You can’t go many places in Nashville, Tennessee—the world epicenter of country music—without being reminded of Dolly Parton. Her photo hangs on the walls of every honky-tonk bar on the downtown strip, her eyes (and other famous assets) staring down at the stage, as if to warn up-and-coming performers that she’s still the uncontested queen of country. In Nashville’s record stores, the barbecue joints, the gift shops, even the street corners—country music, heavy on the Dolly Parton tunes, are piped out of the crosswalks—she’s omnipresent. Mentioning her name in Nashville is like bringing up Jesus in Vatican City; you better have only nice things to say.
The night I arrived in Nashville, I went for a few nightcaps at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, where future country legends like Willie Nelson were discovered. I sat at the bar, listening to the house band—who, not surprisingly, played a Parton tune, “Tennessee Homesick Blues”—and casually mentioned to the bartender that I was in town to interview Dolly Parton. Within minutes, a beer was slid in front of me, compliments of a cowboy sitting a few stools away. He was about seven foot tall, unshaven and sunburned, wearing a battered Stetson hat. I nervously thanked him for the beer, and he tipped his hat at me and said, “Be nice to our Dolly.”
Not that she needs any protection. There’s a reason Parton’s nickname is the Iron Butterfly. Since moving to Nashville in 1966 when she was just 18, she’s become an unstoppable force of nature, a country music juggernaut and hit-making machine with the most iconic breasts in history. (They’re 40DD, if you’re curious. And she has them insured for $600,000, or roughly $300,000 per boob.) She’s had 41 top ten albums, and over 110 hit singles, including timeless classics like “I Will Always Love You,” “Jolene,” “9 to 5″ and “Coat of Many Colors,” to name just a few. Her latest long-player, Blue Smoke, is exactly what you’d expect from a Dolly Parton album. It’s got nostalgic odes to mountain livin’ and growing up poor, inspirational ballads designed to make your upper lip quiver, a few quirky covers (Dolly Parton covering Bob Dylan is exactly as weird as it sounds), and enough singalong barn-stompers to satisfy any would-be cowboy.
I arrived an hour early for my pre-dawn interview with Parton, at Nashville’s Northstar Studios in Nashville, and worried that the doors would still be locked. But Parton was already there; she’d arrived several hours hours before me, because apparently she never sleeps. When I walked into the room, Parton was curled up barefoot on a chair, her seven-inch rhinestone high heels parked below her. Despite the ungodly hour, she was perky and vivacious, immediately treating a stranger like an old friend. “It is such a delight to meet you, sweetie-pie,” she told me, and I got the distinct impression that she meant it, even the “sweetie-pie” part.
There are few celebrities in the world who are exactly what you want them to be, but Dolly Parton is one of them. Talking with a bleary-eyed journalist in a Nashville studio, she’s in every way the same Dolly Parton who performs for 20,000 people at the Lanxess Arena in Cologne (which she’ll be doing on July 5th). Her hair, her makeup, her glittery clothes, her unflappably sunny disposition; nothing about her changes, regardless of where she is and what she’s doing. Film critic Roger Ebert once wrote that being in Parton’s presence left him with “a cloud of good feeling.” I can personally attest that he was not being hyperbolic.
I have a grandmother named Dolly.
Oh really? Is that her real name?
No, it’s just a nickname.
Yeah, that’s how it is with most people named Dolly. I know a lot of Dorothys who go by Dolly. But my name is really Dolly. That’s what my mom and daddy named me.
Is it a family name?
It is actually, yeah. I had an Aunt Dolly on both sides of my family, on my mother’s side and my dad’s. It’s a common mountain name.
My grandmother, the one named Dolly, likes to tell a story about the time she met you, and how she’s never seen a more beautiful woman in her life.
Oh my sweetness!
According to her, your skin “is perfect.”
She is blind, right? [Laughs.]
I tried telling her that you’d based your look on a small town Tennessee prostitute.
And she said, “Well, that must’ve been one good-looking prostitute.”
Awww. That’s cute. I like your grandma. Why didn’t you bring her?
So that’s a real story? You literally saw a prostitute and said, “I need to look like her?”
Did you not realize she was a prostitute, or did you not care?
I didn’t care. She was the prettiest thing at that time that I had ever seen. Because we didn’t go to movies. We didn’t know movie stars. We didn’t have movie magazines. We only had the catalogues, like the Sears & Roebuck catalog, and they had some pretty models in there. But this girl, oh my goodness, she was all glamor. She had the red nails, the red toenails, the high heels, the short skirt, the pretty legs, the big hair. She was breathtaking to me. It was very striking. And that’s how I wanted to look.
