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.”
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.
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.”
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.