Dolly Parton: The Salvation South Interview
Legendary music writer Holly Gleason talks to the South's most beloved star about love, forgiveness and how to live life with an open mind and an open heart.
“I don’t think it should matter what color your skin is, what your religion is, whether you’re a woman, or a man, or transgender. If you’ve got something to offer, you should be loved. You should just be accepted for who you are and what you’re doing.”
— Dolly Parton
For most, a statement like that would be a proclamation. But for Dolly Parton, easily one of the most recognizable women in the world, it’s merely an explanation. She’s talking about “Be That,” a two-minute-and-12-second song from her 2022 “Dolly Parton’s Mountain Magic Christmas” NBC special.
It’s a small moment — in a larger discussion about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame kerfuffle, feminism, collaboration, the creative process, business projects and charitable endeavors — that speaks volumes about the songwriter and superstar. Born in a cabin in East Tennessee, one of 12 children to Avie Lee Owens and Robert Lee Parton, most everything she does seems to be infused with this wide-reaching love and acceptance.
Certainly, “Be That” isn’t the “big finish” on a fairly meta show (featuring no less than Jimmy Fallon and Dolly’s goddaughter, Miley Cyrus) about making a Christmas special. But the sweetness and sentiment expressed is stealthy.
Walking a young boy down a bustling backstage hallway, Parton sings about acceptance and embracing who you truly are “because anything else is just an act.” As stage managers hustle, bit players find their places, and dancers work through a routine, Parton strolls hand-in-hand with the child; she moves through the tangle of obviously theatrical types as she sings about being true to oneself, not letting people judge you and knowing that God knew exactly what He was doing when He created so many different kinds of people.
It's not a sermon. It’s not even a “big number.” Yet, Parton delivers a tour de force expression not only of tolerance but also kindness in a world determined to punch down on folks who are different. The Christian right might hate LGBTQs, but they love Dolly Parton. Welcome to the beautiful conundrum of Parton’s magic: the granddaughter of Pentecostal preacher, who believes that it is through faith and prayer that she’s created so much success — and sown so much love among others.
“I am not the kind of person to avoid the truth of how I’m feeling about a thing. I just try to write it in my songs and live it every day.”
Somewhere between Glinda the Good Witch and Mae West, Dolly Parton emerged as a siren for the rarest of all things: grace and kindheartedness. She may be the bombshell who’s launched a million punchlines with her startling hourglass figure; created an image based on the “town tramp” and made jokes about her attributes, looks and other things that need skewering, but anyone who thinks that’s what Parton’s about clearly missed the joke.
“I’m not one of those people...,” she demurs, thinking about how she wants to say it. “I don’t have to march in the streets or carry signs or anything to state my truth.... I just do what I do, the way that I do it. I have my personality. Whatever comes along in my life, I deal with it, according to me, what I think, what I feel.
“I do that in my songs or I do that about a situation, like the whole Rock & Roll (Hall of Fame) thing. I, of all people, would never want to stir up any kind of controversy. I am not that person. But also, I am not the kind of person to avoid the truth of how I’m feeling about a thing. I just try to write it in my songs and live it every day.”
Those songs. Humble to a fault, she writes with a clarity and sense of place that sets her on par with John Steinbeck, Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor or even William Faulkner.
Over a half century of writing songs, her tunes serve as slices of who she — and we in our own very specific worlds — are. Startling in her emotional clarity, she can rip your heart out with “Coat of Many Colors,” “Me and Little Andy” or “To Daddy,” be vulnerable and pleading with “Jolene,” “Daddy Come and Get Me” or “It’s All Wrong (But It’s All Right),” or bawdy and forward in her controversial, all-star 1993 single “Romeo,” which saw Parton, Tanya Tucker, Kathy Mattea and Mary Chapin Carpenter swooning over then-Harry Styles-level heartthrob Billy Ray Cyrus.
And then there’s the wide-open pledge “I Will Always Love You,” which Parton took to No. 1 in 1973 and 1982, before Whitney Houston made it one of the biggest songs in the galaxy with her slow-burn, power-soul rendition from the 1992 Houston/Kevin Costner motion picture, “The Bodyguard.” What started as a gentle goodbye to Porter Wagoner — a mentor and business partner who would later sue her for a million 1970s dollars — became a bravura moment that transcended break-ups, passions or even death.
Parton’s ability to channel the core emotions of pivotal moments has always set her apart in a town of brilliant talents. Arriving the same time as Bobby Braddock, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, Parton’s writing is every bit as acute, true and witty as Braddock’s and Nelson’s, but just as informed and hope-imbuing as Kristofferson’s.
It’s ironic that, as often as we invoke her as the best of country music, people rarely make the distinction that her writing is as potent and enduring as those three men’s. Maybe it’s because she’s exceptional in the realm of “celebrity,” or maybe it’s because people often lose sight of a woman’s talents.
