Greg Dixon

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Dolly Parton: No rhinestone unturned

She’s sold more than 100 million records, won seven Grammy awards, has her own theme park and is a multimillionaire. But there’s no way on God’s green earth that country music legend Dolly Parton is ever going to retire, she tells Greg Dixon

Dolly as a schoolgirl in the 50s. Photo / Michael Ochs
Dolly as a schoolgirl in the 50s. Photo / Michael Ochs

I holler it because, well, how many times in your life do you get to say it?

"Hello Dolly!" I bellow.

"Well hello, Greg!" hollers back a voice thicker than molasses, "how are you?!"

Dolly Parton is talking to me from Nashville, Tennessee - every part of that statement makes me smile - and she arrives on the phone the way I imagine she arrives on stage: like this is the best, most exciting thing that has ever happened to her.

If there is anything that we've learned about Dolly Rebecca Parton, singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, actress, author, record producer, businesswoman, philanthropist, brassy blonde, unabashed cut-and-tuck enthusiast and country legend over her long, long career, it's that not only is she just so gosh darn nice, she's also so gosh darn enthusiastic! So, even on an echoey speakerphone on a long-distance call, the blue-ribbon charm she's used to fill untold venues is unmistakeable.

I have 15 minutes of her fame, because for the first time in over three decades Parton will perform in New Zealand this February.

Or as she puts it: "I've had a wonderful life with a career that's spanned over 50 years ... but one of the great things is that I'm going to get to come over and see you after 30 years!"

Why has it been so long, Dolly?

"Well ... I guess it was the promoters or the bookers ... whoever does all that stuff, they never could get it worked out. But now they have and I'm very excited! The last time I was there was with Kenny Rogers back when Islands In The Stream was hot and we were out runnin' about. So I'm really lookin' forward to seeing my fans there in New Zealand!"

Dolly Parton with Kenny Rogers, with whom she had  a hit record in 1983, 'Islands in the Stream'. Photo / AP
Dolly Parton with Kenny Rogers, with whom she had a hit record in 1983, 'Islands in the Stream'. Photo / AP

Phew! And if the numbers involved in touring here for only the third time since 1979 are a measure, it will have been worth the wait for her fans. As part of the Downunder section of her Blue Smoke World Tour, Parton will have an entourage of 80, including band, backing singers, drivers, roadies and sound and lighting crews. There will also be two Dolly tour buses, she says, which will hold their own excitement for some; the buses she brought down to Australia two years ago were like custom-built hotels on wheels that included a suite for her - think queen-sized bed, bathroom and flatscreen TV - as well as a wardrobe for her stage costumes and storage space for her wigs. (Purchasers of VIP "museum tour experience" tickets for her show - an eye-watering $695.90 - are promised, among other things, a backstage tour including Dolly's wardrobe and instruments).

Parton's show will include tunes from her new bluegrass-flavour album, Blue Smoke, and a few covers including Bob Dylan's Don't Think Twice, It's Alright and a gospel take on Bon Jovi's Lay Your Hands On Me.

"But we'll also be doin' several of the songs we've had number one hits on through the years."

And boy, there have been a few of those since she fled the Tennessee backwoods for the bright lights of Nashville the same year Bob Dylan introduced the Beatles to Mary Jane.


The rags-to-riches legend of Dolly Parton - and though it's probably all true, there's a whiff of the mythological about her early history - truly begins on Friday, June 1, 1964, the day she graduated, "by the skin of her teeth" she once said, from Sevier County High School in her hometown of Sevierville.

Dolly as a schoolgirl in the 50s. Photo / Michael Ochs
Dolly as a schoolgirl in the 50s. Photo / Michael Ochs

She announced to the assembled teachers, classmates and parents at the graduation ceremony that she was leaving for Nashville the next day to be a big music star. There was, naturally enough, giggling.

She'd been born dirt-poor on January 9, 1946 - the fourth of 12 hungry mouths - in the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee to Robert Lee and Avie Lee Parton. Daddy was a tobacco sharecropper who was so broke, so the legend has it, that he didn't have the money to pay the doctor, Dr Robert F. Thomas (who turned up on a horse), who delivered Dolly, and so gave him a sack of cornmeal instead (Parton's been "making dough every since", she's said more than once).

