These days, celebrity access is so aggressively contrived and mediated that the idea of having seven wild, unfettered hours to ask prying questions of an interview subject in service of a print interview seems like a fantasy. But when it’s 1978, not 2016, and that reporter is Lawrence Grobel, and that magazine is playboy, and that subject is Dolly Parton—the author of some 3,000 country songs, a famously jocular, guileless and forthcoming woman—the results are their own kind of art.
Grobel and Parton’s conversation is revealing in a way that only reiterates Parton’s legacy as the grand dame of sentimental camp and a paragon of self-possession. It’s also loaded with gems: only Dolly Parton would casually disclose how, when growing up in rural Tennessee, her siblings (she’s one of 12) routinely wet the bed with her in it. She didn’t mind, because at least it was toasty: “As soon as I’d go to bed, the kids would wet on me. That was the only warm thing we knew in the wintertime.”
Thirty-eight years later, Parton’s ideas on fame, femininity, performance, empathy, sex and art still feel germane, edifying. Long before empowerment became a buzzword, Parton understood what it meant to self-actualize, to be only who she was, to blur the lines between authenticity and performance. “I just don’t have a fear of life,” is how she put it. Her courage and confidence remain inspiring. —Amanda Petrusich, 12/7/2016
Two days before the Palomino club in Los Angeles sponsored its first Dolly Parton Look-Alike Contest, Dolly Parton was wondering whether or not she should attend. She’d been to some others in different parts of the country and she’d been mostly disappointed. In Los Angeles, however, it might be different. But she knew if she attended, she would also enter. And she was wondering if there was any chance she might lose. “Wouldn’t that be hysterical?” she said. “But I doubt if I would. I mean, I look too much like her.”
The contest was on a Wednesday night. Dolly was rehearsing for a TV special and wasn’t sure if she’d be through in time to run over with a friend to the North Hollywood club. On Thursday, she’d been invited to her friend Emmylou Harris’ house. Emmylou said there were some people she wanted Dolly to meet. Although her schedule was as tight as her clothes, Dolly accepted without hesitation.
There was much talk in Los Angeles about the top-secret album Dolly and Emmylou and Linda Ronstadt were working on. They’d been meeting and recording in full-day sessions that had been closed to the press. But there had been managerial problems as well as scheduling conflicts and the album was still an on/off project.
Ronstadt and Harris had wanted to meet Parton after having recorded some of her songs. When the three met, they hit it off immediately and have become friends. Parton was concerned that Harris and Ronstadt might put her down for the way she looks—for her gaudy rhinestone outfits, the blonde teased wigs, the five-inch heels, the heavy makeup. She was afraid that Johnny Carson and Barbara Walters would put her down for the same thing. But they didn't—and few others have. People apparently see beyond the ostentatious appearance. “I don’t think it takes people long to know I’m not ignorant,” she says.
But Parton felt that without her props, it would have taken her longer to attract a broad audience, so, not one for waiting, she did what she could to promote herself. In so doing, she became the exaggeration that Bette Midler is trying to be and that Mae West was. Parton is the incarnation of West in certain ways: She doesn’t show much, but she hints at a lot; she pokes fun at herself and makes a fortune at the jokes; she knows what she wants and she won’t let anything interfere with her becoming as big a star as she can possibly become.
Parton has come a long way from her Tennessee mountain home. She was born in a Locust Ridge “holler” in Sevier County in the Smoky Mountain foothills on January 19, 1946. The fourth of 12 children, she was the first in her family to finish high school, the first to become famous. “I never had a doubt I would make it,” she reasons, “because refusing to think I couldn’t make it is the reason I could.”
For Parton, making it meant getting out of the backwoods and into the limelight. Her rise was rapid: She began writing songs at seven, recording them and singing on the Cas Walker radio and television show at 10, making her first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry at 12.
The day after she graduated from high school, she left with her uncle, Bill Owens, for Nashville to become a star. That same day she met, and within two years married, an asphalt worker named Carl Dean. Dean is a publicity-shy, earthy man who is as independent as Dolly and the two seem to have a solid, often at-a-distance relationship. She’s on the road most of the year and he’s at home working their land.
When country singer Norma Jean, who sang with Porter Wagoner on the road and on his syndicated TV show, decided to quit and get married in 1967, Wagoner asked Dolly if she’d like to join his show. Overnight, her salary rose from next to nothing to $60,000 a year and, at 21, she had achieved one of her goals: a broad and popular audience.
Although she and Wagoner became hugely successful and their duo albums sold well, she became restless and made a decision to go out on the road with members of her family. It proved to be almost disastrous. She and her Travelin’ Family Band went from state fair to rodeo to high school gymnasium amateurishly managed and poorly booked. Making her most painful decision to date, she told her family it wasn’t working out and took time off to put together a more professional band. She also hired a Los Angeles–based manager and public-relations firm, who saw enormous potential in this energetic and prolific woman.
By then, she was ready to “cross over” into the pop/rock world. Her albums were popular in Japan, France, Australia and England (where she was twice named Female Vocalist of the Year) and she coproduced her own album, New Harvest. She followed that with her “new sound”: “Here You Come Again,” which recently went platinum, more than quadrupled the sales of many of her earlier albums.
With 20th Century-Fox offering her a three-movie deal, publishers bidding for the novel she’s writing, her autobiography in the works, TV network executives trying to line her up for specials and record albums starting to sell in the millions, playboy decided to send freelance writer Lawrence Grobel to talk with Dolly and see how it all happened and how it has affected her.
Grobel, who previously interviewed Henry Winkler and Barbra Streisand for playboy, began the interview in Los Angeles and then joined Dolly at the beginning of her six-month nationwide road tour. His report:
“I’ve met busy people before, but in Dolly’s case, her scheduling is extreme. Her energy matches her ambition, which is limitless. If she’s not writing or recording her own songs, she’s recording with Linda and Emmylou, rehearsing with her band, taping a TV show, throwing a wedding for her younger sister, giving a concert for ABC-radio executives in Las Vegas or touring.
"I managed to pin her down for five hours in an apartment she rents in Los Angeles. The first thing I noticed was how sparse it was; nothing plush or comfortable, no indication that a star lived there, obviously a place used for little more than sleeping. The only bit of eccentricity was a small, low, round trampoline, which she said she used after giving up on jumping rope, ‘for a couple of good reasons.’
"Dolly wasn’t born with a voice like Streisand’s, but what she has is an enormously infectious personality. To meet her is to immediately like her. Although she appears larger than life, size is actually a compact woman—dazzling in appearance; but if you took away the wig and the Frederick’s of Hollywood five-inch heels, she’d stand just five feet tall. Of course, her height isn’t the first thing one notices upon meeting her. As she herself kids onstage, 'I know that you-all brought your binoculars to see me; but what you didn’t realize is you don’t need binoculars.’
"The next time I saw Dolly was in Winchester, Virginia, where she was scheduled to appear at the Apple Blossom Festival. By then, it was as if we were old and trusting friends and I soon discovered that she was the least hung-up celebrity I’ve ever been with. She was open, honest and only rarely asked to go off the record; and even then, it was on matters such as being unsatisfied with a particular dress designer or not wanting to dwell too much on godly topics. When it came to her personal life, her dreams, her ambitions, she never hesitated.
"One little girl who had written to Dolly came to visit her after a show. Dolly was in a nightdress and greeted the child as her father took Polaroid pictures. But the picture I’ll always remember was of the father telling his wife to take a shot of him behind Dolly. He had this crazy gleam in his eyes, his tongue popped out of his mouth and I was sure he was going to cop a feel. But he restrained himself, as most people do around her. Because she is so open and unparanoid, she manages to tame the wildest instincts of men.
"Our last night together stretched out until morning. We talked from ten P.M. until five A.M., exchanging stories and not in the least bit tired. By the time we hugged goodbye, I was saddened that we were talked out. Our talk is what follows … though it does take a while to get over Dolly’s appearance.”
Hi. I’ll save you the trouble of askin’: Why do I choose to look so outrageous?
Is that the first question interviewers usually ask you?
That’s what we usually end up talkin’ about.
Actually, that was going to be our second question. We were going to start with the playboy cover. It’s pretty eye-catching. Was it fun?
I was afraid at first, when we talked about it. I didn’t want to be naked or something on the front of a magazine unless everybody knew it was a joke. I mean, I wouldn’t want to be naked even then. It might not offend me, but I was afraid maybe a lot of my country fans and some of the people who love me who are of a religious nature might not understand.
People will make jokes and things, not because of my beauty but just because of that physical thing that’s built around my boobs. I didn’t know if I wanted to be put in a category of where I was flaunting something I had never flaunted before. Then I thought, It isn’t something I should be ashamed of. playboy’s a real classy magazine. And I mean, who else but Dolly Parton should be on the cover of playboy? If you wanted an outrageous person to be an outrageous magazine cover, who else? I just hope people will take it in the spirit in which I did it—you know, something cute and off-the-wall for me.
Ok. Now, why do you choose to look so outrageous?
