Dolly Parton won’t be selling her rights to AI any time soon (Picture: WireImage/Getty)
Here she comes again… Six decades after she moved to Nashville to make it as a singer-songwriter, Dolly Parton’s back with a new album. Only this time, she’s gone ‘rock’ – a surprising move from the Queen of Country.
Rockstar, her first ever rock album, released at the age of 77, includes nine Parton originals and 21 classic rock covers (Led Zeppelin, Queen, Rolling Stones…), with guest turns from famous friends, including Paul McCartney, Debbie Harry, Sir Elton John, and Miley Cyrus.
Growing up ‘dirt poor’ in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, one of 12 siblings, Parton moved to Nashville, the Country music capital, in 1964, aged 18, going on to write more than 3,000 songs (Jolene, 9 To 5, I Will Always Love You…), record more than 50 albums, star in movies (9 To 5, Steel Magnolias…) and tour the world. Along the way, she’s won 11 Grammys, including a lifetime achievement award, and been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and, as of 2022, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She’s also built a business empire worth between $350 and $440million (£281m and $354m), from dog clothing to her Dollywood theme park.
A class act, Parton’s a pleasure to spend time with: smart, funny, sincere… ‘I’ve been around a long time,’ she tells me. ‘I’ve always had a lot of fans around the world, including the UK. I have a great love for that part of the world.’ The feeling’s mutual.
Here, the Country legend talks to Graeme Green about rock, LGBTQ+ rights, Dolly the sheep, and singing with the Beatles, as well as the advances of AI in the entertainment world, particularly in music, which she is evidently not a big fan of…
What made you decide to record a rock album?
You can rock out to Rockstar from November 17 (Picture: @dollyparton, Instagram)
I’d often thought I might want to do a rock album at some point. I’d done a few rock songs scattered here and there on my albums, and I’d done some covers of rock songs, making them kind of Country or bluegrassy. But when I got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, a place in my heart said ‘I hadn’t really earned that position.’ I thought ‘If I’m ever going to do a rock album, I want to earn it.’ I’m big on timing. It seemed the right thing to do at the right time. I’m proud I did it and I’m real proud of how it turned out.
You initially turned down the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination. Did you really think you weren’t worthy?
I did not. After they told me what it involved and that it didn’t need to be rock music, it made more sense to me. If it’s the Country Music Hall of Fame, I’ll take anything they give me in Country music because I’ve spent my life in Country music. But I’ve never spent my life in rock and roll like so many great people have who long to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I felt I was taking something from people who really deserved it. But they made me understand.
You recorded Let It Be with Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. How did it feel to be one of the Beatles?
I’ve always been a huge Beatles fan. When their song I Want To Hold Your Hand first came out, I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard. I followed the Beatles from that day forward. Just to say that I got to sing on a record with Paul McCartney and have Paul and Ringo play on it was amazing to me.
What’s the most rock and roll thing you’ve ever done?
Well, I don’t know what you really call ‘rock and roll’. I’ve done a few fun things. I’ve never really trashed my hotel room or thrown TVs out of the window or anything. Probably the most radical thing I ever did was when Tom Jones was really hot. Me and a bunch of girls had gone out to have a few margaritas at a Mexican restaurant. We got rained out of a shoot we were doing for a movie, so we spent the afternoon having fun. We all liked him. Tom Jones and his house in Los Angeles was on the pathway to the hotel where we were staying, so they dared me to streak through his yard. So I streaked through Tom’s yard. He didn’t see me but I did it. That was kind of rock and roll.
Queen Dolly has no interest in getting to the White House (Picture:
On your song World On Fire, you sound angry about lying politicians and the state of politics in the United States. Wouldn’t ‘Dolly for President’ be a good solution?
No. I don’t think anybody could actually do a great job at that. I think we’ve had enough ‘boobs’ in the White House. I would have no interest in politics. I try to do my thing through my songs, through the way I accept people and the way I try to make a difference. I’m not smart enough to be in politics, or maybe I’m too smart. Either way, I’m not qualified for that type of a job. But I’m pretty qualified to do what I do, which is to point people in the right direction, to write about it in songs or speak about things.
You’ve also just published a book, published Behind The Seams, looking back at all your outfits and image throughout the decades. How do you define your ‘Dolly style’?
‘Overdone’. I always loved colour. I always loved extreme stuff. I could never get enough jewellery. When people in the fashion world came out and said ‘less is more’, I thought ‘What a crock! No, it isn’t. More is more!’
I wear too much make-up. I wear too much hair. It was a Country girl’s idea of glamour. There was a lady in my home town who was known kind of as a streetwalker but she was beautiful to me, because she wore tight clothes and lots of make-up, and had her hair piled up on top of her head. At a very early age, I was influenced by that. I loved looking ‘overdone.’
Do you think your image meant people didn’t take you as seriously as a songwriter as they should?
