Original traveller: Dolly Parton
Her decades-long career has made her one of the most recognisable faces and voices (and fashion icons) in music. Dolly Parton tells Graeme Green about her country-to-rock crossover and reveals some of her most memorable trips
Alongside whiskey and Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton is one of Tennessee’s most famous exports. She had a tough start in life, growing up as one of 12 siblings living in poverty in the Smoky Mountains. But with a remarkable and prolific talent for songwriting, a powerful voice and more grit than a country road in winter, she transformed herself into the Queen of Country.
In the six decades since she moved from Locust Ridge to Nashville, the capital of Country music, Parton has had hits galore (‘Jolene’, ‘9 To 5’, ‘I Will Always Love You’…), not to mention Grammys, world tours, stage musicals and movies. She has also built a business empire, including her Dollywood theme park, and has made a real difference with her philanthropic work, including literacy programmes and healthcare.
Her new album, Rockstar, her 49th solo studio album, is a surprising detour – a rock album, produced to ‘justify’ her nomination for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with nine new Dolly Parton songs and 21 covers of the likes of Queen, Prince and the Rolling Stones, with support from an almighty cast of famous friends, including Paul McCartney, Debbie Harry, Elton John, P!nk, Lizzo and Sheryl Crow.
Parton’s always done things on her own terms – not just her songs, but her style, as demonstrated by her new book, Behind The Seams, which documents her colourful, sparkling outfits and ‘more is more’ image across the last 60 years. With towering wigs, tight outfits and rhinestones aplenty, her style has brought her in for some criticism over the years. But, she tells High Life, “I was dead serious about how I looked, I was dead serious about writing songs and I was dead serious about singing them. To me, it’s all one package. I wouldn’t have written as good songs if I’d tried to dress down. I wouldn’t have felt like me. I have to be all that I am to be all that I am.”
You’re the Queen of Country. Was there part of you that always wanted to be a rock star, too?
No, though I love rock music. My husband, Carl, is a rock and roll freak. We’ve been together for 57 years and since the day I met him that’s all he really listens to. I knew all the rock and roll songs, and the stories behind the songs and the bands. I used to think, “Maybe someday I’ll do a rock album”, but I didn’t take it that seriously until I was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2022. I grew up loving Elvis and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis and all those people. They were Country people, Southern people mostly, who were doing rock and roll music. I loved it. But there wasn’t really a part of me that wanted to be a rock star.
30 songs… You’ve crammed a lot in to your first rock album.
I didn’t intend to have that many songs but, as I was recording, I kept remembering other songs I loved, and I thought, “Oh, I could do that.” There are rock anthems and love songs. This is probably the only rock album I’ll ever do, so I put them all out there. I just thought, “Do it now, do it good, and move on.”
Was it fun to record ‘Let It Be’ with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr?
Just to think about the fact they’re the only two people left of the Beatles and they would both be willing to do that for me meant a great deal to me personally. Paul said, “Not only will I sing – I’ll play on it if you want me to.” So he played piano and sang. I was very moved by that because I’ve always been a huge Beatles fan.
Was image and style important to you from the start?
I dressed the way that fit my personality. I never thought about being stylish. I just thought about being comfortable in my own skin and with whatever I wore on my skin.
Is it true people tried to make you change your look when you started out?
The people saying that to me had my best interests in mind. They were saying, “No one’s going to take you seriously as a writer and a singer. You need to tone down your look. You look trashy. You don’t look like a serious person.” And I thought, “Well, I am a serious person. And I’m serious about how I’m looking,” so I never listened.
Your style is very American. Have your travels around the world also influenced you?
Well, you don’t really know what you’re picking up. I didn’t think of myself as fashionable and I still really don’t. I know I have better clothes and I look better now than I used to, because I have better people putting the clothes together than when I was just doing it myself, buying stuff off the rack. I can afford to have people who put the clothes and the jewellery together, but they know I like a certain thing a certain way. I really go with my gut. Of course, if I come to France or the UK and see something I like, I’ll take a picture and take it back home, and say, “I love this jacket”, or “I like these pants, but I don’t care for the shirt”. I’ll mix and match. I’m like a sponge – I soak up everything.
You were born and raised in Tennessee, and you still live in Nashville. What makes Tennessee so special?