People have thought I’d be a lot farther along in this business if I dressed more stylish and didn’t wear all this gaudy getup. Record companies have tried to change me. I just refused. If I am going to look like this, I must have had a reason. It’s this: If I can’t make it on my talent, then I don’t want to do it. I have to look the way I choose to look, and this is what I’ve chose. It makes me different a little bit, and ain’t that what we all want to do: be a little different?
It’s fun for me. It’s like a little kid playing with her paints and colors. I like to sit and tease my hair. If there’s something new on the market in make-up, I like to try it. You’ve got to have a gimmick. You’ve got to have something that will catch the eye and hold the attention of the public. But the funny thing is, no matter how much I try new staff, I wind up looking just the same.
Do you think you’ll become a fashion trendsetter? Isn’t there already a Dolly Parton look?
[Laughing] Can you imagine anybody wanting to look this way for real? When people first get to know me, they say, “Why do you wear all of this?” Then, after a week of knowing me, they totally understand. They know it’s just a bunch of baloney. But why not? Life’s boring enough, it makes you try to spice it up. I guess I just throw on a little too much spice.
Why are there so many Dolly Parton look-alike contests?
Because they’re fun. Who would be better to impersonate than Dolly Parton? All you gotta do is get a big blonde wig, make-up, and if you’re pretty well proportioned … or you can even fake it. The best parts of Dolly Parton look-alike contests are guys dressed up like girls. It’s so easy to do me.
Have you ever met any of the winners?
I sure have. They were the biggest bunch of pigs I ever saw, most of them. I thought to myself, Is that how people think I look? I thought, Oh, Lord, some of them were in worse shape than I even thought I was. I’ve only seen two that would even be classified as a human being.
So you don’t think they’ve ever been able to imitate the real, sexy you?
Listen, I never thought of myself as being a sex symbol. It never crossed my mind that anybody might think I was sexy.
But surely, after all the media exposure you’ve received, you have to he conscious of what people say and think about you.
I didn’t say what you-all thought. I said that it never once crossed my mind, even now. I still can’t get it through my head that people think I’m supposed to be sexy or somethin’. I don’t want that responsibility. I don’t want to have to keep up an image like that. I don’t want to have to be like a beautiful woman, like a Raquel Welch—which is no trouble, I never would anyway. I’m just sayin’ I wouldn’t want people to look at me and if I gained ten pounds, they’d say, “Oh, God, she’s ruined her looks.” I’m made up of many things. I’m very complex. I have much more depth than just my looks, which to me are not all that hot, anyway. I’ve always looked a certain way and had an image. I like the big hairdo, the gaudy clothes. There’s not much sexy about that. Men are not usually turned on by artificial looks and I’ve always been like that.
People will always talk and make jokes about my bosoms. Why dwell on that? Why don’t they look underneath the breasts, at the heart?
If that’s true, why do you suppose there’s such a huge cosmetic industry in this country?
I’m talking about my kind—the big wigs, the total artificial look. I don’t try to dress in style or to be really classy. I’ve got my work to do and I like to look good, but I don’t try to keep an image other than just this gimmick appearance that I have. If I was trying to really impress men or be totally sexy, then I would chess differently.
How would you look?
I would wear low-cut things. Try to keep my weight down. Try to really work on my body. I would find a new, softer, sexier hair style—it would be my own hair, some way. But why bother? I’m already married and he don’t mind how I look. He likes me gaudy or ungaudy.
When were you first attracted to gaudiness?
I was always fascinated with make-up. We didn’t have any when I grew up. We weren’t allowed to wear it. But we used to have this medicine, what you call Merthiolate, that’s what I would put on my lips as a little kid. I’d paint my lips and there was nothin’ Daddy could do. He couldn’t rub it off. He would say, “Get that lipstick off you!” And I’d say, “It won’t come off, it’s my natural coloring, Daddy.” Then he’d say, “Bull.” When we wanted eyebrows, we’d get burned matches and make little eyebrows. When I was a sophomore in high school, the teased hair came into style and I started doing that, and ever since, I’ve clone it. And I wore my skirts so tight I could hardly wiggle in them. I liked tight sweaters. I just like tight clothes, I always did.
I just like to feel things next to me, I guess. Even before I had a figure, I liked my clothes snug and tight. People would always kid me in school about my little butt and my little blue jeans or whatever. Momma, she always understood stuff like that. She’d say, “Don’t get them so tight you can’t move in them, where they cut your wind off.” But she’d seam them up and if they weren’t quite tight enough, I’d say, “Won’t you fix them a little right in here?” And she would. See, she was a daughter of a preacher and when she was a child, they wouldn’t let her wear any make-up. They all had long hair then and she wanted her hair cut. The very day that her and Daddy got married, she cut her hair off and she kept it short ever since. She said, “I swore then that when I had kids, I would not make 'em do things that they were uneasy with.”
What did your father think of your tight clothes?
Daddy didn’t like us to wear real tight clothes back at the start. He was more strict with us, he just didn’t understand how to be a father. A father of girls, especially. He just didn’t want us to date. He trusted us, but he didn’t trust the guys we was goin’ with.
You must have looked more mature than a lot of your classmates when you were a girl.
Well, I looked more mature, I was more mature. I used my mind in different ways. I developed my mind by writing and thinking deep and planning and dreaming. I thought serious. I looked as old as the teachers. When I was in high school, I looked like I was 25 years old.
Was the fact that you were physically more developed than the other girls a problem for you? Were you teased much?
It was always a problem, to a degree. But I had a real open personality. I don’t think I was teased openly; it was more what people were sayin’ behind my back: “No, they’re not real, she’s got Kleenex in there.”
Did that bother you?
It was kind of embarrassing, but it must not have bothered me too much. I’m a real obvious person; all the things you see are obvious. But my body is not really as extreme as people make it out to be. I am just a small, tiny, little person, five feet tall, with a small frame. I have plenty, but it’s not like what people say: “Oh, gosh, she must be 45 inches.” I’m not nowhere near it, you know.
Why have you always refused to disclose your measurements?
There’s just no point. I’m not sayin’ it’s not there. A lot of people claim, “I remember when you wasn’t that big.” And I say, “Yeah, but you remember when I wasn’t this far, too.” I’m not that well endowed. I’m not as huge as people make me out as being. I really ain’t. I mean, if you look real good … I’ve got plenty, but I know a lot of people that are so big it’s unhealthy, it hurts their back. I am so extreme, if I didn’t have some, I would sure have made some. But from the time I was just a young girl, they’ve been there.
Some book said I had my bust lifted at Vanderbilt Hospital. Well, I never even been doctored at Vanderbilt Hospital. People will always talk and make jokes about my bosoms. When somebody says that this doctor claims he did it, I always say that plastic surgeons are all alike, they’re always making mountains out of molehills. But, no, I didn’t go to Vanderbilt Hospital. And if I had had something done, it would be a very private thing to me and it would be one of my secrets. But a lot of people that know me would know the difference. We won’t say which-a-way that goes. So we will just leave the people wondering. But why dwell on that? Why don’t they look underneath the breasts, at the heart?
All right. How would you describe yourself to someone who had never seen or heard you?
Well, I would start by saying that I pride myself on being a fair and honest person. I am free and open enough to be able to try new things. I’m outrageous. I feel like I have a lot of depth that only the people closest to me really see. I’m compulsive and very ambitious. I’m playful. I’m joyful. I’m mischievous. Serious when I mean to be serious. I can be strong when I need to be and weak when I want to be. I can tell you where to put it if I don’t like where you got it. I’m not a very moody person. I don’t fall into great states of depression. Very sentimental and highly emotional. I’m a baby when it comes to bein’ a baby. I like to be spoiled and petted. I get touched real easy. I’m curious, I have to know everything that goes on. I’m not a brilliant person, but I have a lot of guts. I just don’t have a fear of life. I love life, so why should I fear somethin’ I love? And why should I not reach out to the things that I know I can touch? I’m strong-willed. I can think like a workingman because I know what a workingman goes through. I’m a person you could sit down with even if you were a total stranger and tell me the thing you thought was the most horrible thing and I would understand it. And I wouldn’t tell. I’m a good friend. I’m loyal and devoted to the things that I believe in…. I’m full of shit!
That’s quite a description. Now, how would you assess your talent?
I like to be appreciated as a writer and, if not a great singer, at least a stylist and an original, creative person.
You don’t feel you’re that good a singer?
I don’t think so. My manager just hates me to say that, because he says it’s not true. I don’t have a great voice. I have a different voice and I can do things with it that a lot of people can’t. But it’s so delicate in other ways, there’s no way I can do some of the things other singers can.
I just love to sing. It is joyful, it’s something I can scream, it’s a release for me. I used to have a lot of vibrato in my voice. It could almost be real irritating to a lot of people’s ears. It was a natural thing for me, but some people say, “You sound like you been eating billy goat.” Bah, bah. I guess I overdone it, so I tried to learn at takin’ some of the vibrato out. I would like to improve my voice to be able to hit better notes. My notes are not always true. But my heart is always true. And the emotion I put in is always true.
Do you listen to yourself often?
No, never. Unless I’m in the studio tryin’ to decide what goes in the album. I’m not necessarily a fan of my own. I’m not one of my favorite singers.
