“There’s always room for improvement,” Dolly Parton is saying. “I never think of myself as a star – I always feel like I can do better; I always want to try to make and break my own records. I don’t try and compete with other people. I guess I’ll never feel like I’m good enough.”
Dolly’s familiar voice – the one we know from more than 60 years of song and film alike – is dancing over the phone line, from thousands of miles away in LA, but her story is eerily close to home. We all feel we have an intimate relationship with Dolly, not only because of the part she’s played in all of our lives – the lilts in her melodies trace over broken hearts in every decade, and the messages in her lyrics reflect the lives of millions past and present – but because of her manner. Even over the phone, she is an old-school star through and through: she has memorised my name, or at least has it in front of her, and refers to me personally throughout our chat. She’s open and personable and, despite presumably being exhausted during a gruelling press tour, she’s consistently enthusiastic and disconcertingly humble. Now, Dolly is starting anew and – quite impressively – says she’s determined to prove herself all over again.
Her music will feature at the heart of a new film, Dumplin’, which is released on Netflix today. The film, based on a 2015 book of the same name, tells the coming-of-age story of Will, played by Danielle MacDonald, whose mother (Jennifer Aniston) is a beauty-pageant queen with a body at odds with her daughter’s. Will is a fat girl in a small town who sets about disrupting the status quo on body acceptance – by entering a pageant and prising confidence and defiance from drag-queen Dolly Parton impersonators along her way. By all accounts, yes, it is as brilliant as it sounds.
Crucial to the story is Dolly’s music. Her epic catalogue forms the soundtrack and the heart of this much-awaited adaptation, along with six brand-new songs written by the country queen herself. Here’s what she had to say about it:
The Pool: You’ve always been quite protective over your music. What was it about Dumplin’ that made you want to give your music to it?
Dolly Parton: It came from the New York Times bestseller and friends of mine said it’s got you all over it, Dolly. So, I read the book and thought it was wonderful; I was touched and humbled by it. Then, a couple years later, Jennifer Aniston’s office called and asked if I would license some of my music to put in the movie and I said, “Sure.” Then they asked if I’d consider writing a theme song and working with Linda Perry on it, and that was all there was supposed to be.
When we got together, we hit it off and ended up writing five original songs. I wrote another and then we did some remakes. It’s just one of those blessings. I’ve had such a wonderful time working with Jennifer, Danielle and Linda.
TP: Do you feel that, because you’ve been writing songs for your whole life, the songwriting process has changed since you were starting out?
DP: I’ve always loved to write songs – always done it. My mother’s people were all very musical, I come from a long line of songwriters, singers and musicians, it’s just always been my joy, which turned into a job, but it’s still a joy to me.
I still love to write like I did in the old days and these days I love having a reason or getting commissioned to write. It makes me rise up to a better level than if I was left on my own. I like to feel like I can hold my own; it really helps me. Working with Linda, I felt like I wanted to prove to her that I was talented, and she felt the same way about me – we really complemented each other. I write so much, there are only so many things you can write about; I can only play so many chords. She had a fresh take. I wrote the lyrics and she did a lot of the music side. It added a new dimension to just my writing in general. And to work with someone else – I’ve written very few with other people. It was very productive and we became really good friends.
TP: It’s interesting that you just said you wanted to prove yourself to Linda. Do you still not feel accomplished in the way that people might expect?
DP: There’s always room for improvement. I never think of myself as a star – I always feel like I can do better; I always want to try to make and break my own records. I don’t try and compete with other people. I guess I’ll never feel like I’m good enough. But I think you have to feel that way in order to better yourself, but I’m comfortable with myself; if I’m gonna do something, I want to give it everything I’ve got. And then I move on to the next project.
If you try to follow everyone else and be like everyone else, before you know it you’re gone. You’re not going to find yourself again; you’ll just be a version of what you might have hoped to have been
TP: The protagonist in Dumplin’ is a fat girl taking back her power after feeling helpless and I know you’ve spoken out before about people making nasty assumptions about women and about you, in your career. Do you relate to Dumplin’s main character? Have there been times when you’ve felt disempowered?
DP: I think when you’re young and from the country and you haven’t been out in the big wide world, you’re very vulnerable and shy; I remember that. But I also remember knowing who I was, being a spiritual person, remembering my family and who I really was – I wasn’t willing to sacrifice myself if other people weren’t seeing who I was. I wasn’t willing to give up my integrity. I’d rather walk away. But it’s always hard; I’ve had to compromise in the early days to get things done, but never to the point where I lost my self-respect. I really have been blessed with that and that comes from my family and my confidence in myself. If someone didn’t want it, then someone else would, I figured. It never crushed me to the point of giving up.
TP: Your confidence is so inspiring.
DP: It’s that old saying that Mama used to drive in: to thine own self be true. There’s so much in that. If you try to follow everyone else, and be like everyone else, before you know it you’re gone. You’re not going to find yourself again; you’ll just be a version of what you might have hoped to have been.
But I never did give up myself for anything or anyone, never lost my identity. Never lost sight of what my dreams were and who I was. I always felt like I could always go home – it’s not like I could get any poorer than we were at that time. So, just a matter of what type of poor you are. I always figured I’d make it and I did. I knew in my heart that if the worst happened, I could always go home. And I feel like I’m always gonna be alright because of that.
TP: And what is home to you now?
DP: A safe place with people that know me and understand me. With family, you don’t always get along, but you’re there for them when the chips are down, and they’re there for you. I just need God, family and my work, in that order. But I work hard for both. I’ve got to make the most of my gifts. Home is a place in my heart, in my head, a physical place to Smoky Mountains and Nashville, but people I love who I know are there for me no matter what I do or don’t do. Whether I’m a star or not.
TP: What does Dolly Parton do to relax?
DP: I have my comfy clothes; I don’t stay dressed up in my wig and heels – actually, I do wear heels ’cause I’m short and can’t reach my cabinets if I don’t have them on. I’ll put on some make-up ’cause I don’t want to look like a slouch for my husband after I’ve been dressed up for the whole world. And for myself. I’m comfortable in my own skin, overdressed or underdressed.
TP: What music would you put on?
DP: I don’t tend to listen to music, actually, but when I do I just go back and play some of my old music that I loved early on – Otis Redding, Cat Stevens, George Jones, Merle Haggard – things that were impressionable to me in the early days. I appreciate all good music; I usually don’t [listen to it] because I’m so busy working and writing in it that I enjoy the peace and quiet. I don’t even watch that much television – I’d rather read.
TP: What part of your life has been the one you’ve loved the most so far?
DP: I’ve loved everything – all the music and awards – but I’m most proud of, and what I’ll probably be remembered for, is work I do with the children. Where we give books to children from the time they’re born until they go to school – so far we’ve given over 100 million books away and hopefully double or triple that, but anyhow, I’m proud my dreams have come true. And to be in this position, I try to help in anyway I can and keep doing what I’m doing. I have no plans to retire.
TP: What do you feel compelled to write about these days?
DP: Heartache, love, life, problems – mine and other people’s. As long as time stands, our problems and our joys will always be the same; there’s a new little twist on how to write about it. Now, I’m writing things I’m commissioned on, like the 9 To 5 musical in London, and these for the Dumplin’ project.
TP: There’s been a lot in the press this year about women in Hollywood – about industries that have been mistreated by powerful men – would you ever write for/about them?
DP: One of the new songs is called Hey Boss – it’s kind of about #MeToo. I don’t want to get into the political end, but my first song was called Just Because I’m A Woman – I’ve always been about empowering women. I hope to be an example and not make a statement – just be me and my music.
TP: Thank you, Dolly Parton. We will always love you.