The Light Queen
Dolly Parton on the other pandemic cure (rhinestones!), her Christmas projects and singing with Leslie Jordan
Dolly Parton’s been everywhere this year, and everywhere she’s gone – virtually, that is – she’s brought good, gay tidings to all.
Dolly’s contributions to both science and Christmas amidst our collective existential pandemic panic have been rays of light and literal life-savers. Considering the remarkable timing of Dolly’s $1 million donation made to coronavirus research at Vanderbilt University, which helped fund Moderna’s COVID vaccine, it’s only fitting that one of the most beloved, iconic figures in pop culture is also playing a fictional angel in the Netflix musical movie Christmas on the Square. In real life, Dolly is the only person you might imagine haloed in glowing light with a pair of white angel wings.
Five decades into her career, Dolly, at 74, remains an unstoppable cultural force – even in lockdown, even during one of the worst years in our lifetime. Just when we need her most, like the patron saint she is, here she comes with the confectionary campiness of Christmas on the Square. And a Christmas album, A Holly Dolly Christmas, her 47th solo studio album (and first Christmas record since 1990). And a coffee table book, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, a deep dive into 175 songs that she has written. And just for good measure: a 19-DVD box set of her performances through the years, a baking line for Williams-Sonoma, and virtual Christmas specials for CBS and Amazon Music. We’ve evolved from the pandemic bread-baking phase to the “fill every empty moment with everything Dolly” phase, and no one’s complaining.
Dolly also, at the pandemic’s onset, held a virtual series in which she reads bedtime stories; it was meant for kids, but who could blame you for wanting Dolly to send you off to sleep with The Little Engine That Could?
I met up with Dolly over Zoom on two separate occasions: in October, with her Christmas on the Square co-star Christine Baranski, and solo on the morning of November 4, the day after Election Day. I was asked to avoid political and election questions, a request that brought to mind Dolly’s own savvy way of blurring political and apolitical lines. Her bipartisan credentials and subtextual political statements led to her being deemed the “great unifier” in 2019’s New York Public Radio series Dolly Parton’s America. Dolly’s politics are signaled almost solely through voicing her core values – inclusivity, love, kindness and compassion for all – and then abiding by all of them. With Dolly, it’s always been action over lip service. When she does speak, it’s with sincerity and conviction. And, of course, a whip-smart quip. In August, Dolly spoke up about the Black Lives Matter movement, telling Billboard, “Of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No!”
On the morning of our one-on-one interview, Dolly appeared on video, still in the process of getting mic’d. She made small-talk as we waited for the greenlight, wisecracking that, “It takes a village to get all this stuff goin’!” Once ready, she spoke about how healing others heals her, recording more uplifting dance music for her LGBTQ fans, recording music with Leslie Jordan and how no one is exempt from the light of her love. Gifts for everyone.
I don’t know how you stay so upbeat, positive and chill during a time that feels so heavy, dark and dreadful. At times, I think to myself, “Can I take whatever Dolly’s taking?” Also, what are you taking?
Ha! Well, I’m taking my time trying to process everything! I just always try to go inside myself and try to find all the goodness in there. I try to look right inside everybody else and see all the goodness in there, and try to weave that into something special and into some light rather than just dwelling on the darkness. It’s easy to do that; it’s easy to get depressed when things are bad. But I refuse to do that. I like to be productive, and I just try to think that everything will be better all the time. I always think no matter what’s going on things are gonna get better.
Today I woke up remembering that during the beginning of the pandemic every morning I woke up to your song “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” for days, for weeks, and I’d cry. That song, featured in your new book Songteller, felt like the hug I needed every morning to get out of my funk and move on with my day.
Sometimes I’ll sing that song too. I think that’s a really good song. Yesterday somebody played me a version of “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” and I said, “You know, somebody oughta put that out,” like a record now. It was kind of my song of deliverance when I had been going through some personal darkness. When I wrote it, it just kind of delivered me, brought me into the light. So it is a song of deliverance; it is a song of light and hope.
Aside from that song, what’s a song of yours that still brings you comfort like “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” has brought me this year?
