mugs, towels, teapots, etc.) is at stores such as Hobby Lobby, Kohl’s, and JCPenney. There is also a new Dolly Parton Partyware brand of napkins, disposable plates, and cutlery.

Behind the Scenes: My Life in Rhinestones is due on October 17. Rockstar’s release date is November 17. It brings her music full circle from her teenage rockabilly singles “Puppy Love” (1960), “It’s Sure Gonna Hurt” (1962), and “What Do You Think About Lovin’” (1964) to new rocking collaborations with Sting, Elton John, Lizzo, Paul McCartney, Miley Cyrus, Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Pink, Joan Jett, and other dream duet partners.

“When I was a little kid ...  [I] dreamed I was singin’ to a lot of people when I was singin’ to my brothers and sisters, the chickens, and the hogs,” she reminisces. “I’m very proud of my humble beginnings. I’m proud of the fact that dreams can come true for simple people, ordinary people. I was very blessed to see so many of my dreams come true.

“You have to believe in your dreams.”

Songteller: My Life in Lyrics is available wherever books are sold.This article appears in our October 2023 issue, available now on newsstands or through our C&I Shop.