Dolly Parton refuses to get political. She’d prefer to heal the divide
When Dolly Parton is in town, everyone here knows it.
That’s what two different Uber drivers tell me, unprompted, about the power the country music star holds in this resort town near her childhood home in the Great Smoky Mountains. When her gleaming tour bus pulls up to her DreamMore Resort, it’s like Air Force One has landed on the tarmac.
Home to the Dollywood amusement park, a tourist destination that draws more visitors than Graceland, Pigeon Forge has become a pilgrimage site for those who worship at the Church of Dolly.
Parton has made the journey back east from Nashville to celebrate the release of “Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings,” an anthology series premiering Nov. 22 on Netflix. Each of the eight episodes is inspired by a song in her massive catalog — including both the hits (“Jolene,” “Two Doors Down”) and the deep cuts (“Down from Dover,” “Cracker Jack”).
While the hour-long installments vary in subject, setting, genre and ability to reduce viewers to a puddle of tears, all are quintessential Dolly— offering homespun entertainment with a little something for everyone. Religion, dogs, weddings, gun-toting cowgirls: It’s all here. And so is Parton, who introduces each episode in segments filmed at Dollywood, and stars in a few of them.
The singer-songwriter has been a constant presence in pop culture for half a century, with a career spanning country and pop music, film, television, theater, amusement parks and philanthropy.
Yet somehow, at age 73, she is more ubiquitous than ever.
After co-hosting the Country Music Assn. Awards with Reba McEntire and Carrie Underwood on Wednesday night, she’ll be celebrated in an anniversary special, “Dolly Parton: 50 Years at the Opry,” airing Nov. 26 on NBC. She’s also the subject of a nine-part podcast, “Dolly Parton’s America,” which explores her status as a uniquely unifying figure in American life at a time of intense political and cultural division.
“I am busy as a beaver,” says Parton, ever a master of the folksy bon mot, “and about as dammed up.”
From “The Beverly Hillbillies” through upcoming TV programs with Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, country music and country ways are integral to TV.
The singer is set up in the penthouse suite at the DreamMore, a hotel decorated with Parton memorabilia and sparkly butterflies. The diminutive Parton, dressed in a relatively subdued black-and-white ensemble with red rhinestone embellishments, is perched on a lavender chair on top a bright pink fuzzy rug, a bright light at her feet bathing her in an ethereal glow. A gaggle of handlers sit in the dark at the corners of the room, while Dollywood security guards stand sentry in the hallway.
Despite the celebrity trappings, Parton is warm and accessible as she speculates about the nature of her appeal.
“People have grown up with me. They kind of look at me as a family member. I’m someone they know. They know my back story, just being an all-American girl, that dreams can come true — the Cinderella story, so to speak.”
The allure of her rags-to-riches biography is on full display at Dollywood, where you can visit a replica of the modest home where Parton grew up, pray in a chapel named after the man who delivered her and watch a startlingly life-like hologram of Parton at the Dolly Parton Museum, in between shopping for Parton-themed tea towels, fanny packs and cast-iron skillets. While there’s no alcohol on the premises, the down-home aura is intoxicating, as is the seemingly genuine niceness of the people who work here — especially a woman who gives me a free batch of fried green tomatoes because, well, why not?
Arriving just before Thanksgiving, “Heartstrings” is aimed squarely at families, many of whom may be desperate to avoid political spats over leftover turkey. Few people are better-suited to provide such a distraction than Parton, a figure beloved in equal measure by drag queens and devout Christians.
Though many of her songs touch on female empowerment and give voice to working people — to the extent that Democratic presidential contender Elizabeth Warren uses “9 to 5” as her walk-up song at campaign rallies — Parton exists outside the partisan fray. (At the 2017 Emmy Awards, she presented with her “9 to 5” costars Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, who made barbed comments clearly aimed at Trump; Parton noticeably stayed out of it.)
“She is deeply political in her music but not ever going to touch it,” says Jad Abumrad, host of “Dolly Parton’s America,” who was inspired to make the podcast at a 2016 Parton concert — “one of the few spaces that cuts across the divisions.”
“She has a kind of radical openness and inclusivity that is special at this moment,” he adds.
Sam Haskell, her producing partner, describes Parton as “this little atom of consistency” in a time of great uncertainty.
“I have my own thoughts, my own opinions, of course,” Parton says, “but I don’t believe that I should offend people that don’t have that same opinion by voicing my own opinion. I’m an entertainer; I can live it, I can write about it, I can joke, lift people up in my own way. But I don’t see no reason for me to get involved in political fights.”
She continues: “Half my people are Republicans, half of them are Democrats, and I always joke that I’m just a ‘hypocrat’ — and in a way I kind of am. ... I know we can’t ever all get along. But we could get along a little better if we tried a little harder.”
Asked about the prescience of “9 to 5,” the groundbreaking 1980 comedy that raised awareness of workplace sexual harassment decades before #MeToo, Parton avoids hopping on a soapbox.
“I’ve worked for a lot of good men, it’s just those turds like Mr. Hart” — the sleazy boss played by Dabney Coleman — “that we have to deal with. Just keep pushing, hoping for equal pay for equal work, getting the respect that we need. I’ll always be about that.”
