Dolly Parton on family, fashion and rock stardom: ‘I have to be who I am, so I fought for that and I still do’

 (Courtesy of Butterfly Records. Photos by Vijat Mohindra.)
(Courtesy of Butterfly Records. Photos by Vijat Mohindra.)

I’m not entirely sure what my expectations were for a career in music journalism, but they certainly didn’t include a living legend singing my name to the tune of one of her most famous songs. I doubt my parents had that in mind when they decided to honour my Irish heritage, either. But here I am, on the phone to Dolly Parton, explaining how my name rhymes with that of the red-haired seductress from her 1973 classic “Jolene”.

“Ro-sheen, Ro-sheen, Ro-sheen, Ro-sheeeeen,” Parton sings in that signature heart-aching Southern trill. By the time I’ve returned to Earth, I can tell she’s at ease and in high spirits. “I’m actually comfy today,” she says, when I ask her what she’s wearing. “I’ve got some soft black pants on and a soft shirt, because I’m not going out.” Of course, she’s still wearing a full face of make-up – just in case someone shows up at her door. In her new book, Behind the Seams: My Life in Rhinestones, she writes about how she started going to bed with her make-up on while she was living in LA, just in case an earthquake sent her onto the streets in the middle of the night. “My eye doctor put a stop to me wearing [mascara] though,” she admits. “He said, ‘You can’t wear your eye make-up at night!’”

Still, the make-up story is now firmly ensconced in the Parton legend, along with rumours that her arms – which she never shows – are covered in tattoos, and that she once entered a Dolly Parton lookalike contest... and lost. Six decades into her career, the patron saint of heartbreak and resilience remains an enigma (The New York Times called it the Parton Paradox). She’s warm and voluble; ask her an awkward question and she’ll diffuse or deflect with effortless charm. Perhaps her hair is so big because it’s full of secrets. She’s certainly a master at keeping them.

When I tell her I sound dreadful due to a sore throat, she sympathises, then laughs when I say that means she has to do most of the talking.

“Well, what do you wanna know?”

Well, easy ones first. Her new album, Rockstar, features Elton John, Paul McCartney and Ringo, Stevie Nicks, Sting, Mick Fleetwood, Debbie Harry, Lizzo and Miley Cyrus. I want to know if anyone actually dared to say no when she reached out to that gob-smacking list of collaborators. She chuckles. “Well, I didn’t put anyone on the spot! I wrote each of them a nice letter, addressed to their management; that way, if they didn’t wanna do it...” They all did, of course.

What about that title? If her list of collaborators sounds like a Who’s Who of rock royalty, then her choice of songs – “Stairway to Heaven”, “We Will Rock You”, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” – definitely suggests that this country girl has fully converted to rock at the age of 77. There’s a story behind that, too.

When Parton was nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2022, she announced her intention to “respectfully bow out”. The reason? The Queen of Country didn’t believe she’d earnt it. The Rock Hall board reasoned with her: look how many artists she’d inspired. So Parton relented, and it’s almost a year to the day since she took to the Rock Hall stage, where she was inducted alongside Eminem, Lionel Richie and Carly Simon. Along with a performance of “Jolene” – with the right words – she debuted a song written especially for the ceremony, “Rockin’”, that demonstrated just how worthy she was of the honour. “I’ve still got rock’n’roll down in my country soul,” she hollered in her black leather catsuit, “And I’ll be rockin’ it ’til the cows come home!”

Next week, Parton will unveil Rockstar’s collection of 30 covers and original songs. With help from Pink and Brandi Carlile, she raises merry hell on a cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones. She embraces her inner hippie chick on “Let It Be”, backed by her own supergroup of Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Mick Fleetwood and Peter Frampton. “Let’s go, girl,” she tells Joan Jett on the snarling “I Hate Myself for Loving You”. She does an outrageously good Steven Tyler impression, to his face, for The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”. It’s a great rock record.

