- 19 Jan 19
As the reigning queen of country music blows out 73 candles, we celebrate her birthday by looking back at her classic interview with Hot Press.
In 2002, Dolly Parton met with Olaf Tyaransen, and talked about her Tennessee roots, her marriage, and her dream of recording an album of traditional Irish music.
As she walks over to greet me across the luxuriously carpeted reception lounge of the Shelbourne Hotel’s vast (and vastly expensive) Princess Grace Suite, the first thing that strikes me about Dolly Parton is how aptly named she is. Sugar, spice and all things silicone, the legendary country and western singer actually looks like a doll, albeit more like the kind you’d find in an upmarket sex shop than in a Toys R Us. From across the room, she’s the living embodiment of all that Taliban fighters expect to find ready and waiting for them in the heavenly afterlife.
A high-heeled, peroxide pixie with perfect teeth, torpedo breasts and an hourglass figure, she looks like a million dollars (despite the fact that her gold sequined dress only cost something in the region of thirty grand). What she definitely doesn’t look is 56 years of age. At least, not until she gets close enough for you to note the thickness of the make-up. Even so, she’d easily pass for well-maintained early forties. And as the old saying goes, you still wouldn’t turf her out of bed for eating crisps.
As she proffers a perfectly manicured hand, I compliment her on her youthful appearance, remarking that she looks exactly as I remembered her from her 1982 movie The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. I’m being more polite than truthful, but the compliment works wonders.
“Well, I’ve been around for a long time, but I’m pretty well preserved,” she admits, with a beam so wide you could happily hang yourself off it. “I’m a cartoon anyway and cartoons never age. It’s like Mickey Mouse never ages, Minnie Mouse never ages, so hopefully I never will.”
Having said that, after four decades of fame, she’s still no spring chicken. Despite my protests, I’ve only been granted a miserly 30 minutes in her company so, even before we’ve hit the couch, I’ve already asked if it bothers her that she’s no longer the prettiest C&W chick on the block?
“No, not really because I really have been very fortunate,” she says, in her treacly Tennessee drawl. “You’ve gotta look at it like it is. I’ve been in business for 40 years. I’ve won everything you can win, I’ve had hit records, I’ve got to travel, I’ve made good money. I appreciate that very much. So I would never begrudge other people. But I still don’t feel like I’m done though. I truly am an artist and my music is still my number one.”
But don’t you also have a thriving business empire to run?
“Well, I’m not doing it for money,” she says, looking a touch offended. “It doesn’t make any difference how much money I make because of all my other businesses. I’m not doing it for that. Thank God I’ve been fortunate. I don’t mean this in a vain way either, what I’m about to say. I have joked about it, I’ve said that I had to get rich in order to sing like I was poor again. But I count my blessings more than I count my money.
“My music still burns in me,” she continues earnestly. “I never stopped writing, I never stopped doing any of that. Money will come if you do something good enough or if you stay at it, but I don’t begrudge the young people. I’m not done yet. I don’t care if I’m 100, I don’t care if I’m 70, I don’t care if I’m 60, I don’t care if I’m 56 or however damned old I am – it’s 56 I think! But it’s like I don’t feel any different than I did when I left the Smoky Mountains and went to Nashville. I feel young, I feel excited about the business, I feel excited about my new dreams, I feel excited about the things I still can accomplish, I still wanna accomplish. So I’m still out there. I’m still an active person.”
She sure is. In fact, Dolly Parton has been pretty active musically since the late ’50s, when the pretty and precocious 14-year-old daughter of impoverished Tennessee farmers (she’s the fourth of 12 children) first signed to Mercury Records, having been spotted performing on a local TV station. Her 1962 debut It’s Sure Gonna Hurt lived up to its title and completely bombed, but somebody somewhere twigged her obvious potential and it wasn’t long before she was wowing national audiences on the Porter Wagoner Show. After a few successful years dueting with Wagoner, she quit cold and moved to Nashville.
The usual highs and lows of C&W life followed but by the early ’70s she was a regular visitor to the Country Top Ten with hits like ‘Jolene’ and ‘Coat Of Many Colours’. She was also much in demand as a lyricist, with artists like Emmylou Harris, Olivia Newton John and Linda Ronstadt all covering her songs. In 1977, her cover of the Barry Mann/ Cynthia Weil song ‘Here You Come Again’ was a crossover smash, hitting high in the pop charts on both sides of the Atlantic, and making her an international superstar in the process.
