Dolly Parton is worried. ‘I worry about what we’re doing, as adults – what we’re leaving behind for the children,’ she says. ‘Children are frightened this day and time. They hear so much of the grown-ups talking, and what’s on the news at night… There’s a lot of negative energy out there.’
If ever you needed evidence that all is not right with the world, hearing its most unflaggingly optimistic, go-getting, turn-that-frown-upside-down superstar talking in such uncharacteristically gloomy terms ought to do the trick.
But never fear: Weekend can confirm that even a few minutes in the company of the 71-year-old Queen of Country – the self-styled ‘Backwoods Barbie’ – is enough to persuade you there surely isn’t enough negative energy in the world to withstand her gale-force positivity and enthusiasm.
Take her new record, I Believe in You. Her first collection of songs for children, its 14 tracks offer an upbeat mix of motivational messages (You Can Do It), comfort squeezes (Chemo Hero and Brave Little Soldier – both written for her four-year-old niece, Hannah, when she was undergoing treatment for leukemia) and gentle admonishments (Makin’ Fun Ain’t Funny).
The album’s title – and message – was inspired by the classic storybook The Little Engine That Could, which figures prominently among the 100 million or so books Parton has sent out to children around the world through her Imagination Library charity. ‘It’s a very uplifting theme – that little engine inside of all of us that says we can if we think we can,’ she beams. ‘It’s like, you need to believe in yourself because I believe in you – I think you’re special.
‘I really think children need good, positive messages in this day and time. As do the grown-ups – we’re all children, in a way. And we’re all God’s children. I pray a lot, and try to look at it positive,’ she adds. ‘What can you do, other than to pray and try to add as much joy and light and sunshine as you can? Yes, I’m concerned about the way things are, but I still have a lot of faith that we can turn it around, and I just keep hoping that we will.’
Despite her concerns about ‘the way things are’, Parton has thus far kept her counsel on the most divisive subject in America – its 45th President. Perhaps mindful of her and POTUS’s shared southern base, she maintained a suitably enigmatic smile when her 9 to 5 co-stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin launched into an impassioned anti-Trump tirade at the recent Emmy Awards.
‘Oh I try to stay out of that,’ she tells Weekend, ‘because I really think we should just all pray for the President, whoever the President may be. I pray for peace and safety in the world, and I pray for all the leaders to make the right decisions. But I don’t deal in politics – I always say I’m neither Democrat or Republican, which I guess makes me a hypocrat!
‘I don’t agree with everything that any of them do,’ she adds. ‘But I do hope we all keep trying to do our best. We all need to help one another, ’cos a house divided and a world divided cannot stand. I just think we all need to pull a little harder together.’
I Believe in You also features a new version of Coat of Many Colors – Parton’s early country classic recalling her childhood in a one-room shack in East Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. The fourth of 12 children born to a sharecropper and his wife, who were so ‘dirt poor’ they had to pay the doctor who delivered her in cornmeal, they were hardy, resourceful folk: when young Dolly accidentally sliced off three of her toes on a broken jar, her mother simply sewed them back on, with no anesthetic.
‘We were basically happy, because we were together,’ she recalls. ‘There were times when we were concerned, but that’s how you grow – that’s how you make your memories. I’m very proud of my family. My dad and mom kept it all together for us. My dad worked really hard. He never had a chance to go to school because he was a country boy, having to support his family. He never was able to read or write, so that’s why I established the Imagination Library, in honour of him.’
Parton first discovered her love of music in her local Pentecostal church. She started writing songs aged seven, playing a homemade guitar and singing into a tin can on a stick. The day after graduating from high school, she moved to Nashville, initially earning money as a songwriter, before launching her own career with help from the country musician Porter Wagoner.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of her debut album, Hello, I’m Dolly, and her achievements over that half-century can leave the rest of us mere mortals feeling light-headed (Rolling Stone magazine branded her ‘the unsinkable Dolly Parton’ as far back as 1980). As well as the timeless hits – Jolene, I Will Always Love You, Islands in the Stream (with Kenny Rogers) – that have contributed to more than 100 million record sales, there have been hit movies (9 to 5, Steel Magnolias), TV shows and countless awards. These include nine Grammies (from 47 nominations) and more country music accolades than anyone else on Earth – to say nothing of her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the distinction of having the world’s first cloned sheep named in her honour.
She’s also a hugely successful businesswoman and philanthropist: much of her estimated $650 million fortune has been invested into ventures such as the Dollywood theme park (now the largest employer in her native Pigeon Forge, Tennessee), while her charitable Dollywood Foundation has helped raise money for causes ranging from a cancer hospital to a scheme to protect the bald eagle.
‘When I look back, I can’t believe it,’ she says. ‘I think, when did I have time to do all that? But I just work, I just do it. I don’t count the money, I don’t count the awards. I just count my blessings.’
Last year, Parton clocked up another milestone when she celebrated 50 years of marriage to her husband Carl Dean – though the couple have rarely appeared in public together in all those years, fuelling endless gossip about extra-marital relationships.
‘We’re very compatible, we like each other,’ she says. ‘We’re friends. He’s not in the same business I’m in [Dean used to run his own asphalt company], so we have plenty to talk about. We both like freedom, we both enjoy our time alone, so when we’re together it’s enjoyable. My husband’s a good guy and we’ve been together a long time. It’s a first marriage for both of us, and we’ll go out together.’
Given the energy she ploughs into children’s projects, it seems rather poignant she never had any of her own. Is it something she thinks about much?
‘I used to think about it,’ she says. ‘When my husband and I first married we just assumed we’d have children, and we didn’t try not to. We had names for them if we’d had them. But time went on and it never happened, and I think it wasn’t meant to happen. I raised a lot of my younger brothers and sisters, and I’ve always been the best aunt in the world – my nieces and nephews call me Aunt Granny, and my husband they call Uncle Pee Paw, so we feel like we’ve had children.
‘I really think that it’s good that I didn’t now, because now I work with children, everybody’s children, and I don’t miss it. I didn’t need it. It was not meant to be.’
If pushed, even the relentlessly buoyant Dolly Parton will admit there have been other disappointments and reversals, too, including a period of depression in her 30s following a partial hysterectomy.
‘You have to go through hard times,’ she muses. ‘You’d be a very shallow person if you didn’t feel things. And I’m a writer, so I have to leave my heart wide open, which means that I get hurt a lot. Yeah, I’ve suffered a great deal in my life. I’ve paid my dues.
‘But I have a good attitude. There’s always hard times in life, but you just got to try to make the most of things and do the best you can. If you see some things that need to be changed, do your best to try to change ‘em. And that goes for what’s going on in this whole wide world right now. Just think positive, pray, and pray harder.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, December 7, 2017
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