The Big Read – Dolly Parton: “I take care of business”

To Miley Cyrus, she’s godmother. To the rest of us, she’s The Godmother. Country legend Dolly Parton has enjoyed an unparalleled career, and won over the hearts of a younger generation when she stormed Glastonbury in 2014. As her musical 9 To 5 opened in the West End, Leonie Cooper sat down to talk over Parton’s phenomenal life. Pictures: Getty


As befits such a global icon, LGBTQ+ hero and inspiration for 80 percent of my wardrobe, being granted an audience with Dolly Parton feels much like meeting the Queen. In London for the opening of a West End musical based on her 1980 film 9 To 5, she’s also doing a limited amount of press – including her very first NME cover. Considering she’s been smashing out the hits and accompanying sass since 1966’s ‘Dumb Blonde’, it honestly makes you wonder what took us so long.

Ahead of Dolly’s arrival at the grand suite in the Savoy at 10am on a gloomy Saturday in February there is pomp and ceremony and much fussing. There are calls to reception for six small, repeat, small bottles of Fiji water and accompanying straws. Tissues are laid neatly on the side of each table Dolly might sit at. Then a well groomed man, introduced as Dolly’s creative director, explains the rules to me. After 28 minutes of conversation I’ll get a warning signal. There will then be a couple of minutes for a photo opportunity and to get things signed (how did he know!).

Then it’s all over. It’s a military operation, one done so many times and so slickly that you don’t really have time to freak out about the fact that you’re about to meet one of the most recognisable entertainers in the world.

Of course, when she does enter the room – bang on time – she is charm itself. “You know you look like Jolene, with your auburn hair and eyes of emerald green and your ivory skin,” she says, as I die a little inside.

“It’s not real,” I splutter, tugging at my freshly dyed red hair. “Aw, well, whose is!?” she jokes back.

This is the Dolly we want, a professional nice person who is ultra-aware of her outlandish public persona. Bleached, inflated, nipped and tucked, but with a heart as real as they come, she almost verges on caricature but immediately she sets you at ease with a manner that’s pitched somewhere in-between kindly primary school teacher and holidaying mob boss.

Surely, though, people have been overwhelmed when meeting their hero. Has anyone ever fainted? “Actually, I have had that happen,” she says in her instantly recognisable, sweet southern twang. “Once I was in a business meeting and there were a whole bunch of men. When I walked in the door one just passed out. I don’t know if it was me or if he had some kind of illness… but they never let him forget it!”

First thing in the morning isn’t a time when most musicians are awake, let alone chirpily getting stuck into an interview in a plush central London hotel. But Dolly Parton isn’t most musicians – she’s better.

As one of the only country music artists who has crossed over into the mainstream without compromising her roots or her sound, it’s sometimes hard to fathom the scale of the 73-year-old’s success. But let’s give it a go, shall we? Choice career highlights include a bucketful of Grammys, two Oscar nominations, the world’s first cloned sheep named in her honour, 47 solo albums and, with her incredible Imagination Library charity, 100 million books given free to children across the world.

She shows no signs of slowing up either. In 2018 she soundtracked the sleeper smash coming-of-age film Dumplin’ and later this year there’ll be Heartstrings, an eight-part series – also on Netflix – each episode a live action story inspired by a Parton-penned song. Oh and then there’s her continued commitment to Dollywood, her very own theme park, opened in 1986 and the biggest tourist attraction in the state of Tennessee.

Her mixture of straight-down-the-line business acumen and larger-than-life personality – I mean, who else has the balls to open a theme-park named after themself?! – that is key to brand Parton. Since moving to the bright lights of Nashville from the Smoky Mountains the day after graduating high school to pursue a career as a songwriter, she’s done things her way. “I just thought well, who’s gonna look after me if I don’t?” she says. “When you’re not watching, everybody else will wind up making more money than you on the things that you’re producing and creating… [Back then] I wasn’t as bold and aggressive as I am now, but I still had the same frame of mind.”

After working for another publishing company, she founded her own at the age of just 20, making sure she owned the rights to the songs she was writing and the money that came with them. It’s refreshing to hear Dolly use the word ‘aggressive’ – something many female artists shy away from. Taylor Swift is one of the few who doesn’t, and she’s borne the brunt of harsh criticism because of it, the Irish Times writing last year that “Swift is still thought of as… a cloying irritation under whose sweet public persona (that of a trainee Disney princess) lies a calculating megalomaniac”.  

Parton’s staunch, no bullshit approach has also helped matters of a #MeToo nature, especially in 1960s Nashville. Growing up with six brothers helped her foster a no-nonsense approach to sexism in what is not traditionally the most progressive place in the world. “I’ve been hit on a lot and I’ve played all the games but I was willing to win at it a lot more than some because I’m a little stronger,” she says.

“I understand the nature of men and I would usually be able to jerk them out of it or just say, ‘Hey enough of that now! I’m gonna holler, I’m gonna scream, I’ll call somebody!”

When we meet it’s only been a few days since news of Ryan Adams’ alleged coercion of female artists came to light. In 2017 Dolly collaborated with Kesha, another female artist whose struggle with a domineering male producer is well documented. It seems obvious that predatory men are still a massive problem in the music industry, but what can be done to stamp out that behaviour?