Yes. Especially in the early days, people were trying to change me. But I think everybody has to feel comfortable in how they look. I knew that if I was as good as I hoped and believed that I was, my talent would win out over my looks.
I hardly ever listened to anybody if it went against what I believed about myself or what my true beliefs are. I hear them but I don’t listen. I’m not an educated person – I just got a High School education. But I know what’s right for me. I know how to handle my stuff.
What do you think of AI (Artificial Intelligence)? Could AI replicate what Dolly Parton does?
I don’t think, or, at least, I hope nobody can ever replicate me or what I do. AI is a scary thing. I’m sure it’s a good thing for scientists or medical things. But when it comes to trying to duplicate a human being and every little thing they are, it don’t seem right to me. It’s too much. Even the people coming up with AI are scared by it. So I’m watching this carefully. I’m sure they’ll be able to do certain things with me and other artists. It’s one of the reasons why we’re having the big strikes here with the Actors’ Guild and Writers’ Guild. Nobody wants to be duplicated. Everybody wants to feel the talent they have is theirs. I’m keeping my eye on AI.
You grew up ‘dirt poor’ in Tennessee. Why did you believe you could make it? Did you ‘pour yourself a cup of ambition’ every morning?
(Laughs) I do like my cup of coffee…
That is one of my favourite lines I ever wrote in any of my songs. When I was working on 9 To 5 and came up with that line, I went ‘Hey, that’s so good.’ I had those lines about tumbling out of bed and stumbling to the kitchen. Then you pour yourself a cup of coffee. I said ‘Hey, ‘ambition’ rhymes with “kitchen” – sorta.’ When I came up with that, I loved it.
Hopefully, someday I’ll have my own Starbucks-style coffee chain called Cup of Ambition, serving tea, coffee, soup and all that.
You’ve given a lot of money back, from literacy programmes to healthcare. (In 2020, Parton donated $1million (£805,000) to Covid research, which helped develop the Moderna vaccine). Is that charity work because of your own difficult start in life?
Yes, absolutely. There’s that old saying that it’s better to give than to receive. Well, I like to receive but I like to give as well. I honestly think that if you’re lucky enough to get in a position where you have money or you’re in a position where you can help, you really should. You should give back. You should not take all that for granted.
Where do you think you’ve made the most impact?
I like to think all of it has been important. But my favourite thing that I do is my Imagination Library that I started back in 1995 with my dad, who couldn’t read and write. It’s a literacy programme where we give books to children from the time they’re born until they start school – once a month, they get a book in the mail. They can learn to read, learn to love books… It can pull families together, as well as helping a child get a head start. We’ve given away more than 200million books to date – I’m really proud of that.
Parton moved to Nashville age 18 and the rest was history (Picture: Getty Images)
The Country music icon, 77, isn’t slowing down (Picture: Rex Features)
You met Miss Piggy in the Muppets, had a cloned sheep named after you, and were a Playboy bunny cover star. What’s been the strangest moment in your life?
I was pretty touched by that Dolly the sheep – the clone. That scientist was a fan of mine, and because of my boobs, I guess… I don’t know the terminology, but I think that’s how they cloned the sheep, from the mammary glands. He said ‘Well, we’re going to have to call her Dolly because we’re using mammary glands.’ I got such a kick out of that. That was a pretty wild thing.
It’s all cool. I take it all as a great compliment.
You’ve spoken out in the past in support of the LGBTQ+ community and issues, such as marriage equality. With all the changes to the law and intolerance in the US and other parts of the world, do you think societies are going backwards in terms of acceptance?
I can’t speak to what other people think or how they treat people. I try to leave my heart open. I try to see the ‘God light’ in every single person. I know we’re supposed to love one another. We’re not supposed to judge other people. All these fine Christian people and fine religious people who are supposed to be loving their neighbour as themselves, no matter who that neighbour is… I just can’t find it in my heart to judge people. That is not my place. It is my place to love people and accept them.
I have so many of all those people in my own family and my own circle of friends, and I love them all.
Moving to Nashville at the age of 18 to make it as a Country singer takes a lot of self-belief, as does recording your first rock album at the age of 77. Where does that self-belief come from?
I just do what I feel I can do. People say ‘Well, shouldn’t you retire?’ And I say ‘Why would I retire? What would I do?’ I’d just be thinking about all the things I could have done that I let slip away.
I don’t want to say ‘Well, I’m done now – my dream came true.’ That’s not a good way of looking at things.
We don’t know why we’re here. We don’t know how long we’re going to be here. I feel like I owe it to myself and my dreams and the people out there who’ve been touched by what I do to continue as long as I can go. I want to see all that I can do.
Rockstar is out November 17 on Butterfly Records. Behind The Seams: My Life in Rhinestones by Dolly Parton is out October 19 (Ebury, £39.99).
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The country music legend can’t be replicated.