Raised in a one-room shack (which you can see recreated at Parton's Dollywood theme park), music seems to be all she's ever lived for. Her pappy said she was singing almost before she could talk. She'd been on television and radio in nearby Knoxville by the age of 10, and by 15 had a songwriting contract and had recorded her first major Nashville song, a tortured teen number called It's Sure Gonna Hurt. According to her biographer Stephen Miller in his 2006 book Smart Blonde (to which this story owes a debt), in 1963 a 16-year-old Dolly earned $240 for recording six songs - a sum which must have seemed a fortune to the daughter of a dirt-poor sharecropper.

Her unique sense of style comes from her hometown too. She modelled her blond bombshell looks not on her mother, her friends or even what she saw on the big screen.

Instead she copied the over-the-top makeup, hair and heels of Sevierville's hookers.

Dolly Parton with a beehive in 1965. Photo / Michael Ochs
Dolly Parton with a beehive in 1965. Photo / Michael Ochs

Within a decade of moving to Nashville, Parton, true to her teenage boast, was one of the biggest female country stars in the world. After hitching her wagon to then-country superstar Porter Wagoner - who had his own highly popular syndicated TV show - Parton's star slowly rose through the late 60s and into the early 70s, first through her duets with Wagoner (they had four top 10 country hits together), before Parton, after initially failing with solo singles, eclipsed her mentor with a string of country hits. She had three solo number ones in 1974 - Jolene, I Will Always Love You and Love Is Like A Butterfly - the same year she ended her working relationship with Wagoner, although the legal fall-out dragged on for years ending with an out-of-court settlement in 1979.

By the early 1980s, Parton was no longer just a country star, she's was a mainstream hitmaker, thanks as much to her starring role in the hit comedy movie 9 To 5 (followed by The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas and Steel Magnolias) as to her music, including the title track for that film. But more importantly she had become what she still is today: the savviest businesswomen to ever graduate by the skin of her teeth from Sevier County High School, Sevierville, Tennessee.


How much is she worth? "Oh you're getting into some personal questions!" Parton hollers at me. "But I ain't worth a damn, to hear my Pa tell it!" She laughs. "With a family as big as mine, though, I'm never going to make enough money. I need the work, I need the money. It costs a lot to look this cheap!"

Well perhaps not as much as she must be making from a sprawling business empire.

There is her music of course, now released through her own Dolly Records, and her regular tours. She also has "Imagination Library", a non-profit literacy programme for East Tennessee children. However, it is her company Dollywood that is the rhinestone in her crown.

Centred around a place called Pigeon Forge in East Tennessee (Pigeon Forge is not more than a spit from where Parton grew up at the edge of the Smoky Mountains), the company controls a couple of theme parks - Dollywood and Splash Country, a "water adventure park" - and a theatre-restaurant business called Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede, which has restaurants at Pigeon Forge and Branson, Missouri.

Business must be pretty good, because Parton announced last month that she and her partners would be putting US$300 million ($362 million) into Dollywood over the next decade, to build a new resort and a hotel.

"We actually employ about 3000 people, maybe more now with the three companies. So we'll be adding some new jobs and some new things and it's a really good business for me and it's a real good thing for all the folks in that area. So it's a win-win situation. I'm very proud of Dollywood, we've done really well.

"Dollywood was probably one of the best business decisions. I had a lot of people tellin' me I was makin' a big mistake to go that route back then. So at that time I had accountants, businesspeople, lawyers that were all against it. I went ahead and did it and, needless to say it was very, very successful and needless to say, I do not have those same lawyers, accountants and businesspeople anymore!" She hoots like an old barn owl at this.

Parton at Dollywood, the theme park she opened in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Photo / AP
Parton at Dollywood, the theme park she opened in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Photo / AP

Still the heart of the business is her music and the more than 3000 songs she's written.

What makes a Dolly Parton song?

"Heart, soul, feelin's, attitude," she hollers. "I try to be uplifting."

Parton claims never to have suffered from writer's block - "songwriting is so natural for me" - however, she admits to mistakenly rewriting herself. "I'll be writing along and then it'll be the same tune or something ... and I'll think, 'Oh Lord, that's the tune to so-and-so!' Or 'I already put that line in another song'. But the good thing is I can always steal from myself! My great fear is that I start stealing other people's songs and not knowing it. But there's always so much to write about ..."

Like the mystery man in her life: her husband.


There are, I'm led to believe, only a few publicly known photos of her husband, Carl Dean.

