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Dolly Parton: 'I've always loved the underdog'

Jan 16 2019
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Dolly Parton: 'I've always loved the underdog'

By: Holly Gleason

“As a writer, I have to leave my heart open,” Dolly Parton begins. “That’s why I have always said I never could harden my heart, even against hurt or anything. Because as a writer, if you harden your heart, you’re not going to feel all that emotion you need to feel, and you won’t be to write what people feel.

“I always say I’ve strengthened the muscles around my heart, but I’ve never hardened it.”

In person, Parton is tiny. Lots of blond hair, bright make-up, sparkly clothes and high heels. But what makes the quick-to-joy superstar seem so much larger than life is the way a room lights up when she smiles — and the light that seemingly emanates from her wherever she goes.

No wonder she can hold her own on the movie screen with Jane Fonda, Julia Roberts, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Lilly Tomlin, Queen Latifah, as well as the sexiest symbols Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone and Sam Shepard. Her live shows melt from frenetic bluegrass to classic country, gospel, R&B — and yes, massive country crossover songs smashes “9 To 5” and “I Will Always Love You.” 

Equal parts welcoming Mother Goose and wisecracking Mae West, Parton forged fame by writing. Complicated emotions, heartbreakingly clear memories of her Appalachian childhood and the conflicting realities of being a woman in a man’s world defined her songs, as her empathy, insight and understanding hit people right where they needed to feel.

When YA author Julie Murphy was looking for an inspiration for her overweight teenage protagonist in Dumplin, it was Parton’s songs that provided verve, sass, acceptance and rump kicking. For Parton, an avid reader and the founder of the Imagination Library, which sends a book a month to children across Tennessee, myriad states and around the world until they’re 5 years old, her music’s role in the 2015 novel was a special kind of thrill.

“I feel for everybody about everything,” she offers, leaning across the small sofa in her manager’s office. “I am everybody, all the time. As a writer, I really get involved with what people go through, how they — whether they’re gay, whether they’re lesbian, whether they’re black, or white, or gray. I know everybody is who they are, and they should be allowed to be that! So, I just feel for everybody, about everything. And I’m able to express that, because my heart is so open to people.

“… I was honored when the book came out. Everybody said, ‘There’s this great little book, and it’s about you!’ Somebody said, ‘You should adapt that, and make it into a movie!’ I said, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that. That’d be self-serving. I’m just flattered and very honored to have a book somebody wrote about me and my music.’”

Things have a way of turning around for the woman who’s won or been nominated for Oscars, Tony Awards, Grammys, American Music Awards, as well as being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement honor. Beyond the entertainment world, the East Tennessee songwriter has received the Kennedy Center Honors, the Library of Congress’ Living Legend Medal and the National Medal of the Arts from the President, all recognizing her contribution to culture.

With that kind of momentum, it wasn’t long until someone else — Jennifer Anniston — optioned Dumplin’. And it wasn’t long after the producers came calling. Parton, who wisely believed the story of a young overweight girl needed to center on her self-acceptance and discovery, had her own ideas

“When they called to see if I’d be involved, I said the only way I could without it seeming self-serving and egotistical would be to maybe write a theme song, or be involved with the music.”

They asked if Parton would be willing to work with Linda Perry, a dark kohl-eyed alternative rocker who looks half urchin, half high-fashion chimney sweep. The woman whose life is being serialized into a series of Netflix films had no idea who the producer/songwriter was, but was willing to try.

“I wasn’t even familiar with her 4 NonBlondes group,” Parton admits with a corkscrew giggle that spins to the ceiling. “I live my life in another world. There was a vague memory of hearing the name, but I didn’t know anything about her. There was only going to be one new song…”

Perry, however, knew everything about Parton. Though their facts were polemic, their creativity ignited a flood of writing, a rush of collaborators on the old songs. Plus, Parton had a soft spot for the characters in the film.