I actually write a lot of stuff. In fact, when the COVID pandemic started, I started writing songs. I don’t know if you ever heard a song called “When Life Gets Good Again” (released in May, which instructs others to “Be safe, be respectful, wear your mask, lead with love”), but I tend to do more writing than I do finding songs to make me feel better. It makes me feel better to be able to write those kinds of songs, to uplift somebody else, and in turn, by teaching, I am taught; by helping, I am helped. So it helps me to kind of do the thing that I know that people need, and I’m able to do it, and so I try to write things like that. So I’ve written a few songs about the times.
In October, you and everyone’s favorite pocket gay, Leslie Jordan, met for the first time. And Leslie can sing too. So I’m just gonna put this out here: I wouldn’t mind hearing you and Leslie collaborate on “Just a Wee Bit Gay” from that gay dance album you keep teasing us about.
Ha! You know, I never did put that song out! I wrote a song called “Just a Wee Bit Gay” and it’s really, really a cute song and he would be perfect. But you know what’s funny? He’s actually going to do an album of some music and I’m going to be singing with him on it, along with some other big celebrities. I’ll leave it to him to announce what it is and when it is.
But anyway, when he came, I (was like), I have seen him so many times, backstage, and I just felt like I knew him because I relate to him so much and they make jokes about, “He’s me in drag,” and all that. But when we met the other day, it was the sweetest, funnest day. We were practicing safe-distancing and had our masks and everything. But it was fun, just to be around him. He’s crazy as he can be! And I just love him.
Did you let him wear one of your wigs?
Well, he didn’t have a wig on that day, but I’ve seen him dressed in Dolly drag!
And I don’t want to sound greedy because you have given us a lot this year that I’m very thankful for, but that dance album… maybe 2021?
Well, I am gonna do that. I have a lot of good songs, and because there’s so much going on, I think all of my gay following, they love my attitude in my songs and I’m really wanting to do a lot of faith-based or just uplifting inspirational-type things. I might actually incorporate some of that into a dance album where everybody can get out and dance and rejoice. So yeah, I’m still hoping to do that dance album one of these days.
Now feels like a good time. I think everybody sort of wants to let loose, right?
I think you’re right. I’m sure you have heard “Faith” (with Galantis, released in October 2019).
This year, that was the song that I’d play in the middle of the day and it kept me going.
Actually that one lifted me up a lot too. So I’d like to do more things like that, that you can dance to, move to, and really feel good about. Yeah, I’ve got some good things in mind for that.
With everything that is happening right now in the world, are you finding it difficult to get into the Christmas spirit? Because I’m over here like, “Lord, it’s like a hard candy Christmas.”
Ha! It is! It is kind of like a hard candy Christmas this year, ain’t it? It’s just hard times for a lot of people. But I just refuse to let this dampen my joy. Although we are going to have to do it different. You can’t get out and do all the things you’d like to. You can’t even go shopping as much as you’d like to.
But I do think that I will manage to have my Christmas and have my little nieces and nephews and have as much of my family around as we can safely. I won’t let that stop me from rejoicing in my own way and decorating my houses. I have a lakehouse and different things that I do. And I have to have all that gaud, and all that glitter, and all that food and all the stuff to go with it! Nothing’s gonna stop me from doing that.
Rhinestones are your therapy.
Yeah, they are! Ha! Rhinestones are my medicine. If I don’t wear ’em, I’ll take ’em! Shine from the inside out!
With Christmas on the Square, were you aware that what you were making had a gay sensibility? I mean, there’s actually vogueing in that movie.
(Sarcastically) What?! Ha! I have a huge gay following, but some of our dancers and a lot of the cast that were there, we had a lot of gay people (in) the (movie). We love it. You know me, I love my gay following. Anything I can do to make them happy is always good.
But I think when we were doing the movie, we were just concentrating on the little town, the village, this mean old woman that Christine (Baranski) played trying to steal our town, and I’m playing an angel coming in trying to save her. Hopefully it’s going to appeal to everybody! It’s gonna be a good, happy, joyful, magical Christmas, hopefully, that we have brought during a dark time right now, don’t you think?
I think so. Dolly, I’m watching this and I’m thinking: to be a spirit of yours, what would it take? Would I have to wear rhinestones? How do I become one of Dolly’s spirits?
You wouldn’t have to, but I have a feeling you’d like to! Ha! Along with one of my dresses, maybe some of my wings, whaddya think? And maybe one of my wigs! So I could dress you up like an angel and you could have your little rhinestones. I could watch you twirl!
If you could send an angel to any past character of yours, maybe they need some of that Dolly angel truth-telling, what character would you send that angel to?
