It’s been said a million times: good things come in small packages. The maxim may as well have been coined for country-western music legend Dolly Parton.
Though barely tall enough to ride amusement park roller coasters (even today, as a grown woman at her own Knoxville fun zone, Dollywood!) and raised six decades ago with 11 siblings in a one-room cabin in a small town of less than 1,000, Parton is nevertheless a pop culture Gulliver, an icon a thousand times larger and exponentially more significant than her humble roots and diminutive stature would ever suggest.
It’s hard to resist casting the Dolly Parton Story as a modern-day fairy tale, which is more or less what the Backwoods Barbie and NBC have done with Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors, airing on the Peacock Network December 10. Based on the inspiring true story of Parton’s remarkable upbringing, Coat will warm winter audiences with its inspiring tale of overcoming devastating tragedy, discovering the healing power of faith and love, and Parton’s triumphant spirit as a 9-year-old girl in the Great Smokey Mountains. Parton executive produces the project, as well as next year’s NBC movie, Jolene, based on another one of the Queen of Country’s iconic hit songs.
Parton – who claims an oversized satchel of nicknames, including Smokey Mountain Songbird, Iron Butterfly, and Queen of Nashville – may have been born small and dirt poor, but by today’s numbers she’s as big as they come: 25 number-one singles, 41 top-10 country albums, 10 Grammy Awards, 10 Country Music Association trophies, said theme park (celebrating its 30th anniversary this holiday season), and a massively successful multimedia corporation (Dolly Parton Enterprises) worth nine-figures. In making it big, Parton didn’t stop at leaving her mark in music; we also know and love her for her vast, international collection of platinum wigs, her stellar, awards-nominated performances in films like 9 to 5 and Steel Magnolias, not to mention that almost cartoonishly glorious hourglass figure – “all bought and paid for,” Parton is quick to crack.
When it comes right down to it, regardless of size, spark, or origins, Parton knows exactly what she’s doing, and executes it all with a good spirit, a grateful heart, and an “I think I can” perseverance and dream-weaving. “There’s a heart beneath the boobs and a brain beneath the wigs,” Parton, 69, once famously said — which is why she was singing on regional television at the age of 12, recording bubble gum singles in Nashville at 13, becoming a minor sensation and honing her chops with country music Svengali Porter Wagoner on national TV as a young woman, before becoming a superstar in her own right in the 1970s and 1980s. Grammys, box office hits, television smashes, and cultural lioness status were all showered upon the country chanteuse following ubiquitous earworms like “Here You Come Again,” “You’re the Only One,” “Islands in the Stream” (with longtime pal Kenny Rogers), and the still ubiquitous “I Will Always Love You,” one of the bestselling singles of all time.
That Parton’s life has been blessed is inarguable, and she knows it with a smile, which is why today, still recording music as actively as ever and married to Carl Dean, a man she met in a Nashville Laundromat 44 years ago, Parton also devotes a tremendous amount of time to giving back – often times to children, which she refers to as those other “good things in small packages.” (Her Imagination Library promotes literacy and reading in children under 5, worldwide). Eventually, Parton’s life and work seem to say, with a little love, we can all make it big.
And if you ever get to doubting, crank up Parton’s 2007 anthem, “Better Get to Livin’,” which boasts the following words of encouragement: Don’t sweat the small stuff/Keep your chin up/ Just hang tough/ And if it gets too rough/ Fall on your knees and pray.
You come from a big, musical family. Tell me about that.
I was totally blessed with a musical family. All of my mother’s family is very musical, and some of my father’s. My grandfather was a singer, in addition to being a fine preacher and a music teacher of sorts. Some of my earliest and greatest influences were in my own family, and that was a great blessing.
I understand you have more than 100 family members on your company payroll. Is that true?
Let’s put it this way: if I have a job and someone in my family is equally qualified to do it, I’ll hire my family. If someone in my family needs something and I can help, I’m happy to do it for them. I’ve always said, if I have a dime, they have a nickel.
You come from really modest, humble roots. Is that good preparation for entertaining the worlds of popular music and superstardom?
I think being brought up dirt poor left with me with a feeling of what it was like to go without, so I can relate when people are having a hard time. In my case, being a songwriter, I’m able to write not only for and about myself, but for what I know other people are feeling, even if they don’t always have the means to get their voices heard. Being brought up poor, I recognize and appreciate the value of a dollar. I never spend without thinking about it. I appreciate all the things I have because I have been without.
“Better Get To Livin’” is the name of one of your recent hits. Tell me about that song and what optimism means to you.
It’s very important that people do have a good attitude. One can be happy just the same as they can be miserable. Sometimes people like to wallow around in their sorrows and their sad tales, but I really believe that’s detrimental to the lives we should be living. It’s natural to have hurts and disappointments, but you have to deal with it – pray out of it, dream out of it, and get to living. We’re meant to be happy, and you have to work at that. I was born with a happy heart. I wake up every day expecting things to be right, and if they’re not I get to making them right.
