Country music legend Dolly Parton talks faith, family, dreams and staying true to her roots.
By Sharon Selz
Dolly Parton doesn’t get much sleep. This self-proclaimed early bird is usually up before the sun. But lack of shut-eye hasn’t stopped her from dreaming.
“I wake up with a new dream every day,” says the iconic singer, songwriter, actress, author, philanthropist and entrepreneur. On the heels of a world tour promoting her new album, Blue Smoke, she’s moving forward with a momentum that rivals the greased-lightning roller coasters at her Dollywood theme park. Now topping her to-do list: writing a musical based on her life and opening a family-friendly resort in the heart of her beloved Smoky Mountains.
The fourth of 12 children, Dolly Rebecca Parton grew up on a farm in East Tennessee. By age 6, she was harmonizing in her preacher grandfather’s church choir. At 7, she was playing guitar. For a microphone, “I used to put a tin can on a tobacco stick,” she recalls. “And those were not chickens out there in the yard, they were my audience.”
Her passion motivated Dolly to go to Nashville the day after her high school graduation. Her lilting voice, gift for songwriting, and rhinestone-bright personality and looks quickly launched her career. Today she’s among country music’s most honored performers. “I think of myself as a working girl,” Dolly says.
A savvy businesswoman, country music legend Dolly saw another dream realized with the 1986 opening of Dollywood. Its success has provided thousands of jobs in Pigeon Forge, near where she grew up.
Dolly’s thoughts are seldom far from home. Her Dollywood Foundation raises money for education in Sevier County; it also supports her Imagination Library (imaginationlibrary.com), which has reached more than 700,000 children in communities across the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom.
“We send a book once a month to kids from the time they’re born until they start school,” Dolly says of the free program open to children regardless of family income. “Many of the kids don’t know I sing or write songs. To them, I’m the book lady.”
Dolly and husband Carl Dean, married for 48 years, are discussing “doing it all over again” on their 50th anniversary. Although she has no children, Dolly is a doting “Great Aunt Granny” to her many nieces and nephews.
Dolly’s big heart has plenty of room for her millions of fans, too. As she once said in an interview, “I always feel like I’m going to a family reunion when I go out there with my audience.”
CW recently chatted with Dolly during a break in her whirlwind schedule. When she answered the phone, “Hello, Sharon. I’m your country woman!,” we knew we had the right number.
CW You have a reputation for being a good Southern cook. Do you have signature recipes your family requests?
DOLLY Yes, I’m the one they’ll always ask to bring the chicken and dumplings, and the pork roast with gravy and everything that goes with it. I make it like my mama and my grandmas and my aunts. I definitely still cook like a country woman.
CW It’s clear you know how to dream big. How do you make time for dreaming, and what are you working on now?
DOLLY Even when I’m on tour, I’m always writing songs. I have a lot of time to write, to think and to dream when I’m traveling. Right now, I’m writing my life story as a musical for the stage. That’s really one of my big dreams, and it’s in the works.
CW You’ve traveled the world, but you’ve never forgotten the Smoky Mountains. What keeps bringing you back?
DOLLY A couple of my sisters live in Nashville, and all the rest of my family are still in East Tennessee. Of course, I have Dollywood, my theme park, there, and several businesses like the Dixie Stampede (dinner theater). But I just love the Smokies. I bought the old home place years ago and fixed it up as a retreat. So I love to go home. As I always say, I left the Smoky Mountains, but I take them with me wherever I go.
CW You’ve said your new album, Blue Smoke, shows all the colors of your life in music. How so?
DOLLY There are so many different moods in these songs—from heartbreak to spirituality to the fun little song, “Lover du Jour”, which is kind of tongue-in-cheek. They’re all parts of my personality. They go to the depths in songs like “If I Had Wings,” about those times when you really would like to fly away from everything and get on to heaven. Other songs cover the phase in my life when I worked with duet partners like Kenny Rogers, Porter Wagoner and then Willie (Nelson). There are the big pop sounds, the country mountain sounds, the bluegrass flavor and the gospel—all the types of music that I’ve done and loved. I really think the themes of these songs, the arrangements and the production all cover who I am—the country girl gone to town.
CW We heard you planned to roll out your Imagination Library in Australia during your world tour. Did it happen?
DOLLY Oh yes it did, in a big fashion! The United Way and the Rotary folks are working with us, and it’s been a wonderful program. We’ve given away more than 60 million books so far. And there will be millions and millions more. You can’t get enough books into the hands of enough children. We need them to learn to read, because even if you can’t go to school, if you can read, you can educate yourself.
CW It was your father who inspired this program?
DOLLY Yes he did. He was from a huge family also, and, like a lot of folks in the mountains, he didn’t have a chance to get an education. He had to go to work to help feed the rest of the family. I know how smart my daddy was, even though he couldn’t read and write. That was what inspired me to do the Imagination Library, and I am really passionate about it.
CW Next summer, you plan to open Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort, complete with porches and suites for family reunions. Why the focus on family?
DOLLY I’m such a family-oriented person myself, being brought up in a big one. And I think it’s so important—especially in this day and time. With the resort, we want to inspire people to bring their families and connect again. In this high-tech world, everybody is off in his or her own little world and always on some smartphone or a computer or something, and we’re not connecting as a family. Everybody is living separately, together. We’re trying to encourage people to bond with family again…at least for a vacation.
CW Do you have fond memories of gathering on the porch with your relatives, friends and neighbors?
DOLLY That’s really what inspired the resort. In the country, it’s just too hot in your old house in the summertime to be inside. So everybody gathered on the front porch or the back porch, depending on where the shade was. That’s where we’d sit to gossip, to talk together and to sing and to play. The porch was a very special place for us.
CW This spring, you launched Dollywood’s newest roller coaster, the FireChaser Express, which kids as young as 5 can ride. But we heard you don’t do roller coasters.
DOLLY I don’t do any of the rides. I have motion sickness. I’d even get sick riding the school bus and the merry-go-round on the playground. Plus I’m always afraid I’ll lose my hair or something else might fall out. I can help think the rides up and sell them, but the fact that I don’t ride them makes kids think, “Ooh, this must be scary. We definitely want to ride this!”
CW How would you say your faith, country roots and growing up in a big family have contributed to your success?
DOLLY Well, it’s all kept me sane. It’s kept me stable. A belief in God is essential. You have to believe in something bigger than yourself. We grew up believing that through God all things are possible. I think I believed that so much that I made it happen. I just live by that Scripture. The fact that I can write is very helpful, too. I can write about anything I feel. Also, family helps me stay grounded and humble. I know what it’s like to be without, and I know what it’s like to have things. And I appreciate both.