“It’s a hit with me, whether it fails or not,” says Dolly Parton.
It’s with such optimism, high self esteem and faith in God that Dolly, the singer, songwriter, producer, actress and multi-faceted business goddess, has been able to create a life that continues to be nothing less than a fulfilling journey. Therefore, if country radio occasionally opts to miss out on her songs; if her album sales don’t always blow off the roof; or if her movies don’t snag the Oscars; she’s still Dolly — the one, the only and still bigger than life.
Her “never-say-never” outlook has kept her not only in the public eye, but continually the cream of the crop, for more than 30 years — having recorded close to 70 albums, including her current Hungry Again disc, and 23 music videos; accepted more than 30 different honors and awards; and starred in a growing list of feature films. She also owns the thriving Dollywood theme park, a film production company and, potentially, a full line of cosmetics and accessories, as well as children’s books and videos.
CMT’s November Showcase Artist knows, however, that life is not always perfect. The 52-year-old entertainment icon realizes that commercial radio success today is quite different than it was when she racked up a series of such major awards in the early 70s as Female Vocalist and Entertainer of the Year; when a girl named “Jolene” became a person everyone knew; or when 9 to 5 meant much more than the hours that made ends meet. Although her debut single, the saucy “Honky Tonk Songs,” from Hungry Again was a crown jewel on the video playlists, it didn’t garner the same success on country radio.
“I’m just not sure if there is a place for Dolly right now in country music from radio’s standpoint,” she admits. “But I’ll keep trying until I totally know that there’s not and then I’ll move on. But until then, I’ll keep trying to fit. I still believe I can be a force in country music. But on a realistic level and being one that’s totally for progress, I do not resent any of the new artists or anything that they’re getting — because I’m just happy to see country music doing great. But I don’t give up, I’m always at it and I try to stay fresh and new, and that’s not to say that I do, but I want to. That’s all a part of that Hungry Again philosophy — still hungry to be in the business and still hungry to be recognized as the artist that I believe that I am — that I was gifted with what I consider God’s given gift. I feel like it would be a sin on my part not to do it. But on the other hand, I do understand it’s a whole new day and age in radio and in country music. But thank God I will still always be trying to do it, and if that don’t work for me, I’ll be trying to do other things. That’s why you never can give up either,” she continues. “You gotta keep trying to find your niche and trying to fit into whatever slot that’s left for you or to make one of your own.”
Hungry Again, self-produced along with Dolly’s first cousin Richie Owens, marks the first disc from Dolly in almost three years. It’s a brilliant self-penned project, which includes such emotion-benders as “Shine On” and current new single, “The Salt In My Tears,” that also allowed the Tennessee mountain native to mentally, physically and soulfully return to the place that caused her dreams to come true in the very beginning.
“The album’s title really covers a wide scope of feelings and thoughts and things,” she explains, “not just being physically hungry, which I really was when I wrote all those songs. I had gone up to East Tennessee to fast for about three weeks — one week on juice and fruits, the second week on nothing but water and coming out of the third week back with juices again. I was physically hungry again, but the reason I had gone up there and felt the need to fast was because I was also hungry again because I’ve been in this business for a long time. I was hungry again to have that feeling back of what it was all about. So I wanted to write like I was hungry again and to sing like I was hungry again. I wanted to go back to my old homeplace the way that I felt back when I was hungry — just for life, just for the excitement of it and the passion of it. It really covered a whole scope of things, so I felt like it was a perfect title for that album.”
In continuing to cover the whole scope, Dolly’s long-awaited return of a follow-up Trio album with gal-pals Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris — a disc that’s been in the works for four years — will finally come to surface as early as spring of ’99. She’s still working with several writers and networks in developing and starring in a television sitcom, and has a movie soon to come out on Lifetime, based on “Blue Valley Songbird,” another cut featured on the Hungry Again disc. The song is about a girl who suffers abuse from her father.
“It’s not a true story of mine,” Dolly explained early on, “though everybody’s going to say that. I don’t care what they say. I just made the theme into a story because I’m a storyteller. It was a good story and Lifetime bought it, and we’re just trying to get it in motion. It will be a while before it comes out. As always, it takes forever to get these things in motion.”
