Eight minutes with the legendary Dolly Parton

by Brian Clarey

Eight minutes is not a lot of time. Sure, it’s a lot of time if you’re holding your breath, or listening to a drum solo, or pulling a bank job. But eight minutes, professionally speaking, is like the blink of an eye for something as fundamental as an interview. And yet eight minutes is all I’ve got for this one, and it’s with someone I could easily spend an hour — hell, a weekend in Vegas — with. Last week I had the opportunity to interview Dolly Parton, and I jumped at it. I have wanted to interview Dolly Parton, easily the most successful woman in the history of country music, ever since I saw a televised conversation between her and Tom Snyder on “The Late Late Show.” She was warm and bawdy, bright as a sunrise and more comfortable in her own skin than a mink. She seemed to enjoy talking about herself and her life, and flattered that anybody cared at all. Her story is the stuff of American legend: born one of 12 children in the Smoky Mountains rag-poor and country proud. Blessed with a musical talent, a remarkable figure and the kind of steely determination that earned her the nickname “Iron Butterfly” in country music circles. An image modeled after a caricature of promiscuity and dumbblonde jokes. And even after 50 years she’s relevant in show business, an industry that runs through its female stars even faster than Hugh Hefner. The musical version of her film debut, 9 to 5, opens on Broadway this week; Parton wrote the score. And a collectors’ edition of her CD, Backwoods Barbie, with new artwork and three new songs, became available at Cracker Barrel stores nationwide in March. I want to talk to her about all of this, plus a bit about her image and her career; her husband, who owns a paving company in Nashville; her brother Randy, who hustled the town of Roanoke Rapids, NC; about children’s literacy, one of her many philanthropic causes; about Rhinestone and Burt Reynolds and “Hannah Montana” and plastic surgery. But I’ve only got eight minutes. The phone rings and it’s her publicist, warning me that Dolly’s about three and a half minutes behind schedule and putting me on hold. I concentrate on not saying anything stupid, like greeting her with, “Well, hellloooo Dolly! Then she’s on the line, her lilting voice filling my ear. I yammer a question about Backwoods Barbie and Cracker Barrel. “They’re real good at selling music,” she says, “and we wanted to do something a little special. They’re kinda like I am: an old country restaurant and an old country girl. Plus, they have food I love.” And there she goes, chatting me up like I’m sitting on her porch. I ask her about where the roots of her music lie — the oldtime Appalachian sound that is currently seeing a resurgence. “I did a whole series of things,” she says. “When I did The Grass is Blue, Little Sparrow, , I did a lot of the old-timey sounding songs. Halos and Horns had a lot of the old Appalachian songs as well, and I still hope to someday continue to do more of that type of song. “That don’t mean I’ll be in Pigeon Forge territory for long,” she continues. “I think my voice is suited for that Appalachian sound, but I love being able to do so many things. That’s how I was able to do so much more, some pop things, some rock things. But my heart was always in country. I always say I’ll never leave country; I’ll just take it with me everywhere I go.” I ask her what she thinks she’d be doing if she wasn’t this big, international superstar, and she laughs… a laugh like a mountain waterfall. “You know I’ve thought a lot about that,” she says. “I can’t imagine my life being different, but had I not been lucky enough to follow my dream, I probably would have been a beautician like my character Truvy in Steel Magnolias, , because I would have needed a discount on bleach and makeup, and I would have liked to make others look like a Backwoods Barbie.” And now I’m grasping at straws, trying to ask Dolly Parton a question she’s never been asked before. I remember learning through my research that she has a couple small tattoos and that she is rumored to have a pierced bellybutton but that she’s never been flat-out asked about it. So I ask her. And she laughs at me. Dolly Parton laughs at me. “Why, no, I don’t,” she says. “I don’t have a pierced bellybutton. But I surely would tell you if I did.” A flak gets on the line, asks us to wrap it up. I’m floundering. So I mention that she is reported to have an IQ between 140 and 145, pretty muscular numbers. I ask her if this is true. And again, Dolly Parton thinks I’m ridiculous. “IQ?” she says. “Hell, I don’t have any idea. What’s an IQ?” That’s the extent of my eight minutes with Dolly Parton. God, I wish I had it all to do over again. Dolly deserves better.