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All eyes are on 61-year-old Dolly Parton as she becomes a lifetime member of the Girl Scouts during a ceremony a month ago at her Dollywood theme park, not far from her childhood home in East Tennessee’s rural Sevier County. She’s wearing a customized Girl Scout uniform—complete with sash— that she quips has “a lot of strain” on it.
In accepting the June 15 honor, the still-vital multimedia entertainment icon chooses words that not only inspire and encourage the more than 1,000 scouts in attendance, but reflect the way she’s lived her life since first longing to be a Girl Scout as one of 12 children in a cash-poor, love-rich family in her beloved Smoky Mountains.
"When I was a kid,” she proclaims, "about all we had were our dreams--and I started dreaming early. Plan your life and do what you do best. I'm here to tell you that you can be absolutely anything you want to be. . . . star in your own dreams."
There’s no denying Dolly’s been the star of her own dreams. And for more than 40 years, she absolutely has done what she does best—and the rest of us are the richer for it.
For Dolly, it all began with a song. She wrote her first at age 7 and later entered the national spotlight on Porter Wagoner’s long-running syndicated TV show in 1967. Since then, her unmistakable voice, bigger-than-life appearance, infectious personality and songwriting genius have sent her career soaring into the stratosphere, where she’s made an indelible mark through her more than 3,000 original tunes, hit records, videos, more than 60 albums, awards galore, her own syndicated TV show in the ’70s, movie roles, books, Dollywood attractions, her Imagination Library literacy program (now in 42 states) and other philanthropic efforts, concerts and other appearances worldwide.
And the Country Music Hall of Famer, U.S. Library of Congress Living Legend and National Medal of Arts winner is nowhere near finished. Not even close.
At a recent ACM event in Nashville where Dolly was given the Pioneer Award, she quipped about her early days with Porter—and about her never-ending desire to keep doing more.
“When they told me I was winning the Pioneer Award,” she chuckles as Porter looks on, “I thought well, how appropriate ’cause I remember when me and Porter came to Nashville in our covered wagon . . . with a tall Shanghai rooster and an old yeller dog!
“Actually, I feel like I’ve been in this business as long as anybody. And I’m very proud that I got to start out with a lot of these great folks, like Porter. I’ve seen a lot of wonderful things happen in this business. I’ve seen it grow from all sorts of styles, but it always remained country music. I love Nashville and I love country music. . . . And I like feelin’ like I’m one of the old-timers in the business.
“But you know me. I’m out there every day. I may be a pioneer and get the award, but I’m blazin’ new trails all the time. So don’t you give up on me!”
Not much chance of that. Dolly’s going stronger than ever.
She’s come to the ACM event straight from the studio, where she’s been working on a new recording project. She’s putting the finishing touches on new songs for a Broadway production based on her hit song and movie 9 to 5, targeted for a late 2007/early 2008 premiere, as well as a book for children called I Am a Rainbow, set for release later this year.
Dolly also wants to do a television show for children—she likes the name Dolly’s Dollhouse—possibly originating from Dollywood. And there are Nashville rumors of a possible fall tour, although her lips are sealed for now.
So, no worries, Dolly. We won’t give up on you—and we certainly can’t miss you!
In true Dolly style, she jokes about her two most famous assets—no, not her lyrics and melodies, the other ones—in response to Porter’s comment about why he did, or didn’t, hire her for his show back in the ’60s.
“When I first met her, I thought she was one of the best singers I had heard anywhere,” declares Porter in introducing Dolly at her ACM Pioneer Award event. “And one of the reasons was she was so different . . . so unique sounding. And, really and truly, that’s why I hired her—it wasn’t because she had big boobs! Honestly, it wasn’t!”
“Yes you did hire me because I had big boobs!” rebuts Dolly as the room explodes in laughter. “But I fooled you! I had some talent, too!”
There you have it, the quintessential Dolly. She can make fun of herself and jokingly extol the virtues of her gifts—all of them—at the same time.
And she doesn’t mind saying, she’s had a little help along the way to keep the focal points of her majestic 40-20-36 shape in peak (so to speak) condition. “If you've got the money and the nerve and the desire to do that, well I don't see nothing wrong with it,” she says of her forays into cosmetic surgery. “I've said before, if I see something saggin', baggin' and draggin', I'm gonna nip it, tuck it and pluck it!”
And it’s a good thing, considering what she has planned for her “brave little soldiers” after she’s gone. "I can just see two big mountains growing up out of my grave,” she announced at a recent ceremony honoring her at the Songwriters Hall of Fame. “And people going around on mule rides to look at them!”
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing, jokes and an occasional nip or tuck for Dolly, even after she left the poverty of her childhood behind and earned enough to know she probably didn’t have to work anymore if she didn’t want to. Not every career move she’s made has turned to gold.
“Well, [failures are] harder in the early days, when you put everything into something and it falls through,” she says quietly during a CW interview in her Dollywood dressing room. “But after you get older and you’ve been through enough stuff—and you’ve had enough successful stuff where you’re not havin’ to worry yourself to death about eatin’ the next day, or you’ve got enough money saved up to where you can afford to lose something—you don’t grieve and worry about it so much. But on the creative end, it’s always hard.
