Originally published in the May 19, 2008 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
“So many things are happening now that I’ve prayed about,” declares a radiant Dolly Parton, relaxing in a comfortable wingback chair in her Nashville office complex. “And I’ve reached a point in my life when I know I’ve got so many more things to do, I feel like this is my ministry—not just my job.
“I have to be able to touch and reach people and I’m always asking God to show me ways and give me avenues to do that—so I can uplift people, so I can be a blessing somehow.”
And Dolly is a blessing, probably in more ways than the granddaughter of a Smoky Mountain Pentecostal preacher could ever know. Not the least of which is through her music, most notably her excellent Backwoods Barbie CD, released in February.
Dolly wrote nine of the CD’s 12 tunes, with the only exceptions being great covers of the Fine Young Cannibals’ 1989 pop hit “She Drives Me Crazy” and Smokey Robinson’s classic “The Tracks of My Tears,” plus the majestic current single, “Jesus & Gravity.” The autobiographical title cut is also included in Dolly’s Broadway show, 9 to 5, set to open in spring of ’09. Dolly wrote 30 songs for the score in an astoundingly productive two-week period and says the producers kept 85 percent of that creative outpouring.
At a time when many people her age—62—are reflecting on their life’s accomplishments, Dolly’s hitting her creative stride. And the diversity of styles on the new disc is not simply a testament to the breadth of Dolly’s personal taste, but to the depth of her talents, which are unmatched by few, if any, others in contemporary music.
One listen to “Better Get to Livin’,” the debut single from Barbie, and it’s easy to think you’ve just heard a musical rendition of the world’s most concise—and possibly best—self-help book. And that’s no accident.
“I’ve had people come and tell me that I should write a self-help book called Better Get to Living, ” proclaims a smiling Dolly. But, in spite of the very specific advice she gives in the song in response to the oft-asked question, “Dolly, what’s your secret?” she’s generally more inclined to show people how to live than to tell them.
“I try to live an example,” she declares. “But I try not to give advice. I give information, and if there’s something you could use out of it, that’s great. ’Cause we all go through tough times, and I’m not exempt from that.”
Dolly has indeed seen hard times—or, as she sings in “Jesus & Gravity,” things that come along and knock her right back on her knees. Among them were early career encounters with unscrupulous people in the record industry or Hollywood studios who took her ideas for their own. But the choices she’s made in responding to those situations speak volumes about her character.
“I don’t like to call names,” she says quietly, “but there have been a few things I’ve been ripped off with, either songs I’ve written or things I’ve pitched to studios in Hollywood that they turned down. And then they made a movie or a series or something out of it. I’ve had a couple of songs stolen by some pretty big artists that worked with me when I was young. But I try to forgive those things, looking at it through God’s eye for that kind of stuff.”
“If you don’t, you’re just miserable,” she proclaims simply, “and that stuff eats you up inside and then you’re not creative. And that’s how people get cancer and everything else. I let everything out, let it out to God or to somebody, or just totally free it myself.
“I write down things that I desire or want or things that I want forgiveness for, or things that I need to forgive—almost like I write God a letter. And then I just wad it up and burn it and pray over it as it goes up in holy smoke, and think, ‘There it goes, let it go.’ ”
“I talk to God like he’s a friend,” declares Dolly. “And I laugh with God, and I think if people could see me talking, they’d think I was a lunatic! But I praise the Lord and I shout and I romp around! Just rejoicin’ sometimes. That Pentecostal in me just can’t be held down!”
For Dolly, faith is at the core of how she lives her life. It’s mostly grounded in the biblical teachings from her childhood and her continued study of the Word, but it’s been bolstered by the extensive personal-development reading she’s done—from The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale to The Dynamic Laws of Prosperity by Catherine Ponder.
“I remember that scripture that nothing’s impossible to those that believe,” she proclaims. “And I believe and I thank Him for things before I get ‘em, assuming that I’m gonna have ’em. But you’ve gotta pray without ceasing and you’ve gotta believe without doubt. I act on faith all the time. I just dive into it assuming God’s going to catch me—because I have faith.”
But that doesn’t keep her from writing and singing about less lofty subjects, as when she addresses two sides of cheating in “Made of Stone” and “Cologne,” both gorgeous tunes on Barbie.
“I think all women have been through some of that,” she reveals. “That’s why I wrote a song from the wife that had been cheated on and then I wrote a song called ‘Cologne’ ”— a gorgeous song about a man who asks his mistress not to wear cologne, so he won’t take the scent back home to his wife— “from that other woman. I think most women have been cheated on and most women have been the other woman—whether it was before you were married or after. I love writing and singing those kinds of songs.
“Like ‘Made of Stone,’ I love that style of a song and as a singer, you can really belt that out. (She sings) Do you think I’m made of stone! It’s like nothing’s more exciting. It’s like a climax you get almost when you’re singing . . . really it is.”
Asked why the woman in “Cologne” gets into a situation knowing up front it’ll likely not work out, Dolly has a simple answer. “Oh you fall for it,” she declares. “It depends on how good a liar they are. You want to believe it because we’re all hopeless romantics.”
