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Home on the range with Dolly Parton

The country music star on high heels, ‘hillbilly ways’ and the truth about her marriage

By Hadley Freeman  /  The Observer, LONDON

Singer Dolly Parton arrives at the 78th Academy Awards on March 4, 2006, in Los Angeles.

Photo: Bloomberg

Well, hello, Dolly! “Who’s that sweet thing in the pretty dress? Look at you! Thanks for comin’ all this way!” It is such a pleasure to meet you! “Well aren’t you sweet? Let’s have a seat and rest our bones.”

This is exactly the conversation Dolly Parton and I have as she walks into her rehearsal room in Nashville on a sweltering summer’s day. But I could have written that exchange without ever meeting her, and so could you. Parton in the flesh is so exactly how one imagines her to be that as she sits opposite me, bandying about such Dolly-esque phrases as “You just need some good ol’ horse sense!” “God gives us all a special talent” and, of course, “I’m just a simple country girl,” it’s hard not to wonder whether this is a Dolly impersonator. How can someone adhere so closely in person to their public image?

“This is just who I am!” she says, those wide eyes getting even wider, hanks of blond hair bobbing atop her head like leaves on a palm tree. “It’s like what I always say: I may look fake but I’m real where it counts. Ha ha ha!” And with that she clutches a bejeweled hand to what is famously the most unreal part of her anatomy.

Now, you say that, Dolly, but it looks like a lot of effort goes into being who you are. How long does it take you to get ready in the morning?

“Not long, because I’m so programmed for it. First thing I do in the morning, after I have my breakfast and do my spiritual work, is put on my makeup and fix my hair, and I can do my makeup in 15 minutes,” she says with a snap of pride. And that is pretty impressive considering it would take most women 15 minutes just to put on the amount of eyeliner she is currently sporting.

So do you look like this when it’s just you and your husband Carl Thomas Dean at home? “Well, of course! I don’t want to look good for everyone else and like a slouch for him! So even if we’re just driving around in our RV camper and hitting all the local fast-food joints I’ll tease my hair and put it up in a little scrunchie.”

I don’t believe you eat fast food. Your waist is the size of my wrist. “I do have to watch it because I’m only about 1.5m and you can’t hold on to too much weight when you’re so short,” she says, suddenly terribly solemn. “So I stay on a low-carb diet pretty much through the week and eat what I want on weekends. And of course, nothing matters on Thanksgiving and Christmas! Ha ha ha!”

I hear you wear heels in the shower. “Oh that’s horseshit! Ha ha ha! But I do wear high heels in the house — otherwise I can’t reach the cabinets! I don’t wear my heels in the shower or when I sleep — and I wear my little tennis shoes when I do my treadmill — but when I go out, of course I will. That’s my look and that’s how I’m always gonna be.”

Today, Parton’s look includes a stretchy purple cardigan, a swishy above-the-knee black skirt, cropped leggings and Perspex heels. It’s an outfit that is strangely reminiscent of the ones worn by cool teenagers in 1980s films. Parton, by the way, is 65. “I’m not trying to be fashionable. Never was! I got some clothes that I’ve had for 25 years. People say, oh, that’s Dolly, Dolly does what Dolly does — and Dolly does! Ha ha ha!”

Or, as she puts it to a honky tonk beat in Country Is As Country Does on her new album, Better Day: “’Cause I’m quite content with who I am/And if you ain’t, well, kiss my ham.”

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