I want to be remembered as somebody who took her work serious, but not herself

Dolly Parton

“I wanted it to be good, because I wanted rock artists to hear it and say, ‘Well, you know, that ain’t bad!’” Parton tells me. She actually considered doing a rock album years ago, “but then I started getting older and I thought, bah, maybe I need to move on, ’cos nobody’s gonna take me serious.” But then the Rock Hall came calling, and she figured now was as good a time as any. “I thought it turned out really well,” she says. “I’m proud of it!”

She’s speaking over the phone from her Nashville office, which she bought with the early royalties from Whitney Houston’s 1992 cover of her song “I Will Always Love You”. Back then, that area of Nashville was a mostly Black community; Parton wanted to feel close to them, in Houston’s honour. “This is the house that Whitney built,” she told US talk-show host Andy Cohen in 2021. In the years since she moved in, the neighbourhood around her has changed, but Parton sure hasn’t. The blonde hair is still piled sky-high; the talons (used to tap out the rhythm to “9 to 5”) are long, the lashes thick with mascara. She’s been keeping the rhinestone industry in business since 1959.

In fact, her naturally rebellious nature could easily have sent her on a rock’n’roll trajectory, had she felt so inclined, but instead she made her debut at the Grand Ole Opry aged 13, introduced by Johnny Cash. As a teenager, she modelled her look on the “town tramp”, who wore bright red nail polish, lipstick, low-cut tops and high heels. Her father loathed the way she dressed, and her grandfather, a preacher, even beat her for it. But Parton refused to back down. “I’d rather go against my daddy than myself,” she says, a shrug in her voice. “I have to be who I am, so I fought for that and I still do.”

She traces a timeline of her colourful fashion history in Behind the Seams, from her “coat of many colours” to her extraordinary stage outfits – mirror-ball catsuits, embroidered pink silk, shimmering thigh-high boots and glitter-coated shoulder pads. “There were moments when I was going through the pictures and I had a good belly laugh at some of them, like ‘Oh my gawd, what was I thinking?’,” she says with a honk of laughter. “But that’s what I was doing at the time, wearing whatever felt good to me – that’s what I’ve always done. I feel so much better when I shine and sparkle on stage.”

Dolly Parton sparkling on stage in 1976 (Armando Pietrangeli/Shutterstock)
Dolly Parton sparkling on stage in 1976 (Armando Pietrangeli/Shutterstock)

Nothing can outshine the brilliance of Parton’s songwriting, though: it’s candid and true, capable of breaking hearts and mending them all at once. She’s as prolific as ever, with drawers and chests stuffed full of ideas, some written down in lip-liner on paper napkins. Many of the artists on Rockstar were the original composers of each song, often favourites of Parton’s reclusive husband of 56 years, Carl Dean. She wishes she’d written “every single one” of them – “You always do, as a writer.” Instead, she wrote her own songs in keeping with that style, including “World on Fire”, arguably her most explicitly political song to date.

“I wasn’t trying to be political,” she says immediately, even as I read lyrics back to her like: “Don’t get me started on politics/ Now how are we to live in a world like this/ Greedy politicians, present and past/ They wouldn’t know the truth if it bit ’em in the ass.”

“I was just seeing the world go down the tube, and nobody was even trying to do better,” she sighs. “And the only way I know how to fight back is in my songs. So I was just trying to throw a bright light on a very dark subject.” She suddenly sounds just the tiniest bit nervous. “I could just as easily have said ‘world leaders’ instead of ‘politicians’,” she suggests. “Maybe I should have chosen better words. But there’s so much stuff going on, we don’t even know what to believe. It’s kind of hard to know what to make of it all.”

