Originally published in the April 4, 2016 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
Dolly Parton is the only celebrity who can make a cold conference room seem like your den. On this springlike day in Nashville in early March, the diminutive Dolly, dressed in green top and black pants, saunters into a room at her management office and warmly extends a hand and a brimming smile. Immediately, there’s a feeling of familiarity.
And like a family member who’s been away for a bit, Dolly has some catching up to do. The previous day at a press conference in Nashville, attended by much of the known media world, Dolly hinted at several projects in the works. Among the highlights: a new album and tour, a riveting attraction at her Dollywood theme park and the prospect of additional made-for-TV movies, on the heels of her recent NBC ratings smash, Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors.
So today, she’s here to expand, and certainly expound, on those various projects. In her inimitable, always colorful manner, Dolly offers her thoughts on her ever-busy plate of activity, why she prefers to write solo and 50 years of marriage to husband Carl Dean, the eternal man of mystery.
“I listened to myself at the press conference and thought, ‘I’ve got all this coming up?’ How am I gonna get it all done?” she begins, with a mock look of concern. “No, seriously, this is what I love. It’s not that I really have to work, but I want to work. I love the excitement of wearing rhinestones and hearing that crowd and seeing their faces. It’s like getting a transfusion or something.”
That’s why Dolly, who turned 70 this past January, is embarking on a full-scale tour this year. She’ll be hitting more than 60 cities on her first major trek through the U.S. and Canada in 25 years. “It’s been about 25 years since I’ve actually toured in Canada,” Dolly confirms. “I just thought the time was right to do this. I’ve always loved traveling and touring. I’ve done a few things here and there over the years and I played some shows at the Ryman in Nashville last year. But this will be an extensive tour.”
The tour, kicking off in June and running through December, is billed as Dolly Pure & Simple, playing off her upcoming album Pure & Simple With Dolly’s Biggest Hits, set for release this summer. The two-record collection features 12 new songs on one disc, the Pure & Simple designation, along with a number of her best-loved classics, comprising the Biggest Hits portion.
At first, Dolly relates, the project started as strictly a “best of” compilation. But the more she contemplated that concept, the less enthused she became. “I just figured, you know, we’ve done that,” Dolly says. “I mean, good Lord, everybody has heard those songs a million times. We need to do something else in addition to that. So, I just said to my manager, ‘Let me see if I can put together a real simple album of new songs.’ Not thrown together, because I don’t believe in that. But let me see what I can come up with.”
It’s that sort of determination and desire that keeps Dolly not only busy but also vital and relevant. She’s not one to settle for mediocrity or even a sure money grab. If Dolly’s putting her name on it, the project, whether it’s new music or an upgrade to her Dollywood theme park in East Tennessee, will be undertaken with an eye toward excellence and a fan-friendly outlook.
Dolly approached the Pure & Simple album the only way she knew how. She got right to it,
writer’s block be damned. “I wrote a song called ‘Pure and Simple,’ which I thought would make a beautiful love song,” Dolly recalls with a warm smile. “It has this sweet, Don Williams-type sound. I wrote that in one night. Then, I started writing all these other songs, and they just started coming so fast. I was sitting up in the wee hours of the morning writing all these songs.”
At that, Dolly reveals a key fact about the Pure & Simple disc. “All the songs on it are love songs,” Dolly says. “I have never done an album of all love songs. Usually, I do some weird, off-the-wall thing or a story song for an album. But that’s not how this one turned out. I put one song on here called ‘Mama,’ which is about a mother’s love. But all the rest are relationship-type songs. I think this is going to make a great album.”
Dolly went about the writing process in her typically unconventional, at least by Music Row standards, manner. That is, she wrote solo, as she has for the majority of her compositions throughout the years. It’s a strict breakaway from the Nashville tradition, where artists collaborate with full-time songwriters.
“I prefer writing by myself,” Dolly concedes, rather earnestly. “But I’m also such a talent-loving person that I would love to get together with some girls like Miranda Lambert just to sit and think and write. I would like to write with other people, if I had the time,” Dolly adds, laughing.
Besides Miranda, Dolly offers up another dream co-writer with whom she’d love to collaborate, if the schedule would ever allow. “I love Adele and she is a fan of mine, also,” Dolly says. “She was in Nashville a few years ago and we talked about trying to get together and we never could.” The thought of such a prospect leaves her positively starry-eyed. “Wouldn’t it be great to write with someone like that?” she says in an upbeat tone. “I’m sure we would complement each other and it would add a new element to my writing. But,” she adds, almost wearily, “I just have too much stuff going on.”