“I was emotionally attached to it, and really tried to make the songs serve the movie,” Parton explains, eyes flashing like a rhinestone under the long lashes. “But I also had personal things, like a song called ‘Push & Pull.’ To me, that was based on the relationship with Jennifer (Anniston, playing the former beauty queen mother) and her daughter (played by Danielle Macdonald). But one of my sisters was going through the same thing with her daughter. They’d just go back and forth, back and forth. It inspired me to write about that particular emotion of just trying to use your own control to control the other person. It became very personal to me….

“I really tried to teach, to show, to have people think like, ‘What are you doing?!’ We’re supposed to love each other. We don’t have to understand all that we know; if we look, why can’t we just love each other?

“I’m not a silly person. I know how that goes. But people don’t even try.”

Growing quiet, she adds, “I think people are just blind without knowing it sometimes. If you can open their eyes, and throw a little light in the darkness they don’t even realize they’re in, through music we can do a lot of things.”

Parton knows the power of songs. After half a century of truth telling, she realizes her music can change people’s hearts. 

Leaning a little closer, she almost confides. “I wanted these songs to touch people in a way that maybe they haven’t thought of before. All my life, I’ve always loved the underdog. I’ve always been prone to go to the unusual. I love different people. I love the spice of life, the variety. I’m drawn to unusual people. I’m drawn to help people up if they feel down, and I’m prone to stand up for somebody who can’t stand up for themselves.”

The glint has turned to fire. In a world of media trained celebrities flogging the latest project, Parton’s passion burns through. With “Girl In The Movies” from Dumplin’ being nominated for the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards, as well as being shortlisted at the Academy Awards for Best Original Song alongside songs from blockbusters A Star Is Born and Black Panther, this isn’t mere movie fodder in terms of the Smoky Mountain songwriter’s life.

Perry got it. 

“We are completely different people,” Parton concedes. “So different, yet we’re almost alike on the creative level. We were just natural. She’s got a great ear for music and has some great melodies. Because I write my own music, you can kind of get stale — or stuck to where your melodies can only go so far.”

Again, the excitement rises in Parton’s voice. The natural brightness lifts in her voice, the lilt bounces just a touch more. Anything that ignites her music makes Parton happy.

“I’ve never worked with a woman before! I’ve never worked with a female producer. And she’s gay; she’s [a] lesbian, so I’d never worked so closely with anyone like that on a creative level. It opened up a whole lot of — she has her own take on how people don’t accept, all through the years.”

You won’t find Parton preaching, backing political candidates or throwing down for causes. Her gospel is her life. Her witness is her music. For Dumplin’, the new songs offer hope and aspiration, while the classics get recast. Whether it’s a stone country trip through “Dumb Blonde” with Miranda Lambert, a funky horn punctuated shuffle for “Two Doors Down” with Macy Gray and Dorothy, a hushed gospel invocation of “Here I Am” with Sia or an almost emo “Here You Come Again” with 15-year old newcomer Willa Amai, Parton’s songs contain — as Walt Whitman proclaims — multitudes.

One listen to “Why,” with Mavis Staples, is a full-on revival. While Perry, movie studios, record companies all had their vote for the guests; Parton’s choice was the dusky voiced soul singer. Dobro bending notes over a choogling beat, the pleasure is palpable on what may be the clearest articulation of Parton’s ethos ever recorded.

“See, I’m old school. I loved the family and their music,” Parton says of the Staple Singers. “A lot of my songs are influenced by their sound and their feel. Like when I wrote ‘The Seeker’ years ago, it had kind of that smothered soul feel. But this one, too, I wrote to have that feel.

“Just to have her next to me, singing, it was one of the thrills of my life, knowing how much I loved her, her Dad with that big old guitar back in the day. I said, ‘You be Mavis! You sing whatever you want, and you dart in on me if you want to. You sing under me, all over me, around me. You just sing.’”

Hard to imagine Parton has enough wonder to still get excited by making music with her peers. It’s that infectious curiosity and hunger for life that spirits her forward. It’s the same desire that captured a young girl now transformed into “Red Shoes.”