But you got older.
So eventually you must’ve realized, “Wait a minute, my style role model was the town tramp.” As an adult, did you ever consider trying something else? Maybe giving yourself a non-trampy image makeover?
Oh no, honey, not at all. When I got older I realized that I was a tramp. So this was obviously the best look for me. [Laughs.] No actually, this just always suited my personality. I feel comfortable in these clothes.
Are there ever days when you wake up and you’d rather just wear sweatpants?
Never. I mean sure, sometimes I’ll wear sweatpants. But even then I’ll be in high heels.
Oh come on!
I’m serious! I’ll still fix my hair and makeup. I’m just one of those people. Unless I’m sick, and sometimes even then I’ll be in full makeup. When I get up in the morning, I’ll take my bath, I’ll put on my makeup and try to fix myself up a little bit, because it just makes me feel better. You never know who’s going to drop by your house. And I feel like my husband deserves to not look at a slouch when I’m home.
What about when it’s just you, when you’re alone and writing songs?
I’ll always be in makeup and heels when I write songs. Sometimes I’ll just wear my house shoes, but those are high heels too. They’re just a different level.
Do you actually need those heels?
Well sure. Because I’m little. I can’t even reach the cabinets in my own home without my shoes on. We’ve all got our draw-backs. Some of us are just drawn back further than others.
Is there ever a moment when you’re wearing high heels and you think, “This was a bad, bad idea?”
I don’t think so. Give me an example.
When you’re hiking.
Oh that happens. But I still do it.
You’ve gone mountain hiking in high heels?
Not mountains, sweetie. But sure, a little outdoor stroll. I’ve got high heel boots.
Of course you do.
And sometimes I’ll think, “I probably should have worn some tennis shoes for this.” When I do my exercises, I wear tennis shoes. But I have to tell you, I’m in heels so often that my legs get sore when I wear flat shoes. My calves are so used to being up. You know what I mean?
Sure. If you wear high heels all the time, your leg muscles start to think that’s normal.
The first week of doing a new exercise routine, if I’m wearing tennis shoes or something, that’s the hardest part for me. My legs hurt so bad just from stretching them in the wrong direction.
This may be an old urban myth, but is it true you once competed in a drag queen Dolly Parton look-a-like contest?
That’s the truth. It was at a gay club in Los Angeles. I lived in this little apartment right up the street from Santa Monica Blvd, right near the gay strip. At one particular club, they had a Halloween costume competition, and people would go dressed as Cher or me or whoever. We saw a whole bunch of Dollys walking around outside the club. So I told my friends, “Let’s go check it out.”
You weren’t afraid of being recognized?
Oh no. It was Halloween, so we just over-exaggerated ourselves. I made my hair bigger, gave myself darker, thicker, more ridiculous makeup, and bigger lips. We walked in, ordered a drink, and watched the show. Then they started the competition, and all the drag queens dressed like me were walking across the stage, to be judged by audience applause who was the best Dolly. I just wanted to watch, but my friends convinced me to get up there. They said, “Go. Go, go, do it.” And I whispered, “Okay, fine.” I jumped onstage and joined the line of Dollys.
Nobody realized you were the real Dolly Parton?
Nobody even knew. Cause I was over-exaggerated. I looked like a clown version of myself. Maybe I went too far, because I lost.
You lost a Dolly Parton look-a-like contest?
I did, yeah. [Laughs.] I got the least applause of anybody. Of course, my friends were cracking up.
How is that possible?
I guess there were some other Dolly Partons who looked more like Dolly Parton than I did. [Laughs.] They were good, I’ll give them that. But when you’re Dolly Parton and you lose a Dolly Parton look-a-like contest, that’s pretty bad.
The first song that really struck me on your new album was “Home,” which I’m guessing is semi-autobiographical.
Oh, it absolutely is.
You make your upbringing sound idyllic. Are you just being nostalgic, or was growing up poor in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains as magical as it sounds?
Well of course you always over fantasize everything about your past when you’re older. But thinking back on my childhood, just like the song says, we really were always swimming in the swimming hole, always sitting on either Grandma’s porch with the vines hanging down. Those are my memories, and I love it. There’s also that part at the beginning of the song where I talk about standing at my windowpane, tears mingling with the rain. Sometimes it’s like when you’re out there on the road; you’re lonesome and you’re homesick, and you just sit in the tour bus, looking out the window, feeling sorry for yourself. But you can always go home in your mind.
The way you describe your youth in My Life and Other Unfinished Business, your 1995 memoir, it sounds fictional. You grew up in an actual log cabin with no electricity or indoor plumbing?