Is it true that your husband doesn’t like your singing?
He didn’t used to, but he’s become a real big fan of mine now. I played this new album, Heartbreaker, and he really liked it.
Does that mean a lot to you?
It means more than anybody could ever know.
I used to have a lot of vibrato in my voice. It was a natural thing for me, but some people say, ‘You sound like you been eating billy goat.’
You and Carl have been married 12 years and no one’s ever seen a picture of the two of you together. Why the mystery?
He just don’t have any desire to be in show business. He don’t want to have his picture in the paper. He don’t want to go out to the supermarket and have people say, “That’s Dolly Parton’s husband.” There’s been a lot of distorted press about how I only see him six weeks a year, which is not true. It’s true that last year I was only at home about six weeks, but he joined me on the road a lot.
Is he as shy and bashful as the press makes him out to be?
No. He’s just the funniest, wittiest guy in the world. He’s really bright. He’s not backward at all. I just really wish that people would let him be. He’s a home-lovin’ person. He works outside, he’s got his tractor and his grader, he keeps our farm in order. He wouldn’t have to work no more, because I’m making good money now, but he gets up every morning at daylight. If he ain’t workin’ on our place, he’ll take a few jobs, like grading somebody’s driveway or cleaning off somebody’s property, to pick up a couple of hundred bucks. He likes his own money to horse-trade with.
Do people say anything to him about Dolly Parton’s husband grading their driveway?
Oh, sure; he don’t give a shit. He don’t go up and say, “Hey, I’m Dolly Parton’s husband, can I grade your drive?” If somebody knows it, he don’t make a big thing of it; he’ll play it down, he’ll say, “Well, I ain’t in show business, I got to work, now what can I do for you?” Or he’ll say, “Hell, she ain’t makin’ no money.” He’s a man with a lot of pride; even though my money is his money, his money is mine.
What is it about him that attracted you?
His honesty. His decency. His earthiness. I like the way he loves me. His understanding of me and the things I do. The way he lets me be free. And lets me be me. He don’t try to choke me and demand anything from me.
Does he ever give you advice about your career?
He never interferes with me businesswise. That’s why I hire managers. Carl and I only talk about our own things. We talk about what we’re gonna do with the house, the farm. Or he wants me to see a truck he’s rebuilt. He’s like my little boy. But he’s like my daddy, like a brother. And I’m all those things to him. I call Carl Daddy.
What does Carl call you?
When he’s talking to other people, he says “the old lady” or “she.” Or “crazy woman.” He never says Dolly, never. And if he does, it hurts my feelin’s so bad—ain’t that crazy? If I say Carl, he won’t even react. He hates me to call him Carl. He’ll say, “Call me son of a bitch, call me anythin’, but don’t call me Carl.” That’s what everybody calls him, so it’s not personal enough.
Is he a jealous person?
Not a bit.
I’m not, either.
Would it matter if he were seeing someone else while you were away?
If he were, would you want to know?
No, I wouldn’t want to know and he wouldn’t want to tell me. But if he did, it wouldn’t be like the end of the world for me. I would just say it was as much my fault as his. I would probably cry and pout for a day for the attention of it, and then it would be over. To me, life is life and people is people. You cannot control every emotion that you have.
How would he feel if you had an affair?
The same way. He wouldn’t want to know. I think I would keep it from him. He would be more apt to tell than me. He knows I ain’t goin’ nowhere. No matter who I met or what kind of an affair I might ever have, ain’t nobody in this world could take Carl’s place. There ain’t no way in this world I’d ever lose this man.
Someone on the road as much as you are could sleep around a lot——
How do you know I don’t?
Because you speak so freely and guiltlessly about your relationship with Carl. You’d have to really be a good actress to cover up a lot of affairs.
Oh, I am. I guess men think they can get away with it or somethin’. That all depends on the person. I just feel what’s fair for the goose is fair for the gander. Whether I do or whether I don’t is my concern. If I was ever weak enough to do something like that, it would never involve him, he would never know it, he would never feel any effects from it. Those are very personal questions and I’m a very private person, but I’m just like you—you don’t always tell everything, do you? Let’s put it this way: If I wanted to do it, I would; if I should do it, it would affect nobody but me and the person involved. Maybe it would be somethin’ that would even make me be a happier person.
But couldn’t it also lead to complications in your life?
Well, kiss me, we’ll see.
This is what’s known as an awkward pause.
There are a few people that I have been attracted to real strong, but I avoid that. There is no way in heaven’s name that I could ever leave Carl, so why should I put myself and another person through that kind of torment?
It sounds like marriage at a distance can be healthy.
It is. We’re so used to the lifestyle, if I’m home two or three weeks, I want to get to work and he wants to get back to work, so he’s just as anxious to see me go as I am to leave. It probably don’t make much sense, but it makes sense to us.
When you are home, do you entertain much?
When I’m home, we don’t like people at the house other than our family and our own friends. We don’t want fans comin’ in our yard. And there’s no artist in the business that is any more devoted and loves their fans more than me. I’ve always tried to belong to the public when I’m out there, and I’ve always tried to be honest enough with them to say, “I don’t want you to come up to the house unless you’ve been invited, because I may be up there half-naked.” I shouldn’t have said that; they’ll probably be comin’ up to take pictures now. That’s why we bought a piece of property where we could have the privacy to get out in the vard in shorts or looking tacky.
Tacky-tacky … no make-up, looking like anybody.
Is privacy a problem?
We do have fans that jump the fence. That’s not a very polite thing to do, but I don’t get bent out of shape over it. I just figure if it’s that important to somebody, least you can do is try to be nice.
When you’re performing, are your fans rowdy?
It is getting so now the crowds are getting wilder and there are a lot of younger people and a lot of pushing and shoving. Some people get overexcited. They can run over a kid and bust his brains out or something without meaning to. It is kind of frightening. But they are the most devoted tans, standing there, rain or snow, freezing to death. It is amazing.
Are audiences different in different parts of the country?
It’s pretty much the same in every part of the country, except Texas. Texas audiences are the loudest and most responsive. They are just fun-lovin’ people all the time. Texans are in a world of their own. It’s a great place for music.
What about fan mail? Do you ever get any letters that might be considered strange?
I used to get letters from a man who was in a mental institution. He was a big fan but just distorted. It was more perverted than anything else. I kept those. I get a lot of mail from prisoners and usually they are very nice letters. Sometimes they get a little horny.
Have you had any difficulties getting your fans to accept your new image? Are there diehard country-music buffs who can’t accept your crossing over into the pop/rock field?
We had some of that when I started, when I first got the bigger band and started doin’ more rocky things. Some people hollered, “Do your country, we don’t need your rock 'n’ roll.” I don’t do rock 'n’ roll. I knew what I was tryin’ to do and I didn’t have time to try to explain it to them.
I have not changed because of success, and I never will. The only thing success does to you, like Barbra Streisand said in her Playboy Interview, it just don’t allow you to be alone anymore. Everybody is tryin’ to get to you. It just gets to the point where people demand so much from you you just can’t give it and you have to take all kinds of hurts and insults. It bothers you. Of all things, for somebody to say that I’ve changed, that just burns me up.
But your music has changed to some degree. Didn’t you say that your Here You Come Again album is slicker than you wanted it to sound?
Well, you see, that was the first thing that I did after I made the change and it was not exactly what I had in mind. But it proved to be the smartest thing. I knew Here You Come Again would be a hit song, but I don’t know if I should be identified with it, because it’s so smooth and pop-sounding. That’s such a good song a monkey could have made it a hit. Well, you’re looking at a million-dollar monkey.
Do you feel that in order to reach a larger audience you have to sweeten or smooth out your sound?
Yeah, here and there. I was kind of afraid that people would think, Boy, this is too drastic. I just didn’t want flue country people to think that I totally left them. That was such a polished pop sound! But it was the biggest country record I ever had, as well.
Are you close to most of your band members?
I’m close to all the people in my band. I’m not above them just because I am the star. They are not sidemen to me. We are all musicians making a living for each other. The way we travel, I couldn’t work with a bunch of loonies, a bunch of squirrels. I don’t mind drugs, I don’t mind drinkin’ in my group as long as it don’t interfere with my show. We’re together 24 hours a day, but that one hour onstage is mine. That’s what I pay for. I don’t care what you do after the show, I don’t care what you do until four or five hours before the show. As long as everybody is straight, so if I want communication when we’re onstage, I have it.
And you feel you’re close to that now?
My group is pretty clean. See, I live with the band. I travel with 'em, I don’t like to separate myself from my group. In summertime, we take our barbecue grill and travel by bus. We only fly when we have to. Rather than stopping at a truck stop or a restaurant, we get a volleyball net, out, we stop along the side of the road and have a picnic. I cook, there’s another girl in my group, we have a real good time. We have water fights, cake fights, food fights … like brats. It’s like a family. When the clay comes when I can’t enjoy it or there’s no fun doin’ it, there’s lots of things that I can find joy in, and I would.
You once toured with members of your own family. What happened to your Travelin’ Family Band?
