Country Strong: Dolly Parton Talks Life, Love and Life in Her 70s

A dairy farm in southwest England seems an odd locale for the resurgence of a musical megastar but, in 2014, on a stage beyond fields where black and white bovines roam, then-68-year-old Dolly Parton captivated a crowd of 100,000 partygoers—some young enough to be her grandchildren—during her set at the famed Glastonbury Festival, held annually at Worthy Farm in the village of Pilton.

The festival, conceived in 1970 as a counterculture celebration more suited to indie acts, only began regularly attracting major commercial stars like the Rolling Stones, U2 and Beyoncé in recent years, with country headliners proving even more rare. Decked out in white, Dolly performed on the trademark Pyramid Stage, known as the showcase of legends. The crowd sang along in unison, imploring Jolene to leave Dolly’s man alone, and her performance drew the highest television ratings of the five-day event—an achievement only slightly marred by a British journalist’s assertion that the country legend was lip-synching.

The accusation raised the ire of fans and celebrities alike, including singer Boy George, 55, who tweeted emphatically, “Leave our Dolly alone!” A defiant Dolly declared to the U.K.’s Sun newspaper: “My boobs are fake, my hair’s fake, but what is real is my voice and my heart.”

The real triumph of the performance became evident in the days that followed, however, when news of Dolly’s set spread. “I didn’t think that people were that interested because usually the big artists making money touring, they’ll have hot records, No. 1, on the radio, played all the time.” Without an album or even a full band at the ready, the demand for a long overdue North American Dolly tour took root.

“We’d done so much publicity and got such worldwide press,” Dolly recalls, “that folks said, ‘Why don’t you give it a try? I think you’ve got a lot of people who’d like to see you.'”

“It baffles me because I’m supposed to be old but I don’t feel old…”

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Dolly at age nine, 1955

On a Monday morning, almost two years to the day of the Glastonbury performance, Dolly breezes into a downtown Toronto hotel mere hours after an evening show in upstate New York. Despite the early hour she’s everything you expect her to be, from the eruption of golden locks to the tight-fitting dress to the humble attitude and quips she’s delivered for decades — like the one about how it costs a lot to look that cheap. Whether strutting across the stage or sitting down for an interview, she serves up charm as warm as fresh-baked Tennessee cornbread and fans continue to eat it up. She’s ready with responses to questions about her music and, with her trademark wit, deflects heavier subjects—from the presidential election (“We’re going to have PMS either way in the White House—Presidential Mood Swings”) to the issue of transgender bathrooms (“I always joke about our waterpark in Dollywood—everybody’s free to pee in that”).

But her humility and self-deprecating style belie her success. Dolly is, with apologies to Loretta Lynn who’s still going strong at 84, country’s reigning queen, a singer-songwriter who’s outperformed, outsold or out-lasted every artist of her generation.

“It baffles me because I’m supposed to be old but I don’t feel old,” Parton chuckles when I ask her what being 70 feels like. “I really can’t tell you how I love to [perform] now and how important it is…I haven’t got as much time as I used to have so I want to make the most of every single minute.”

And she’s not kidding. Dolly’s post-Glastonbury resurgence has so far seen her perform her classic “Coat of Many Colors”—about her impoverished childhood in Tennessee—on the hit singing competition series The Voice last December to promote the NBC TV version based on it, while this past September she made a surprise appearance on the show to implore a contestant to team with her goddaughter, pop star Miley Cyrus. “You can’t mess with Dolly,” a proud Cyrus exclaimed after the contestant ultimately agreed. The appearance may have been Dolly repaying a favour, given Cyrus was spotted on Instagram last year belting out the Dolly classic “9 to 5”, following her cover of “Jolene” in 2012.

Within days of The Voice appearance, Dolly appeared in a video alongside the hit a cappella group Pentatonix, performing a reimagined version of “Jolene,” which went viral. And the Country Music Association (CMA) called on her for their new single “Forever Country” to celebrate their 50th anniversary in November. Performed by a who’s who of country stars and legends, it debuted at No. 1 on the charts and is actually a medley of three country standards—John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” and, to close out both the tribute and accompanying music video, Dolly’s “I Will Always Love You,” a trademark tune made even more famous by Whitney Houston’s cover for her 1992 film The Bodyguard. It became the bestselling single ever by a female artist to that point, while earning a Grammy in the process.

“She’s a perennial. She’s someone who’s beyond a Top 10,” asserts Bee Gees legend Barry Gibb, 70, who produced Dolly’s hit duet “Islands in the Stream” with Kenny Rogers. “There’s a Top 10, and then there’s Dolly and Barbra Streisand, Sinatra, the Beatles, and Elvis and Michael [Jackson]. Dolly has achieved that kind of status.”

And to top it off there’s Dolly’s current 60-city Pure & Simple North American tour—her largest in decades—the end game of the Glastonbury performance and in support of her 43rd studio album of the same name. In an industry that doesn’t look kindly on women over 40, let alone septuagenarians in high heels, Dolly’s proving that female artists of an advanced age can still pull in major crowds and tour dollars. Robert Oermann, music journalist, historian and co-author of Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music, notes, “You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who are 70 who are out there selling out big shows like she is. Dolly is one of the few songwriters who continues to turn out quality material this long into her career.”

Striking out on her own in the old (cow)boys club that was Nashville

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Taking a spin at Dollywood, 1993

In an age where the transition from country darling to pop princess is almost an exact science—trade in your cowboy boots for heels and the rodeo for Rodeo Drive—it’s easy to forget that the move was once considered controversial. Stars from Shania Twain to Faith Hill to Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus have all made the crossover, in some form, expanding their fan bases and album sales in the process. But it was Dolly—whose first single to ever chart was, ironically, a pop tune, “Happy, Happy Birthday Baby” in 1965—who was among the first to blur the line between pop and country with hits like 1977’s “Here You Come Again” and the 1980 smash success “9 to 5,” though she never fully abandoned the country genre.

