Dolly Parton on faith

Dolly Parton has a simple rule she lives by. “I don’t do nothing half-assed,” she tells me, speaking from her studio and offices in Nashville. “I have to do it all the way or I don’t even want to even be involved.” It’s a rule that’s served her well across her six-decade career, ever since she took a bus to Nashville, aged 18, to become a country music star. She’s always been “dead serious”, she says, about every aspect of her life and career: dead serious about her songwriting, penning as many as 3,000 songs, including some of the most popular in the history of music (“Jolene”, “9 To 5”, “I Will Always Love You”); dead serious about singing and performing; dead serious about her image, despite being written off as “trashy”; and dead serious, too, about her vast business empire, which is worth, according to estimates, between $350 and $440 million.

That same all in, no half measures attitude is also evident in her decision to release her first ever dedicated rock album, Rockstar, at the age of 77. The album had an interesting genesis. Parton announced her intention to record a rock album back in early 2022, when she heard she’d been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She originally put out a statement saying she didn’t feel she’d “earned that right” and took herself out of the running. As a country artist, she felt she’d be taking votes away from singers and bands who’d dedicated their careers to rock’n’roll. But when it was explained to her that the hallowed Hall went beyond rock’n’roll (past inductees include Abba, Kraftwerk and Jay-Z), she changed her mind. Parton was inducted at a ceremony in Los Angeles last November. Recording a rock album, she felt, was a way to justify her nomination. “I’m like my daddy – I don’t want anything given to me,” she says. “I always want to feel like I earned it.”

A year on from the ceremony, we’re on Zoom discussing the album, Parton flanked by amplifier cases emblazoned with her “Dolly” signature, a sparkling silver star behind her on the wall. Her hair, usually pure blonde, is streaked with fiery red highlights, and she’s wearing an artfully spattered green-blue jacket with edgy rips, rough stitching, and studded epaulettes, her look and the setting all designed to look “rock and rolly”. Cool and poised, she’s the definition of an old-school star. She speaks with her distinctive southern accent, laughing and smiling often – being “dead serious” about your work doesn’t mean taking yourself too seriously.

Making people think

Rockstar is a behemoth: a double album of 30 songs, nine originals and 21 covers, including a version of “Let It Be” recorded with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, which Parton, a huge Beatles fan, describes as the “one of the big thrills of my life”. She also sings “Every Breath You Take” with Sting, “Heart of Glass” with Debbie Harry and “Stairway To Heaven” with Lizzo. Elton John, Emmylou Harris, P!nk and Miley Cyrus are among those who also guest. It’s hard to think of many other singers so widely loved and esteemed that they could rally such a cast to appear on their album. What’s striking is how ambitious the project is, in scale and scope, the Queen of Country turning her hand to writing rock songs and unafraid to take on classics.

There’s also a rare step into politics: “World On Fire” is an angry-sounding protest song, in which Parton rails against divisiveness and dishonesty in US politics: “Liar, liar, the world’s on fire / Whatcha gonna do when it all burns down?” The song “came to me as very inspired”, Parton explains. “I was scared and frustrated, concerned at how we’re willing to let the world slip right out from under us. It seems like we don’t care enough to make a difference, even though we can. I hate politics – the politics that’s just bickering back and forth, your gang versus my gang. The song wasn’t written out of anger – it was out of hope that maybe something I could say might make somebody think.”

The song could apply to many politicians around the world. But when Parton sings “Marching in the streets with sticks and stones / Don’t you ever believe words don’t break bones,” it feels like a direct reference to the 6 January 2021 attack on the Capitol in Washington DC and Donald Trump’s whipping up of his supporters with false claims of a “stolen election”. Parton remains diplomatic. “We’re all worried about what’s going on in our own country with politics and everything else. When I wrote that verse ‘Politicians present and past wouldn’t know the truth if it bit them in the (you know where)’, I was talking about politicians all over the world, not just Biden and Trump, although we got enough problems going on here. It’s just troublesome what’s going on in the world, not just politics but climate change and famine and wars. I was trying not to point a finger at people, but to point a finger upwards,” she says, gesturing to the heavens. “Let’s look up and try a little harder to do a little better.”

Parton is popular across the political spectrum, from right to left, seen as a holder of both traditional and progressive values. She is the embodiment of the American dream, a country girl who built herself up from nothing, rather than from her dad’s money, her success grounded in hard work, determination and faith. Her story is part of what made her a national icon. Born “dirt poor” in Pittman Center, Tennessee in 1946, Parton was one of 12 siblings. Smoky Mountain folk songs and ballads were part of daily life. Parton wrote her first songs around the age of five or six years old, got her first guitar at eight, and was appearing on local radio and TV at 10, travelling back and forth to Nashville with her uncle Bill Owens, a songwriter who helped launch her career. At 13, she performed at the Grand Ole Opry, where she also met Johnny Cash. In 1964, aged 18, the morning after she graduated from high school, Parton moved to Nashville where she wrote songs for other artists and tried to forge a career, working hard to persuade her record company she was made for country, not pop.

