This summer, a particularly buoyant meme began bouncing around Twitter. Created by comedian Rob Dubbin, it hinges on the punch line “ran into jolene….she mentioned you left kind of an intense voicemail.” Its giddy reception was a testament to the fact that a song written 46 years ago still resonates with The Youth. For further proof, look at the Gen Z members of the K-pop group BTS, who mouthed the words to “Jolene” as Dolly Parton performed it at this year’s Grammys. The song’s appeal, like that of Parton herself, transcends age, race, nationality, and pretty much every demographic factor out there, possibly including “home planet.”
But Jolene herself was always kind of a cipher: We know she was a looker, with those flaming locks of auburn hair, but what, exactly, was going on behind her eyes of emerald green? A new Netflix series, Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, premiering November 22, promises to let us in on her backstory. Each episode of the show, which Parton produced, narrates, and appears in, expands one of her songs into a mini movie.“I’m as proud of it as anything I’ve done,” she says. “All my life, I’ve felt my songs tell such stories. I’ve always dreamed about being able to make them into movies.”
It’s a natural extension. Parton’s lyrics have always been cinematic narratives, and for her, music and Hollywood have always been intertwined. The little girl from Locust Ridge, Tennessee, began appearing on local TV as early as age 10. By the time she became a regular on The Porter Wagoner Show, she was an old hand at show business. Back then, she already had the Backwoods Barbie persona, which she patterned after the “town tramp”—what she calls a “country girl’s idea of glamour.”
She remembers her friend and mentor, the country star Chet Atkins, telling her, “Dolly, you need to tone it down. You’re wearing too much makeup. You need to have a little more taste. People are never going to take you serious[ly] as a songwriter and singer. I know you’re great at that, but people are just going to look at you like it’s all about the body.”
“I said, ‘You know what? I can’t separate the two. This is who I am.’ I not only didn’t tone it down, I figured if my work was truly good enough, people would eventually recognize that,” she says. “It was about me knowing who I was, being happy with me, and feeling comfortable in the way I presented myself. If I was happy, I could make other people happy. That’s how I’ve always looked at it: that I look totally artificial, but I am totally real, as a writer, as a professional, as a human being. A rhinestone shines just as good as a diamond.”
The rhinestone exterior began as a coping mechanism of sorts. “I was not a raving natural beauty,”
she insists, though the early, fresh-faced shots she regularly posts for Throwback Thursday would beg to disagree. “I just wanted to be pretty. I wanted to be striking. I wanted to be colorful. I wanted to be seen. When I went to Nashville, I always overdid it. When they say, ‘Less is more,’ I say, ‘That’s BS. More is more.’”
We live in an era when EmRata posts about feminism and Kim Kardashian advocates for criminal justice, and with the exception of a few trolls, no one sees a contradiction. But at the time, Parton’s bombshell exterior—big hair, big boobs, and a whole lotta lashes—sometimes left people surprised by her seriousness as a businesswoman. In the’70s, Elvis wanted to record her song “I Will Always Love You,” but his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, wanted half the publishing rights. Parton wouldn’t budge. “It was unusual at the time for a girl to be demanding,” she acknowledges. “I never thought of it [as being] about being a woman or a man. I thought of it as being an artist, and a writer, and a person of a strong will. I had grown up in a family of men, with six brothers, my dad, my uncle, and my grandpa, who I loved dearly. I understood and knew the nature of men, so I had no fear of working in that world, because I understood it. I just felt like I had something that was sellable. I would go into meetings saying, ‘I think I got something that could make us all a lot of money.’ I never felt that I had to cower or to feel like, because I was a girl, I had to do it any different. I just believed in myself. Still do.” For country superstar Kacey Musgraves, a longtime Dolly fan, Parton’s approach was inspirational: “She managed to walk in looking like a soft and beautiful woman, did business like a man, and left with the respect of both sexes.”
When she transitioned into cinema, Parton became best known for female-fronted films like 9 to 5 and Steel Magnolias—fare that was empowering before the term became as common as kudzu. 9 to 5, with its story of pink-collar work wives—played by Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin—taking revenge on their lech of a boss, looks especially prescient in light of the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements. Farcical as it may be (the story involves kidnapping and a threat from Parton’s character to turn the boss “from a rooster to a hen!”), it came from a very real place. “I think that brought so much stuff to the forefront that people had not been willing to look at, even though they knew it was happening,” Parton says. “At that time, we really hoped that it would make a bigger difference than it actually did. Although I do feel like it did open a lot of doors and a lot of eyes to a lot of problems that we’d been having since time began.”
That said, she hastens to clarify, “We still have a lot of the same problems. I think that we just have to keep working at it. I think the new #MeToo movement and all that stuff has thrown more light onto it. I think women are in a better place now than they’ve ever been before. I’ve been fortunate in my life that my being a girl kind of helped me along the way, and being from a strong family of men, and women, and not being afraid to stand on my own or to say, ‘Go to hell,’ if that’s where you needed to go.” Has she herself ever experienced workplace harassment?
“I’ve been fortunate, more fortunate than most women have. I’ve certainly been harassed in my life. I’ve certainly had to put up with a lot of BS. I was always strong enough to walk away from it and not to have to fall under it. I was lucky that I was in a good country town, where the men in the business have wives, and sisters, and cousins, and children. It’s not like out there in the big world, like in California, where they chew you up and spit you out, or in New York, where they don’t have time, or in other big cities.”
She says the trio had talked about doing a 9 to 5 sequel that unfortunately never came about due to script issues. “At our age, and with all the projects we got going, we probably were not going to take the time to have it redone.” However, the film was adapted into a successful Broadway musical; for the West End version, Parton penned a new, timely song, “Hey Boss.”
