Flamboyant drag queens love her; pious Southern Baptists love her; my FOX News-addicted Republican grandfather loves her; my grimy metalhead friends love her. She's up there with The Rock, Betty White, and Michelle Obama on the short list of universally beloved living beings, and like a fine wine (or a good batch of apple pie moonshine) the 70-year-old just keeps getting better with age. In a world perpetually rent by war, famine, and golems of outright hatred, Dolly Parton is a shining beacon of glitter, grit, and pure love—a veritable rainbow in the dark. She's too good for this world, and we're all lucky to be alive at the same time she is.
Once I got the time slot confirmed, I immediately texted my dad to tell him—"I'm interviewing Dolly!" Growing up in the woods, in a family whose license plates may've said Jersey but whose attitudes (and accents) mirrored those of our rough-and-tumble Appalachian forebears, country music was king. Steel guitars and lonesome whistles are one of the few cherished roots I kept hold of when I eventually packed my bags and hauled ass to the big city, and having the opportunity to talk to the Queen herself was, honestly, a dream come true.
It all came about because Dolly Parton is currently out there on the road promoting a back-to-basics new album, Pure & Simple, wending her way across the continental US of A in one assumes is the glitteriest tour bus of all time. When the day came and I called the number I'd been given, I was greeted by a male voice who told me that I had "exactly ten minutes" to speak with Dolly. Flustered, I blurted out, "Only ten minutes? I didn't realize that was all I had. Uhh…" and then in the background, heard a familiar honey-sweet voice trill, "We can do it! We can talk fast! They got me doing these back to back, but we can cover more in two minutes than most people can in ten days."
She was right, too. Over the course of those (exactly) ten minutes, we managed to work our way through a career that started in the belly of the Great Smoky Mountains in the 1950s and has ended up in 2016, with Parton living large as one of the most honored female country musicians of all time. The Country Music Hall of Famer is still selling millions of records, headlining festivals like Glastonbury ,and raking in awards like the National Medal of Arts (as well as Grammy nominations—at 46, she's tied with Beyoncé), but according to the star, it's as natural to her as breathing. Born one of twelve children in a cabin in rural Tennessee—where her famed "coat of many colors" hung on a nail by the door—she and her family always had a musical streak.
"I've been playing all my life. All my mother's people are very musical, we all play, but I ain't all that good!" she said with a laugh. " But I'm a good showman, I can sell it! The guitar is my main instrument, that's mostly what I write with, but I do write a lot of my old mountain songs on dulcimer and harp. I can make a stab at a lot of things, but the guitar is the one I favor most."
She's selling herself short there. When I saw her play at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, NY earlier this summer, Parton played no fewer than seven instruments (some of which were carefully handed to her by a denim-clad stagehand in a cowboy hat—"Ain't he handsome?" she crowed at one point, showing off her countrified cabana boy with obvious glee). There was the guitar, of course, and her dulcimer, but she also hauled out a banjo, a harmonica, a harp, a flute, a saxophone; she drew a big, indulgent laugh from the crowd when she tootled her way through "Yakety Sax," trilled, "Y'all want to see me play this backwards?" then turned around and played the same song again. Her bag of tricks seemed endless, and no one could ever accuse Dolly Parton of putting on a low-energy show. Behind the bright lights and sequins, she's a consummate vaudeville showman, delivering every line with a wink, a grin, or a twinkle; comedic musical variety shows like Hee Haw were all the rage when she was cutting her teeth, and that early onstage education has remained with Parton throughout the many decades that followed her Nashville debut in 1964.
However, one of the highest points of that show came without any glitz, or fancy stagecraft, or even very much music at all. When Parton returned to the stage following one of her many costume changes and launched into an a capella version of her 2001 bluegrass hit "Little Sparrow," you could have heard a pin drop. Her pure, strong, clear voice—goddamn, that voice—took center stage, dialing down Parton's megawatt star power and giving us a glimpse at the dreamy mountain girl she once was. It's enough easy to dismiss Parton as all sizzle and no substance until she cocks an eyebrow and lets loose that voice for the ages, and as she tells it, having her prodigious talents being written off a skin-deep is nothing new. It "took a long time" for her to be taken seriously in Nashville.