A reasonably successful string of movies in the ’80s – not to mention Number One chart hits like ‘Islands In The Stream’ and ‘Nine To Five’ – gave her career a momentum that’s still lasting, despite a serious slowdown in the ’90s (though the royalties from Whitney Houston’s version of her song ‘I Will Always Love You’ probably kept the bank manager at bay). Although she doesn’t chart as regularly as she used to, nowadays she’s considered a bona-fide icon and is recognised just about everywhere she goes on the planet. She practically got mobbed on Grafton Street this morning but cheerfully admits that she wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I’d be disappointed if I went somewhere and nobody noticed me,” she laughs.
Here today to make a Late Late Show appearance and do some press interviews to promote her new album Halos & Horns (which we’ll get to in a moment), she laments the fact that the last time she visited these shores was way back in 1984. “That’s too long,” she sighs. “I love Ireland and I love the Irish people. I’m part-Irish so this is kinda like coming home.”
Is it true that you’re also part-Cherokee indian?
“Yeah,” she nods. “There’s some Cherokee indian blood in my mother’s family. It was an illegitimate thing, so I mean it’s not really in our genealogy. But my grandfather had told us many years ago – because my mother’s people are very dark and we were always going, ‘Where’d this come from? We’re Irish and English and Scottish!’ Well, there was the girl that the grandpa loved, and all that, who was Cherokee indian. So anyway, somewhere down the road we’ve got some Cherokee – but mostly we’re Irish. My father’s people were Irish-Scottish and my mother’s people were English-American, so we’re a real mixture of everything.”
A Dolly-mixture even!
She probably does it with all the male journalists she meets, but when Dolly Parton is practically sitting in your lap, playfully examining the ring on your finger and huskily remarking on how “purr-dey” she finds you, it’s hard not to be affected by it. Especially when her intoxicating perfume is getting you higher than heroin, and if you were willing to do the prison time you could actually reach out and touch a pair of magnificent breasts that you’ve been fantasising about ever since you were old enough to fantasise. All of which in an awful-pun kind of way brings me to uncomfortably shift my position on the couch and ask her about, em, Dollywood (that’s the one in Tennessee, mind, not the one in my trousers).
“Dollywood is now in its 17th season,” she says proudly. “And for those of your readers who won’t know what it is, it’s a theme park back home in Tennessee. Right now we’re spread out over 150 acres but we have as much land as we need, and every year we develop some more parts to the park. And it’s a family park. We have all the music and things like that.”
Dollywood isn’t just about music though. “We try to preserve our Smoky Mountain heritage,” she explains. “We have an active saw mill, we make our own breads, a lot of our own foods, and all that kinda stuff. But we have all the music of the world, and we bring people from all over the world. In fact, we have a Festival Of Nations. We have our Irish groups as well, every year since we started it Irish groups have been coming to Dollywood. They love it – we really especially like them.”
Would you ever think of tackling any traditional Irish songs yourself?
“Yes, absolutely. I hope to do some great Irish albums in the future. One of my big dreams is to come here and stay for a while and find some songs. It’s in my DNA, the home of my soul. So I definitely am gonna do some Irish – some true Irish stuff – in the future.”
When I ask her which Irish artists she admires, she’s particularly gushing about Sinéad O’Connor.
“Oh she’s got a fantastic new album out. I think she’s going on the show I’m going on tonight. But I was listening to Sinéad’s new album – somebody sent it over because she was going on the show – and it’s fantastic. I love that Irish music. She’s a great artist. I don’t know her personally so I have no comment on any of that [I hadn’t said anything! – OT]. But I think she’s wonderful, I love her singing.”
Going back to Dollywood for a moment, are you very involved in it personally?
“Yes I am,” she affirms. “In fact, I wouldn’t put my name on anything that I wasn’t gonna be involved in. I’m just not one of those kinds of people. It’s very important to me that things be of a certain quality, if I’m gonna be out promoting it and trying to earn people’s money. But we do a lot of great work through the foundation there at Dollywood – we help with the health and education of the county, especially with the children. We have the Dollywood Foundation Imagination Library, where we give every child that’s born in the county a book from the day they’re born, once a month, until they start kindergarten. It’s kinda like a head start, to teach children how to learn to love books and how to read – and even a lot of the parents don’t know how to read that well so it really kinda gives them a little family moment. There’s a lot of poor and underprivileged people in our part of the country. So it’s a way to help.
“Not only do we have our amusement areas at the park – it’s a theme park – we have a lot of wonderful programmes and things that go on there as well.”