One bed for the entire family, which included you and 10 siblings? Your mom made you feed-sack dresses?
It’s so true. We lived near a creek, and that’s where we bathed and washed our clothes. We had a rub board—a washboard, I think some people call it. You just scrubbed everything by hand, cause that’s what you had to do.
Did you really eat squirrel?
Rabbit and squirrel. We loved it. We ate groundhog. People in the country, you learn what’s safe to eat and how to cook it. My mother was the best cook in the world.
The best squirrel cook?
Honey, you need to try it. You don’t know what you’re missing. It’s fantastic. You know they serve rabbit all over the world. Squirrel is pretty much the same thing.
I’m from Chicago. A squirrel is just one step away from a rat.
Well there’s your problem right there. I wouldn’t eat a city squirrel. But a country squirrel, that’s a different thing.
What does squirrel taste like?
Like sweet chicken. It’s a soft, tender meat. We ate it because we had to.
But your dad drew the line at possum?
We didn’t eat possum, but some people did. If you were poor enough, you could cook anything and it’d be alright. It might be a little gamey, but it’d be edible. Daddy was picky about some things. He hated snakes, but a lot of people ate rattlesnakes. If you know how to cook it, it can be delicious. We also ate turtles and frogs. Anything you could catch, we’d eat.
You also had a very musical extended family, isn’t that right?
My mother’s people were very musical, and some of my dad’s. But mainly my mom’s. They all sang, they all could write songs, they all could play some sort of musical instruments.
At Parton family get-togethers, was there always music being played? Was it a constant hootenanny?
Oh yeah. It was like I said in “Home,” we were all on the front porch, swinging and singing. That’s what it was like. On the weekends, the relatives would bring over their instruments and we’d sit out on the yard or on the porch and just sing. We’d have barn dances, square dances, hootenannies, all of it.
How old were you when you joined in?
The barn dances? Oh sweetie, I was practically dancing out of the womb.
I mean playing music. When did you pick up a guitar and join the jamboree?
Me and my brothers and sisters, we were always a part of it. But I started playing the guitar when I was about seven. My uncle Louis, who just passed away, he was one of my mom’s brothers, he saw how serious I was about wanting to play, so he was very encouraging. He gave me my first guitar.
Didn’t one of your uncles become your manager?
That was my uncle Bill, another one of my mother’s brothers. He drove me out to Knoxville and Nashville and helped me book gigs. My first single, “Puppy Love”—which I put out when I was just 13—we wrote that together, me and Bill. We wrote a lot of songs together through the years.
Your dad may not have had musical skills, but he had business savvy.
That’s true. My daddy had no education. He was just a farmer and couldn’t read or write. But he was such a smart person. Just that good ol’ common horse sense. I realized that my mother’s people are very creative and they didn’t usually like to work. Or they only wanted to work at their music and nothing else. But my daddy was such a hard worker, and so were his people.
So you got the best from both of them?
That’s exactly it! I got the best of my mom and the best of my dad. I work like a dog, I work night and day, just like my daddy. Whenever I come too close to self-pity, when I get so tired I can’t hardly even walk, I just think of my poor old daddy. He had to raise 11 kids. He couldn’t quit when he wanted to. I think about that a lot of times. He may not have had book smarts, but he had a brilliant mind for numbers. He knew how to trade and he knew how to barter.
Didn’t he pay the doctor that delivered you with a sack of cornmeal?
That’s right. Somehow there’s a story going around that it was a sack of flour, but that’s not what happened. It was a sack of cornmeal. People didn’t have money back then, at least not where we lived. And our doctor was Dr. Robert Thomas, who was a missionary and also a Methodist minister. They’d sent him from New York City, I think, to the Smoky Mountains as a missionary to take care of the mountain people. He wasn’t really working for money that much. If people could pay him, they would. They usually paid him in canned goods or meat. Whatever you had, you’d pay him. Daddy offered him some cornmeal, and I guess that was good enough. That’s what I’m worth, no more than a sack of cornmeal. [Laughs.]
You’ve said he wasn’t too happy about your early experiments with makeup.
No, no, he wasn’t at all.
He gave you a whipping when you painted your lips with Mercurochrome (a topical antiseptic, banned in 1998, that would stain the skin red)? What was he so afraid of?
It wasn’t that he didn’t trust me. He just didn’t trust men. He didn’t want us bringing extra attention on ourselves, where somebody might misunderstand our intentions. He didn’t want us looking like tramps. [Laughs.] Which is kinda funny, if you think about it. I’d patterned my look after the woman I’m sure he had admired many times.