Tell me about that first hit record 40 years ago. What was that like?
Starting out, you never really know what you’re going to mean to people or what kind of influence you’re going to have, you can only hope to do good. As a young person, I wanted to travel, I wanted to sing, I wanted people to love me, and I wanted to be a part of everything going on that I thought was great. One of my very first songs, “Puppy Love,” I recorded it when I was 12 or 13, got played on a local radio show. I was at home, sitting up on the sink, cleaning out some cabinets. The radio was playing, and my song came on. I jumped off the counter and slipped all over the floor, because somebody’s been mopping it, and I turned up that radio. I’ll never, ever forget hearing my voice coming out of that little box that I had heard so many great voices come out of. There I was on the radio. I thought, ‘This is gonna be good. I’m gonna like this!”
Four decades later, and you’re still enjoying phenomenal success. What’s the key to career longevity?
I’d like to think a lot of it has been faith, hope, prayer, but a lot of it is hard work. A lot of people have the same hopes, dreams, and desires as I do, and a lot of them are more talented than I am, but I work a lot. Even when I’m not in the limelight, I’m always working hard behind the scenes. I’ve been very blessed. I’ve been very lucky. But I’ve always been a very hard worker, doing what I can with the God-given gifts I believe I possess.
Over the years, you’ve very publicly dealt with depression. Tell me how you’ve survived those tougher times.
The biggest thing in my life has been a faith in God – that, and my friends and family. I was having a lot of troubles back then, health problems. I was having female problems and I was overweight and there was depression. I didn’t feel well enough to work, and that made it worse. Sometimes God’s gotta smack you down to get you to take inventory. It was during that time that I gained a lot of insight into how people suffer, how people get into drugs or alcohol or commit suicide. We can go very low as human beings, though I never fell into any of those traps. I was able to climb out and I believe it’s made me a much better person.
There must be a fair amount of stress attached to your myriad endeavors. How do you manage that?
My source of stress control has been the same since I was a little, tiny girl. It’s private time with me and God. I look to Him each morning to help me make the most of every day that he has given to me. If you take every single day as a blessing, it helps the stress to be less overwhelming.
You’re also a huge advocate for literacy. Tell me about your work on that front.
The Imagination Library is something I started several years ago in my home county. I wanted to put books in the hands of children, so we started giving a book a month to every child from the day they were born until they were in kindergarten. That went so well, growing and growing, that we’re now in 47 states, 700 counties, and we’re starting up in Canada and England. It’s really a wonderful way to get books to children, when they’re most impressionable and ready to learn. One of the main reasons I started this is because so many of my own family were not able to read and write. My own father was not able to read and write, and it’s so true of so many mountain people, even today; they have to work so hard to make ends meet that they don’t get the education they need. My father was so proud of this program. He loved it when kids would call me “The Book Lady.”
You’ve written hundreds and hundreds of songs. I’m curious about your creative process.
I’ve been writing since I was 7 years old. I write something all the time. Never a week goes by – never a day – when I’m not writing. Inspiration comes from everything. I’m touched by life. I’ve got a keen ear and a sharp wit, and I just can’t help myself. I truly have a love in my heart for people and a love in my heart for life.
Most of us, whether artists or not, experience some type of blocks or obstacles in our lives. How are you able to negotiate those tricky times when inspiration or energy may be flagging?
I am incredibly lucky in that I have rarely had writer’s block. I tell you what: when a song comes to me, it just takes over and there’s nothing I can do except write it down. But in the few times in my life when I have had what you might call writer’s block, I totally put whatever I’m working on down and then go focus on something else. I figure it’s God’s way of telling me that He wants me to put my attention toward other things, and I wait for Him to show me what those things are. All creative work – all of life, really – requires a lot of patience, dedication, and a drop of love.
Film, television, the Broadway stage, concert halls of the world, hit albums, theme parks. . .How in the world are you able to manage all of that and still somehow shimmer with positive energy?
(Laughs) Well, I have 24 hours in my day, just like everybody else, but I get up in the wee hours of the morning and start my day so that I can beat everybody else to the punch. Here are some tips for other folks. Number one: I would be an early riser. That old saying that the early bird gets the worm is absolutely true, and I live by it. Number two: Keep lists of things you want to get accomplished each day, and keep going until the list is completed. Number three: Keep a positive attitude and keep telling yourself you’re going to succeed. My favorite book is The Little Engine That Could, and it’s the first book we give to children who participate in my Imagination Library. It’s a motto that I live by, and I personally believe that positive thinking can change anyone’s life. I’ve always felt in my heart that the only that that could ever stand in my way is, simply, me.