Dolly Parton: 'I've seen my songs slaughtered pretty good'

The Queen of Country on people – amateur and professional – singing her classics, being the toast of Glastonbury and who should play her in the biopic she's planning

Hello, Dolly!
Hello, Rebecca! You know Rebecca is my middle name also?

I do know that.
It's a good name. All right!

At Glastonbury last month you played to what must have been 180,000 people. Is that the biggest show you have ever done?
It probably is. I looked out and saw those people and I thought, oh well, I guess I'd better try to entertain them.

What does it look like from up there?
It looked like a sea of people, like an ocean of people, I couldn't believe it. Especially when they were raising their arms and singing along and doing all those things, it was amazing. It was like a well-oiled machine out there.

You wrote a song for the crowd and in it, you alluded to us "getting high" (1). Where did you get that information?
Hahaha! I was just thinking Woodstock, I was thinking all those festivals. I was just thinking, well, why not? That's what they're going for, they just want to have fun, and I'm sure they are. I'm sure there were a few of them pretty high out there.

I hope nobody offered you a suspicious cigarette.
We were just high on the whole energy of the thing, so we were right there with 'em.

You've said before that Whitney Houston's take on I Will Always Love You is a favourite because it made you so much money. What other versions of your songs have you enjoyed?
It's always a great honour for anybody to record your songs, and oddly enough, just a little bit of information for you, Jolene is a song that's been recorded more than any other song I've ever written. More than I Will Always Love You or any of those other songs. It's always curious to see how people interpret your songs. Some people say: "Ooh, I didn't like that version," but I say: "Well, I like every version, because it's amazing how people feel and hear the songs so differently."

Jolene is probably the hardest karaoke song of all time. You're responsible for many karaoke nights going wrong. (2)
People like to get in there and sing it. But yeah, I have seen my songs slaughtered pretty good, by some of my drunk friends. Hahaha. But it's always fun. It's always good.

Is country music more liberal these days? Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert – both have released forward-thinking records.
I think people do get away with more than they used to. We're just a more open society than we used to be, so we pretty much just say and do what we think. But even in the early days, when I first started out, I remember it was really hard to get certain songs played on the radio, even songs just about a girl being pregnant. I remember one of my songs, Down from Dover (3), was about having a child out of wedlock, and they wouldn't play that on the radio. And a few of the other songs I had a little trouble with, so I think you're right. I think it's a new day and age and people are getting away with a lot more now, which is good.

Why do you think it's good?
I just think it's great that people are able to express themselves in the way that they should. With all this new technology in the world today there are no secrets, no privacy, nothing's sacred anyway. So why not be able to say what you think, and express yourself?

People think of you as saintly. You do a lot of philanthropic work. You wrote I Will Always Love You for Porter Wagoner, even though he had sued you. You're nice to Jolene, who is not being very nice to you. Where is your dark side?
Oh, of course everybody has their dark side. I'm just a regular person. Same things make me mad as make everybody else mad, or get under their skin. I'm a person with a lot of emotion. I'm a songwriter. I have to live with my feelings on my sleeve. I've often said, I'm just one of those people: if I don't like where you've got it, I can certainly tell you where to put it.

What gets under your skin?
A lot of things. People that don't treat other people right. People who don't live up to what they say they're going to do. That lie, or try to trick you. All the things that would get under any person's skin. I try to find the best in everybody, but sometimes you just have to see things as they are. And I didn't get where I was being a pushover. I'm very open and, like I say, if I see something that's not right, I go about trying to make it better. But I'm no saint, that's for sure.

You've been doing this for so many years now. Do you still have ambitions that are unfulfilled?
Well, yes I do. I still have all my music to do. I'm working on my life story as a musical, and I also would like to see my life story on film, so I've been working on that. I'd like my own cosmetic company, to do with the makeup and the clothes and the jewellery, that sort of thing. So I wake up with new dreams every day, and I hope to live long enough to see a lot of those dreams come true.

At what point in a person's life does one think: "What I need now is my own theme park?" (4)
Hahaha. Actually, I had thought about that early on. The park will be celebrating our 30th anniversary this year and we're opening our resort, but it was a dream of mine, even early on. I thought, if I do become as successful as I hope then I would love to go back home and create something in that area, which is really one of the biggest tourist areas in the United States – the Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park in America. A lot of people don't realise that. I just thought it would be a wonderful thing for the local folks, and for my family.

To turn to your film career briefly, you were in two of my favourite films, Steel Magnolias and 9 to 5. I've also seen a Joyful Noise (5) a number of times. Have you?
Haha! I never usually watch the shows after I've done them. We watch them when we do them and then when we have the premieres, but I hardly ever watch them, except 9 to 5 – any time you turn on the TV in a hotel or motel room, it's usually playing. But I enjoy doing those and I would still like to do some more movies if I get the right script.

If the film of your life story does get made, who would you want to play you?
We've actually got to finish it all, but there are a lot of great people out there. I would probably sing my own songs so it would just need to be the perfect actress, they wouldn't have to have the pressure of having to sing it also. But for the stage, that would be a different thing altogether.

What characteristics would they need? (6)
I think they would have to have the right personality. I think they would have to have some big boobs. I think somebody like Scarlett Johansson, somebody like that as an actress for the film, whereas a Kristin Chenoweth would be great for stage, because she's little and has that great voice. At one time, back when I had started working on this film several years ago, I had thought about Scarlett Johansson. They're all bigger than me, of course, but that doesn't matter.

Dolly, do you think you'll you keep going for ever?
I hope to continue to go, unless my health should fail me or my husband should fall sick. I intend to work till I fall over. I would love to be able to be like Bob Hope and Betty White and a lot of those folks that work till they're 90, 100 years old. I have no intentions of retiring!


(1) A rap called Worthy Farm Mud. The chorus went: "Mud, mud, mud." It was one of the set's more understated moments.
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(2) Everyone starts the "Jolene, Jolene, Jolene …" bit too high and runs out of steam.
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(3) A cheerful 1969 song about a pregnant woman whose lover abandons her. Then her baby dies. The end.
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(4) Dollywood, the land of dreams.
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(5) Currently 33% on Rotten Tomatoes, which isn't unfair.
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(6) We both knew she was going to say "big boobs" here.
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Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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