Yeah. In fact, I remember one time we all went to town, and my daddy said hello to her and smiled, and my mother got so jealous. Just because he said hello. I guess it didn’t help that my mother wasn’t wearing makeup or fancy clothes.
Did he live long enough to see what all the makeup and high heels would lead to?
Oh yeah. He only died 12, 13 years ago. He was totally fine with it. He realized early on that I knew what I was doing. He saw that I was okay, and that I was doing some serious work. The only person in my family who really had problems with it was my grandpa, my mother’s dad. He was a pentecostal preacher, and he thought I was gonna go to hell in a handbasket.
Did he say as much?
Oh yeah. Daddy was more worried about people thinking his daughters were sluts or trashy. My granddad was worried that I’d become like Jezebel and wouldn’t get to heaven. I always used to tell him, “Grandpa, I want to get to heaven, but do I have to look like hell to get there?”
I assume he’s passed.
Oh yeah, he died awhile ago.
Did he ever change his mind about you?
I wrote a song about him, “Daddy Was An Old Time Preacher Man.” He really loved it. Used to brag to everybody he knew that it was about him. He was fine with me after that. [Laughs.] Sometimes a song is all it takes.
You’ve said that you’re driven by three passions: God, music, and sex. These don’t seem like three ideas that go well together.
[Laughs.] Maybe not. But if you think about it, I think that’s true with most people, don’t you? Most people just won’t admit it, but they have those three passions. You just never know which order they come in.
I can see God and music. And music and sex, of course. But God and sex?
There aren’t many songs about God and sex.
Well there should be. God created us. He gave us all those desires. I’ve never done anything I didn’t feel like doing at the time. I’m a passionate person, and I’ve never felt like my passions or my desires were sinful. They’re part of me. What can I tell you? I’m not saying God condones all the stuff that I do or that other people do. But I’m certainly not going to condemn any of it.
Dollywood, your Tennessee theme park, has an annual “Gay Days” celebration. You’re probably the least judgmental Christian country artist in the world.
I don’t know about that, but I do think it’s insane to judge anybody else, or to let yourself be judged. I’ve never done anything that I didn’t feel like I needed to do at the time. I wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been an urge that was too great to ignore. I’m not going to have regret and think, “Well gosh, I wish I hadn’t of done that.” If I felt that way at the time, I wouldn’t have done it. So obviously, whatever I’ve done, whatever I’ve enjoyed, whether it’s eating too much or enjoying sex too much, it’s just because I’m a natural, passionate human being.
You’ve been called a feminist icon, but do you consider yourself a feminist?
No, I don’t.
Really? You’ve done so much for women in country music.
But none of that was because of any kind of feminist agenda. I think women should be treated with the upmost respect. I have five sisters. I was very close to my mom, all my grandmas and even my great-grandmas. I have a great love and respect for women, and I think that all human beings, not just women, should be allowed to be who we are and what God created us to be.
And that’s not feminism?
I don’t know why we should have to categorize it. I’ve done very well and I’m proud of being woman. I’ve always thought that being a woman has served me well. I understand the nature of men. [Laughs.] I never felt like I was in competition with anybody. I would just do my best with the gifts God gave me.
You’ve made some career moves that could be described as feminism. You refused to let Elvis Presley sing “I Will Always Love You” because he wanted half the publishing rights.
That was the biggest song in my catalog at that time. It had been number one with me. So I knew it was an important copyright, and I just couldn’t give it away, because it had already proved itself. If it had been a new song, I might’ve considered. I don’t know. Sometimes when you do movies, you have to give half the publishing up if you write the songs. There are times when you have to compromise. But with Elvis, it broke my heart.
You said no to Elvis.
I know, I know.
Elvis Presley! The King of Rock n’ Roll!
Don’t rub it in! [Laughs.] But what could I do? I just knew that I couldn’t give away a copyright that had already been number one.
Will Elvis at least be making a cameo in the forthcoming Broadway musical about your life?
You never know. [Laughs.]
Are you still writing it?
I am. I’ve been working on it for a lot of years, because I don’t want to hurry it. I haven’t taken it to anybody asking for financing, because I don’t want somebody telling me what to do. I’m getting it completely the way I want it, then I’m going to record it and put it down, so nobody thinks it’s a work in progress anymore. Once I get it done, and it’s what I want it to be without anybody else pushing their agenda on me, then I’ll let the boys see it.
That sure does sound like feminism to me.
[Laughs.] Call it whatever you want, honey. That’s just me being me.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the June 27, 2014 issue of Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin.)