There was a lot of hurt caused by some press. They made it sound like I had fired my family. I did not fire my family. I had brothers and sisters and cousins in my group and I was really havin’ to go through’ things I shouldn’t have—poor lighting, poor sound, poor management, poor everything. I just decided I was goin’ to quit for a few days, just stop everything and do some thinkin’. Because I won’t let somethin’ run me to a psychiatrist or to a doctor; I can take care of my own things, me and the Lord can talk it over. I was brought up religious and even if I’m not a fanatic, I have a communication with God, which helps me like a psychiatrist might help somebody else.
Were either of your parents musically talented?
All of my momma’s people were singers, writers, musicians. And a lot of my daddy’s people were really involved in music. But it was just around home and in church; nobody had ever done anything as far as making any money with it. I was the first one that ever became popular doin’ it, but there’s a lot of 'em a lot more talented than me. I just had this grit and all these dreams and plans.
Do you resemble your mother?
I look like her and my daddy, too. Daddy’s people are fair and blond and blue-eyed. My momma’s people have a lot of Indian blood, so they’re dark, with high cheekbones and real dark hair. I have Momma’s features: Momma’s smile, dimples; but I have Daddy’s nose. I got Daddy’s pride and determination and I got Momma’s personality. My momma’s people and my daddy’s people grew up as good friends, that’s how they met, so there’s a lot of marriages between the Partons and the Owenses. In the mountains, there’s not that many people, so most people are related on one side or the other, and then they marry in, which makes you all kinfolks. I have double first cousins, first second cousins, stuff like that.
What is a double first cousin?
Let me see if I can explain it. My mother’s mother’s sister married my daddy’s brother. So their kids are my first—second?—cousins. It sounds like I’m my own grandpa, don’t it? Anyway, you can figure it out later. However it is, we got some double first cousins and first second cousins. That kind of thing. Who can tell about mountain people?
Did you go to school with all your relatives?
We lived in the mountains and there were very few people lived where we did, way back in the holler; our closest neighbors were a long ways off. We walked a long way to school, a one-woman school that had the first through’ the eighth grade. Only like 10 or 15 people in the whole school and one teacher. The grades were in rows: There might be two kids in the first grade, three in the second, one in the third … and so the teacher would just take a chair and sit in the aisle and the other kids had to study. I was the first one in our family that went to high school. My daddy didn’t particularly want me to go to school, my momma didn’t care. In the mountains, schoolin’ is not that important.
How did you know it was important?
I wanted to finish high school just so I could say I did, because I knew I’d learn things there that I would probably need to know, because I had already decided I was going out into the world. I was the most popular girl in school but in the wrong way. I wore tight clothes and told dirty jokes.
I never failed a subject, but I was never a good student. I never studied, I just used my own common sense to get by. I wanted to take band so I could bring my grades up. I didn’t want to play horn or anything I had to really learn, so I asked if I could play the drums. I never did learn to read a note of music. I got like 98 in band, which brought up my other grades at the end of the semester. But I didn’t play well. I didn’t know what I was doin’.
I hated school. Even to this day, when I see a school bus, it’s just depressing to me. I think, Those poor little kids.
Did you like school?
I hated it. Even to this day, when I see a school bus, it’s just depressing to me. I think, Those poor little kids having to sit there in the summer days, staring out the window. It’s hot and sweaty in the schoolroom. It reminds me of every feelin’ and every emotion that I had in school. I’d hate to have to make my own kids go to school. I know that sounds terrible. A lot of people will say, “What a dumb person.” I hated school every day I went, but it was better than stayin’ home every day. Momma was sick a lot; we had some real hard times.
What were those hard times like?
Momma had kids all the time—she had one on her and one in her. She was always pregnant, and the time she wasn’t pregnant, she was just really rundown sick, and back then, you didn’t have doctors that much. Momma took spinal meningitis once. The doctor said there was no way she could live, only one person in a thousand did live, and if she did live, she’d be crippled up. He told Daddy and my grandma she wouldn’t live through the night. So they had church that night and they prayed all night. They packed Momma in ice, her fever was way past where it would do brain damage, and the next mornin’, when the doctor came in, Momma was sittin’ up in bed, kickin’ her foot—Momma always kicked her foot, like I do, it’s a rhythm thing. The doctor came in and she said, “I’ve been healed.” And he said, “You sure have been healed, there’s been a miracle happened here.” They never could explain it. The only thing it did to Momma, it left her deaf in one ear, which just made her talk louder.
How old were you at that time?
Were there other illnesses at home?
One time, Momma had a miscarriage. It was really scary. We were all little. She started having this miscarriage … and she would always read the Bible; she’d be in bed and sing sacred songs—that was real depressing. We always knew when Momma was bad sick, she would do that. It was during school, my first year. The way we got to school was we walked to this green barn. The man who owned that property had some bulls and they were mean. We had to walk along the fence row to get to school, and if the bulls would start out for us, we’d just roll under the fence. Anyway, Momma was at home with the two younger kids, they were just, like, two and three years old. Momma knew she was gonna die if somebody didn’t do somethin’ for her. So she told my little brother and sister what they had to do: “Now, you get your stick and go to the schoolhouse and get the kids, because Momma’s sick. You take the stick and walk along the fence and if the bulls start after you, just roll under the fence or just hit 'em with the stick.” Here was these little kids, it was really sad. It was a long way, even for us. And these two little kids must have took forever. We were in the middle of class and these two little kids … it was just so sad, there’s a lot of things that almost make you cry. My little brother stuttered a lot and he couldn’t talk good. The other kid couldn’t even talk at all yet. But my older sister, Willadene, knew what was up when she saw them there. She jumped up and grabbed the rest of us and said, “Let’s go, Momma’s sick.” So we just all ran home. My two older brothers had to run and find somebody to help us. At the time, we had some neighbors that didn’t like us. We’d had a feud—it was kinda like the Hatfields and the McCoys. But they were good that time; it was just God’s will, I guess.
What was the feud about?
These people that lived near us, they had big kids and they were just mean. In the country, you’re just born mean. They would whip us every day as we walked to school, hit us with rocks. Daddy made us another path through the woods where we could go to school and avoid 'em. They got to where they would meet us on the trail and still beat us up. Well, Daddy just got tired of it. He just went to the people and told them, “I’m gonna kill somebody if your kids don’t stop beatin’ my kids up.” It started from that and then it got all the older people involved. My daddy and brothers got in a fight with these people and Daddy whupped about five grown people in that one family. So it was a real bad thing, we couldn’t go by their house—they had dogs and they’d let them loose on us if we had to walk that way. But when Momma was near dyin’, we just had nowhere else to go, which goes to show you there is good in everybody. These two women came and they ran out to the main road, which was a long, long way, and they had to track Daddy down. Daddy was workin’ at a sawmill somewhere.
And then what happened?
There was only two funeral homes in Sevierville, which was the nearest town to us. The funeral home that we didn’t even belong to, they come to get Momma. It was just a bloody mess. We didn’t have sheets on our beds; Momma would always just sew up rags. I remember seeing these people coming in these white jackets and this stretcher with these snow-white sheets, and you could see it a mile away. We just ran behind the house, cryin’ and prayin’ that Momma wouldn’t die.
Did you understand death then?
We understood that it was final. When Momma had spinal meningitis, she was pregnant and all the effects went to the baby she was carrying. When it was born, it only lived nine hours. It was the first time I’d ever seen my daddy cry.
We always looked forward to the babies born. A lot of people thought we were crazy. Even our relatives. I remember when my little brother died, I heard somebody say at the funeral home, and it stuck with me forever, “It’s a blessing the little thing died.” As if we didn'tneed any more kids. I thought, What a cruel thing to say, because we waited for each baby. It was like a joy. And there were so many of us Momma would say, “Now, this one’s gonna be yours.” And we kinda took care of it; it was like a new baby doll. With Momma being at the hospital and Daddy having to be with her a lot, we were by ourselves and it was just a real hard, depressed time.
What kind of man is your father?
Daddy never had an education, but he is the smartest man I ever knew. There was never a time when Daddy didn’t know what to do. My daddy used to make moonshine when he and Momma were first married. He got out of it because Momma didn’t like it, but that’s just the way of life in the country. That’s revenue money. If somebody’s gonna drink it, somebody’s got to sell it.
Did you ever drink it?
No, I never did drink moonshine. I tasted it. It tasted terrible. It’s not a really good drink. I mean, you’d have to want it real bad to drink that stuff.
Did your parents discipline you a lot?
Momma was so lenient, she just practically grew up with us. He was strict, he kept us in line. If he was mad, he whipped us with his belt. He didn’t beat us, but he’d whip us hard. We’d have to go get a switch and they were pretty good-sized ones. I don’t remember ever getting whupped with a board; I remember getting whupped with a stick of stove wood once.
Did you have a lot of childhood fantasies?
We didn’t have television and we didn’t have radio. We didn’t have electricity. Every now and then, if we could afford a battery—we had a battery radio—we’d listen to The Grand Ole Opry and The Lone Ranger maybe once or twice a week.