Parton might not have endorsed a Republican or a Democratic candidate, but her fans know what she stands for. She came from a “dirt poor” family in Tennessee to become one of the wealthiest women in entertainment, with an empire valued at more than half a billion dollars. She smashed the “dumb blonde” label to smithereens by proving she was nobody’s fool, in the opening track of her 1966 debut. Long before Taylor Swift started re-recording her masters, Parton was fighting to maintain ownership of her music. She was an early champion of LGBT+ rights, has donated millions to Aids research and children’s literacy funds, has expressed her support for Black Lives Matter, and has even funded research to create a Covid-19 vaccine.

Self-described ‘caring, giving, working girl’ Dolly Parton in 2019 (Getty Images for The Recording Academy)
Self-described ‘caring, giving, working girl’ Dolly Parton in 2019 (Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

“I want to be remembered as somebody who took her work serious, but not herself,” she answers, when I mention this formidable legacy. “Someone who brought books to children all over the world. For the fact that I managed to make a living doing something I love to do. And as a caring, giving, working girl.”

She’s not sorry she released “World on Fire”. “I think they’re all full of it, for the most part,” she declares of those world leaders. “They’re not really concerned about us – they’re concerned about position. And I wasn’t getting into that world of politics any more than to say, ‘Hey people, wake up!’ This is the only world we got. We’ve gotta take care of it.”

One thing you can believe is Parton’s sincerity when she wishes everybody could get along. “I worry about human beings,” she says. “I have a lot of fans on both sides – Republican, Democrat and straight down the middle. They can’t have Christmas dinner together because they’re having a fight at the table!”

I feel so much better when I shine and sparkle on stage

Dolly Parton

What advice would she give to anyone dreading Christmas dinner this year? “Don’t do it!” she says instantly. “Or, only invite people who are compatible, you know? The easy-going ones, who don’t want to talk about all that politicking.” She’s speaking from experience: Parton, who was raised by her tobacco-farming parents along with 11 siblings, was called out by her younger sister Stella in 2019 for not speaking out more about the #MeToo movement. You can imagine it might have made for a frosty atmosphere at family gatherings.

Last Thanksgiving was a “disaster”, Parton says, so she won’t be hosting a dinner again, or one at Christmas, for that matter. “We’ll just go visit [relatives], and then it doesn’t have to get into a fist fight,” she says. “We’ll have a Holly Jolly Dolly Christmas, instead.” That’s Parton right down to a T, doing things her own way.

It runs in the extended family. One of her favourite memories of working on Rockstar involves her goddaughter, pop star Miley Cyrus, who joins Parton for a cover of “Wrecking Ball”, her hit 2013 single. “She told me, you’ve got to dress like a rock star, get some good rock clothes – some leather!” Parton says. “We put together this whole rock star wardrobe, it was such a kick. Yeah, that was a lot of fun.”

Parton has been there for Cyrus through the toughest moments of her career, including the controversies of her early twenties as she tried to shed her squeaky-clean Disney child star image. “I think Miley’s always been pretty much in control of her own self,” says Parton. “She’s always done what she had to do – overcoming the Hannah Montana, ‘good girl’ thing... She might have overdone it a bit here and there, but I will always defend Miley.” She recalls the moment when Cyrus’s father, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, asked her to be Miley’s godmother: “I said ‘I’ll probably have to be her fairy godmother ’cos I can’t be there all the time!’ But it’s worked out so great, we stay close, and really I couldn’t be closer to her if she was my own child.”

‘She’s always done what she had to do’: Dolly Parton with goddaughter Miley Cyrus (Getty Images for The Recording Academy)
‘She’s always done what she had to do’: Dolly Parton with goddaughter Miley Cyrus (Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

She sees the comparison between the media frenzy over Cyrus’s teenage antics and the scrutiny of fellow pop star Britney Spears, who just released a memoir about breaking free of her conservatorship. “I think it’s great they both have their own say-so in their lives,” she says. “All these situations, everybody’s saying they’re doing the right thing, but only the [individual] knows what’s best for them. That personal freedom means a lot: it’s being who you are. I admire both of them for reaching for that.”

‘Rockstar’ is out on 17 November. ‘Behind the Seams: My Life in Rhinestones’ is out now