There are no angel wings.
Instead, Dolly Parton scoots into a drab backstage garage on her own two legs like a unicorn dream: knee-length canary yellow dress, rhinestones, more rhinestones, and a glow that can apparently turn even an industrial underground into heaven on earth.
But something’s off. Something is missing. Angel wings, I think.
Which, of course, you expect from a beaming Dolly Parton, even as she literally just stands in front of you. Her presence alone radiates her own healing power as she greets a mishmash of fans one by one, all of them basking in her shine.
Moms, dads, kids. An elderly woman in a wheelchair. Me, a gay man.
This woman – a country queen, a “backwoods Barbie,” the self-proclaimed fairy godmother – has united us all merely by existing. And if it wasn’t already evident, it certainly is in her midst: Dolly Parton is the only religion we may ever agree on.
For over two transcendent hours during her “Pure & Simple” tour, in support of her 43rd studio album of the same name, the Goddess of Goodness emerges as something too precious for this world. During her song “Little Sparrow,” the stage goes dark as screened-in birds take to the sky alongside Dolly’s silhouette – or, in this case, the Grand Rapids, Michigan arena she was setting aglow. Add “bird whisperer” to the long list of Dolly’s accomplishments, which is seemingly endless: 100 million albums sold worldwide; 25 certified gold, platinum and multi-platinum awards; 25 No. 1 songs on the Billboard Country charts, a record for a female artist; seven Grammy awards and 10 Country Music Association awards; one of only five female artists to win the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year Award; two Oscar nominations for songwriting (the title song to one of her many films, “9 to 5,” plus “Travelin’ Thru from the 2005 trans-themed movie “Transamerica”); and obviously, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
An angel, though?
Parton demurs. “I don’t know if I’d go that far! I don’t think I’m all that!” she says, as humbly as you’d expect, laughing the squeakiest of laughs.
Our 11-minute chat is peppered with that trademark Dolly charm (I conclude the interview by thanking her for bringing joy to my life and she responds like my mother: “Love you too!”). And yes, 11 minutes. “I don’t know where you got that odd number,” she squeaks again in her godly Southern accent, acknowledging the bonus minute her manager, Danny Nozell, has graciously given us. “He’s saying you’re getting a li’l something extra!”
Read on as Dolly blesses us with an extra 60 seconds of divinity, along with a look back on her introduction to the gay community, that time she may have gotten a contact buzz from Willie Nelson’s grass and, like any paragon of virtue, helping her own family members come to terms with their sexuality.
Growing up in the Great Smoky Mountains, did you know any gay people?
If I did, I didn’t know they were at the time! (Laughs) We were just mountain people, and I did not know at that time – I sure did not.
What was your introduction to the gay community then?
As I started to be a teenager there were a couple of guys downtown that everybody was sayin’ were queer, ya know? I know they often said that about anybody who was odd or different – “they’re just queer, just strange and odd” – but the way they would talk about these two guys they would say, “Well, they’re sissies, they’re girls.” I was a teenager then. But in my early days we did not know (what gay was). It didn’t take me long to know that people were different and that was always fine with me ’cause I was different too, and I embraced and accepted them and I knew them. I knew them well. But no, in my early days I did not know. But I know a lot of them now! I have a huge gay and lesbian following and I’m proud of ’em, I love ’em and I think everybody should be themselves and be allowed to be themselves whoever they are, whatever they are.
How big is your gay circle these days?
You know what, I have so many (gay) people in my companies. And later on, I did find out I have many gays and lesbians in my own family. We accept them, we embrace them. Oh, there are some in the mountains who still don’t know quite what to make of it or how they should feel about it, but they’re ours and they’re who they are and we know they’re wonderful and they’re like us. We love the fact that they are who they are and we nurture that. We don’t try to make them feel separate or different. We embrace it.
Because you’ve always been so LGBT-affirming, are you a safe place for them to open up about their sexuality?
Yes! Actually, I’ve had many people through the years who I have helped to feel good about themselves. I say, “You need to let people know who you are and you need to come on out. You don’t need to live your life in darkness – what’s the point in that? You’re never gonna be happy; you’re gonna be sick. You’re not gonna be healthy if you try to suppress your feelings and who you are.”