But we’d see catalogs—the wishbook, Momma called it. Made you wish you had things you didn’t have. I wanted fancy clothes, I wanted jewelry, I wanted to be pretty.
We related to the Bible a lot, lots of stories we played out were from the Bible. We were Disciples and we would paint on our feet these sandals, and then we found these staffs and we just roamed those hills as shepherds. We played out Jacob and Joseph and the coat of many colors. I wrote a song once … my favorite story was the coat of many colors.
So that was kind of a fantasy we lived in. We didn’t have books to read, except at school, and we tried not to read those.
Did you see magazines or newspapers at all?
We’d hear about war stories and about famous people, movie stars. Sometimes my aunt in Knoxville would bring newspapers up, which we used for toilet paper. But before we used it, we’d look at the pictures. And we’d hear about people who would get rich and you’d have all the food you wanted to eat and fancy clothes and houses. In our minds, there was so many of us, anybody that had a clean house was rich.
When did you first use a flush toilet?
My aunt in Knoxville had a toilet in the bathroom and we were so fascinated. We were afraid to use it. I just thought it was goin’ to suck us right down. She also had the first television we ever saw.
What about bathing?
Funny, I was just thinkin’ how nobody has ever asked me about how we bathed or how we … you know, because we didn’t have….
Toilets and facilities?
Yes. We made our own soap and in the summertime, we’d go to the river. That was like a big bath. And we’d all go in swimming and we’d wash our hair, wash each other’s hair. Soap was just flowin’ down the river and we were so dirty we left a ring around the Little Pigeon River.
What did you do in the winter?
In the wintertime, we just had a pan of water and we’d wash down as far as possible, and we’d wash up as far as possible. Then, when somebody’d clear the room, we’d wash possible.
How often did you bathe in the winter?
I had to take a bath every night to be clean, 'cause the kids peed on me every night and we all slept three or four in a bed. As soon as I’d go to bed, the kids would wet on me. That was the only warm thing we knew in the wintertime. That was our most pleasure—to get peed on. If you could just not fan the cover. If you kept the air out from under the cover, the pee didn’t get so colli. When you started fanning that cover, then it got bad, cold. Lord, it was as cold in the room where we slept as it was outside. We’d bundle up to go to bed.
When you bathed in the river, was it in the nude?
We were real modest as kids. The boys would go swimmin’ naked and the girls, sometimes we would, but we didn’t go naked swimmin’ together. As soon as you started sproutin’ at all, you put on a shirt and you didn’t take it off. I never did see Momma and Daddy naked. I’m glad I didn’t.
Did your parents teach you the facts of life or did you learn them in school?
It’s somethin’ I learned in the barn. [Laughs] I probably shouldn’t say this, but it’s just the truth: We were always just findin’ out things on our own. We had uncles and cousins that were maybe two or three years older than us that knew a lot of stuff. When they would come to visit us, they’d teach us all kinds of meanness or tell us about this or that. And soon as we got a chance, we’d try it.
Are we talking about sexual things?
Now, what were you talkin’ about?
Just making sure.
We were real curious. A lot of people won’t admit it, but I just always had an open mind about sex. We all did. It was not a vulgar thing. We didn’t know what we were doin’, we just knew we weren’t supposed to let Momma and Daddy know it. You never imagine your parents ever——
With 12 kids, they obviously did.
Yeah. A lot of people say, “Well, how in the world could you live in a house with 12 kids and never hear things?” I don’t know how they did it or where, but we never did know nothin’ about it. But they must have done it.
So your mother never explained where all you kids came from?
Momma always told us early that God was responsible for people havin’ babies. I don’t even know how I learned it. I learned real early. I think I probably knew it before Momma did. [Laughs] She learned when she was about 15 and I don’t think she knew what was goin’ on until she done had four kids. I was just so open-minded that I found out. If somebody wouldn’t tell me, I’d ask the first person I thought I could ask.
What were the kinds of things you were asking? Where it comes from? Does it feel good? Does it hurt?
Yeah. We just never did have a bunch of hang-ups. Momma never said, “Oh, don’t do this, you’ll go to hell.” She didn’t say do it, either. She didn’t say. Daddy would have probably blistered our rear ends if he’d caught us foolin’ around. We would just play doctor and nurse, just explore and experiment.
What about those guys who used to beat you all up—your neighbors—did they ever sexually abuse any of you?
No. That’s why they beat us up—because we wouldn’t do anything. [Laughs] We didn’t want to do it with them. I mean, we were choosy! But we never got sexually jumped or anything by them.
What was your first sexual experience like?
I always loved sex. I never had a bad experience with it. I was just very emotional. I felt that I could show my emotion just like I show my emotion with words. If I felt I wanted to share an emotion, then I did. To me, sex was not dirty. It was somethin’ very intimate and very real. I don’t ever remember bein’ afraid of it. I wasn’t afraid the first time I tried it.
How old were you the first time?
Now, I can’t tell you that, because that would probably be real perverted. As little kids, we were always experimenting.
Well, you seem to have had a healthy childhood. Did you share your dreams of being a star with your parents?
Yeah. I started writing songs before I went to school. Momma always wrote down stuff that I’d make up. I just had a gift of writing. I’d hear my people talk about relatives’ bein’ killed and I would make up all these heartbreakin’ songs about it. They’d forget they’d talked about it and they couldn’t imagine where I would come up with all these ideas. I just knew how to put it into story form. And Momma would write them down.
When did you start singing on the radio?
I had an uncle that told me there was this radio show in Knoxville and that sometime he might take me down there and I might get to be on it. I wanted to do that. So, when I was ten years old, I sung on the radio. And they all liked me real good, so they wanted me to work in the summer months. They said they’d pay me $20 a week. My aunt in Knoxville said she would take me up to the radio stations and the TV shows if Momma and Daddy would let me stay, and she did. I worked there in the summers until I was 18. I went from $20 a week to $60 when I left.
What kinds of songs were you singing?
I sung country music, some songs I wrote. I was singing by myself and playing the guitar. But I guess it was because I was a little kid they were sayin’ people liked it. I wasn’t that good.
Were any of your songs recorded then?
I made my first record when I was around 11.
And when did you make your first appearance at the Opry?
I was just a kid, 12 or 13. My uncle told the man at The Grand Ole Opry that I wanted to be on. The man said, “You can’t be on The Grand Ole Opry, you are not in the union.” And I said, “What is a union?” I didn’t know if it was a costume or a room to practice or what. I kept tellin’ everybody. I said I’ll just sing one song. Most of the artists at the Opry at that time had two spots. Nobody would let me sing and I walked up to Jimmy C. Newman, who was goin’ to sing next, and told him I wanted to be on. He told Johnny Cash that I was goin’ to sing. And so Johnny Cash brought me out and I sung and I just tore the house down. I had to sing it over and over and over. I thought I was a star. That was my first time.
How did you feel?
I was kind of scared, but I was excited, because I knew Daddy and Momma were listenin’ on the radio. I didn’t grasp all what it meant, but I knew I had to be on The Grand Ole Opry, that is all there was.
Were you always encouraged to be whatever you wanted to be?
Where I came from, people never dreamed of venturing out. They just lived and died there. Grew up with families and a few of them went to Detroit and Ohio to work in the graveyards and the car factories. But I’m talkin’ about venturing out into areas that we didn’t understand. To me, a little kid coming from where I did and having that ambition and sayin’ I wanted to be a star, people would say “Well, it’s good to daydream, but don’t get carried away.” People would say you can’t do this or you can’t become this. Well, if you don’t think you will do it, nobody else will think it.
I’ve got more confidence than I do talent, I think. I think confidence is the main achiever of success, I really do. Just believin’ you can do it. You can imagine it to the point where it can become reality. When I made my change to do what I’m doin’ now to appeal to a broader audience, people said, “You can’t do that, because you are goin’ to wreck your whole career; you are goin’ to lose your country fans and you’re not goin’ to win the others, and then you’re goin’ to have nothin’. You just better think about that, girl.” That didn’t matter to me, because I knew I had to do it and I knew I could do it.
What other kinds of things could you do as an entertainer?
I don’t think there’s anything I can’t do. Under the right conditions, I could just about do anything. Even a Broadway play, if it was a mountain musical where I didn’t have to be a Streisand-type singer or have a beautiful trained voice. If it was somethin’ written just for me, I think I could do anything. Most people don’t have that kind of confidence in themselves.
Have you seen many Broadway plays?
I’ve never seen a Broadway play … I’ve never been to an opera … I’ve never seen a live stage performance. I guess I’m not very classy.
But you have been to the movies and you may be doing three films.
I never wanted to be in the movies. I have never done any acting at all, never thought I’d be particularly good at it. But the people at 20th Century-Fox really feel like I can be, or that I am, a natural actress. When they approached me, all I said was, “I don’t know if I can or can’t, but if you think I can and you want to take that chance, I’ll take it with you.” It’s as simple as that. Can you imagine me hein’ an actress? But a lot of people are interested. Sandy Gallin, my manager, is making a hellacious deal, but no one knows if I can do it at all.
Are you planning on taking any acting lessons?
