Whether she’s commanding one of the world’s most prestigious stages in concert or seated in a Nashville studio sharing anecdotes and insights during an interview, Dolly Parton’s larger-than-life persona makes any encounter feel somewhat magical.
She sparkles from head to toe—and not just from the spotlights or the bling on her custom dresses and pantsuits—carrying with her a strong inner light from her early beginnings growing up in the mountains of Tennessee. Dolly credits her parents and her Appalachian upbringing for shaping her positive personality and teaching her resilience.
“There is no doubt in my mind that it’s in my Smoky Mountain DNA,” Dolly says. “My mama and daddy were the strongest people I ever met. God, family and hard work weren’t just ideas at our house, they were what made our house. I carry those values in my heart every single day, and I think it’s the best gift my folks ever gave me.”
She’s celebrated that legacy this holiday season with the autobiographical NBC movie Coat of Many Colors, named for one of her best-loved songs. “Of all the songs I’ve written, ‘Coat of Many Colors’ is my favorite, and the folks at NBC have done a fantastic job bringing it to life,” Dolly says of the movie, which aired Dec. 10. “I swear, it’s just like I remember it, and all the actors remind me so much of the real people they’re playing, it’s unreal.
All about the music
Ask her about her life today—her passions, heartaches and plans—and she points to her songs. “Everything there is to know about me is in my music,” says Dolly, a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame who has won seven Grammys, seven Academy of Country Music honors and nine Country Music Association Awards, including Entertainer of the Year.
“My ups, my downs, my good- and my not-so-good times are all there in the stories I write. Every song I sing reveals a little more about my heart and what guides me through this life. I hope that if folks find it important or helpful it is because it gives them a voice and a knowledge that other people have the same feelings that they have, and that they’re not alone.”
Despite her famously happy demeanor, Dolly admits she does have her down times just like everyone else. “In my stage show, I joke around and say that I’m not always happy, that it’s Botox that makes me look that way,” she says with a laugh.
But I’ll tell you the truth, being happy is not always easy. No one can be happy all the time. As a songwriter, I need to feel all kinds of different emotions so I can tell my stories through the music. At the end of day, I choose to be happy.”
“Everyone’s lives have ups and downs,” she says. “If there is something different in me, it’s that I make a choice each day to work hard to face challenges head-on, and keep reaching for those dreams. You’d be surprised how many I actually catch.”
Or maybe we wouldn’t be so surprised. Over her five-decade career, Dolly has added her spunk and grit to iconic films such as Nine to Five and Steel Magnolias, and written and performed some of the most memorable hits in country and pop music, including “Jolene,” “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?” and “I Will Always Love You.” For three decades, her amusement park, Dollywood, has provided opportunities for residents of her East Tennessee hometown.
Dolly began singing as a child, performing on local radio and TV shows in her area. She moved to Nashville the day after she graduated from high school to pursue a career in music. Shortly after her arrival, she met Carl Thomas Dean at a local laundromat. Next year on May 30, she and Carl will celebrate 50 years of marriage. “Carl is the funniest, sweetest, kindest, most romantic man I ever met,” Dolly says. “After 50 years, he still opens my car door for me every single time and treats me like a queen every second we are together. To me, he is happiness and joy.”
Away from the spotlight, Dolly says she lives a pretty normal life and finds pleasure in the simple things. “I love to read. I love good books,” she says. “I love to cook. I love hanging out with my husband riding around in our little RV, because even though I get off the road after traveling thousands of miles I’ll say, ‘Get the camper. Let’s go somewhere.’ He’ll say, ‘Are you kidding? Ain’t you tired of riding?’ But no, I’m a gypsy."
Dolly also enjoys spending time with family. Though she and Carl never had children of their own, she helped raise several of her siblings and is very close to her nieces and nephews who call her Aunt Granny. She can often be found babysitting the kids in her family. Christmastime is always joyous; there’s one tradition in particular that’s a favorite.
“Cookie night!” Dolly says. “I love all holidays, but Christmas cookie night has been a family tradition for years. “I get all my nieces and nephews and their kids over, and we make all different kinds of decorated sugar cookies. I think more ingredients end up on the floor than in the cookies, but it’s all part of the fun. I usually find sprinkles in my hair until Valentine's Day."
God, family and music
When asked what gives her life the most meaning, Dolly replies, “Three things: God, family and music, in that order.” She’s always been very open about how her faith informs her life and brings her peace. “My faith is everything to me. I’m so thankful that I grew up like I did. My grandpa was a preacher and my mom was very spiritual. I’m not religious at all, but I’m very spiritual.
I communicate with God in my own way....I don’t think you have to be in a church house. I think the church is in your heart, so I try to connect and stay close to God. It means everything to me."
I can’t begin to imagine what life would be if I didn’t have faith, didn’t have something to believe in, something bigger than me, something greater than us. I want to be just connected to that and be a part of that and I believe in that with all my heart and that helps me a great deal.”
Prayer is important to Dolly, even if it’s informal. “I just call on Him like he’s my best friend,” she says. “Every day I ask God to take all the wrong things and all the wrong people out of my life and bring all the right things and all the right people in and let me know the difference. I ask to shine and radiate with His love and light and be a blessing.”
With all the things she’s accomplished, Dolly could easily just sit back and rest on her considerable laurels, but that’s just not in her nature. “I have never been one to live in the past,” she says. “I have new ideas and dreams every single day, and I can see them as if they were already happening. “I’m still working on my life’s story for Broadway. I still want a wig line and a cosmetic line. Lord, I can’t even list all the stuff I want to make happen.
As far as home versus work, for me they are one and the same. I have been working on my dreams since I was 10 years old. I’m not sure I know how to ‘not’ work. I think my best and happiest days are still ahead of me. In fact, I know it.”
Deborah Evans Price is a freelance writer based in Nashville, TN.