"My buddy Chet Atkins was the one who told me I should get rid of the big hair and the big gaudy look," she told me. "He thought people would take me more serious if I was dressed down. Of course, he laughed many years later after I became a star and I hadn't done it; he said, 'See how useful my advice was to you?' as a joke. But yeah, it took people a little while to get over the look. I always say I look totally artificial but I'm totally real, and it takes a little while for that to settle in. I think once people saw that I was serious about my singing and my songwriting, I think they got to thinkin' 'I believe the girl's serious!"
Photo by Tabatha Fireman for Getty Images
One of Parton's favorite stories about her salad days is based on how she lifted her now-iconic look from "the town trollop." That yarn about the brazen country glamorpuss with her "red lips and red fingernails" that a young Dolly thought was the most beautiful woman in the world has served Parton well over the years, but as she told me, her over-the-top look really comes from a more serious place. "I was not born a natural beauty. I always try to make positives out of negatives, and I always thought my insides were more flamboyant than my outsides, so I just kind of matched it up to suit me!" she explained. That sky-high bouffant used to take ages to coax into shape, but now, Parton's got it all down to an exact science.
"Well you know what, it's such an artificial look—I wear a lot of wigs, and that don't take no time. When somebody says, 'How long does it take to do your hair?' I always say, 'I don't know, i'm never there!" she said, giggling. "I like to have an hour to get ready before the show with makeup and hair and all the primping, but I can be ready and out of the house if need be in 20 minutes. [Offstage] I always roll my hair, pull it up in a little scrunchie, and put on a little makeup for my husband; I don't like to look tacky for him and dress up for everybody else! But I don't go out like some people do, I'm scared to death I'd get in a wreck and get caught lookin' like that. I'd rather look like me. I'd rather have people say, 'She's so overdone, even in the daytime,' than, 'God, I saw Dolly Parton, and she looked like hell!'"
One of her other favorite stories to trot out involves a night out at a drag show and her eventual defeat at the talons of a passel of fabulous imposters. She merrily rushed through the anecdote—"When all the Dollys marched across the stage dressed as me, I walked across the stage and got the least trickle of applause, because they didn't know it was me; they thought I was just some little shrimpy drag queen!"—but took her time when I ask about her large gay fanbase and the legions of drag queens who lovingly recreate her image with forensic attention to detail.
"Oh, I enjoy all that, I have a lot of gay fans," she said. "I just think everybody should be loved and accepted for exactly who and what they are, and we should love ourselves exactly for who and how we are. Variety is the spice of life, and it's wonderful that we're all different. What a boring ass world it'd be if we were all alike, and what would we be like, anyway?"
Outside of her flashy support for the gay community, Parton demurs from making any other outright political statements or endorsements. One gets the feeling that she's uninterested in tarnishing her carefully curated universal appeal with such tawdry topics; rather, she prefers to stay on (positive) message, flashing that sweetheart smile and steamrolling over anyone who tries to lure her off-script. She told me that she hopes her shows offer a refuge of sorts from the ugliness and hate that our current political climate has normalized."It's crazy out there. I always address that, I make it light and fun onstage. I talk about all the craziness and make a few little jokes, but I'm there to lift people's' spirits" she explained. "I'm here to say that we are great, we are wonderful, and we need to love. If we had as much love as we have at my concerts all around the world, we'd be in good shape!
Her grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher, and while Parton is hardly a fire 'n' brimstone kind of woman, the Holy Ghost still has a firm hold on her heart. Unlike many who share her faith, though, Parton is dedicated to inclusivity and tolerance. Her message may come swathed in sparkle and couched in her own fervent Christianity, but she gets it across just the same. Her Forest Hills show just so happened to take place during New York City's Pride weekend, and the audience was a rainbow of couples holding hands, singing, swaying together, and in the case of the women in front of us, taking endless joyful selfies with their partners. Above us, the tiny, glittering figure cutting up onstage radiated a maternal sort of warmth, preaching kindness and telling us, "There's only one God, and everyone's trying to get to him the best they can."