No. They’re just goin’ to find a script where I can play my true personality, rather than tryin’ to play like some girl from Australia. It’s goin’ to have to be Dolly Parton without hein’ Dolly Parton. I’m goin’ to write my own story, but it’s not time yet. There’s so much to my life that I can write a series of things, if I want. I can take a subject and make a full-length movie, if I want to do that.
Have you any properties in mind?
No. I’ve been asked to do the Alae Nest story. I don’t know that much about Mae West. A lot of people have often compared tie to her … not our looks or not just the way we seem to be built or anything, but our attitudes, you know. We were both creative and we knew what we wanted and we pretty much rolled into the things we did. And they say she pretty much wrote everything she’d done. I’ve never seen her. Also, somebody felt I should do the Marilyn Monroe story. I don’t think I want to play somebody else. I think I’m a character myself—for me to try to play somebody else’s character would not be as wise as for me to create one of my own.
Do you have any directors you might go to?
To be honest, I never thought about hein’ in the movies enough to get that far along with that. I’m not really that involved in who does what. I don’t really know who the directors or producers are. They say that if you’ve got the right director, that anybody can act. It’s all kind of new, this movie thing. I’ve met a few people, but I can’t remember their names.
How about screenwriters, say someone like Neil Simon?
That is who I wish would write somethin’ for me. I saw The Goodbye Girl and that’s the type of thing that I see myself in. It’s got depth, it’s a comedy, it’s got love … it just reminded me of the way I would react under the same conditions. You know, crazy and stupid, tryin’ to make the best out of a bad situation. I’m even goin’ to call my manager; it’s probably farfetched…. Neil Simon may not even have an interest in me, period. But I can see myself doin’ the type of things he writes.
What about Woody Allen?
I love Woody Allen. I think he’s sexy. He is so cute that he is sexy. I go with the depth and that turns me on sexually.
Would you like to be in a Woody Allen movie?
Yes, if he’d be in it with me. I loved Annie Hall and I loved The Goodbye Girl, and for the same reasons, because they were both very realistic—funny, serious, even the bad times were good. Maybe we’ll team Woody and Neil up and they can do somethin’ really great.
Do you have any favorite movies?
My favorite movie of all times is Doctor Zhivago. I’ve always liked movies with lots of production in them, especially things that were true, like The Ten Commandments.
Have you ever seen a porno movie?
Yes, I have. Once, this secretary that worked in one of our offices, her husband had a print of a real awful one. I’d never seen anything up until that time. I always wanted to, but I didn’t want anybody to know I was Join’ it. She brought it to work and she brought the projector. When everybody left for lunch, she said, “Why don’t we all watch?” Because none of us had ever seen one. We got to watchin’ that thing and we got so embarrassed with each other. It, of course, moved you, but it was real embarrassing. And it got real gross, too.
Another time, I saw one in a public place. My girlfriend and me went to New York. This was a long time ago, I was about 21, and I wasn’t that recognized. We had always wanted to see a real one. We thought it would be somethin’ dirty enough to enjoy. We tried to sneak in when nobody would see. There is somethin’ real shameful about goin’ there, but we dared each other to do it, so we went. It had an awful smell in that theater.
I always carry a gun. A. 38 pistol. I just don’t like the idea of knowin’ I’m totally helpless.
Where was it?
I don’t know; it was clown in one of them slum areas. We just got a cab, it was a Friday night, and this terrible thing happened. We sat at the very back, in case there were some maniacs in there. It was mostly men, a couple of women alone, no couples. Me and my girlfriend was sittin’ in the back, so we were goin’ to make a quick exit if we needed to, and then this movie came on. It looked OK for a few minutes, and all of a sudden, it got into the most gross things. I didn’t know how to react and she didn’t, either. We were embarrassed in front of each other, we didn’t know whether to look or not. We were so curious we couldn’t keep from lookin’. I didn’t know how to react with her. If I had Carl there or somethin’, we might have got down to business. So we ran out and we started runnin’, so nobody would know where we came from. At that time, we didn’t know that prostitutes ran in pairs in New York City for protection. And there is no way in the world that you can catch a cab on a Friday night in New York City. We didn’t know that.
All of a sudden, these men started approachin’ us on the street. They thought we were up for sale. You can imagine how ridiculous I looked. I would look like a streetwalker if you didn’t know this was an image. I would look like a total whore, I suppose. I’m sure we looked just like what they thought we were. But I had a gun. I never traveled without a gun, still don’t. I always carry a gun.
A .38 pistol. I have a permit for it in Nashville. I just carry it for protection. I feel safer when I’ve got it. I just don’t like the idea of knowin’ I’m totally helpless. I’m always scared in a big city and New York was totally foreign to us. Anyhow, these men would approach us and I’d say we’re from out of town. We didn’t understand why they were after us. I said we were waitin’ on a cab and weren’t interested, but thanks for the compliment. [Laughing]
I was doin’ all the talkin’, because my girlfriend always knew I’d get us out of any situation, and she started laughin’ at me. That made me mad, because I was so scared! This one man came at me and he was really pullin’ at me, he was tryin’ to handle me, just maul me, the whole works. I told him, “Just get away and don’t bother me anymore.” He kept sayin’, “Oh, come on, honey, I know you want it.” He was offerin’ us money and I said, “Look, I don’t know what it is, we are not interested, we are not on the make, we are tryin’ to get home, don’t you understand that?” There I was, with my big Southern accent and my big wig. He just thought if he bargained long enough that I’d give in. He kept pullin’ at me and I was getting furious and I was cussin’ him, and I don’t cuss that much. I was sayin’, “You son of a bitch, you dirty bastard!” Just things like that is not like me at all, but I was terrified, and I was mad, too, because I can’t stand people who pull at me unless I want to be pulled at. And my girlfriend was against the wall, dyin’ laughing. We could have both been raped or killed, but she was gettin’ such a kick, because she’d never seen this side of me before. I got furious at her and I told her, I said, “Boy, you just better stop laughing or I’m gonna beat the shit out of you, too!” And I got my gun out of my pocketbook. I told the man, “If you put your hands on me one more time, I swear to God that I will shoot you.” And I would have. I wouldn’t have shot him in the stomach or nothin’, I would have shot his feet off or shot at the ground. My girlfriend was just hollerin’, laugh-in’ and, boy, I told her when we got rid of him, “If you ever do that to me again, I swear to you I may not whup your ass, but I’ll be caught dead tryin’.” [Laughing] She never did quit laughin’, she just thought that was the funniest thing she’d ever seen. We headed out to a porno movie and it wound up bein’ a comedy.
Was that your first time in New York?
It was, and for years I thought I hated New York City for that very reason. Since then, it has become one of my very favorite cities; I go back all the time, there’s great people there. It’s just that then I didn’t understand them and they sure didn’t understand me.
Now that you’ve had your say about New York, let’s try Los Angeles. You’ve been spending a lot of time out there lately. Do you like it there? It’s beautiful and it’s exciting. I really enjoy it for a week. After that, I go L.A. crazy. I just got to get out of there, it’s so crazy and wild, especially the places I have to be and the people I have to be around when I’m out there; most of them are so spaced out or just involved in all sorts of weird things, even the people you work with, especially show people. I just have to get away from them. I get homesick. The country in me says, “What in the world are you doin’ walkin’ on concrete when you could be rollin’ in the grass?”
Saying somethin’ about country music is like saying somethin’ about a brother or sister or my momma and daddy. It is a music to be respected.
Let’s get to the country in you. Do you get insulted when people put down country music?
Terribly insulted!. Saying somethin’ about country music is like saying somethin’ about a brother or sister or my momma and daddy. Because it has made me a livin’, it is somethin’ I love and appreciate. I know what it stands for, I know what it is. It is a music to be respected!.
What is it about country music that attracts people?
It’s the simplicity of it, it is everyday stories about everyday people. It deals with human emotions, human relationships; it is love and heartbreak and fun things and honky-tonk … the way that the truck drivers and the average middle-class American lives. Then, too, country music through television and radio started getting broader. When country started gettin’ on TV, people realized that we are not just hillbillies and hicks, toe jam and bare feet—we only go barefooted 'cause we want to, not 'cause we can’t do no better. To me, it’s the greatest music because it does deal with life, with people, and it deals with simple sounds. If it is done right, it is the best music there is.
What would you say is the difference between country singing and pop or rock singing?
There is a certain quality, a certain purity in country voices. They sound plainer, countrier, more blunt. They don’t do a lot of screams and squalls.
Are you more prolific as a songwriter than most?
Yes. It’s just a natural gift. I like to write and I write all the time. I’ve written less in the last year and a half, but even at that, I’ve written more than most writers do. It’s just so easy. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of songs, thousands, actually. I’ve had a few hundred published and recorded. The good thing about it is this: I’ve been writin’ all these years, if I never wrote another song, I’ve got it made. People are goin’ back now and gettin’ songs of mine and recordin’ them, things I did on albums years ago. Of course, I still will write. It’s like most people will sit clown and smoke a pipe, I just sit down and pick up a piece of paper….
Do you write in longhand?