“I can’t answer for other people,” says Dolly, “But it is my belief that we have to respect ourselves as much as we expect to be respected and we have to conduct ourselves accordingly.”

For Dolly, the focus should be on female agency, rather than always casting women as victims. “We need to be mindful of how we present ourselves, we need to mindful of the positions we place ourselves in. I’m all for us gals doing everything we can, I want us to do everything and be paid for it and recognised for it but also don’t want us playing games either. I want us to respect ourselves.”

Dolly Parton was recently the guest of honour at the Grammys, singing her 1973 hit ‘Jolene’ with goddaughter Miley Cyrus. Though she might have set social media ablaze after BTS were spotted singing along to her perennial karaoke fave, but it was Cardi B who really got her attention.

“How do you even become that? How do you even do that?!” yelps Dolly in awe of the rapper. “I felt the same way about Lady Gaga when she came on the scene. I think it’s great for you to know who you are. I just respect and appreciate people for what they do and having the balls to do it.”

Despite being intelligent, witty and extremely talented, people often don’t take Cardi seriously because of the way she looks and the clothes she wears. Sound familiar? “That’s why I think I do relate to all them,” says Dolly with a nod. “I do see pieces of myself in that. The boldness of it.”

The new wave of pop might catch her eye, but she’s still close to the artists who pitched up in Nashville at the same time as her in the mid-1960s, like Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, who sat side by side her, churning out tunes on Music Row. As well as remaining one of the most celebrated songwriters in country, Willie Nelson is also famous for his fondness for weed. He even has his own brand, hipster favourite Willie’s Reserve.

“Oh I am very aware of Willie’s Reserve – but I do not partake of Willie’s Reserve, no!” giggles Dolly. Surely he must have offered you some? “Oh of course! We laugh about it all the time! All I have to do is get on Willie’s bus and you’re automatically high from the fumes.” Accidental hot boxing aside, anyone looking for Dolly’s sordid tales of rehab and addiction can stop reading now. “I never did do drugs or alcohol. I do drink if I’m out on a special dinner and when I fly ‘cos I don’t like to fly, so I usually have a couple of glasses of wine, but for the most part I’m just not much of a doper or a drinker.”

As much an inspiration to rock’s big boys as she is the current wave of young female country artists like Margo Price and Kacey Musgraves, a possible collaboration with Jack White – whose Third Man label Price is signed to – has been mooted since The White Stripes covered ‘Jolene’ 15 years ago. But the pair are yet to get together in the studio – and not not for want of trying on Jack’s part. “I love Jack White and he’s always running after me to produce a record,” reveals Dolly with a casual shrug.

White once picked up Dolly’s tab in an expensive LA restaurant in order to use it as leverage for a possible album deal. “He said, ‘Well you owe me now, I’m buying this dinner and you have to let me produce you’. I said, ‘We’ll have to talk in Nashville – someday we will, but I’m not gonna base it on this meal!’”

Marilyn Manson is a fan too, following her on Instagram and liking numerous pics. Like Jack, are they pals in real life? “No, I don’t know him. But I’ll take anything I can get! I don’t know where it comes from but I think it’s great.”

With Dolly you get the feeling that everything is always great. Something of a zen master, she’s always levelheaded, always on top of her emotions and always happy. Does anything, anything at all, make her angry? “Oh of course!” she says, cheerfully.

“I don’t like people that are late. I don’t like people that don’t do what they’re supposed to do. I often say I don’t lose my temper, but sometimes I have to use my temper.” Has she ever shouted at anyone? “I don’t remember the last time I shouted. I get more pissed off.” she adds, ominously, “I take care of business however I need to do it.”

So what’s next for Dolly Parton? It’s been almost five years since her Glastonbury show became Worthy Farm’s biggest draw of all time, with an estimated 180,000 watching her irrepressibly jaunty Pyramid Stage set. There have been invitations to play other festivals, something she’s considering, especially as touring is currently on hold due to her husband of 53 years’ ill health.

Right now she wants to work on projects where she’s “gone hours and days not weeks and months… I want to be close to home with him.” She suggests she might be taking a leaf out of Bruce Springsteen’s book, who just wrapped up his acclaimed Springsteen-on-Broadway run.

“I’m hoping to work on a little one woman show,” she reveals. “Who knows, it might turn out to be good enough to take different places.” There’s new music planned too. “I want to do some more uplifting kind of things so that will dictate whoever that producer may be.” Could this be the project with Jack White’s name on it? “I’m not sure he’s right for what I’m thinking next – but someday.” Sorry Jack, you’re out of luck again.

And with that the well-groomed creative director is hovering at the door delivering my warning signal. Photos are taken and the 1978 copy of Playboy with Dolly on the cover that I just happen to have in my bag is signed with a chuckle and the kind of lavish autograph only an A lister can have. Dolly makes her pleasant goodbyes, I gush possibly just a little bit too much than is considered professional and Dolly Parton’s first ever NME cover interview is complete – 53 years in the making.

9 To 5 The Musical Presented by Dolly Parton is at The Savoy Theatre, London, now