That term can also apply to her music, where Dolly does the songs that move her, even if she’s sometimes second-guessed on her musical choices—like “Drives Me Crazy” on the new CD. “I’ve had some criticism like, ‘Why in the hell did you do that!” she exclaims in her deepest, manliest voice.
“But I love that song and Carl loved the song,” proclaims. “He collects all kinds of music and played a lot of rock ’n’ roll, and so I’d hear him from time to time playin’ that and I thought, ‘That is so catchy.’ And I like taking those old songs sometimes and doing covers and kind of Dolly-izin’ ’em.
“And Carl was a Led Head—he loved Led Zeppelin—which is why I also covered ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on one of my records. That’s kinda why I’ve been doing some of those rock covers, just for Carl’s sake.”
Dolly likes for Carl to hear her new music, but not until it’s totally finished. “I don’t bother him with it [before then],” she declares. “I actually try not to clutter his life up with my stuff. When I’m on my writing binges, I usually either go out to our lake house or go to the Tennessee mountain home, or I’ll send him to one of the places if I want to write at the big house where we mainly live. But I always play it for him when it’s finished.
“I’ll just go make a pot of coffee and I’ll tell him, ‘Now at 2 o’clock, you’re going to sit your ass down and I want you to listen to my new record,’ ” she grins. “ ‘You don’t have to make comment, I just want you to hear it.’
“Sometimes if things get to him, he’ll say, ‘You’re going to have to excuse me,’ and he’ll get up and walk off because there’s certain things that really touch him. Like on this record, the song ‘Cologne’ just brings him to tears. When Carl heard ‘When I Get Where I’m Goin’’ that I did with Brad Paisley, he just had to go out of the room. He doesn’t want me to see him get that emotional I guess, over a song.
“But when [a new project] is done, I usually give him one and sign it ‘To Dad, love the Kid.’ I call him Dad ’cause we raised five of my younger brothers and sisters. He calls me ‘The Kid’. He always referred to me as that.”
But, Dolly admits, the name “Backwoods Barbie” is a pretty apt description of the way she saw herself in the early Smoky Mountain days. When she sings about the girls in the Frederick’s catalogue, it’s because she wanted to be just like them. “Those are beautiful pictures of all those pretty girls, all those great clothes and that’s just how I pictured myself. That’s how I wanted to look,” she declares.
And she’s done a pretty good job of it. She even goes so far as to respond to a question about the secret—beyond the obvious—to getting great cleavage.
“That’s a very good question,” she chuckles. “I don’t usually wear a bra, ’cause that’s one of the reasons I got my boobs jacked up a little, so they’d be firmer, so the little soldiers would stand up, ’cause I’ve always had big boobs. Usually in some things they look fine, but when you’ve got a V-neck or somethin’, you do want to get ’em together.” [She takes her hands and gives them each an inward push].
“So I have little body suits made that are kind of boned, where they push ‘em together, almost like a push up from the side. I didn’t have that with me now! So I didn’t wear it with this sweater. Padding on the sides of a regular bra would probably do the same thing—push ’em together. ’Cause my husband’s always tellin’ me, ‘I don’t like it when your boobs don’t come together. I like ‘em to come together.’ He don’t like ’em to just hang there,” she laughs.
Nips and Tucks
Since Dolly made the first mention of getting her boobs “jacked up,” a follow-up question seems in order. So, does she tell Carl about her plans to get a “nip or tuck” done before she does it?
“No I don’t, usually,” she admits. “I just do it. He doesn’t really want to know because he worries about me, but he trusts my judgment. And usually, he don’t even pay that much attention, unless I say, ‘I’ve done this or that.’ He just knows that I look good to him.”
And the bottom line is, Dolly looks the way she’s always wanted to. But, behind the Frederick’s façade is a woman of remarkable intelligence and substance. As she admonishes in “Barbie”:
Don’t let these false eyelashes lead you to believe that I’m as shallow as I look, ’cause I run true and deep . . . and I’ve always been misunderstood because of how I look / Don’t judge me by the cover ’cause I’m a real good book.
What Dolly Knows for Sure
- I love what I do.
- God meant for me to do what I’m doing.
- I have true love and devotion from my family and friends.
- I will never retire.
- I will continue to do my best at everything that I do.
- I will be forever grateful that I got to see my Smoky Mountain dreams come true.
What Would Porter Think?
Dolly’s dear friend and mentor, Porter Wagoner, died in October before he could hear Backwoods Barbie. But Dolly knows what he would’ve thought about it.
“I think he would think it was good,” she says wistfully. “He’d love ‘Backwoods Barbie,’ he would love ‘The Lonesomes’ and he would love ‘I Will Forever Hate Roses.’ He would love ‘Only Dreamin’ “—an ethereal tune Dolly wrote on her birthday (something she does each year)—“that’s about my favorite.”
Dolly hosted a special tribute for Porter at Dollywood on April 12.