Yeah, I scribble; nobody can read it but me, hardly. I write on torn paper, Kleenex boxes, napkins. I wrote Coat of Many Colors on the bus. It’s my most famous song. I was with Porter and he had some clothes cleaned and I took the tickets off of his cleanin’ bags and wrote the song on them. After the song became a hit, he had the tickets framed.
What’s the biggest song that you’ve had recorded?
Jolene was the biggest hit I’ve had. It was also recorded by Olivia Newton-John. I also had a song called I Will Always Love You, which Linda Ronstadt recorded. I’ve had tons of songs and albums recorded by other people. But I’ve yet to have that big, smash, 1,000,000-selling song of my own. I’ve had lots of number-one songs, but when you get involved in how much they sell, it’s rare to get a 1,000,000 seller.
Is most of what you write autobiographical?
Everything I write is not about me. You have to be able to relate to the things you write about, but you don’t have to live them personally.
One of your songs, Bargain Store, in which you compare your body to used merchandise, was banned by some radio stations. Were you surprised?
I was in total shock, 'cause I never meant nothin’ dirty in that song. In It’s All Wrong, but It’s All Right, I really did. I meant for it to be what it was. You know, what people call makin’ love to somebody you’re not married to. With lyrics like, “Hello, are you free tonight?/I like your looks, I love your smile;/could I use you for a while?” Just how plain can I be? But I thought the tires would laugh at that. But there was some question about it. Even in this clay and time, when you can say everything, country music is a little bit more delicate and I respect that.
What do you feel when you’re performing your songs onstage?
I just get real excited onstage, because I love to sing and perform. It takes me about three hours to come down. Your openin’ tune is usually the one you get off on if you’re goin’ to get off. Sometimes I get so excited over a certain moment onstage, I could just swear that it’s the same thing as sex…. Music is the closest thing to it to me.
Do you have any ideas about how you might change the kinds of shows you perform now? I would want to be more bizarre as time goes on. I would like to have a screen behind me onstage when I do the songs and tell the stories of the mountains.
I’m Navin’ some people even now begin to film things from the mountains, like the tobacca-spittin’ contest, the greased-hog contest and the horse-turdthrowin’ contest that they have in Kentucky every year. That’s a real occasion, the Annual Kentucky Horse Turd Throwin’ Contest. Can you imagine gettin’ crowned Horse Turd Queen of the day? They probably make a crown out of horse turds. I’m not tryin’ to be dirty, I swear that’s what they call it. An audience would love to see that, because they’ve never seen it. I’d like to have that onstage, narrate the happenings, and then have the music. I just have a lot of crazy, wild ideas and some of these days I’m gonna get them all together and hope somebody don’t steal them. And if you do, you’re a sorry son of a bitch!
Where do you see your career at the moment?
Most people say in this business the life span of a career is five years from the time you really get hot to the time you start getting colder, like an Elton John. Maybe I shouldn’t call names. That’s just what I heard, that you don’t expect to really be the hottest except for maybe five years, and with a TV show, it’s usually a three-to-five-year thing, and then you cool off, people have seen what you do. I think maybe I am right now starting in my first year of from one to five. That’s what I’d like to think.
Since we’re on the subject of names, let’s get your opinion of some of your contemporaries. We’ll start with the woman you think is the true queen of country music, Kitty Wells.
She was the first extremely popular female country singer. She was like a pioneer for all the rest of us. She sold all kinds of records to soldiers and jukeboxes and honky-tonks. She is such a natural, pure and authentic singer. She sings from the heart and she don’t worry about what the noise is goin’ to sound like.
Johnny is dramatic. I don’t think Johnny is a good singer, but I think he is one of those people that is so believable that people can relate to it. He’s got a way of deliverin’; you just know that it had to happen if Johnny said so.
Sings with a lot of human emotion and country emotion, a lot of purity and honesty in her voice. Similar to Johnny Cash's—not the greatest voice I’ve ever heard, but it’s believable.
Her sister, Crystal Gayle?
A beautiful voice. Crystal clear, if you’ll pardon the expression.
If she ever gets with the right producer and the right label and gets the right manager, I think she can really be great, especially as a rock-'n’-roll singer. Her voice is so powerful, like a Janis Joplin or a Linda Ronstadt…. She could really be a huge artist, because she is great on the stage.
Her voice was like mine, you either liked it or you didn’t. I never particularly cared for it. It was different. But I do appreciate what she left behind in the world of music.
She is one of the greatest female voices I ever heard.
I love Emmy’s voice, it’s so delicate and so pure.
What’s happening with the album the three of you are doing? The release date keeps being postponed. Is it finished?
We’ve done several tracks, but we haven’t decided whether or not to do more acoustic things or do some rock things. Any time you get three people, with three different labels and three different managers, there’s always complications. But it’s somethin’ we’ve always wanted to do. We have talked about it for years. We are friends; there’s a mutual respect and admiration among the three of us. If it was a matter of business, it would have been a rush release. We want it to be free and happy, a labor of love. There is a possibility it will never reach the market. I personally feel it would be a shame and a waste of talent if business and personal problems prevented it from being released.
How did you get to know Linda and Emmylou?
Through my music. They were fans of mine. I had heard that they wanted to meet me, and so we made it a point to do that, and then we became friend’s. I met Emmy first, when she came to Nashville. She had recorded Coat of Many Colors. When I came back to L.A., she invited me to her house. Linda was invited over to supper that night and that’s how we met.
Did you ever meet Elvis?
No, I never did. But I always felt that we were kin. I feel like I know exactly how he was. Every time he’d come in town, even if I was home, I just wouldn’t go, somethin’ always kept me from goin’. There were other people I liked to hear sing better, but there was nobody that I ever related to more.
What was it about him you related to?
He was very loving, very emotional, very sensitive, very giving, very humble, thankful, grateful. I always felt that he was totally in awe of his own success and he didn’t quite understand why he had been so chosen and why he was such an idol. How he felt about God and religion was always somethin’ I related to a lot, because I know he was brought up with his mother in the Assembly of God. It was a real free-spirited, shoutin’ church. I watched and heard how he reacted to Gospel music and how he loved that the best of all and how he almost seemed to feel he had a callin’ to do somethin’ different and maybe more spiritual than what he actually was doin’, but you know, he never got a chance to try. He touched people’s lives in a lot of ways. He was the sex symbol of the world and when he started gainin’ weight and gettin’ fat, he lost ;i lot of his glamor to a lot of people. I always thought his manager was brilliant, as well. They built that mystery up about him. When he started losin’ his glamor and doin’ those concerts, he became more ordinary. That’s when they started publishing all the things about him. Thin people realized that he was not a god of any sort, but he was just an extraordinary human bein’. I think if he hadn’t died when he did, within the next five years he wouldn’t have been a hero at all, because he was talked about too much … seen too much. That’s how cruel public can be.
Do you think that there will be another Elvis, or someone of his Why now stature, to come along?
I don’t think it will be soon, I don’t think it will be anythin’ you and me will ever see.
What about a female Elvis?
That is possible. I think there is due a person, a female, which there has never been. A person of that type, with that great magnetism and that great mysterious thing, that great love, that charisma and magic to draw people to her, that can help people in many ways just through her music. Yes, I think that a female is due, I do. And your next question: Do I think it is me?
You’re the one smiling.
Well, let me say, I would never be an Elvis, and I would never want to be Elvis. But I would like to be a person truly loved enough to be able to have that much of an impact on people as far as bein’ able to guide them or help them or let them see that you’re caring.
Your mother has said that she always expected you to lead people to the Lord. Do you think that someday that might happen—besides just singing, you might start preaching?
Yes, I think that is definitely possible. My mother and many people have always said that they saw the love of God in me. I expect that someday, in some way, before I die, I’ll have done some good for God, who I think has done all the good in me that’s ever been clone. I think that people for years have passed God right up, looked right past Him, thinkin’ that He was some great-monster in the sky and that you had to live with these horrible guilt feelin’s and you had to crawl under a bed if you’d clone somethin’ wrong. I have a totally different concept of God. I’m God-fearin’, but I’m not afraid of God. The way I look at God is, I think He means somethin’ different to everybody. We are all God’s children, if we just clear a way for Him to work through us. You don’t have to be standin’ in a church house to reach people to change their lives to do good. I don’t want to get so involved in this that people think, Oh, another country-music fanatic, because I’m not a fanatic, never was. If I need to make a decision or somethin’, I just talk out loud to God. I joke with God. He don’t ever say nothin’ back.
I’m havin’ some people begin to film things from the mountains, like the tobacca-spittin’ contest and the horse-turd-throwin’ contest that they have in Kentucky every year.
Do you go to church?
No, not anymore. Carl and I are probably afraid we’ll become total Christians and then we’ll … I don’t know. I always want to go home when they’re havin’ a revival, though. Someday, when I can have some time off, I want to go back to the house and stay home for a couple of months, spend the summer, work the fields and go to the orchards, can apples and peaches—do stuff like I used to. And if they’re havin’ a revival, I’ll go. I’ll get up and sing, too.
You first became nationally prominent as part of a team with Porter Wagoner. Tell us about your relationship with him.