Parton is a boss herself, of course. Beyond her more public Hollywood successes, you probably didn’t know that her production company brought us Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Father of the Bride movies. She has a simple business philosophy: “Hire people who know what they’re doing to do the dirty work. I’m the creative force. Then they have to do that day-to-day, [fighting] all the battles, all that kind of stuff that I don’t want to do. I’d rather, behind the scenes, say, ‘Go fire them. I ain’t doing it.’”
For anyone who’d question her feminist integrity after all that, she says, “I’m still out, living it, doing it, writing it. People say, ‘Why don’t you get out and do more?’ I say, ‘I don’t have to preach. I write it. I sing it. I live it.’ If I’m not a good example of a woman in power, I don’t know who is. I’m out there just promoting mankind, but I am most definitely going to get behind those gals.”
She has several projects coming up on her Hollywood slate, but there’s one story she hasn’t yet told on the big screen: her own. A Dolly biopic has existed mainly as a persistent rumor over the years. Does she have a star in mind? “That depends on when I get it done,” she says, noting that she’s thought of Reese Witherspoon and Scarlett Johansson in the past. (For those impatient for more of her life story, a nine-part podcast from WNYC, “Dolly Parton’s America,” will be coming to our collective earbuds on October 15.)
Perhaps the most surprising realm that has embraced Parton is the oft-snooty world of high fashion, which is crazy for her cornball glamour. Dolly’s face recently decorated a sweatshirt and jacket on the Gucci runway; Moschino designer Jeremy Scott breathlessly emails that, as a fellow country kid who grew up on a farm, “I had an instant connection with her fresh yet folksy way of expressing herself, and of course her love of all things shiny! I love her mix of humor and glamour; one not being sacrificed for the other, as that is totally in keeping with my own design philosophy.” Michael Kors calls her “fabulous, fearless, and fun. I love that she has a sense of humor about herself,” he says, “and she’s optimistic, which is something that always resonates with me. She’s an icon and an inspiration, not only in how she presents herself but with her unwavering talent.”
When I ask Parton if she ever thought she’d be impacting runways like this, she says, laughing, “God, no. To me, that’s still one of the funniest things, when people say that I am a fashion icon. I just always thought people thought I was so gaudy. I am! I’m flashy, and I’m flamboyant. Had I not been a girl, I definitely would have been a drag queen. I like all that flamboyance. I love all that sparkle, and shine, and color.” She never tried to be stylish or follow trends, she says, “because I didn’t know enough about it, nor would I have been willing to pay the kind of money that it takes to truly be fashionable.
I guess it’s always fashionable to be yourself and to be comfortable with who you are, and what you wear, and what you’re in.” Someday soon, she won’t just be an inspiration to designers, but a designer herself. In May, she signed a deal with IMG to develop her own fashion line. “I’m going to do it. I’m going to get there,” she promises. “It’s one of my dreams—the makeup, hair, and wigs, clothes, all of that sort of thing.” Wigs, of course, have always been a signature: “I don’t always wear them in my daily life, but I always still pouf up my hair. I still like to have that flashy hair. When I’m around home, I wear my little scrunchies, but I always put on some makeup and fix my own hair as cute as I can fix it. Wigs are just so handy. I’m so busy, and I have so many choices. I never have a bad hair day, and that’s a good thing.
The rise of yeehaw fashion has seen younger stars, from Kacey Musgraves to Lizzo, riffing on traditional country-western looks in look-at-me ensembles that evoke Dolly’s style. “I love that. I think people are kind of wanting to go back to the old ways,” she says. When she played the Newport Folk Festival with Brandi Carlile and other younger performers this past summer, she coordinated with their looks, rocking a sequined wagon-wheel suit. “People just want to be nostalgic; they appreciate the old things. With all these young girls that have taken to me, it thrills me to death, and it’s such a great compliment that all these young people say that I’ve been an inspiration, and that I still am.”
Musgraves thinks Parton’s popularity among people her age boils down to her inclusivity. “Dolly was proud to include and accept many different kinds of people way before others in her time period caught up with her,”she points out. “Gen Z is also very open and accepting of all the variances of humanity. And in a time when truth and authenticity are craved and needed more than ever, it’s obvious why Dolly is still just as loved.” She adds, “They should just go ahead and carve her into the face of Mount Rushmore.”
At the 2019 Grammys, admirers including Musgraves, Katy Perry, and Parton’s goddaughter, Miley Cyrus, performed with her. They’re just some of the young artists who have been unabashed about their Dolly fandom. “It’s a very humbling, but warm and wonderful, experience for me to get up there and do a whole set with all those young, wonderful, talented girls. I’m proud to be that big ole gal in there, being their Aunt Dolly, or big sister Dolly, or their mama!” she says, laughing, breaking into a fluent pun. “The Dolly Mama. I’ll be their Dolly Mama.”
When Lil Nas X released “Old Town Road,” the country establishment wasn’t entirely welcoming, bumping him from the country charts in a move that smacked of racism. (He had the last laugh: The song’s remix with Billy Ray Cyrus ended up breaking Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s Hot 100 chart record.) “I was so happy for him,” Parton says. “The fact that that was such a country song, I mean, that’s as corny as any country song could be. I don’t mean corny in a bad way. I don’t care how we present country music or keep it alive. I hope it stays alive forever. The fact that all these other people in other fields of music want to be part of that, are able to be part of that—I’m all about acceptance.”
In July, Lil Nas X tweeted, “y’all think i can get dolly parton and megan thee stallion on a old town road remix?” Parton responded with horse and unicorn emojis. “I had an opportunity to be part of that [song],” she says now, “but it had done so well with so many people. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll wait and do something later on. No point in going down that same Old Town Road. We got other roads to travel.’”
This article originally appears in the November 2019 issue of ELLE on newsstands October 22.