Dolly Parton: “Nobody can tell me what to do”

The queen of country on the breach for fifty years still amazes. After three thousand songs, millions of dollars in charity, the thriller (written with James Patterson and which will soon become a film and a record) soars in the charts. It tells of the rise of a singer in Nashville who must bring out the grit. Because talent alone is not enough. Does she remind you of anyone?

"Put it well in your head, talent is only a small part of your battle if you want to be successful in Nashville: audacity is a must, as well as a good dose of shamelessness" proclaims in Run Rose Run Ruthanna Ryder, great queen of country music, to the young AnnieLee who, just at the beginning of a musical career, feels helpless in the face of the predatory aggression of managers and agents.

Run Rose Run – The Star of Nashville (Longanesi) is the thriller written by Dolly Parton with James Patterson (a hugely popular author who has sold 425 million books, including The President Is Missing, written with Bill Clinton), set in the macho world and paternalist of American country-folk. Recently released and inspired by Parton's personal experiences, it jumped to the top of the American bestseller list, along with the song album of the same title. The novel is already destined to turn into a film: Reese Witherspoon will produce it and Parton will be Ruthanna Ryder, “the Queen of Countrythanna”. "I haven't made any films in recent years, it seems to me the right time has come, and this will be special for me," says the actress. “I moved to Nashville at 18 and I have no trouble understanding AnnieLee and Ruthanna. However, I did not have a life full of mystery like theirs ».

Dolly Parton, star, businesswoman, philanthropist

Dolly Parton is America's most popular, famous and adored country singer; she is a movie star (9 to 5, Steel Flowers, Dumplin), successful entrepreneur (her Dollywood Company runs the amusement park of the same name, with three million visitors a year), co-owner of Sandollar Productions and generous philanthropist ( the Dollywood Foundation, which includes the Imagination Library, donates millions of books to children around the world). Adored by stars such as Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, Björk and Nicki Minaj, Parton is, along with Cher, the most extravagant and enduring American celebrity of our time, but also a difficult character to define. At 76 years old, and with a career that seems to renew itself every two or three decades, she continues to conquer budding generations always remaining faithful to the character of the storyteller, with her ballads that speak of love, humble families, pain and betrayal, always with a light and ironic touch.

Her image that no, hasn't changed: as half a century ago she looks gaudy and boisterous with a very blond fluffy wig, dresses studded with rhinestones, glorious breasts flaunted on every occasion, stiletto heels, painted and repainted lips, and the nails from time immemorial hooked and colorful when those of Adele and Cardi B were still unthinkable. Parton remains a protagonist of the American pop landscape. She regularly churns out songs and albums: she has signed at least 3000 of which 500 interpreted by her and by Whitney Huston, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Linda Ronstadt. She has written autobiographical books and short stories for children, is active in helping those in need – in 2020 she was the first to donate a million dollars to fund Covid 19 research – and continues to financially support students and universities, school libraries and independent bookstores to encourage reading.

Dolly Parton beyond all labels

I interviewed her in person, the first time for Steel Magnolia (Steel Flowers) in 1989, the last, via Zoom, for the film Christmas on the Square. Even a short conversation becomes a life lesson and her cheerfulness is contagious. But it took me some time to begin to understand who Dolly Parton really was and what she represented to America.

The country singer who the New York Times called "The Parton Paradox" and who for half a century has been on the limelight, examined and vivisected in every moment of her public and private life (at the age of twenty she married Carl Dean, a small businessman which never appears in public), continues, in fact, to remain a woman-hieroglyph.

Dolly Parton is indifferent to fashions and trends, is always against the tide, plays with wit and irony on her image of her as a sexy star, but rejects the label of feminist. She gave – and continues to do so – millions of dollars to help families and disadvantaged young people, but don't ask her to declare political affiliation, the subject is taboo.
In times when #Me Too and #Black Lives Matter are raging, she has never made official statements, she has never taken sides publicly. Accused of not taking sides in feminist and political battles, she responds with her songs that often deal with controversial issues. "My father, my brothers and uncles are 'red necks' (white peasants from the southern countryside, generally extremely conservative), and I know perfectly well what I want to write about".

In the 1970s, some of her songs, such as in the case of The Bargain Store, the story of a prostitute, were even banned from radio stations.

Star since childhood

Her audience is among the most eclectic: at her concerts you meet grandmothers, boys and men of all ages and colors; liberals and conservatives, housewives and transgender, gay rapper (Lil Nas X is a big fan of her). Her comment? "I understand and accept them all." When she sings Jolene Jolene, I Will Always Love You (the one made famous by Whitney Houston in Bodyguard with Kevin Costner) or Coat of Many Colors, the story of her child, derided at school for her coat made of patches patched together, her audience welcomes her with a warmth in which races, genders and political affiliations no longer matter.

"As a child, in the veranda of the old hut, I would put dry tobacco branches in the crack in the floor, put a can on it that acted as a microphone, stood in front of it on tiptoe and pretended to entertain the audience in front of me : chickens, ducks (laughter) and lots of babies who were too young to be able to leave. I wanted to be a star, I wanted to perform in front of an audience, and I wanted to sing. Maybe, I just wanted to shine with my own light ». So she confided to me during the promotion of Dumplin (I want a life shaped like me), the comedy with Jennifer Aniston for which she had composed the soundtrack: for the occasion she had presented herself with a transparent skin-colored skirt, dizzying heels, a cascade of strictly false glass and beaded necklaces, sparkling rings and earrings; very cheerful, as usual. In retrospect, her most extreme artificiality together with her candor have always proved irresistible. She has a contagious verve, she laughs at herself and at her own image, she tells about her childhood without mortified or victim tones.

Career started in Nashville

Growing up on a small farm in the Smoky Mountains of the Appalachian Mountains, Tennessee, without electricity and running water, her story seems to have come out of Dickens' pen: very poor childhood, with little to eat, large family – she is the fourth of twelve siblings. and sisters – the peasant father who could neither read nor write, the mother who sang in a crystalline voice, but was always tired and worried. «I was born singing, my mother said I peeped out screaming in the key D and I'm sure of it. From an early age I knew that I would sing and you would have been on stage ».

At 18 she leaves home, she leaves for Nashville, the heart of the country, and she never stops. Then many imitated and copied it. From Amy Winehouse to Katy Perry, from Cardi B to Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus, of which she is the godmother.

“Look, I've never allowed anyone to tell me who I should be. I wanted to be beautiful, but I didn't have the money to buy fancy dresses or makeup. So I improvised, put on whatever gave me color and cheered me up. I've always wanted to be "a little bit more", and I still want to. I know, I know, there is that old proverb "Less is more" (less is more), but it is the biggest nonsense you have ever heard. “More is more” (more is more), it's much better! ». More laughter …

Author: Michael Zippo
[email protected]

Sources: VanityFair, IO Donn

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