Of course, you may already be familiar with the delights of Dollywood from the special C4 show Graham Norton did from there last year.
“That was fun!” she squeals. “I enjoyed working with him. He was so fun. We were just so compatible the way our little energies worked together.”
As a gay icon, do you get on with gay men generally?
“I have a lot of gay fans and a lot of gay friends. I have a huge gay following – male and female. But it didn’t matter if Graham was gay or not, he’s still silly and fun and magical. Our personalities really gelled.”
Talk turns to the subject of her new album, Halos & Horns, a record which she claims came about entirely by accident, when the song demos she was producing went much better than expected.
“I didn’t intend to produce a record,” she says. “I was just producing these song demos. But it started sounding so good that I was getting really excited. I thought, ‘I don’t need to clutter this up or add any other people’. I told Steve [Buckingham – her regular producer], ‘This stuff I’m doing is turning out really good’. He said, ‘Just go with it’. I decided I wanted to use everybody from up home, or at least fresh people.
“There was nothing heavy or hard about it. I just went in with the pickers and we all kicked ideas around. That’s how you produce great records anyway – let talented people do what they do. It’s fairly ‘live’, because I’m not the kind of singer who can start and stop and go back and get the same feeling. I just had a big time doing this.”
Although it’s mostly a collection of folk and bluegrass songs, the album closes with a remarkable cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’.
“It’s getting a lot of attention,” she grins. “In fact, we’re gonna be doing it in our concerts when we come here, we’ve worked it up as an encore ‘cos people wanna hear it. But I just love the song and my husband loves the song, and since I’m doing a lot of this bluegrass stuff and I had great success with the song ‘Shine’ – which we won a Grammy for and which was another song from the rock field – so I thought I’m gonna tackle it. What’s the worst they can do – just won’t like it?”
Have Page and Plant heard it?
“Yes and they loved it. Robert’s been out on tour so he’s been doing a lot of interviews. And he seems to make mention of it a lot – I guess because people are asking him about it – and he says something different every time, but he seems to like it. He says he really likes what I did with it, and that makes me feel good.”
Another track ‘Hello God’ is obviously her response to the tragic events of 9/11: “This old world has gone to pieces/Can we fix it, is there time?/Hate and violence just increases/We’re so selfish, cruel and blind.”
“I’m gonna perform that on the CMA award show, with a big choir and all,” she enthuses. “They thought it would be a good song to do, instead of doing all the usual patriotic stuff. As a writer and an emotional person, you write about things that you feel. And I was also trying to write about the feelings of other people who maybe aren’t able to write them down.”
Did 9/11 give you a sense of, ‘What the hell am I doing with my life’?
“Well, I think it did. I think that’s what it did more than anything else with everybody. I think it just made us all know how small life really is, how fragile we really are and how anything can happen in the blink of an eye to change everything. And then it makes you think, ‘Oh my god – we were so spoilt to think that nothing could ever happen to us!’ And it did! And wow!
“Then you start thinking about your family, then you start thinking about your soul, you start thinking about your religion and your faith. And is there a God? And if there is then…? And that’s kinda what ‘Hello God’ is about. Hello God, are you out there? Are you listening? Or have we done pissed around so bad and so long that you ain’t even hearing us anymore? Now of course, we wanna run to you and have you fix it!”
And what does Dolly Parton think about her president’s war on terrorism?
“Oh, don’t start asking me a bunch of political questions!” she laughs, slapping my hand. “I’m not gonna go there! I’m a singer, I’m a writer. I’m not gonna get into all that. I definitely have my opinions and they’re very strong, but I don’t voice them publicly because one thing gets taken out of context and suddenly you’re about that. Believe me, I ain’t smart enough nor good enough to know what one should do.”
But although you play the dumb blonde, you’re so obviously not… (I gush).
“Well one of my first hit records was called ‘Dumb Blonde’ and that’s kind of followed me around over the years,” she smiles. “But the song says just because I’m blonde, don’t think I’m dumb, because this dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool. But I’m sure I’m a fool sometimes but I’m not fool enough to talk politics, so what else you got? (laughs).”
The album also features ‘What A Heartache’ – a song which first appeared on the Rhinestone movie soundtrack in 1984 (she also starred in the film). The movie bombed, but the song’s actually not that bad. I ask her how serious she is about her acting career?