“As she famously said when she was accused of leaving country music behind, ‘I’m not leaving country. I’m taking it with me,'” Oermann says. But, “she’s been very sensitive to the shifting waters of people’s tastes.”

That sensibility took root early in her career when, in the 1970s, she jumped ship from The Porter Wagoner Show—her first big break—to strike out on her own in the old (cow)boys club that was Nashville.

“I’ve never felt like I’ve been held back because I was a woman,” Dolly says. “I grew up with six brothers, and my dad and my uncles so I never was intimidated or thought that I didn’t have my place in the world.”

Dolly toppled barriers with a barrage of self-penned hits but, with the second wave of American feminism, including the publication of The Feminine Mystique and the rise of capital F feminism, some felt the blond, big-chested country girl who went on The Tonight Show in 1977 and laughed when Johnny Carson quipped that he’d “give a year’s pay” to peek under her shirt was little more than a stereotypical pin-up. Her ongoing cosmetic surgeries—which she jokes openly about—didn’t help.

Still, many of Dolly’s songs included pro-female messages about anything from sexual double standards to teenage pregnancy to equal rights for women in the workplace. She also turned down Elvis Presley’s request to cover “I Will Always Love You” because the King wanted half of the song’s publishing rights while, in 1987, Gloria Steinem herself wrote in an issue of Ms. magazine that Dolly “has turned all the devalued symbols of womanliness to her own ends.” Oermann adds, “You will not find a woman in this genre who does not bow her head at the mention of Dolly Parton’s name.”

“I am proud that I’ve got all these women saying that I have been a trailblazer,” Dolly notes, “because you want to feel like you’ve been a help and that you’ve been inspiring somebody. Ever since the 9 to 5 movie, we’ve been trying to promote women getting equal pay for equal work and we’ve come a long way.”

Dolly’s penchant for reinvention paid off again in the early 1990s, when the achy-breaky juggernaut known as “new country” threatened to put her “old country” contemporaries out to pasture. “I’d already won every award and I already had one after another hit record so I didn’t resent the new country coming in,” she says. “I had hoped at the time that I’d be one of those that might survive it.”

She did. Following successful turns in front of the camera in the 1980s in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Rhinestone, Steel Magnolias and 9 to 5, her production company, Sandollar Productions, produced ’90s hits like the first two Father of the Bride films and Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series. She also had her own short-lived TV variety show and scored “the most money I ever made in my life” after Whitney Houston released her cover of “I Will Always Love You.”

The new millennium brought two more Grammys—the Best Bluegrass Album award for the 2000 disc The Grass Is Blue, and the Best Female Country Vocal nod for her cover of the Collective Soul song, “Shine,” on 2001’s Little Sparrow. Then the 2006 Academy Awards saw Parton deliver an impassioned rendition of her Oscar-nominated tune “Traveling Thru” from the film Transamerica, about a transgender woman who embarks on a road trip, only to lose to the hip-hop track, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from the film Hustle & Flow. This, along with a lack of significant radio play, seemed to signify that Dolly’s years as a major headliner were over. She continued to record and perform, mostly touring overseas, where new country hadn’t taken such a stronghold. Cue Glastonbury.

Celebrating 50 years of marriage

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Dolly in 2016

Dolly’s new album and biggest North American tour in decades happen to coincide with another milestone—her 50th wedding anniversary to her husband, Carl Dean, a publicity-averse retired road paver whom she first laid eyes on outside of Nashville’s Wishy Washy Laundromat.

“One of the reasons we’ve lasted 50 years [is] because we have a very private life. Our time together is precious to us,” she explains, before cracking a smile. “It doesn’t hurt that I’ve only been home about 40 of those 50 years that we’ve been together.”

An admitted hopeless romantic, Dolly marks her anniversary year with an album of songs about “love of all colours,” including the song “I’m Sixteen,” inspired by her sister who, in her 60s, found love after years of failed romances. “It goes to show you’re never old unless you choose to be and…how love is so rejuvenating.”

“I think she’s one of the most beloved musical stars that has ever been,” Oermann says, “and the reason is the brilliance of her writing, the sensitivity of her singing and her empathy for people. When you think ‘star,’ you think glittery and shiny and fabulous, and she’s all of that and more.”

Last December’s TV movie, Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors, received such high ratings that a sequel, Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love, which tells the next chapter in the Parton family story, airs Nov. 30.

“I still want to see my life story on Broadway as a musical. I want to do a feature film of my life. I might possibly even do a Life of Many Colors TV series. I want to have a line of wigs, cosmetics, I want to write some more books,” she explains, taking a breath. “I’m going to run out of time. That’s what I hate the most about getting older.”

One more thing Dolly has time for is her Imagination Library initiative. Her father’s and brothers’ illiteracy inspired her to start the charity, which delivers books to children once a month, from the time they’re born until they enter kindergarten. The non-profit began in her Tennessee community and spread throughout North America, the United Kingdom and Australia, delivering more than 74,000,000 books to date.

Last month, Parton released her own children’s book based on the Coat of Many Colors and titled just that. But when asked about what her favourite kids’ book is, she answers without missing a beat: “The Little Engine That Could. I love that book because I am a prime example. I am a little engine that did. I thought I could and I did, and thank God for that.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 2016 issue with the headline, “Hello Dolly!”, p. 40-43.