Dolly Parton: “Now nobody dares to question me”

Beneath Tennessee’s most statuesque cardigan lies one of the music industry’s best-equipped and most talented brains. He already warned Dumb Blonde (1967), her first big hit: “Just ’cause I’m a blonde / don’t think I’m dumb / ’cause this dumb blonde ain’t no one’s idiot.” “At first they didn’t take me seriously because of my appearance,” he confirms. Dolly Parton on the other end of the phone. “A lot of people tried to change me. They said that my image was cheap, but it responds to the idea of glamor that the girls of the south have. Fortunately, I have never taken myself very seriously, but I have taken my work very seriously. Also, I think we should all dress how we want. I still do it and I still have fun, only now nobody dares to question me”. How to do it. Behind the pop icon emerges one of the most brilliant and verbose songwriters in the United States with nearly 3,000 registered songs, actress, philanthropist, successful businesswoman and, for the first time at 76, also a fiction writer. Along with the bestselling author detectives James Patterson, signature Run, rose, run (backlight), a thriller about a young star country who runs away from home to seek his fortune in Nashville. The 537-page volume, which has just been released in Spain, has inspired an album of the same name with 12 unreleased songs.

“A novel is kind of a natural transition for me,” Parton argues. “I have been a songwriter all my life and I like to tell stories through my songs. When I was a child and wrote a song, I would run home to sing it to everyone. There was no television, so it was my way of entertaining them.” Parton has flaunted her storytelling skills in such classics as Coat of Many Colors —where he evokes the poverty of his childhood and the cruelty of his classmates— or The Grass Is Blue —about the inability to overcome a love break—, but with the perspective that time gives, many of his lyrics begin to be analyzed and celebrated as the denunciation of the structural machismo that they also are and that, wrapped in glitter and pleasant melodies, permeated better and deeper among a mass audience. From I’m a Woman (1966) —where he exposes the stigma of the woman who has lost her virginity, and which he recorded again in 2018 with sia– until bridge (1964) —about a pregnant single woman who commits suicide— going through that anthem of the working (and exploited) woman that is 9 to 5 (1980).

“The music country it is a very effective universal communication tool because it tells normal stories about normal people in an extraordinary way. It’s basically simple music narrated in a not-so-simple way,” Parton explains. Helen Morales, author of Pilgrimage to Dollywood (“Pilgrimage to Dollywood”, the amusement park created by the singer), highlights how Parton is one of the first authors to invest the murder ballads (murder ballads), a genre from the Appalachian region in which men brutally narrate the murders of (their) women, and which the artist writes and performs from the perspective of the victim. Over the years, the artist will go from the description of pain and abuse to stories that encourage people to leave abuse behind.

The conversion into a feminist icon of the singer, whose hyperbolic silhouette has generated as many jokes as admiration, is just as complex and surprising as Parton herself: that apparent product of the heteropatriarchy that never was. As she has defended her friend on multiple occasions jane fonda, the singer may not handle theory, but she does handle feminist practice. Although this word has never left her always outlined lips, the artist has indeed denounced, in verse and prose, the flagrant inequalities that women of her generation had to face and still continue to face. “The same work should be paid the same. It seems obvious, but today we continue to fight for it. Although things have improved a lot and in the music industry we are more respected. When I started out, the good old guys were the ones running everything. The girls were like the tomato in the salad that accompanied the steak, the main course, which was them, of course”. To fulfill her tomato role, Parton had to appear available to the public: her producers opposed her marrying, but in 1966 she did and kept her marriage to Carl Dean in secret for a year, proving that he could lead an alliance and be successful.

Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin at the New York premiere of ‘How to Get Rid of Your Boss’ in 1980. Tom Wargacki (WireImage)

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The leap to stardom that would lead him to sell more than 100 million records began with another man, the singer of country Porter Wagoner, on whose eponymous television show he starred for a decade. When they separated artistically in 1974, she wrote the ballad I Will Always Love You, which, according to Parton herself, Elvis sang to his wife Priscilla after their divorce. Perhaps for this reason, Presley wanted to buy the rights to the song. Against everyone around her, Parton said no to Elvis. And what seemed crazy turned out to be the best business decision of her life: in 1992 Whitney Houston turned this song —integrated in the soundtrack of the movie The bodyguard— in one of the most listened to in history, and Parton, in a rich woman.

In the same year that he released I Will Always Love You his jump to pop would come with the mythical Jolene (1974) as a hinge —inaugurating a career model that would later be followed by many other singers from country like Taylor Swift—; the commercial ups and downs in the nineties; back to the roots bluegrass at the beginning of the two thousand, and a last stage in which, without stopping recording at the frenetic pace of the previous three decades, Parton begins to give more importance to her facet as a producer of musicals and movies.

Dolly Parton in the '70s.
Dolly Parton in the ’70s.getty

“I became an entrepreneur on the fly. I was learning along the way. But the one who influenced me the most in this regard was my father. He couldn’t read or write, but he was the smartest person I know: he knew how to move, how to negotiate and make things happen. And I think I inherited those skills from him. It is something innate: I know what is right and what is not right for me. I keep my eyes open and let my heart guide me.” Parton talks like he sings. Although, perhaps, the most accurate would be to say that he lives as he sings. His father’s illiteracy inspired one of his first solidarity projects: Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, an organization that provides scholarships and textbooks to children in danger of exclusion. “Education has always been very important to me and this concern comes from a very deep place in my heart. Not only my father, but many of my relatives could not read or write, and if they had had this opportunity they would have been much more successful in other aspects of their lives. My father was involved in the start-up of this project. He wanted him to feel part of something bigger than himself. We have already donated over two million books and I can say that I am more proud of this than anything else I have done in my career.”

It is not Parton’s only philanthropic work. At the beginning of the pandemic, donated a million dollars to the investigation against covid. “I realized that it was going to be something serious and I decided to act. I like to be prepared to help in any cause that I consider important.” Support for minorities and the fight against discrimination have been present in the singer’s career since her origins. Because before being a feminist icon, Parton was a gay icon. And as in the case of women’s rights, she defends those of the LGTBIQ + community in her terms: “I believe that we are all children of God and that God loves us and wants us to be free and happy. He has made us different and we must learn to accept others as they are. You know the saying ‘in the variety is the spice’? Well, I love variety.” She says it too in a new topic, Whoever You Arewho hopes “it will be a success”: “Whoever you are, be it / everything else is acting / whoever you are, be it”.

Country singer and host Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton.  They collaborated together on television for a decade.
Country singer and host Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. They collaborated together on television for a decade. GAB Archive (Redferns)

For singer and producer Linda Perry, the secret of Parton’s successful half-century career lies precisely in the fact that “she has perfected the art of succeeding without hurting anyone”, as she explains in the BBC documentary Aqui estoy, unpublished in Spain. The last question of the telephone interview confirms this theory. Parton, which in 2020 premiered the musical Christmas in the square on netflix, refuses to share his opinion about the weight of digital platforms in the current audiovisual industry: “I don’t want to establish a conversation about controversial issues. Everyone knows I try to stay out of it. Because you don’t know how much there is of politics and how much of reality in these issues. Of course I have an opinion, but no obligation to share it, honey.”

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Dolly Parton: “Now nobody dares to question me”