“It’s my modern day ‘Coat of Many Colors’,” Parton enthuses. “Even though they refer to the red shoes in the movie, and in the book… When I was a little kid and we lived up in the mountains, we had nothing. No electricity, or anything. They used to send clothes up, boxes of clothes from the welfare or just for poor people — and there was a pair of red high-heeled shoes. They were high, but I was a little, and I thought they looked little, and I wanted them so bad.”

It’s hard to believe the little girl with hair like corn silk who started singing on WIVK’s “The Cas Walker Show” at 10 being anything other than darling. But self-doubt has its way of preying on what’s missing, making it more important than it is. For one of a dozen children, born to a sharecropper and a homemaker mother in poor health, she was acutely aware of the material things they lacked, but also empowered by the love and the faith her family put in her.

That faith pushed her to Nashville, where she released Hello, I’m Dolly in 1967. She walked away from a successful partnership with Porter Wagoner to seek broader horizons in California, and gave the world “I Will Always Love You.” She anchored her own television show, made acclaimed films, recorded with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris in the late ’70s, then created the Grammy Album of the Year nominee Trio in 1985. She bought an amusement park called Dollywood, graced the cover of Rolling Stone when it was still an alternative force and lifted people up all the while.

“9 To 5,” her tour du force movie debut, has been adapted as a musical in London, while being updated for 20th Century Fox with the original Fonda/Parton/Tomlin troika attached. For a woman who isn’t prone to politics, the original showed more about feminism than a fistful of Ms. magazines. The play, which opens in London’s West End in February boasts “Mr. Boss,” another tell it like it is bit of Dolly deliciousness. 

“We’re still having trouble with equal pay, and with harassment, and all that… but I think it’s good these things have been brought to the forefront. When they asked me to write something for it, I wrote this. It says, ‘I love men, don’t get me wrong/ I’ve always had one of my own/ I know there’s some really good ones/ Then there’s you…’

“It’s tough. I love men, I really do. But, I love all this, this movement. I think women should be allowed to do everything, but I don’t want them to do it at the expense of other people. I’ve been married 54 years, and there are a lot of wonderful men who’re supportive of women in business. But there’ll always be an imbalance unless we try to get a better balance.

“So women need to stand up for who we are and be proud of what we are, for our best work and get our best pay. Those are things we should always be fighting for. It’s not just a movement to me… I just love to write about what I know. I promote women in my way. I’m always there, I just don’t have to make it an issue; I live it.

“Sometimes you’re better being an example than trying to fight a battle. Although we have to do it all different ways, however we get it across. My way has always been to address it naturally and honestly, just let it be part of my personality. Just be it.”

Parton’s been spinning these kinds of dreams into gold, platinum and kindness for decades. Not dwelling on the past has set her free to run freely into the future, doing the impossible and making music that rings as startlingly true today as her songs always have. Still she marvels at the ride.

“I’m always amazed by what’s going on now, that I’m still around and that a lot of these people look up to me. You always worry you can’t be that good, you can’t be all that. You worry people love to lift you up just to slap you down. I am really just a regular person, just doing my thing – and I’m not trying to do anything but live my life the way I see fit. And if that’s touched people, is an inspiration, then that makes me feel good.”

The morning is turning to afternoon. There is a recording studio filled with people waiting to hear the tracks, and Parton’s using the time to make final tweaks to Dumplin’. Having opened her heart, though, she wants to give people a glimpse into the power she draws on, and caution them about where they invest their own lives.

“I’ve always been a religious person, or spiritual, but I don’t like idol worship for anybody. In this world, sometimes we worship people — and things. I always ask God just to let me lead people to Him. If somebody sees something in me they love, let them see it’s that God light to direct them to something better. 

“Don’t lift me up, because I’m the biggest sinner as anybody. I’m not perfect, just trying to be as honest and open as I can be. My whole life has been built on that, positive thinking and dreams, just believing that I could do it. That goes back to “through God, all things are possible, and all things are possible to those who believe. 

“You can have it if you can believe it.”  


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