“I love women who know who they are, stand their ground and live up to who they are in their own mind, as well as just trying to stand up for what they believe in."
“I love women who know who they are, stand their ground and live up to who they are in their own mind, as well as just trying to stand up for what they believe in — and trying to be there for the people who are moved and inspired by them,” she offers, holding her own space.
If she’s not someone to declare herself a feminist, she lives it — and understands it’s a responsibility far more than a slogan.
“I’m not trying to do anything other than live by example,” she says. “I’m a strong-minded woman; I work hard. I demand that I get credit for what I do, and certainly I make myself known if I’m working on a thing.
“I was very close to my uncles, my dad and grandpas, so I’m used to that good ol’ boy stuff. I grew up in the country, so I just know the nature of men, and I love men. I know there are some bad ones out there, but there are some good ones, too! I always take that into consideration.”
As a woman who tries to see beyond the obvious and look at the heart, it stands to reason it’s about the actions and the values as much as anything. Indeed, she’s the first person to cite men as allies.
“There’s a whole lot of men who are equally as for women as the ones who are not,” she says. “So, I don’t think we should bash men any more than we want them bashing on us because we’re women. We need to balance that all out and recognize the ones who are being supportive and appreciate them for appreciating us as well.”
Parton, who famously uttered the line about using her gun to turn boss Dabney Coleman from a rooster to a hen in her cinematic debut “9 To 5” with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, is committed to everyone being treated as an equal.
She doesn’t believe in double standards, or marginalizing anyone. Laughing, she concedes, “There’s a lot of things men do that I don’t appreciate, but I try not to think it’s because they’re men. The same thing with women, too; there are a whole lot of women I don’t particularly care for how they do things. I may not respect how they go about things, but that’s their right. Whatever you are, do that! You’re just a phony if you aren’t doing what you think is right.
“Just open your heart, open your mind, and just let life flow!”
Back when Parton was fresh off the bus from Sevier County, Tennessee, she brought that same sense of equanimity with her. If she’d been cast as a pop singer, partially for her porcelain skin and raw beauty, her heart was in country music. Determined, she wrote songs for Skeeter Davis, Brenda Lee, a very young Hank Williams Jr. And finally, an uncredited back-up vocal on Bill Phillips’ version of her “Put It Off Until Tomorrow” convinced the powers that be to let the Smoky Mountain girl sing country music.
After releasing 1967’s “Hello, I’m Dolly” with her own wry “Something Fishy” and the Curly Putnam custom-crafted “Dumb Blonde,” Parton released “Just Because I’m a Woman.” With the sexual revolution in full rut, Parton delivered a song that was both clear-eyed and vulnerable about how we judge others, especially their conjugal pasts.
"As a writer, I get really involved with what people go through, how they feel — whether they’re gay, whether they’re lesbian, whether they’re Black, whether they’re white or gray. I know that everybody is who they are and should be allowed to be that."
Having spent years on the charts a world away in South Africa, including an extended stay at No. 1, it’s a song whose truth endures a half century later.
“My first song that was really about women,” she explains, “is saying, ‘My mistakes are no worse than yours just because I’m a woman,’ you know?
“When you look at me, don’t feel sorry for yourself — all that shit you might have thrown at someone else.... I’ve made my mistakes, but listen and understand, because my mistakes are no worse than yours just because I’m a woman.”
Long the patron saint of drag queens who love getting their Dolly on, Parton isn’t merely trying to create detente and understanding in the war between the sexes. She believes in any marginalized group — and isn’t afraid to embrace her followers, whether it’s the children receiving their books each month from her Dollywood Foundation’s Imagination Library, church ladies who wish they could wear the bright makeup and figure-hugging clothes, truck drivers letting their minds wander, hipsters who think her down-home is cool or anyone else who needs someone to believe in them.
It’s that will to see the best in others that tempers her truth, making her songs connect with genuine empathy and compassion.
“I feel for everybody about everything. I am everybody, all the time. And as a writer, you know, I get really involved with what people go through, how they feel — whether they’re gay, whether they’re lesbian, whether they’re Black, whether they’re white or gray. I know that everybody is who they are and should be allowed to be that.
“I just feel for everybody, about everything, and I’m able to express that because my heart is so open to people.
“That’s why I never could harden my heart against hurt, or anything. Because as a writer, if you harden your heart, you’re not going to feel all the emotions you need to feel and you won’t be able to write what people feel. So, I’ve always said I’ve strengthened the muscles around my heart, but I’ve never hardened it....
"I’ve always been prone to go to the unusual. I love different people. I love the spice of life, the variety. I’m just drawn to unusual people and to help people who feel down. I’m prone to stand up for somebody who can’t stand up for themselves.”
“I’ve always tried to teach, to show, to have people think. We’re supposed to love each other. We don’t have to understand all that we know, if we look. Why can’t we just love each other? I’m not a silly person; I know how that goes. But still people don’t even try.