Speaking of “9 to 5,” which turns 40 next year, Parton says she, Fonda and Tomlin had hoped to reunite for a sequel, but ultimately decided not to move forward.
“We got the last script and we realized we were never going to capture that. You never want to mess with greatness anyway. We were trying really hard, but we couldn’t get it far enough away from the original so it was really a new thought.” (Another concern: updating the story for the 21st century with “social media and computers, as opposed to the desks and fax machines and all that.”)
Long before Madonna, Lady Gaga or Beyoncé were moonlighting as actresses, Parton understood the power of having an on-screen persona. She rose to fame performing on “The Porter Wagoner Show,” a syndicated country music show, in the late ’60s and early ’70s and hosted two self-titled variety shows in the ’70s and ’80s.
After making the leap to the big screen in “9 to 5,” she played other variations of herself — wise-cracking, self-aware, warm-hearted — in the musical comedy “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and the Southern weepie “Steel Magnolias.”
More recently, she endeared herself to a new generation by playing godmother to Miley Cyrus (her real-life goddaughter) in the Disney series “Hannah Montana.” She narrated and executive produced a family-friendly holiday movie based on her life for NBC, “Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors,” as well as a sequel, “Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love,” both ratings successes.
She and Haskell began thinking about what they’d like to do next.
“Netflix is just the hottest thing goin’ now, so we felt like it was a good move for us to make, without having to be so confined. Working with [traditional] networks, you have to go through so much stuff,” says Parton, who is not much of a binge-watcher but is a savvy businesswoman.
Parton and Haskell presented Netflix with a list of 15 songs to adapt before whittling the number down to eight. The goal wasn’t to pick Parton’s most well-known tunes — there’s no “I Will Always Love You,” at least not yet — but to find songs with rich stories about a range of subjects.
Parton wanted to address what she sees as a lack of wholesome entertainment — “sweet stories that touch on the things that people are going through no matter what else is going on in the world” — citing “Little House on the Prairie” as an example. “I was banking on the fact there’s a lot of people like me that miss that kind of stuff.”
Showrunner Patrick Sean Smith says he “approached it with a Forrest Gump, box of chocolates” spirit. “We wanted you to not know what you were going to get.” Set in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee in the 1940s, “These Old Bones” is particularly close to Parton’s heart. An almost unrecognizable Kathleen Turner stars as Bones, a mysterious fortuneteller who lives deep in the woods.
The actress was unsure she was up for playing “a mountain-woman type,” until Parton called her up to make a personal pitch. Switching from her famously husky voice to a high-pitched tenor, Turner impersonates Parton talking about the character’s real-life inspiration — a rumored witch who told a young Parton she was “anointed.”
In the end, Turner couldn’t refuse. “I have such admiration for this woman and what she’s made of her life.”
“Jolene” is adapted from one of Parton’s most famous songs, in which she pleads with a beautiful temptress “with flaming locks of auburn hair” not to take her man — a character, as Parton explains in the episode’s intro, inspired by a “redheaded hussy” she once caught flirting with her husband, Carl Dean, at a bank.
In something of a twist, Jolene the TV character— a bartender and aspiring musician played by Julianne Hough — is more sympathetic than the Jolene of song.
“My husband’s people were just so scared I was going to tell this old story about me and Carl,” Parton says, emitting a high-pitched giggle, “Of course, I always exaggerated that story.”
Parton stars as Babe, the owner of a rowdy honky-tonk and a maternal figure to Jolene. Smith, who wrote the episode, recalls Parton asking him whether it was OK to ad-lib some of her lines.
“I was like, ‘You’re Dolly Parton. You can do Dolly Parton better than I can.’ But she was like, ‘No, this is your script, and I want to honor it.’ That instance kind of exemplifies what it’s like to work with her. She’s profoundly respectful as an artist,” says Smith.
She’s also a good ad-libber: In the scene, Jolene gets a late-night sext and the supposedly technophobic Babe teases her for being a “hashtag horny toad” — a line Parton improvised.
Parton has had decades to hone her on-camera skills. As she puts it, “I was already on television before we ever owned one.” As a young girl, she got a job performing on “The Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour,” a local variety show, and used the money she earned to buy her family a television set.
“That was when we still lived back in the mountains, and nobody up there had a television. Every neighbor would come to watch the television, but my daddy had to work and he said, ‘You better take that TV back, I ain’t gettin’ no sleep and I gotta work.’ Because everybody would come and they’d come in the house and they’d watch the ‘Cas Walker’ show, and then they’d watch ‘Gunsmoke,’ and then they’d watch ‘Woody Woodpecker,’ and they wouldn’t go until the snow came on TV.”
Storytelling “is in my Smoky Mountain DNA,” she says, citing the history of ballads passed down by the Scottish, Irish and Welsh immigrants who settled in the area. “Back in the old days, that’s how people carried the news. And I was influenced by that.”
And she has been entertaining families for decades, starting with her own. She likens the songs she began writing as a child to “little movies” she used to amuse her siblings — and get some much-needed attention from parents who were stretched thin raising 12 children.
“I had a gift of rhyme and a big imagination and that’s just how I started,” she says, “and how I’m still a-goin’.”
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