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The Grass is Blue” and “Little Sparrow
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Dolly- and there's no need for a last name - grew up in these mountains, in Sevierville, Tenn. Her story is almost legend, modest roots to worldwide stardom, her voice on award-winning CDs, her face on the silver screen, her name on a park that revitalized a town and turns 20 this year. In an e-interview, Dolly Parton talks with Blue Ridge Country magazine about music, movies, her childhood and the mountains she still calls home.
What are your earliest memories of music?
I remember hearing music my whole life. My Momma’s people were, and are, very musical so there was always music in the house. Momma used to sing to all us kids when she was cooking or washing dishes or really anything. We also sang in church.
What are your earliest memories of the mountains? We grew up right smack dab in the middle of the Smokies, the mountains have always been a part of me, and so I guess when I think of myself and my family I also think about the mountains. The Smokies are something I cherish. I have taken them with me no matter where I have gone and continue to today.
They ground me. I call it my Smoky Mountain DNA.
How often are you in Tennessee these days?
Well, I live in Nashville, so I guess I am in Tennessee all the time when I am not working somewhere else. If you mean the mountains, I get to my Tennessee Mountain Home more than you think. I use it as a retreat to focus, remember what is important. That’s where I do a lot of my songwriting.
What are your favorite places to visit?
I live to travel, but I don’t like to fly much. My husband and I like to camp so we get out in the camper as much as we can. In my spare time I love to read.
It seems that since childhood you haven’t lacked confidence. What does that come from? Was it necessary, growing up in a family with 12 kids?
My mama probably instilled the belief in me that I could do anything I wanted. Between reading the Bible to me and telling me how blessed and special I was, I guess I actually believed it. Maybe I’m not as special as I am blessed.
From an early age my uncles Bill and Lewis Owens also saw something in me and they helped me be what I am today. The love of music and having the opportunity to stand up in front of an audience really helped my confidence.
When people applauded, it was a reaffirmation for me.
You married Carl Dean in 1966. How did you know he was the one to marry?
When I saw him outside the Wishy Washy Laundromat there in Nashville I saw his dark hair and eyes and thought he was beautiful. I just knew.
Why do you think so many “celebrity marriages” don’t last 40 years?
Well, I can’t speak to anyone else but me. Carl and my marriage is not a “celebrity marriage.” We were two kids who met outside of a laundromat.
Carl is my home base, and he keeps me grounded. The world I work in can be bizarre but when I go home and go camping with him, the world is normal and calm. Carl doesn’t go with me much because he likes it quiet. When he does go, he sneaks around. Sometimes he will pay his way into Dollywood just so no one will notice he is there. He has actually appeared a few times with me on the stage acting like he was one of my band members. He is a great practical joker.
What did it take to be taken seriously, especially as a woman performer, as a beautiful blonde woman who’s welldeveloped, as a country musician from a rural background? Are there times when you still run into stereotypes or people who make assumptions about you?
Plenty of people have underestimated me through the years. They see the hair and the boobs and the makeup and think they know who I am. It is my experience that most men want two things and I wasn't going to give them either so I always had the advantage. I have surprised more than a couple of them. They say I may look like a woman, but I think like a man.
How did the acting thing happen?
It all started once I partnered with Sandy Gallin. He shared my vision and we were blessed when “9-5” became so successful.
Where do you feel most at home, artistically – stage, television studio, movie set, recording studio?
I love it all, but I feel most comfortable alone with my notepad and a guitar.
You’re creative in lots of ways beyond performance and songwriting – when do your ideas hit you – your literacy projects, your foundation for health care, Dollywood itself?
God has filled me with ideas. When I am quiet, I can hear all of those ideas and, the best ones have been very successful.
I think helping the kids through the Imagination Library is a great thing. Whatever you can do to help a youngun is a good thing. I believe that God didn’t let me have children so that all kids could be mine.
I don’t do any of it alone. I have some wonderful angels who help me with the Foundation and with my Dollywood businesses. They should get most of the credit for making my dreams reality.
I hear you’re up at 3 or 4 in the morning, you’re always going strong and your schedule is full to brimming – how do you find and maintain the energy for everything you do?
I do get up early, it is the quiet time of the day when I can sit down and write. My days have always been full, and God has blessed me with a lot of energy. I try to take care of myself and to focus on what is important first – the rest of it will happen if it is meant to.
How do you feel about Dollywood turning 20? Did you think it would be as big a success as it's been?