“So, I wanted my songs to touch people in a way maybe they haven’t thought of before! All my life I’ve loved the underdog. I’ve always been prone to go to the unusual. I love different people. I love the spice of life, the variety. I’m just drawn to unusual people and to help people who feel down. I’m prone to stand up for somebody who can’t stand up for themselves.”
Her savvy about people — and business — has allowed her to transcend genre or labels, eschewing no part of who she is, even as she expanded into motion pictures, pop music, variety shows, books, charitable endeavors, helping fund Moderna’s first Covid-19 vaccine, product alliances and the amusement park now known as Dollywood.
Last fall's launch of Doggy Parton, her line of dog toys, apparel and accessories, was a breaking news situation. Her Linda Perry-produced soundtrack for Jennifer Aniston’s Netflix film “Dumplin’,” drawn from a book about a heavyset girl who finds inspiration in Parton’s music, was a multi-genre proposition; collaborators ranged from Americana/gospel legend Mavis Staples to urban songstress Macy Gray, bluegrass thrushes Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent and mainstream country star Miranda Lambert. Her inclusion in — and initial demurring from — the 2022 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony was met with cheers, then furor.
In the end, Parton — already a member of the Songwriters, Country Music, Bluegrass, Gospel and Grammy Halls of Fame, as well as a Kennedy Center Honors and National Medal of the Arts recipient — didn’t just accept the Rock Hall’s offer, she wowed the crowd in a skin-tight black latex catsuit with chains dangling from the waist, cut-outs in just the right places and a low-slung electric guitar she gave a few powerful downstrokes.
“I always felt the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was for rock & roll people, who spent their lives, time, energy and talent in the rock & roll field,” she explains. “When I said I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to take votes from someone who’d spent their life in that. Just like I would have no trouble at all accepting any kind of award from the country, bluegrass or gospel fields, this was a new one on me! I didn’t think I deserved it, and I’m still not certain I do. But I’m going to accept it gracefully, and be proud.”
It was the same quiet dignity she espoused when word began slipping out she’d helped to fund the creation of COVID vaccinations.
“I just knew when the pandemic started, I felt in my heart it was going to be a bad thing,” she says. “I try to always put my money where my heart and where my head is. I felt I should donate some money to the cause, from myself or my family.
“I don’t believe anybody has the right to judge another person — and they don’t have the right to even judge me when I do things that come from the heart.
"I always ask God to just let me lead people to Him. If somebody sees something in me that they love, then let them see it’s God-light and just direct them on to something better."
“I never tried to shove it down anyone’s throat — just the vaccine was there, and if my little dab of money helped get it out to more people who did want it, then fine. I never judged anyone who didn’t get it, or thought anybody should be not getting it or getting it. I’m not political on those things. I just felt the need to help....”
Helping. Creating. Being. Shining. Voraciously curious about the world, the woman who closed the 1989 CMA Awards broadcast with a choir of several hundred singing “He’s Alive,” who seceded from pop-country with a series of well-regarded bluegrass and Appalachian music albums, and whose Kenny Rogers duets are legendary is above all a force for good. Not afraid of a raunchy punchline or a husband (Carl Dean) who’s rarely seen in public, the Backwoods Barbie is at a place where she’s at peace with the woman she is. Her dream now is to take all those gifts and make the world a better place.
“I think that people are just blind without knowing it sometimes,” Dolly says. “Sometimes if you can open their eyes and throw a little light on the darkness they didn’t even realize they were in, it helps. Hopefully, through music, we can do a lot of that.
“You know, I’m just a regular person, just doing my thing. I want to do good. I want to touch people. I’m not preaching a gospel. I’m not trying to do anything but live my life like I see fit, and if that’s touched people, and is an inspiration, then that makes me feel good.
“I think sometimes in this world, we just worship people, and worship things. I always ask God to just let me lead people to Him. If somebody sees something in me that they love, then let them see it’s God-light and just direct them on to something better! Don’t lift me up because I’m the biggest sinner as anybody, and I’m not perfect. I’m just trying to be as honest and open as I can be.”
Holly Gleason is a Nashville-based writer. Recipient of the Los Angeles Press Club's Southern California 2023 Entertainment Journalist of the Year, Music Criticism and Best Entertainment Feature, News (Magazine) Awards, she was the editor and a contributor to Woman Walk the Line: How the Women of Country Music Changed Our Lives, which won the Belmont Books Award for best country/roots music book, and co-authored Miranda Lambert's New York Times best-seller Y'all Eat Yet? She's written for Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Oxford American, No Depression, Paste, Texas Music, Spin, Musician, CREEM, Interview, Playboy, the Palm Beach Daily News, the Vineyard Gazette, Harpers Bazaar, Rock & Soul, and Mix.