I love all of Tennessee. I’m so proud to be a Tennessee girl. Tennessee is like three states in one. We’ve got East Tennessee, where we have the Great Smoky Mountains, then middle Tennessee with the beautiful rolling hills, and then West Tennessee, which is flat as a pancake. It’s a wonderful state. The Smoky Mountains is a beautiful place to have been born and raised. I’m so proud to have my theme park, Dollywood, there, not so far from where I grew up. People who like travelling need to go to Tennessee. You need to go up to Dollywood first, then go to Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry and all the things there, and then go down to Memphis to see Graceland and Sun Records.
Is music in the water in Tennessee?
Yes, that’s true. In the Smoky Mountains, we have a lot of the Appalachian music and the old folk stuff. Down in west Tennessee is where people like Elvis got their start, and Nashville, of course, is the home of Country music. I have a line in a song that goes, “Nashville is a drinking town with a music problem.”
Are you a fan of the famous Tennessee whiskey?
I only drink on special occasions, like special dinners or weddings. I’m proud of the fact we make some of the best whiskey in the whole wide world. We’ve got great moonshine, too. There are a lot of little vineyards around that make great wine, too, such as Kix Brooks’ winery. We’ve got everything in Tennessee you could possibly want.
Can you tell us about the first time you travelled abroad?
It was to the UK. I went to Wembley in London in the 1970s. They had a wonderful Country music festival over there. I loved England. I couldn’t believe that there was a world like that. Imagine, we used to read about the kings and queens in books. I loved all that royalty stuff. I was always impressed by the robes and jewellery – the stories were like fairy tales to me. But then, when I actually saw castles and churches and all the stuff I had in my mind, it was amazing. We don’t have stuff like that in the United States. I took the tour of Buckingham Palace and all those places where they tell you the stories of dungeons and things like that. To see it for real, all the history and buildings that are hundreds of years old, was fascinating to me. It was all so beautiful.
You’ve travelled all over the world. What was your most memorable adventure?
I’ve been everywhere – Africa, Asia, Australia – touring with my group. Years ago, we went to Johannesburg in South Africa, which was amazing. We went out on a safari, riding in the jeeps and seeing all the beautiful wildlife in the national parks. That was a major thing for me to experience. I’ve been so lucky. As a singer and a musician, I’ve been to a lot of places. I love being able to see how people live, what their lifestyle and their culture is. It’s like having a paid vacation. You’ve got people who provide sightseeing for us and have everything planned out. To see the world, but also make money as you go… What could be better than that?
Were there any special concerts that stand out?
We’d been on tour in different places when they asked me to be at the Glastonbury festival in 2014. I was hesitant. I thought, “Huh, there are so many people, and those are more like ‘rock people’.” I talk a lot and I tell a lot of stories, and a lot of times at the festivals people might be doing drugs or drinking – they just want to have a good time. I thought, “Lord, if I start talking about my ‘Coat of Many Colours’ or my life in the Smoky Mountains, I’m never going to hold their attention.” Boy, was I ever wrong about that, because they were so in tune with what I was doing. They were really listening and seemed to really like the songs. It turned out to be one of the greatest things I’ve ever done. I heard there were 150,000 people there – I’d never seen so many people in all my life, looking out from the stage for miles and miles. I thought, “I hope I do good.” I had a great time and I have beautiful memories. I’m so happy I went ahead and did that show. I would not have wanted to miss that.
Have you mastered travelling so you can be at your best when you land for a concert or TV appearance?
I’m so in tune with that. Having been doing this for so many years, you have to know what to take. You have to know how to pack, and I pack my ‘comfort zone’ with me. I have my luggage. I take my own coffee pot, my own pillows and blanket – certain things I have to have to be comfortable. If you’re a world traveller, like I’ve always been, you know how to do it.
How does it feel to look back on your six-decade career?
I hoped I’d be a star. I wanted to make a living doing this. I wanted to travel. I wanted to be rich and famous. But money was not what motivated me. I wanted to be a singer. I figured that if I was good at my job, I’d make money. So many of my dreams have come true. But every day I wake up with new dreams.
Rockstar is out now on Butterfly Records. Behind The Seams: My Life in Rhinestones by Dolly Parton is also available now (£39.99, Ebury). dollyparton.com
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