As for the writing process itself, Dolly is decidedly old school. You’re more likely to see pen and paper, and not a computer, by her side when she’s crafting a new tune. “Oh, gosh, I still write in longhand,” Dolly laughs. “And I still sing my songs into a little cassette player that I have to have.” It’s a somewhat surprising admission, given Dolly’s business savvy and her enterprising, fearless take on life. Does technology actually intimidate her?
Not the case. “I just can’t write using a computer,” she explains matter-of-factly. “To try and do it differently would change my whole deal. I am not that high-tech, I promise you. I have to write out a song. I need to feel it and I have to sense it. I have these big old yellow legal pads and my Sharpies.” There’s a reason behind those particular writing instruments. “The words show up big enough so I don’t have to wear my glasses every time I write,” Dolly says, letting go a whopping good laugh.
On the personal side of life, Dolly is celebrating a marital milestone this May, her 50th wedding anniversary to husband Carl Dean, a much-discussed yet seldom seen figure. He is hardly the most visible of celebrity spouses, choosing to stay out of the limelight and away from the cameras (few photos of him exist). In a world of self-absorbed media hounds, it’s an admirable and welcome stance.
Dolly and Carl might seem the proverbial night-and-day couple, but the marriage works. And no one can relate the keys to their marital success quite like Dolly. “You know, 50 years is a long time, especially in this business. We’ve worked out really well,” Dolly says, smiling. “My husband is such a loner and I’m just all over the place and I love to be with people. When I’m not around, he finds things to do. So, we’re very different.”
But there is an unspoken understanding between the two, along with a mutual respect for each other’s individual, well, quirks. “He knows I love this business so he’s never resented that or tried to make me not do it anymore,” Dolly says, leaning back in her chair. “So, he’s been the perfect partner for me. And I think I’m also the perfect person for him, too, because he’s such a weirdo.” That elicits another rollicking laugh from Dolly. “No other woman would have put up with him, but no other man would put up with me,” she cracks. “I guess God saw fit to put us together.”
On a serious note, Dolly and Carl plan to renew their vows at a special ceremony in East Tennessee this year. “We thought it would be really cool to get married again,” Dolly says. “It will be very sweet. You know, we’ve actually been together 52 years, because we met two years before we got married. I wouldn’t take nothing for him.”
In this busy year, Dolly also hopes for one more project to take shape—a new made-for-TV movie. Dolly has inked a deal with NBC for a number of movies based on her hit songs, and the first one out of the gate, Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors, drew gangbuster ratings across the board. So, the track record is already in place.
Coat of Many Colors, set in the mountains of East Tennessee, was inspired by Dolly’s upbringing in a tightknit family. An undercurrent of faith ran through the story line, though without being overtly religious or skewed to one particular denomination. Supposedly, that’s a kiss of death for a production, but Coat of Many Colors defied the skeptics.
Dolly prefers the word “elated” to “surprised” as she reflects on the movie’s success. She concedes that a few major questions lingered in her mind about the timeliness of the film. “I wondered, was it too old-timey?” Dolly confesses. “Will people even care about what life was like back then? Because everything [on TV] now is so up-to-date and modern. I knew a lot of older people would watch it. But then, I thought, how many of them are even gonna remember to watch it?” she adds, laughing. “It was really exciting that it did so well. And I was just so thrilled that it got a young audience.”
Next in line is a movie based on her classic tune “Jolene.” She hopes for that to see the light of day toward the end of the year. “We’re working on that now,” Dolly says. “We’re also going to do a movie on [her single] ‘The Seeker.’ We haven’t decided on the one after that, though.”
By all accounts, Dolly’s going to be in the picture for years to come. Retirement, she insists, is not an option. “People say, well, you don’t have to do this anymore, and I say, ‘Yes, I do,’” Dolly smiles. “That’s why I’m doing a tour after all these years. I don’t ever want to stop.”
At that, Dolly extends a hand again before saying her goodbyes. It’s on to the next appointment for the woman who, indeed, never wants to slow down. NCW
Sidebar: Meet the Press
“We’re working on a movie based on ‘Jolene’ now. People say to me, ‘Well, Jolene’s not going to be trashy, is she?’ Well, yes she is. Maybe she can become a Christian later.”
“This is our 31st year at Dollywood . . . We have a new roller coaster this year called the Lightning Rod. It’s a wooden roller coaster. They say it’s the fastest wooden roller coaster—it goes about 73 miles an hour.”
“The tour is called Dolly Pure and Simple. I don’t know how pure I am, but I know I’m pretty simple.”
“In the bigger places we play, we’ll have to have some video cameras for you to be able to see me, because I’m so little.”
“The new record is a double CD, Pure & Simple With Dolly’s Biggest Hits. And I said hits.”