When we started talking about it, I couldn’t believe it. It seems like just yesterday! I was in my 30s then – just like I am now (HA!). The park has been a great success and has expanded with Splash Country and the Dixie Stampedes and all. I always dream big – and I have more dreams about the parks and other things I want to do in the future.
How have you tried to create a different sort of theme park?
When we started, I wanted to do something for the area. Folks around here needed jobs. The area needed something to rely on. We had the beautiful mountains but not much else.
What I knew, but most folks didn’t, was how great the people are here in the mountains. They came to work at Dollywood, rolled up their sleeves and welcomed families from all over the country like it was their own home. That hospitality, on top of all the great shows and rides and everything, made the park different. It’s that way today. We have world class rides and entertainment, but it’s the Smokies and the people that make it different.
What sparked your turn towards bluegrass and bluegrassinspired music in the late ’90s (the CDs “The Grass is Blue” and “Little Sparrow”)?
You know that’s the music we were all brought up on. Mountain music and Gospel is what we heard as kids. That music is a part of me. It was the right time for those albums.
How do you take a frequently performed song – any familiar song, for whatever reasons – and make it your own?
I hear music all the time in my head – but I hear it my way. You can take anything from something like “Stairway to Heaven” off the “Halos and Horns” CD and know that I heard a different song than Led Zepplin did. To me that song was very spiritual and offered a great place for a choir.
The same goes for many songs. You need to keep them fresh and new. It’s like putting a new outfit on one of your children. They may be the same but they look different. Whether it’s better or not is up to each person.
Where do you most love to perform?
Oh, I like performing almost anywhere but I really Like Dollywood. It’s like performing at home.
Who are you listening to?
I listen to a lot of different things. I love all types of music. I am working on a new CD that is based in folk music. The Moscow Circus performed at Dollywood for Festival of Nations and they brought an old song to me called “Those Were the Days” and I love it. I am working on it to be a part of something really soon.
In what ways has the mainstreaming of country music been a good thing? How has it been a bad thing?
Country music is like all other types. They go through cycles. Change is good. It reforms and energizes the music.
What’s the future of country music and of mountain music?
They are America’s music and will continue as long as we have great singers and songwriters who use it to express themselves.
Do you worry that the mountains will become overbuilt and overvisited? How can we protect the land while enjoying it?
I think it is great that people want to come to the mountains and experience their beauty. At Dollywood we do everything we can to protect that experience at the park and I know the park service is doing the same thing with Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Area developers and the government are starting to recognize the same things and curb the development.
This is a question I’m asking each performer I’m interviewing for this issue – What is it about mountains and the mountain geography that makes mountain music what it is?
I think it’s the people more than the mountains. They were tough on the people. They built character and tested the folks who settled here. They are beautiful and are magical, but the people of these mountains are what made the music different. They suffered, loved, and lived. It all showed up in the music.
What do you still want to do that you haven't done?
You never know. I keep dreaming and if God thinks it is the right thing then I'll do it.
Downhome Glitz: Dollywood Turns 20
This year [in 2005], Dolly Parton celebrates Dollywood’s 20th anniversary season with a massive makeover inside the family-oriented Country Fair, including 10 new rides.
Country Fair’s expansion, for sure, matches the “bigger” and “better” buzzwords of Dollywood, which attracts 2.3 million visitors to Pigeon Forge, Tenn. each year.
Dollywood opened at the site of the old Silver Dollar City in 1986. Attendance during Dollywood’s first season doubled from Silver Dollar’s final season, to more than 1 million visitors.
The park now spans 125 acres, more than doubled in size since it opened.
It is also continuously renewed.
Which means, sometimes, rides go by the wayside. For example, the park’s big addition for 1989, a roller coaster called Thunder Express, was eventually scrapped in 1999 for a turn-you-upside-down coaster called Tennessee Tornado. Likewise, the old log flume had to be torn down, this year, to make way for new rides at the refurbished Country Fair.
Each spring, Parton comes home here to the Smokies to dedicate new rides, new shows or a new museum. She dances, sings and makes jokes – mostly about herself. And her fans, numbering thousands, even in the rain, vie for a glimpse of the star.
“Parton’s presence provides a glitz factor at Dollywood,” says Ellen Long, a park spokeswoman from 1991 to 2000.
“I think part of the charm of Dollywood,” Long says, “is that down-home appeal and the glitz of entertainment, which is what Dolly is. She always said she took a little part of the Smoky Mountains with her.”
1-800-365-5996 or 865/428- 9488, www.dollywood.com.