“But I had a lot of faith in God. And I always try to look for God’s success, not mine. I always pray and try to let God do His business. If somethin’ don’t work, I try to think, ‘Well, now you prayed about it and you sincerely were honest. You just can’t ask God to give you just what you want. Maybe God wants it to be this way for whatever reason.’ ”
And that doesn’t apply only to career issues. Dolly’s also had ups and downs in her personal life, some of them health related. She’s candidly admitted she and her husband, Carl Dean, tried to avoid having children early in their marriage, then realized they couldn’t have them later when they wanted to. Perhaps that’s why the children in her Imagination Library literacy program mean so much to her.
“They are all my kids in some ways,” she proclaims warmly. “I never had kids of my own, but I raised several of my younger brothers and sisters, I’m very involved with my nieces and nephews. I’m always takin’ in somebody’s stray kids, always helping somebody through divorces. My husband and I have got more kids than anybody!” She laughs.
“But, yeah, it feels like these kids are kinda mine. So the fact that I didn’t have kids, that’s kinda made it even more special, ’cause if I had a houseful of kids of my own I’d feel more responsible that I should stay home and take care of them. So this way gives me the freedom to work and claim ’em all and not feel bad about it.” The Lord works in mysterious ways.
Along with her physical problems, Dolly sank into a depression in the early ’80s. "I had got overweight and I had a lot of female problems, hormone problems,” she recalls. “[It was] a bad period of my life. For 18 months I had a really hard time and I just finally said, 'Get off your fat ass and move that weight. Get out of this depression or blow your brains out."'
Thankfully, she didn’t choose the latter remedy and went on to lose weight, regain her health and reignite the creative, spiritual spark that has been the hallmark of her life and career. And standing by her side through it all has been Carl, the spotlight-shunning man who has loved her longer than just about anybody else. “He likes his privacy,” explains Dolly about Carl. “And if he's out in the yard mowing and fans stop he says he's the handyman."
With her high-profile career filled with travel, lights and cameras and his desire to live quietly in their Nashville-area home, theirs is an unconventional marriage, but it’s one that’s worked for more than 40 years and is still rock solid. “He’s proud of me,” notes Dolly. “He doesn’t care what I do, and he knows I’m always coming home. He knows I love him, and he loves me. But he’s a loner. He doesn’t want to be with anyone but me, so that works out just fine.”
Beyond the obvious reason of their mutual love, they’ve stayed together because of shared interests. In fact, the weekend of her Girl Scout induction, they planned to do a little camping—something they both enjoy—and they usually hit the road to the west coast in the winter.
“Carl loves to get out of the cold weather, so we just get on my bus, and me and Carl head toward California,” explains Dolly. “And I look through all my books and decide which one I’m gonna start readin’ for the holidays.
“We sometimes stayed longer back in the early days, but now we kind of just limit it to a month. We go out there and just have a big old time, kinda hangin’ out with just each other.”
It may not be what might be expected of someone as outwardly flamboyant as Dolly, but her lifestyle with Carl is a very real part of who she is, part of what she loves. And it’s part of the dreams that were born when she first picked up a guitar back in that tiny house in Sevier County, where her career in music and all its blessings took root.
Dolly knows it, and she appreciates it.
“If I’d never made it,” she proclaims quietly, looking back on those days, “I’d still be doin’ something to get to play my music. But I’ve been fortunate, I’ve been lucky, I’ve been blessed. And I’m thankful for it.”
Here is what Dolly says about Dolly.
“I was the first woman to burn my bra—it took the fire department four days to put it out.”
“I may have a little body art but I'm not telling where.” (On tattoos)
“My weaknesses have always been food and men–in that order.”
“Maybe when I'm 100, and you'll be sorry then.” (On whether she’d ever pose nude)
“I was already into plastic surgery when most of these country singers were still into plastic sheets.”
“Music has always been the center for me, no matter what else I was doing. And when I go, I want to fall dead onstage, right in the middle of a song.”
“If you talk bad about country music, it's like saying bad things about my momma. Them's fightin’ words.”
“Leave something good in every day.”
“You'll never do a whole lot unless you're brave enough to try.”
“The biggest heartaches in my life have all been because I wanted people to love me more than they were willing or able to.”
Here’s what others have said about Dolly
“I'd give about a year's pay to take a peek under that dress.”
—the late Johnny Carson
“You know, nobody ever gets past her physique. She’s such a genius, she’s such an awesome songwriter . . . awesome songwriter.”
“She’s like an angel. She comes into a room and she just illuminates it. There’s just something that emanates from her.”
“I’ve always been really impressed with her as a songwriter. A lot of people see the exterior and they don’t realize how deep the woman goes. One of the songs that really, really spoke to me as a kid was ‘Coat of Many Colors.’ I thought that was just genius and it was so personal and so well done. She is an icon beyond the definition.”
“I also grew up in east Tennessee, and my Christmas present every year was a season pass to Dollywood. So it’s kind of surreal right now to be singing for Dolly.”
—Ashley Monroe (before singing at Dolly’s ACM Pioneer Award ceremony)
“She’s a great business lady. When she comes into a meeting, you’re gonna leave seein’ it her way and glad you saw it her way . . . ’cause she’s brilliant.”
“What can you say about Dolly? There’ll never be another like her.”