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American Routes Shortcuts: Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton
American Routes

Dolly Parton joins us, in this archival interview from 2000, to talk about her musical and family roots in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. The legend of Dolly Parton comes from a combination of her music, which has earned her several Grammys and a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and her personal style: big hair, makeup, high heels, voluptuous figure. That music and that style developed in a place that’s still precious to her: her childhood home.

Dolly Parton: I grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee way up in a holler in a family of twelve children. There’s six girls and six boys in my family, and most of my mother’s people were very musical, and I grew up singing in the church. My folks were always singing the old mountain music, the old folk songs from the old world, English, Irish, Welsh, all that stuff, and then with the gospel mixed with the bluegrass so we kind of had a good mixture up there in the Smoky Mountains.

Nick Spitzer: Now if the mixture was so great back home, what is it that made you want to leave there and go out into the broader world? 

DP: Money. And dreams. And traveling. Actually I loved my home in the Smoky Mountains. We were very poor, and I had no fear of going out in the world because I figured well you know I couldn’t be any poorer than I had been growing up there in the Smokies, and plus I had a pretty outgoing personality, and I just really thought that I could actually make a living doing it. Most of my people had, it was mostly a hobby. They did other jobs and would sing on weekends or wherever they could, or sing in church, but I just really thought that I might make a living out of it and make a career out of it.

NS: The family that was so supportive of you with all the great music you grew up with, were they also supportive of the idea of a young lady in the family traveling out and off into the big world?

DP: Well that’s a good question; no they weren’t too excited about that. My mother, she trusted me a great deal but my daddy was scared to death that I’d get out in the world, especially being a girl, and something bad would happen to me. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust me; he didn’t trust the world or the people in it. I’m sure they worried a lot, but like I said, they also trusted me, and prayed a lot I’m sure. But I can only imagine what it would be like to see a child head out like that.

NS: Well I would assume early on though, they could hear you when you were on the radio in Knoxville and on local TV and of course the Opry later on, so even without a phone call, they could probably know that you were making your way.

DP: Well we didn’t have a phone back then, so I didn’t make many phone calls back home but I used to write a lot of postcards from any place that I was just so they’d know that I was okay. As a few years went by, they saw that I had made a right decision for me, and they were very proud of me, and I’m proud of the fact that they are proud of me.

NS: Can we talk about girl power in country music for a moment here? Is it something you intended to do to make a statement for women in country music or did it just kind of happen?

DP: Well it’s always served me well being a girl. I guess I always knew how to talk to men, how to be with men, how to deal with men because I have my father, and I have six brothers, so I know the true nature of men, and I’m not afraid of them, and I’m very secure in who I am. I just always felt like I am a girl and I sing and I write and I think I’m good enough to make it, and I did and I’m very happy, and I feel real good when other girls, young girls especially come up and say that I’ve been an inspiration. I guess I was so dumb and country I didn’t know it couldn’t be done until I had it done, as they say. I just didn’t let anything stop me, and I have, like you say, worked with a lot of wonderful women, Tammy and Loretta when we did Honky Tonk Angels, Linda and Emmy, the two Trio albums that we’ve done are two of my favorite things I’ve ever done. And so, I’m glad to be a girl. I’ve always said it’s a good thing because the way I look, if I hadn’t been a girl, I would’ve definitely been a drag queen!

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.