“It’s really more of a sideline,” she says. “I enjoy it but it has to be just the right thing, something I would enjoy doing. And I’m not getting offered a lot of the great scripts now. Same as like with the country music field – you reach a certain age and you’re no longer ‘new country’ and you’re not gonna be played on the radio, the new artists are. So then you find a way, like I’m doing now, to still get your music out to a crowd that appreciates what the music’s for. Same with the movies. I still would like to do the movies, but it’s not my first love. The music is my first love.”
When I mention another album track ‘These Old Bones’, we get on to the subject of graveyards. I’ve read somewhere that Dolly has been writing songs in graveyards for years. Is it true?
“I love ’em!” she laughs. “In fact, I just found some old graveyards where I’m gonna go to do my video for ‘These Old Bones’. They’re quiet and peaceful and beautiful and they’re well kept. And I also make up stories about all the people under the tombstones, what their life was like. So they give me great ideas for stories.”
And what would you like written on your own tombstone?
“Em…,” Dolly scrunches her features. “You think she’s here – but she ain’t!”
Behind every great woman lies a great man, and the man behind Dolly Parton is her husband of nearly 40 years – a former asphalt contractor named Carl Dean. In true C&W style, they met in a laundrette on her very first day in Nashville.
“We’ve been together 38 years and we’ve been married 36,” she says. “We never had children of our own but we raised five of my younger brothers and sisters that lived with us, we sent them to school and all that.”
How does a marriage between a cultural icon and an asphalt contractor survive that long?
“It’s a good question. I think part of it is because we’re not together all the time – I travel a lot. Another reason is because we’re not in the same business, and he doesn’t try and meddle in what I do. He was in asphalt paving for a long time and now he buys property and cleans it off. He’s a heavy equipment kind of guy and he just kinda does his own thing. But we’re good friends and he’s secure in who he is, I’m secure in who I am, and we just have enough stuff that we enjoy that we have in common that makes it great, and enough stuff that’s not in common to make it interesting.”
Of course, just because Dolly’s wearing a wedding band, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t flirt or hasn’t had extra-marital relationships in the past. At least, not if her lyrics can be believed. I mention her controversial ’70s song ‘Bargain Store’: “My life is like unto a bargain store/And I might just have what you’re looking for/If you don’t mind the fact that the merchandise is used/But with a little mendin’ it can be as good as new.” Many C&W radio stations actually banned the track when it was first released.
“They wouldn’t even play it, yeah, because of what it said,” she recalls. “But you know what? I’ve lived a lot in my time. I said I was married, I didn’t say that I was dead. It’s like one of those things. Just cause I’m married doesn’t mean that I don’t flirt or tease or whatever. But that song is so true of everybody. Most of my heartache songs have not been brought on by my husband. He’s been kinder to me than all the other men.”
Despite this, she’s insistent that when it comes to preserving good marital relationships, honesty isn’t always the best policy.
“My first country hit was called ‘Just Because I’m A Woman’ and when it was written my husband and I had been married for about a year, and we just as happy as we could be,” she recalls, laughing. “And I just felt compelled to be totally honest with him and tell him everything. So I told him some stuff that he wished I hadn’t told him, and I wished I hadn’t told him – I wish to this day that I’d never told him. I was just trying to be honest about it.
“It was the only time in our whole marriage that there was like a little cold spot. But it was like one of those things that I wanted to kill myself – because I thought I was doing a good thing just having this totally open relationship, which had nothing to do with any other ones, but it was just that I was feeling that because I did love him so much, I just wanted to come clean about some… other stuff (laughs). So believe me – you can write this on paper – if you’re out there, do not tell shit you don’t need to be tellin’. Because it’ll come back to haunt you!”
Not only has Dolly’s marriage survived throughout her showbiz career, she also seems to have successfully avoided the pitfalls of drink and drugs.
“Well, I just have a good time doing what I do. I didn’t say I hadn’t done any of that stuff. It’s just that I’ve never had a problem with it. Anything I do I try to do in moderation… or in great secrecy . I’ve gotta be very discreet! But no, I’ve never had a problem with any of that. I’m just very anchored, very serious about my work and very anchored in my spiritual life…”
The record company man reappears, accompanied by infuriated hotpress photographer Mick Quinn, (who’s been given just a couple of minutes to get his shots). To my great disappointment, I realise that our interview is basically over but, as she ever so professionally pouts for his camera, I manage to get in one last question.
Does Dolly Parton have a motto in life?
“Yeah, do everything – all the time,” she laughs, as she poses. Then she looks over at me and winks conspiratorially. “And do everyone!”