Porter has been one of the greatest and most popular country artists of all times. I can never take the credit away from Porter for givin’ me a big break. I learned a lot from him. He inspired me and I inspired him. We were good for each other in many ways and just a disaster for each other in a lot of ways. I’ll always love him in my own way.
In what ways did your working together become a disaster?
We just got to where we argued and quarreled about personal things. Things we had no business quarreling and arguing about. It was beginning to tarnish a really good relationship. We didn’t get along very well, but no more his fault than mine. We were just a lot alike. Both ambitious. I wanted to do things my way and he wanted to do things his way.
He has said that for two years he devoted 95 percent of his time to you and then he didn’t hear from you for a year. He sounds bitter.
I’m sure he is bitter at this particular point. He is so strongheaded and bullheaded, he won’t accept things sometimes the way they are. I won’t, either, sometimes. We’re kind of involved in some legal things. I’m tryin’ to buy my part of the catalog back, where I’ll have all my songs back together. Someday I hope we can be friends. We are not enemies. We just don’t ever see each other.
How much money was Porter paying you?
The years I was with Porter, I worked for $300 a night, which is another reason I needed to get out on my own: I needed to make more money.
That was how much a year?
Sixty thousand dollars a year. I started from no money at all and that sounded like a lot of money to me. And it was. But why should I work for hundreds and thousands when I can work for hundreds of thousands?
How much a night did you make when you worked on your own, after leaving Porter?
When I went out on my own, I was working for $2500, then it got up to $3000, and now I have no idea. It is way up in the thousands.
Is it around $30,000?
I don’t know exactly how much I make; I would say anywhere from $15,000 up a night now. I know I got $30,000 for some shows I’ve clone recently. And I was offered $50,000 to do a special show, but for some reason, I didn’t do it. That’s the most I’ve been offered at this point, I think.
How many businesses do you own?
Quite a few. I own three publishing companies. I’m startin’ a production company. I own quite a bit of property. I have the Dolly doll, for which we own the company. We have program books, colorin’ books, souvenir things of that type. I have lots of investments, lots of tax shelters. I’ve got some good smart business people now. I have some really wild dreams and plans. I really love to hear crazy ideas. I’m goin’ to have a line of wigs. I think that would he a perfect business for me.
We’ve been meaning to ask about your wigs. Are they real hair or synthetic?
Synthetic. They never lose their curl.
Loretta Lynn has said that while most singers aren’t particular in the dressing room, you always go behind a little curtain to dress. She says nobody has ever seen you without a wig on.
Loretta has seen my own hair. I think she forgot or just wanted to make a bigger thing than it was. Maybe she just didn’t recognize it as bein’ my own hair. My own hair is blonde. I keep it blonde. I’ll eventually wear my own hair again. once I become so successful that people know you can become successful by lookin’ and bein’ any way you want to if you’ve got enough ambition and talent. A lot of people have approached me in a way that sounded like I was supposed to dress and undress in front of other people. I happen to be a very modest person and I just won’t dress in front of people. I don’t know why they would want to look, anyway. Out of curiosity, I guess. What other people do does not bother me at all. I only wish that what I do wouldn’t bother them.
Let’s wind this up by asking you some random questions. If you could go back in time and be someone else for a while, who would you like to be?
That’s not a random question, that’s a great question! I’ve never thought about that in my life…. I think, maybe, Will Rogers. He reminds me of my own people and of myself.
What if you could invite any five people from history to a dinner party—whom would you choose?
Will Rogers would be my main guest. Beethoven. Bob Hope. Strother Martin. Festus, from Gunsmoke.
What would you serve them?
Fried potatoes and green beans, country-style creamed corn, corn bread and biscuits, pinto beans and turnip greens, meat loaf, I’d probably make up a vanilla pudding. I’d have to fix Beethoven a chef’s salad. I don’t think he’d want all that grease.
What’s your favorite food?
Potatoes. I’m a starch freak. I’m a junk-food person, too. I like pizza, potato chips, Fritos. My main weakness is overeating. Now it’s beginning to dawn on me that I have a weight problem and I have to learn to control it some way. I am getting approached for so many things, for movies, for the Playboy cover. So I’m on a diet.
Weren’t you once on a liquid-protein diet, which lately has been proved to be dangerous?
I did that and I lost 23 pounds. Fat persons don’t care if they die tryin’ to get it off. [Laughs]
Are you attracted to thin or to muscular men?
I’ve always been more attracted to real slender men. My husband is skinny as a rail, and tall. They say that you usually will be attracted to the opposite of yourself.
Is it hard to design clothes for you?
It’s not hard, 'cause all you got to do is make up the gaudiest thing you can make. Just pile as much stuff that don’t belong on it as you can and I’ll like it.
How many rooms of clothing do you have?
I’ve got clothes in the closets of every room in my house—23 rooms. One whole wing of my house is filled with costumes and casual clothes.
And you sometimes shop at Frederick’s of Hollywood?
I buy my shoes there; it’s the only place I can find shoes high enough and sexy enough to suit me. I buy thousands of dollars of shoes every year. I can’t wear their clothes, because I can’t buy clothes off a rack.
Do you support the Equal Rights Amendment?
Equal rights? I love everybody….
We mean equal rights for women.
I can’t keep up with it.
Do you read any books on the women’s movement?
Never have. I know so little about it they’d probably be ashamed that I was a woman. Everybody should be free: If you don’t want to stay home, get out and do somethin’; if you want to stay home, stay home and be happy.
Do you have favorite books or authors?
I don’t read that much. I probably should be ashamed to say that. I read mostly articles and things I’m interested in. I always liked Agatha Christie, but I never did read all that many of her things. I like books like The Magic of Believing. Positive-thinking books, self-improvement books. Long before I knew there were books about that stuff, that was my philosophy of life.
What about politics?
I hate to say this and people probably think I’m real dumb to do it, but I am so involved in my work and my music I don’t even know what’s goin’ on in the world. I don’t even know who the Vice-President is. Well, I do know … but as far as gettin’ politically involved, it’s like bein’ denominations. If you’re a Democrat, the Republicans hate you; if you’re a member of one church, then the other ones hate you. Every denomination thinks they’re the only ones gettin’ to heaven and they feel sorry for the other denominations. I think we can all get there if we work right.
Moving right along … has sex changed for you over the years?
Sex? Yes, it gets better. The reason it gets better is because you get more mature, you’re more relaxed, you experience more things until you become more comfortable with them, and then you feel also comfortable to experience new things, totally new and different things. It takes you a while to trust somebody enough to be able to tell your fantasies.
Pretty strong. But I think all creative people and highly emotional people have strong fantasies.
What are some of yours?
I’m not tellin’ you all that stuff…. Get over here and I’ll show you. [Laughs] Are you perverted?
Why? Are you sexually aggressive?
I’m very aggressive. I don’t mind bein’ the aggressor if it comes to some-thin’ I need or want.
Do you like dangerous sex?
Nothin’ better than sex when you think you have to sneak it.
Now for the big question: Do you sleep in the nude?
It has just been the last couple of years that I’ve really started sleepin’ naked. Sometimes I sleep naked with Carl and sometimes I don’t. If I’m up writin’ and I have on a robe, I’ll write until I fall asleep and crawl into bed. If we go to bed together, I usually go naked. But I have to have a cover on me, summer or winter. I can’t stand just a sheet.
How would someone who had written something get a song to you?
Do you mean to tell me that we’ ve spent all these days and hours and went through all this horseshit just so you could pitch me a song?
You’re a funny lady. Is it true you used to flirt with local disc jockeys when you’d appear in various towns?
Either my life is a total flirt or I’m not a flirt. I just go in with open arms and open heart. I’m just using my personality. But the only ones I ever flirted with were the ones I was attracted to. Can’t say I never flirted with one, but I never flirted with one to get my record played.
And what about all the erotica you used to write as a teenager? You claimed you were very horny.
All teenagers are horny, some just keep it hid better than others. I’m writin’ a story even now; it’s pretty hot and heavy. It’s got a lot of sex and love and violence and religion, all the human elements.
Will you shock a lot of people?
Yeah; that’s why I ain’t puttin’ them out today or the day after tomorrow. When I decide to publish some of my books, I’m goin’ to write in the front that those who think they might be offended, don’t read them. Then, if you are offended, don’t blame me, because now I’m not just a singer but also a writer; and as a writer, I have to have freedom of total expression.
Would you use a pseudonym?
I want to do everythin’ under my own name, 'cause when I go down in history, I want to go down good and solid.
They could put that on your tombstone: Good and solid.
I don’t want a tombstone. I want to live forever. They say a dreamer lives forever…. I want to be more than just an ordinary star. I want to be a famous writer, a famous singer, a famous entertainer; I want to be a movie writer; I want to do music movies, do children’s stories; I want to be somebody important in time; I want to be somebody that left somethin’ good behind for somebody else to enjoy.
Everybody wants to be successful at whatever their inner dream is. I’m not near with what I want to do, with what I want to accomplish. When I feel like I have accomplished the things that I want to accomplish, then maybe I will personally think of myself as a superstar. I want to be somebody that extremely shines. A star shines, of course, but I want to be really radiant.