“I have really accomplished a lot of things in my life and I’m proud of every one of them. I’m proud of every award. It just makes you feel like you might have done something right,” Dolly Parton says.
Parton has a lot to be proud of. She is one of the top-selling artists in music history, with sales reaching 100 million worldwide. She is the most honored female country performer of all time, winning multiple Grammys, American Music Awards and CMA Awards, including being one of only five women to be named CMA’s Entertainer of the Year and the only woman to win CMA’s Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award.
Parton is also an accomplished actress, starring in such classics as The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, 9 to 5 and Steel Magnolias.
Even with all of that, Parton is still one of the most down-to-earth performers around. She was born in 1946 in the small town of Locust Ridge, Tenn. One of twelve children, three things played important roles in Parton’s life: God, family and music.
“I always felt like my personality was always pure and simple, and people always seem to relate to me and my story. My rags to riches, we all have our stories,” she says.
Parton is also one of the hardest working artists in the business, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that she is going to be 71 years old this January. That work ethic starts with her family and her home.
“First of all, I love my people. I love my homeland. I never left because I wasn’t proud of my home or proud of my people. I just wanted to do more things,” Parton says. “I always said I was never leaving country, I was taking it with me wherever I went.”
Parton is in the middle of her 64-city Pure & Simple Tour, named after her 43rd, and most recent, studio album. The tour, a stripped down more intimate concert, will make its way to the Amalie Arena in Tampa Nov. 26.
“I have always enjoyed playing with all my bands no matter the size of them, but a few years ago I was asked to do a few charity things and my band had mostly gone off to work with other people since I wasn’t planning a tour at the time,” Parton says. “I just pulled together my guys around town and I said ‘Let’s put together a show and do these charity events’ and so we did. We got rave reviews because it was so pure and so simple, so we did an album and put together a tour.”
Even with the Pure & Simple Tour being stripped down and more intimate, Parton is still playing many large venues with thousands of her fans.
“I think of it like I just have people in my house. In that case it doesn’t matter the size of the place, the show’s the same, and it seems to work. The bigger arenas and the intimate ones, I enjoy both,” Parton says. “I really feel like I connect with the people; they are there for me and I’m there for them. It seems like we are all there together, and the people don’t feel scattered and the space doesn’t seem too big. I’m from a big family so I guess I just think of everything as a big family reunion. Sometimes we’re in a small area and sometimes we’re in a bigger house.”
Parton plays the Amalie four days prior to another musical icon, one who is equally who is revered by the LGBTQ community; Barbra Streisand will be in Tampa Nov. 30.
“I really admire people like Barbra,” Parton says. “We are both older women who have had decade after decade for 50, 60 years, where we’ve been on the charts and been on the scene. She’s a good, good friend of Sandy Gallon, who is my manager and one of my best friends ever. So over the last 30 years we have had many occasions to visit or see each other at parties or different functions. I think she is just incredible.
“I know we are in the same town, but I think it is a different crowd we play for. But either way I would love to have some of her folks come over and maybe some of mine will head over to see her,” she says.
Parton and Streisand have more in common than the country superstar may think. They are both music icons and business owners, coming up at a time when women in any business were not seen as leaders. They are also style icons, both of whom are heavily impersonated in the community by drag queens. A few will most likely be out at the gay bars that weekend in Tampa Bay.
“[Laughing] I’m sure you’re right, so maybe I’ll have a bunch of Streisands at my concert in the audience, because I’m always seeing Dollys out there,” Parton says. “I always say they look more like me than I do. I bet she’ll have some Dollys and I’ll have some Streisands.”
Parton and Streisand also have something else in common: their support of the LGBTQ community.
“I think everybody is who they are and they should be allowed to be who they are,” Parton says. “I’ve just always been proud of my friends from the gay and lesbian community. I have gays and lesbians who work in my company, and I have a couple of transgender people, and I love them all as people.”
Over the last few years, many country music stars have come out as gay; Chely Wright, Ty Herndon and Brandy Clark to name a few. Parton herself has spoken out in support of LGBTQ rights and even wrote a song for the 2005 film Transamerica, which tells the story of a transgender woman (played by Felicity Huffman) who goes on a road trip with her long-lost son. The song earned Parton an Oscar nomination.
“I go right to the heart and the soul of the person and try and find the God light,” Parton says. “More people should spend time trying to see that rather than to pass judgment.”
While country music performers like Parton and Garth Brooks, who supported his gay sister, have stood up for LGBTQ rights, the country music community as a whole still deals with the image of being ultra-conservative and not accepting of the LGBTQ community, something Parton recognizes.
“Well I don’t know if you’re ever going to change the minds of people who are set in their ways and whatever their beliefs are, but it is my opinion that we should love and accept each other as we are,” Parton says. “We are all God’s children, and it’s not up to us to pass judgment on anybody.”
Loving everyone and learning to live together is something Parton says she learned from her family, and the time she gets to spend with them is something she never takes for granted. During the holiday season especially, Parton makes it all about her family.
“I think most families kind of have the basic things that they do. In our family we always just get together, sing and talk and cook and eat and talk about everybody when they leave the room [laughs],” she says. “I like to bake cookies with my little nieces and nephews, and they spend the night with me. I have an elevator in my house that’s painted up like a chimney and I bring down presents dressed like Santa Claus and just have fun for myself and the kids. I’m a kid myself during Christmas.”
Parton’s love of kids and humanitarian efforts led her to start the Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a literacy program that gets books into the hands of children.
“It came from a very pure place in my life and my heart. A lot of people in my family weren’t able to get an education,” Parton says. “My daddy couldn’t read or write. As smart as he was, he never got a chance to get an education. That’s what inspired me.”
The program, which Parton started in 1995 in her hometown in East Tennessee, gets books to children all over the world from the time they are enrolled in Imagination Library until the day they go into kindergarten.
“The fact that we have been doing this for 27 years or so,” she says. “I just take pride in putting books in the hands of children, because if you can learn to read, you can help educate yourself if you can’t afford to go to school.”
Parton even got her father involved in the program at its inception.
“He took a lot of pride in that and felt like he was doing something great, and I made him feel proud of it and made him a big part of it. So he lived long enough to get to see it come to be and to hear all the kids call me the ‘Book Lady.’ He took so much pride in that,” she says.