There’s a reason Andy Warhol once described Dolly Parton as a “walking monologue.” The 73-year old singer, songwriter, actress, producer and literacy advocate has spent her career reflecting on the road, using the big cities and small towns she’s performed in to rustle up countless choruses and verses. Although some might consider Parton’s constant “dreamin’ and schemin’ ” exhausting, the process has done right by her: To date, Parton has 54 Top 10 Billboard hits and eight Grammys under her rhinestone belt. This is apart from her side hustles, which include a soon-to-launch, decidedly anti-Goop brand of fashion, jewellery and homewares, and a new Netflix series premiering this fall. Following last year’s Dumplin’ – she recorded the soundtrack with Sia, Miranda Lambert and Mavis Staples, among others – Parton will produce and star in Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, an eight-part series, each episode based on one of her beloved tracks. During a break in her hectic schedule, Parton spoke to us about her routines (including the careful transportation of a surplus of wigs), exuberant style and fitting in wherever she goes.
Dolly Parton is at Home Everywhere She Goes
enRoute What is the biggest personal journey you have ever made?
Dolly Parton Being a girl in a man’s world in Nashville wasn’t an easy ride. The fact that I was destined to be a singer at a young age was one heck of a journey. There weren’t many country girl singers who weren’t tied up to husbands, so getting to Nashville in my own way had me thinking differently. I had to believe in my talent and remind myself that I was just a person who had a gift and I needed to make the most of it.
ER If I had to draw a Dolly map of songs that you’ve written, which song would I start with?
DP “Coat of Many Colors” is a big travelling song for me. It’s about knowing that wealth comes in many shapes. I wrote it on the tour bus when I was on the road with Porter Wagoner, on a dry-cleaning tag. Wagoner’s suit had these rhinestones and I looked at them and the song just started coming to me. The receipt has been donated to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, so you can see it there.
ER Andy Warhol once told you that you would make a great preacher and you answered, “What do you mean? I am a great preacher.” Do you still feel that way?
DP I wrote a song for my Imagination Library project, called “Imagination” – that song’s about how I am and why I am. You can see my philosophy and you can see how I feel. It’s about how you never really know about your own talents if you don’t try. I’m always preaching to myself in my songs.
ER I heard you have more than 300 wigs at home and you like to travel with them. How?
DP Well, I wear a different one every day, so I have at least 365. They need to come with me wherever I go! I’ll usually bring at least two wig trunks and I can carry five wigs in each trunk. They have got their little heads in them, so I can put them up on display when I need to. I can drive with them stored under the bus.
ER Your first project with Netflix, a film called Dumplin’, has beauty queens, drag queens and country-music queens all mixed into one script. What do all these queens have in common?
DP Every one of them is exaggerated to the core – with their makeup and their personality. I always say I’m a drag queen at heart because I like to dress up. I like to shine. I like to look pretty, and I don’t want to be a wallflower. Sometimes you gotta use all the colours of the rainbow to feel like you are ready for the world.
ER There is a scene in Pedro Almodóvar’s film All About My Mother, where a character named Agrado says: “You are more authentic the more you resemble what you dream of being.” Do you think that’s true?
DP Wow! That’s cool and could be the motto of my life. I’m still dreaming, though, and working on a lot of dreams. Honey, they’ll be peeling my body off the stage if and when heaven calls me.
ER You seem to always be winning at life. When is the last time you felt defeated?
DP I’m a very sensitive person. I have a great attitude, but I’ve had days where I really felt down in the dumps. It’s part of the job. I have to live with my feelings on my sleeve because I write songs. I don’t ever want to get so callous and jaded that I can’t feel. I feel for everything and everybody. That’s one of the reasons people care about me – they know that I care about them.
ER Cher once said that she believes superficial things can be powerful and can change your life. Has that been the case for you?
DP That’s one of my biggest truths: I’m totally artificial but totally real. It’s like my “Backwoods Barbie” song. I’m the country girl’s idea of glamour. I just always wanted to be pretty, even when I didn’t have the money to be pretty. Now that I can afford it, I realize that glamour is being comfortable in my own skin. For me that means being in my makeup and under my wigs and getups.
ER You have written so many songs about cities. Which ones stick out as the most memorable?
DP I wrote a song years ago called “Eugene Oregon,” about how the first time I ever got a standing ovation was in Eugene! I was still on the road for the Porter Wagoner Show and I had been out three weeks because I had the flu. I was just so sad and homesick and depressed. I was on the bus trying to get myself freshened up, but it was hard. I finally mustered up enough energy and I walked out on the stage and got that standing ovation after singing “Coat of Many Colors.” They loved the song. I got back on the bus that night and wrote the song in Eugene, Oregon.
ER What city have you travelled to that has given you a chance to feel completely at peace with yourself?
DP I know this sounds crazy but none of them. I’ve always been who I am. I always feel a part of whatever city I’m in – that could be New York, Hollywood or Nashville. I never feel like I’m out of place. I never feel like I’m not at home because I’m at home within myself. No matter where I go, I feel like I can fit in.