The only one in Smart Blonde is grainy, black and white, and was taken on the couple's wedding day, May 30, 1966. He looks tall and lean, and has side-parted hair and wingnut ears (she's wearing a knee-length wedding dress and a big smile). The legend has it that they met at the Wishy-Washy laundromat the day Parton arrived in Nashville (his opening line was "You're gonna get sunburnt out here, little lady") and they were married not quite two years after that. Dean has shunned the limelight ever since. Parton has always maintained he's not interested in showbiz. However, his absence has led to speculation by some that he doesn't exist, while others suggested that the true love of Parton's life is lifelong friend and constant companion Judy Ogle.

If Dean exists - and Parton insists he does - he turned 71 in July. "He's never been in a hospital," Parton hollers at me. "So he's actually done really, really well. He's pretty healthy considerin' he's an older fella. But he's a good guy. He's the best partner I could have had for all these many years."

"He's not in business anymore. He still dabbles a little bit in real estate. He grew up here [in Nashville]. His father had an asphalt paving company, but they gave that up years ago. And we live out on a farm and now he mainly just keeps up the barn, keeps the back field mowed and keeps up the tractors and some of his equipment. He's a mechanic as well.

So he just enjoys bein' out, just feelin' like he's still a farmboy. He doesn't realise that he don't have to work; he feels like he needs to work."

I wonder aloud what, after 50 years, they have to talk about?

"Everybody we know, anythang we want to!" She hoots. "Actually, we get along really good. We do different things, so we really do have a lot to talk about because whatever I've been doin' is all new to him and whatever he's been doin' is all new to me. That's one the reasons that makes it work. We're both funny ... so we laugh a lot.


Parton's life is her career and her career is her life. This is why one will not end until the other does. It is also explains why, when I ask why, at 67, she hasn't retired, she laughs and says "Why would I?"

You must feel like you've earned it?

"Well I may have earned it but I don't feel like that. I always liked to work. I just don't know what it would really mean to say 'I'm retired'. I can't imagine just sitting home doing nothin' or just thinkin' 'I'm going to travel'. I already travel. My life has been like a paid vacation.

"I love my work, I've always loved it and I hope that I stay healthy enough and my husband stays healthy enough so I never really have to retire and so I just keel over one day and that's that."

Besides her voice is still good - "I sing all the time ... I'm actually doing really well with that for an old bird like me!" - and there are plenty of things she'd still like to do. She dreams of having a cosmetic company of her own and she would love to see her life's story on film. In the meantime she's working on possibly the campest thing in history: Dolly Parton: The Musical.

Parton claims that her only regret is not having regrets. Though she has certainly had her down times, particularly during her 30s. "Back many years ago when I was kinda goin' through a change of life - and possibly the change of life - I had some down times. I was overweight and had personal and emotional and family problems. You get that.

Nobody deserves to be happy all the time - you'd be a very shallow person. I hurt a lot of times. Most people just think I'm always happy, but you're not. But I work at being happy. I work at having a good attitude.

"As a songwriter, as a creative person, you kind of have to live with your feelings out there, otherwise you're just kind of hard on yourself. But I really suffer. I'm just one of those kind of people. I've not left a rhinestone unturned, as I often say."

So no regrets. Not even not having children?

"I do love children; as you know, I'm from a big family. But now that I've been so involved with the Imagination Library, I was thinkin' about how God has his reasons for everythin' and I thought 'well, maybe I wasn't meant to have children so everybody's kids could be mine'. So that's how I kind of look at that.

And my husband's fine with that, and the older we get the gladder we are that we don't have [children]. It's all we can do to take care of each other now!"

Well, yes. The week before we talk she was involved in a fender bender in Nashville. Her old friend Judy was at the wheel. Did Parton's exciting, unbelievable life flash before her eyes?

"Well you got that right! I've never been in anything like that and it was like all of a sudden, 'bam'. Even though the airbags didn't inflate I was afraid mine were going to deflate! My greatest fear was puncturing my airbags! I'm feeling a little bit sore, but Judy my friend, she's okay too. We mostly just got bruises with the seatbelts. But it does make you think, I tell ya, it really does!"

Dolly Parton plays Vector Arena on February 7. Tickets are on sale on Monday from 9am. See livenation.co.nz for more information. VIP packages available through dollyvip.com.

- NZ Herald

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