If I send an angel to like a Doralee in 9 to 5, I would just give her a little extra strength to kick Mr. Hart’s butt a little harder!
What do you hope the message of this movie is in terms of change in this country? Because this movie calls for literal change.
Well, it does. I really think that people are going to relate to this movie, as I mentioned, because it is about family, a village, a town where all the people have their little lives and they’re trying to salvage everything they can, they’re trying to keep their lives together and live their lives and they don’t want to be scattered like we have been this whole year. The whole world has kind of been like that little town now, kind of uprooted and thrown around and in doubt and in fear. (But) they all became better people because of it.
On “Christmas Is,” a song from your new album A Holly Dolly Christmas, you sing about the true meaning of Christmas – kindness, love and compassion – with your goddaughter, Miley Cyrus. What about that song made you think to ask Miley to sing it with you?
Well, that song actually is one of the songs from the Netflix movie that I did, the musical, and I wanted to also bring it into the album because we’re probably not going to have a soundtrack from that musical as of yet. So I wanted to bring that over. I wanted Miley and Billy Ray (Cyrus) to be on this album because it’s been 30 years since I had an album out and you usually don’t do but one or two Christmas albums in your whole career, and I figured this would probably be the last one.
Since Miley and Billy Ray are like family to me, I told ’em both, “You can’t even say no. I’m not having it! You both have to be on this album with me forever! So when we’re all dead and gone or old, we’ll say, ‘OK, here we are with family.’”
But Miley, she’s always been great. I love her to death. She’s like my own. And so she said, “Yeah, I can’t put it out as a single because I got a new project.” And I said, “I didn’t ask you to put it out as a single! I asked you to sing on it!” So she said, “Well, of course I’ll sing it.” So we did. And that was wonderful.
During this divisive year, I was thinking about how you’re seen as the “great unifier.” And there are not many people who can say that about themselves. But you are the kind of person who’s able to bring mountain people and drag queens together in one room. What does it mean to you to know that even though there is such division in this country that you are able to reach people across the spectrum of religion, race, politics, gay, straight…?
Well, I just love people. I love everybody. I love that God light and that God core that is in every single one of us. I do not judge or criticize or condemn; I think we’re supposed to love each other. And I love all the different people in this world. I’m fascinated by everybody’s personality; I want to know who they are. So I’m out to kind of pull people in, not separate people. So I just love people and people seem to love me and that makes me feel really good. So hopefully that’s what God wants us to do. At least that’s what I’m thinkin’ he wants me to do, so I’m going to continue to do that.
Does it hurt you to know that there are people who are not like you in the world?
Well, yeah, it does hurt me that anybody cannot open their heart to love people in the way they should. It does hurt. But all you can do is to try to make the best of your world, try to have enough love to reach out if you can, try to kind of calm things down if you see there are problems going on. I just pray for God to lead me every day and uplift people and glorify him.
Your book Songteller acknowledges a song that I just recently discovered called “Family.”
Aww. I love that song too, where it talks about “some are preachers, some are gay, some are addicts, some are strays, but not a one is turned away, when it’s family.” And that, to me, is not just your own family; it’s the family of man. It’s like, we’re all family. People just don’t seem to get that. But if you could just look at everybody like a member of your own family, you’d have a lot more tolerance. You may not still like ‘em, but you can still love ‘em. Tolerate them. But anyways, I’m glad you like that song. I wrote that with my friend Carl Perkins; he’s the famous one that (wrote) “Blue Suede Shoes” back in the olden days.
The book acknowledges that the song, which was released in 1991, is possibly the first country song to mention the word “gay.” How did country fans react to the word “gay” in that song at the time?
Actually, I don’t remember anybody saying anything, because I really do believe whether you accept ’em or not, we all have gays and lesbians and transgenders in our family or in our family of friends. There’s so many people that won’t just accept people for who they are, which is really, really sad for the people that feel like they have to be different because they’re different than what somebody else says they should be.
I don’t remember at that time anybody saying things because the way that I said “some are preachers, some are gays… and not a one is turned away,” because to me that’s how I feel about it. So that song really says a whole lot about a whole lot of things. Oh, I’ve had pokes at me for saying certain things, but it never stopped me. I’m going to always let my love light shine – on everybody.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.
Photo credited to Stacie Hukeba Courtesy of Butterfly Records LLC