This year marks the 50th Anniversary since 68-year-old international icon Dolly Parton came to Nashville. The fourth of 12 siblings who shared a one-room cabin, the East Tennessee native was so poor growing up that her father paid the doctor who delivered her with a bag of cornmeal. The day after her high school graduation, Parton left the Smoky Mountains for Music City, where she shepherded her career from singing on The Porter Wagoner Show, a syndicated music-variety series that aired from 1960 to 1981, to winning seven Grammys and scoring 25 No. 1 songs on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart — a record for a female artist.
On a recent fall afternoon at Nashville’s NorthStar Studios, Parton is an animated conversationalist, throwing her head back and laughing often. In person, the legendary entertainer possesses a down-home, self-effacing charm — disarming for someone who helms an empire that includes the Pigeon Forge, Tenn.-based Dollywood theme park, which annually hosts nearly 2.5 million visitors, and a valuable publishing catalog of such songs as “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You,” which she took to No. 1 long before Whitney Houston. In 2014 alone, Parton’s 42nd studio album, Blue Smoke, debuted at No. 2 on Top Country Albums and No. 6 on the Billboard 200 — marking her highest-charting solo album on the latter list — and wrapped a successful world tour that included performing for 170,000 at the United Kingdom’s Glastonbury Festival.
Here, the self-described “Backwoods Barbie” sits down with Billboard to talk business, her 48-year marriage to husband Carl Dean and leaning in.
How are you different now from the girl who came to Nashville in 1964?
I’m more successful now than I was then, but I still feel like the same girl. I’m just a working girl. I never think of myself as a star because, as somebody once said, “A star is nothing but a big ball of gas” — and I don’t want to be that.
What do you think about how people revere you?
I’m sure there’s lots of people out there who’d like to smack my head off, but we won’t talk about them. (Laughs.) I’ve lived a lot and I’ve done a lot. I’ve been around so long that I think people just kind of feel like I’m a member of their family — like a favorite aunt or an older sister. People relate to me because I grew up poor and in a big family. They know I understand all the hardships.
What were you thinking when you looked out and saw 170,000 people at Glastonbury?
I was very honored. I was a little bit nervous at that show because I’d never done it before. I thought it was more for a rock crowd, and I just hoped that I would fit in. I was standing backstage all nervous and thinking, “Oh, I hope they like me. I hope that everybody’s right that this is a good thing to do.” And then I heard them say my name, “Dolly! Dolly! Dolly!” and I thought, “I guess they do know who I am.”
Nashville’s Studio A, where you recorded “Jolene” in 1973, was recently in danger of demolition. [At the last minute, Tennessee businessman Aubrey Preston saved the property.] What memories do you have of that studio?
The first time I ever got a new car was also the first time I was going to be recording with Porter [Wagoner]. I went down to Studio A and I didn’t know how to drive. I ran right through the wall and tore a bunch of bricks out that fell on top of my car. I just got out of the car because I was running late. I didn’t see anybody so I locked my car, went in and did the session. When we all came out, someone said, “Damn, somebody ran into the wall.” [I said], “That was me” and then I called my father-in-law, Carl’s dad, to come down.
What kind of car was it?
It was blue. I didn’t get my Cadillac until I had more money, but I think it was a blue station wagon. I think it was a Chevrolet because Carl, at that time, only drove Chevrolets. It was our first family car and we had just been married about a year or so. Anyway, it left a hole in the wall where some of the bricks fell out. They replaced those bricks, but there was always a little bit of discoloration in the brick. When [Studio A] used to do tours, they’d go around and say, “This is where Dolly Parton ran into the wall.”
Dollywood attracts lots of church groups, but it has also become a draw for the LGBT community. What does that say about you?
It’s a place for entertainment, a place for all families, period. It’s for all that. But as far as the Christians, if people want to pass judgment, they’re already sinning. The sin of judging is just as bad as any other sin they might say somebody else is committing. I try to love everybody.
You have a large gay following. To what do you attribute that?
They know that I completely love and accept them, as I do all people. I’ve struggled enough in my life to be appreciated and understood. I’ve had to go against all kinds of people through the years just to be myself. I think everybody should be allowed to be who they are, and to love who they love. I don’t think we should be judgmental. Lord, I’ve got enough problems of my own to pass judgment on somebody else.
Dolly and Kenney Rogers.
As a Southern woman, how do you speak your mind and take care of business but remain likable?
I’m open and I’m honest. I don’t dillydally. If there’s something going on, I just say it. Sometimes if I get mad, I’ll throw out a few cuss words just to prove my point. I’ve often said I don’t lose my temper as much as I use it. I don’t do either unless I have to because I love peace and harmony, but when you step in my territory, I will call you on it. People say, “Oh, you just always seem so happy.” Well, that’s the Botox. (Laughs.)
What advice do you give women going into business?
You need to really believe in what you’ve got to offer, what your talent is — and if you believe, that gives you strength. In my early days, I would go in, and I was always overmade, with my boobs sticking out, my clothes too tight, and so I really looked like easy prey to a lot of guys — just looked easy, period. But I would go in, and if they were not paying close attention to what I was saying, I always said, “I look like a woman, but I think like a man and you better pay attention or I’ll have your money and I’ll be gone.” (Laughs.)
Are you familiar with Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In?
What is it?
Lean In — it’s a book. Have you ever “leaned in”?
I’ve leaned over. (Laughs.) I’ve leaned forward. I don’t know what “leaned in” is. Lean in to God.
Family has always been very important to you. Do you regret not having kids?
No. I used to think I should regret it. Early on, when my husband and I were dating, and then when we got married, we just assumed we would have kids. We weren’t doing anything to stop it. In fact, we thought maybe we would. We even had names if we did, but it didn’t turn out that way. Now I say, “God didn’t mean for me to have kids so everybody’s kids could be mine.” I’m very close to my family — five of my younger brothers and sisters lived with me and Carl for many years — and we’re very close to our nieces and nephews. Now that Carl and I are older, we often say, “Aren’t you glad we didn’t have kids? Now we don’t have kids to worry about.”
You’ve been married a long time. What’s the best marriage advice that you have?
I’ve been married 48 years, going on 49. But I think it’s true of all relationships — no matter what they are — you have to respect each other. We make each other laugh.
Do you have an office at home?
I have an office everywhere, but I usually work on the couch. I also work in the kitchen. I have all these offices — just like I have all these swimming pools, and I never swim. I have offices, but I just work wherever I’m at. I just pile my stuff on my bed and work. I have files of my music in every house.
How many houses?
We have a place in [Los Angeles] and a couple places here [in Tennessee]: on the lake, then we have the office complex, and I have the old [East Tennessee] place up home. It’s investments. It’s not to say, “Hey, look at me.” I’d rather buy property than play the stock market.
Do you have any guilty pleasures? What makes you happy?
I love to read. I love to cook. I love hanging out with my husband, riding around in our little RV. Even when 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?” “No, I’m a gypsy. I want to do that.” My life is fairly simple when I’m out of the limelight.
When you go somewhere public like Cracker Barrel, do you go in full makeup or in disguise?
I hardly go out much anymore. I just send somebody after the stuff I like. But if I go anywhere, I go in full disguise. I’m afraid somebody will recognize me and say, “Oh, did you see Dolly? She looked like hell.” I’d rather them say, “Did you see Dolly? She’s so overdone.”
This article first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of Billboard.