Love has always been Dolly Parton's brand; her coat of many colors was stitched with it, her poverty-stricken childhood was nourished by it, and most of her best-known songs are about it. Her new album, Pure & Simple, is entirely comprised of love songs, and I had to ask her: as someone who's been married and in love with the same person for over 50 years, how in the world does she still have so much to say about it?
"Oh, I do! I'm a hopeless romantic," she said, chuckling. "I got my fantasies, but I write for everybody else that can't write their feelings; so many of the songs on the record are based on other peoples' relationships, people I care about that don't know how to write, it, but of course I've felt all those feelings. I'm married, but I ain't dead!"
I also asked if any of her songs have ever made her husband blush, and she took a moment to consider—then chuckled again.
"Probably not, he doesn't listen to 'em all that close! I don't make him sit down and listen if I've written something for him. He's proud of me, though, he's proud, he just don't like to get all tangled up in the show business end of it. That's why we've lasted fifty years."
Parton's penchant for whimsical song titles is on full display, from "Hell on High Heels"—which she described as "the perfect little song for me," and in which she pays homage to Adele's perfect eyeliner—to "I'm Sixteen." She's nonplussed when I ask if she was inspired by Alice Cooper's "I'm 18" ("No, I didn't know there was another song like that!") but paints a vibrant portrait of a 16-year-old Dolly running wild and breaking hearts in those old hills.
"I was boy-crazy, like all girls that age. I was sowing my oats, i was always a romantic, passionate, loving love," she said, "But I wrote that particular song about one of my sisters who had a couple of really bad relationships. She's an older gal, so she just thought it was over, she was never gonna find true love. And sure enough, she did, and now they act like they're sixteen years old! I thought, 'Oh my god, they act like they're sixteen,' and I started thinking on that song. Of course, I drew a lot of that from my own childhood, skinny dipping, going to the movies, in the backseat neckin' so I knew all about that!"
Fifty-odd years later, Parton's still a dreamer, and still a workhorse, too. Eminently humble, she described herself in simple terms, saying, "I never think of myself as a star. I'm just a working girl, and I'm thankful I've been successful at what I do." (Of course, she's probably the only person in creation who doesn't think of Dolly Parton as a star, but I wasn't about to argue). She's the kind of performer who still gives a million percent no matter where she is, whether she's headlining a stadium or defying the laws of physics to tape a flawless Christmas special outside Rockefeller Center in the middle of a brutally hot August. While we lucky few fans huddled inside our sweaty winter coats and tried to look chilly, Parton simply glowed, treating us to up-close renditions of two new Christmas-themed songs (one of which was a riff on her classic "Coat of Many Colors") and a sly sense of humor that's tough to spot from a football field away. When you watch it on television in November, look for the sardonic glimmer in her eye as she wishes us all "Merry Christmas!"—she was clearly tickled by the absurdity of the situation, but played along like a champ anyway, because that's what working girls do.
Though she may be at an age when most people are considered to be well into their twilight years, Parton has "no plans" to retire, and seemed amused by the mere suggestion of slowing down. With a full slate of television and film production ahead of her and a new record to carry on promoting, it doesn't sound like Parton's going to have much downtime in her future—and that's exactly how she likes it. "I love the fact that people seem to care about me, and I care about them. I've always loved my work, and it makes me feel good to be the age I am and have people still accepting me and the things that I do, so why wouldn't I be happy?" she asks me. "And of course, as you know, any new dream, if it comes true, it'll spring off into something else, so there's always some new avenue to take, based on whatever you did last, and I've just always got new dreams all the time, so I hope to be working all my life.
As we said goodbye, she added, "Maybe next time we'll have a longer time!" and my heart thrilled just a tiny bit. Everyone wants a piece of her, and even when you're lucky enough to get one—through a concert, or a record, or a ten minute phone conversation—you're always left wanting a little bit more. That's just part of her magic.
After all, everyone loves Dolly.
'Pure & Simple' is out now via Dolly Records and RCA Nashville.
Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey; follow her on Twitter.