One thing that’s always in motion for Dolly and is never slowed down with production decisions and Hollywood barricades is her ability to keep “sane” when life seems like a circus. Her faith in God has always been and continues to be the best script she could ever follow. And if some folks don’t take that part of Dolly Parton seriously, that’s fine with her.
“It doesn’t matter if they do or don’t, it’s something I believe,” she proclaims. “I do think though, that the majority of people who know me well or have followed me through the years, can see that. It’s like people are always saying that I make them feel good or I make them laugh. There’s a scripture that says ‘A merry heart doeth good like medicine.’ I think that’s true, too. If I shine at all when I am shining, I know that it’s the God-life that’s in me. I do sometimes think people feel something, or I like to believe they do, and if they do, that’s what I hope, think and believe that’s what they feel. People just overshoot trying to find God. They’re going outside and trying everything. They don’t realize that it’s right inside themselves. It’s right inside and you have to find it there and let it shine from within. Then it connects to all those things that are from without. It’s like a circle. The people that know me well see that and know that.
“I’m always at peace,” she continues. “I’m always struggling, I’m always a seeker and I’m always searching to do better and to have a better understanding of how to continue my spiritual journey. But I have always had a connection and a great faith in God. That’s the thing that keeps me sane. But when evil is really crazy and I feel like everybody’s against me, it doesn’t really matter as much about that as it matters how I feel about me and how I feel inside and my connection with God. I always go back to that scripture, ‘Let every man seek out his own salvation.’ I think we’re all on that individual journey and we have to search it out. It’s important that we do because that’s really all there is. Love is all there really is and that’s what God is — love. And we show it in so many different ways, and I feel like the gift that I believe God gave me, he meant for it to shine. Just like my song, “Shine On,” that’s on the album — God gave us all a special gift and he meant for it to shine. I just hope I continue to shine on.”
Where Dolly takes a firm stand about her life and salvation, she’s as equally committed to making sure her less serious side shines on, too. It’s the side that often causes her to be accused of being the commercial queen, as well as the tabloid queen.
“I can be accused of trying to be commercial sometimes,” she admits. “I can write and it’s easy for me to write, but I have been known to write some things like “Romeo,” which I think is a cute song. But I was thinking totally commercially when I did that — trying to fit into that new country scene, and tried to be commercial by prostituting myself,” she laughs, “by gathering Billy Ray Cyrus, who is a doll, Pam Tillis, Tanya Tucker and Kathy Mattea. I was trying to be very commercial minded. It doesn’t really change for me. I know how I should write songs. But when I have to be commercial and have to work quick when I got too many things going, sometimes I’m guilty of kinda screwing it around a little bit.
“And because I’m so secure and stable and grounded within my spiritual self and within who I am as a person, I’ve enjoyed it,” confesses Dolly of being honored with the ‘Tabloid Queen’ honor. “It’s like a kid playing in paints and crayons and dress-up. I love that and I will always love and do that. There has never been a time that I have personally thought ‘Oh, if I didn’t look this way or that way, I would probably be taken more serious as a writer or a singer.’ I wanted to do everything, but I have overcome my image and have had to fight to be who I am. I think that if I had been a plain Jane or had looked as simple and as ordinary and down to earth as I am, I could have just been anybody. So I don’t think there would have been enough attention drawn to me for a long enough period of time for anybody to have seen if I had talent or didn’t have talent. That’s a hard one to call, but I have no regrets whatsoever. If I have any regrets at all it’s that I didn’t get even worse,” she giggles. “It’s just been fun for me. I enjoy the dressing up and I enjoy the boob jokes. I enjoy being able to make fun of myself and join in when other people are making jokes. I don’t ever take that personal because I know exactly who I am. I know that I have a gift that I’m responsible for. I’m sure I’m a joke to some people, but I would have been a joke anyway, no matter what I chose to do. To me, it’s about enjoying your own journey, too.”
Regardless of who enjoys it the most — a worldwide fan base or Dolly herself — the Dolly Parton journey continues.