Faith without religion

Tennessee is part of the Bible Belt and ranks as one of the most religious states in the US. Parton’s grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher, and she spent much of her childhood singing gospel in his church and others in the surrounding area. “So much of who I am is based on my faith,” she says. “I believed in God and I believed that through God all things were possible, and that through myself things were possible, if I hung on to my plan.” Parton is grateful for the grounding her Christian upbringing provided. Throughout her career, she has recorded Christian songs, such as “He’s Alive” and “The Seeker”. But her ideas about religion have evolved over the years. Today, she has a more open and liberal idea of faith. “We all need something to believe in, whether you believe in God or not, whether you call it Mother Nature or Father Time or a higher wisdom. You need to believe in yourself and you need to believe there’s a force that can push you and lead you on. I was always guided by that.”

“I’m very creative – what keeps me going is both spiritual and creative energy,” she clarifies. “I’m not a religious fanatic. I wouldn’t even say I’m religious, though I grew up with that background. But I have a lot of faith in myself and I’ve been so blessed to have been around great people my whole life, my Uncle Bill and my family being supportive, and all the people I met along the way.” That openness and progressiveness, and a reluctance to accept prescribed ways of thinking, is particularly notable when it comes to her support for LGBTQ+ rights and marriage equality.

In the recent #MeToo movement, many female singers and actors highlighted sexual harassment, abuse or attacks they experienced. As she started out so young in the 1960s and 1970s, I wonder if Parton faced such problems. “I was luckier than a lot of women,” she tells me. “I’m from a family of 12 – six boys, six girls – and I was very close to my uncle, my dad, my grandpas, so I knew the nature of men. I wasn’t threatened or intimidated by men. I would know a flirt from a come-on. I was so in tune with myself and my talent that I would go into meetings and say things like ‘Well, I have some good songs. I think I can make us some good money if you’re willing to take a chance on me.’” She has dealt with male attention, including unwanted advances, throughout her life, she tells me. “There are times, even now, at my age, that I get hit on. I know how to handle that. But I’ve never had some of the problems with men that some women have. Of course, I’ve been in uncomfortable positions, but I knew how to get out of it.” She pauses before adding, “I’m fortunate – I know that.”

Sense and sensitivity

Throughout her career, Parton has matched creative talent with savvy business sense. Famously, when Elvis Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker insisted that, for Elvis to record her song “I Will Always Love You”, Parton would have to hand over half of the publishing rights, she turned him down – a move that worked out particularly well when Whitney Houston recorded the song for the film The Bodyguard, making it one of the biggest love songs of all time. She has won 11 Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1999, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. She has also acted in films, including 9 To 5 and Steel Magnolias. There have been world tours, stage shows, crowd-conquering Glastonbury sets, books, a clothing line for dogs. She’s appeared (clothed) on the cover of Playboy, and had a cloned sheep named after her. There’s also Dollywood, Parton’s theme park in the Great Smoky Mountains, not far from where she grew up in Tennessee, as well as water parks, restaurants and other businesses.

Some of Parton’s fortune has been put to good use, including her Imagination Library literacy programme, inspired by her dad, who couldn’t read or write, which has given away more than 200 million books to children across America. In April 2020, the early days of the global pandemic, she donated $1 million to coronavirus vaccine research, which supported the development of the Moderna vaccine. “I’ve always thought, ‘Lord, let me have enough to share and enough to spare.’ I want to have enough for me and enough to give to others too. Especially when you reach a certain tax bracket, you can count a lot of that off as gifts. But I do it from the heart. If it’s something I can help with, I feel good doing it.”

Parton has announced she will no longer tour, but she’ll play occasional concerts. She’s not taking it easy or retiring, though. Currently, she’s working on new songs for a Broadway musical of her life story, and there could be a Hollywood biopic in the pipeline. She also hopes to revive a film adaptation of Run Rose Run, the novel she co-wrote with James Paterson, once the strikes in Hollywood are over. Parton is sympathetic to the strikes, including writers’ and actors’ concerns over the use of artificial intelligence, which is seen as a potential threat to musicians and performers, too.

With her 49th solo studio album done and with her 80th birthday around the corner, I wonder if Parton has something major planned for album number 50? “I’d love to do a great inspirational and uplifting gospel album,” she says. “That might be what I’m working on next.” Looking forward seems to work for Parton. But no doubt the young woman who boarded a bus to Nashville in the 1960s would be impressed by what she’s achieved. “I think she’d be proud,” Parton agrees. “Nobody ever knows what’s going to happen. You hope for the best, you pray for the best, and you work for the best. How that turns out is anybody’s guess. But I feel very blessed.”

“Rockstar” is out now on Butterfly Records. Find more of Parton’s work at dollyparton.com

This article is from New Humanist's winter 2023 issue. Subscribe now.