Talking to Dolly Parton was somewhat like trying to talk to God; everyone has their own version if her. For the last 50 years she’s reigned high on a crown made entirely of big hair, big tits (of which she’ll be the first to joke about), and some of the most unforgettable pop music ever recorded. I’m not just saying that out of hyperbole: Her 42 studio albums have sold over 100 million copies worldwide. Her song “I Will Always Love You” was famously covered by Whitney Houston and has, alone, been one of the biggest pop songs ever recorded, selling roughly 70 million copies.
Everyone seems to have an idea of who she is. The members of the New York City drag queen community view her as the be-all-end-all totem of what they were going towards — a hyper-feminine, hyper-confident bright light that they were forever drawn to. The country music fans that I spoke to viewed her as a demi-goddess that had written two of the biggest songs of the 20th century on the same day. Near everyone else I spoke to about her was able to recall her from memory as one would the image of Jesus Christ or Ronald McDonald. She is, to say the least, incredibly famous in a way that very few other people on this planet can relate to.
Fresh out of a breakup, I had pitched an article on heartbreak. My first draft was returned in about the time it would take to make a slice of toast as my editor had found it “mawkish” and “redundant,” and had returned it to me with a note handwritten on the upper left hand side of the page that simply said “no” in crimson red ink. I reread the damn article top to bottom. It seemed clinical. It seemed, perhaps, if I were to choose two words from the top of my head, mawkish and redundant.
Through some research, I discovered humans aren’t the only species who suffer from heartbreak. Gorillas can effectively die from heartbreak. Male fruit flies experience something akin to resentment towards already courted females. Dogs, if overcome with enough grief, sometimes just simply give up the will to live. This outright rejection of the article had not helped the breakup in any way and I felt worse and sank further into a situational yet very real depression. Nothing seemed to help, especially the laundry list of animal related deaths due to depression and heartbreak. I needed something to fix the article. I needed to talk to an expert.
One night in a bar after a day of terrible ideas that went nowhere I found myself three scotches further in than I needed to be, having hours ago reached the end of a mental cul-de-sac. Some poor fucker had been putting on the worst music imaginable. Should I have been able to remove myself from the barstool I would have throttled him. But then, out of nowhere, or at the very least, the speakers along the wall of the bar, came the luscious, dulcet tones of Ms. Dolly Parton.
“And I–e-I-e-yeahhhhhh,” she sang just to me sitting there on that Cobble Hill bar-stool, “Will always lo-ooove you-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-yeahhhhh…”
Three days later it occurred to me that perhaps the jukebox had been trying to tell me something: maybe I should try and talk to Dolly Parton. Maybe, just maybe, she would have some idea of what to do or what to say. Through a vague music industry contact I managed to find her publicist’s email. I hammered out a quick message to him — something with the subject line “DEADLINE! URGENT! DOLLY PARTON INTERVIEW PLEASE” — and waited.
This all occurred in late May. I forgot about the article. The editor, thankfully, forgot about the article. Then, one day, and without warning, I got an email back. “Mister Hepburn,” it read, “If you’d still like to ask Dolly a question regarding matters of the heart, would you be available to jump on a call tomorrow at around 11am?”
It hit me at that very moment that Dolly was a real person.
This is quite hard to comprehend when you’re looking at pictures of her, as you were so used to this image of her that she had, for all intents and purposes, become entirely two- dimensional. If you’re a particular level of famous, people just stop looking at you as a human being.
Fame, ultimately, distills the very essence of you, for better or worse. The public image really is an image in the very definition of the word: “an artifact that depicts or records perception.” The PR industry aside, if you’re an outrageously positive, plucky person then that will be what shines through. Dolly’s public image for the past 50 years has been that of the “aww shucks” outsider, an oracle of heartbreak, a big-haired, big-mouthed, big-chested truth talker who many different types of people project many different things onto.
Perhaps fame isn’t something that happens to you. Perhaps it’s something that other people see and feel like they can take a part of. On an earlier assignment I had been chastised by my editor for not asking Susan Sarandon who she had slept with. I remember wondering at the time when it was OK for anyone at all to ask about the sex lives of anyone else, let alone someone they had just met, let alone that of a movie star. I rode that self-righteous thought for a few minutes before remembering that there was an entire industry of TMZs, Star magazines, Hello magazines, Us Weeklys, and a myriad of others, whose entire existence revolved around taking apart and rearranging the public image of others.
Dolly, though, had somehow managed to work around that machine. She had constructed an entire image based around being confident in the face of adversity and overcoming the odds. Her earliest songs are centered around this image — “Puppy Love,” “Girl Left Alone,” “It’s Sure Gonna Hurt,” “Don’t Drop Out” — and it gives the listener quite the blank canvas to project themselves onto. Everyone has experienced heartbreak at some point in their life, but Dolly’s image is founded upon it. Surprisingly, she’s been married to the same guy, Carl Thomas Dean, for nearly 45 years. So maybe she doesn’t know a whole lot about heartbreak first-hand. Maybe it is all a fabulous construct.
I still had no idea who Dolly Parton actually was. She was, on a very base level, a collection of pictures and songs and motion pictures. She was a 68 year old woman who was born “dirt poor” in Sevier County, Tennessee, who’s Dad paid the doctor who delivered her with a bag of oatmeal, a woman who as a child wanted nothing more than to be as pretty and as confident as the small town’s good-time girls. So. Who was Dolly Parton? I had no idea anymore. Somewhere under all these folk stories and artifice there was a real person. There had to be a real person.
She was on tour in Sweden, and you could hear other people behind her milling around and doing tour-like things. Her manager told her I was writing for PLAYBOY. I had less than five minutes to talk to her. The line kept clicking.
“Hello, Dolly. I’m doing an article on heartbreak and I was wondering how you, Dolly Parton, would get over heartbreak?”
She chuckled and sighed. If you’re wondering what Dolly Parton’s chuckle and sigh sounds like, it sounds exactly like you think it would.
“You gotta do what anybody else does. Time has to heal all wounds,” she said, seemingly holding onto the “ou” from “wounds” for a moment longer than one would expect. “Y'know, I wrote it in a song once,” she continued, “I always thought that a broken heart is like a broken wing. It just has to have its time to mend. It’s like any other injury. And usually a terrible, terrible heartache takes about a year to heal but some of them can heal a little faster.”
Her voice upturned a little, as if she was optimistic.
“You just try to think positive and try to live above it,” she added, “Try to move beyond it…but you gotta roll with the stone while it lasts, you can’t outrun it.”
That was it. That was all the time we had.
"Thank you, Dolly.”
A quick goodbye, and then I was alone. Her simple answer, as cliched as it was, provided me with a better answer of what to do about heartbreak now and how to handle it.
There are only so many mornings in a man’s life, and they’re best spent not feeling sorry for yourself.
Ned Hepburn is a writer and editor of varying repute who divides his time between NYC and Los Angeles. He has written for Playboy, Esquire, Vice, Interview and has worked with National Geographic and the band Mötley Crüe.