I have a couple of transgender people in my company who are on salary with me, so I am totally open for that. And a lot of people feel like they can come to me… and they do! Whether it’s about being gay or whatever, a lot of people do me like they used to do my mama and come to talk to me about things. Hopefully I’m able to help. I think I have.
When were you first aware of transgender people?
I remember watching the news when I was a girl and they (were talking about the) first operation that somebody had. That’s the first time I ever heard about that, and so that was many, many years ago. But yeah, I’ve known a lot since then, though.
Throughout your career, gay people have leaned on you for musical moral support while also absorbing your sage wisdom. But what have you learned from the gay people in your life?
I certainly know that the gay people I know are the most sensitive and most caring of all. I think they go through so much that they have to live with their feelings on their sleeve. They’ve had to go through so much that I think they’re very emotional and tenderhearted and more open to feelings, so I’ve just learned the same things I try to learn from everybody. I know they’re good people and I’ve tried to learn from that as well. They’re very creative, most of them. And I think that also comes from just embracing the fact that they’re different. Most of the gays I know just want to make the world a more beautiful place like I do.
After 50 years of marriage, what inspired your new self-proclaimed “friends with benefits” song, “Outside Your Door”?
Well, I’m married, but I’m not dead! I’m a romantic, fantasy person and I’ve felt all of those feelings. I’ve been through everything in my life. And when I don’t write about myself, I write about other people that I know and their relationships, and people I know who don’t know how to express themselves. So I gather my ideas from everything. And hell, you don’t get too old to fantasize!
There’s a 20-minute intermission during your “Pure & Simple” show. What do you do for those 20 minutes?
It takes every bit of my time! I fly back to my bus right after intermission, and I go back and I change. I take a little breather to cool off for a minute, and then I change clothes – that’s the only change I do (during the show). Then, I change my hair, change my wig, and I touch up my makeup. And by the time I’m done with all that it’s time to go back on.
What if you have to pee?
Oh, I take a pee break and drink a little bit of water. But yeah, it’s just a pee and pray break! (Laughs)
You jokingly mentioned during the show that you should run for president. Say you were elected – what would be your first order of business?
I would just resign! That’d be my first order if I got elected – I’d say, “No, I don’t want it, I don’t want it!” (Laughs) But no, I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t even think on those terms. I’d make this world a better place, I’ll tell you that.
During the show you hysterically joked about how you could get a contact buzz from Willie Nelson’s tour bus. Where do you get your sense of humor and sharp wit?
Oh, that comes from both sides of my family. My mama’s people were hysterical; my daddy’s people were hysterical. They just had a different sense of humor, and that’s how we got through everything, with our sense of humor. And as a writer I just think funny. I try to find things to laugh about and so anyway, I just say whatever I say.
What’s the closest you’ve gotten to Willie and his weed?
Oh, I know Willie really well! I sang with him on my last album. We did a duet together called “From Here to the Moon and Back” and I was singing – well, I was trying to sing and I said, “Willie, I’ll tell you, you’re the worst person I ever tried to sing with. I mean, you’re brazen! I can’t keep up with you! I’mma need a sack of your grass! I’mma need something!” But he laughed so hard. But anyway, I love him, but he’s Willie and that’s OK.
He smoked in the studio with you there is what you’re saying?
Oh, yeah! Willie smokes at the drop of a hat! I probably had a contact high from that too!
You’ve been singing “I Will Always Love You” since the early ’70s. What does that song mean to you now that it didn’t mean to you when you first wrote it?
Well, you appreciate things more as you get older. That song is just the gift that keeps on giving. It’s always getting licensing in my publishing company; somebody’s recorded it and we’re signing off on that. And so the fact that people are always calling me and always wanting rights for (the song for) a wedding – I actually rewrote it as a wedding song; it makes a beautiful song – it just makes me appreciate the fact that I’ve been able to write something that’s been that meaningful to so many people through the years. So, it does touch me. And it turned out to be the perfect song to sing to my fans – it’s the song I like to dedicate to the fans. Not the sad parts, but the good parts – especially the line of, “I will always love you” for letting me do this.