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Dolly Parton: here I come again.


The compassionate country singer from Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, is riding high once more with her album White Limozeen and a soon-to-be-released movie, Steel Magnolias.

Dolly Parton is beaming. No other word will do. As she curls up on a couch in her office at Sandollar Productions, her face is framed by a cloud of platinum blonde curls that brushes against her pale skin and bobs when she giggles.

Her famous physique is covered in washed-out denim dotted with pastel sequins. One shoe rests comfortably in the corner. Parton couldn't be happier, what with the success of White Limozeen, her first out-and-out country album in years, and the upcoming release of Steel Magnolias, an ensemble film starring Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, and Olympia Dukakis. The movie explores how friendship sustains a small circle of women in the deep South throughout the exhilarations and tragedies of their individual and collective lives.

"I'm real proud of that film," Parton says. "I love the warmth and the honesty, the sweetness of living in a small town, which is what Steel Magnolias is all about. And I understand how everybody knows everybody else's business! They all backbite and gossip and tattle on each other, but you still have that bond like there's a family, because these people have all been through so much together. That never changes."

Dolly Parton knows a thing or two about small towns, having grown up in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. That experience influenced her performance as Truvy, the busybody-peacemaker beautician in the small Southern town where the women live. The woman who has written songs about her poor but proud youth--"Coat of Many Colors" is the best-known--found drawing on her own life invaluable when she played the spunky owner of Truvy's Beauty Spot.

"If it hadn't been for music, I'd've been a beautician," Parton says, laughing. "Even if I wasn't in show business, I would have wanted all the glamour--and that's about the only way a girl in a small Southern town is going to get it, being a beautician. Or maybe I'd've been a missionary; I thought about that too, but where would I get my hair done?"

Parton, who's been known to joke in concert that it "takes a whole lot of money to look this cheap," is only teasing. She's proud of where she comes from, and she's proud of Truvy, the character she helped bring to life.

"This character is the most like myself," Parton says. "People say to me that this is the most serious acting they've ever seen from me. But, in a lot of ways, it was just me when I'm not so made-up."

Parton is so much like the advice-giving, gossip-slinging, always-an-ear-for-a-friend peacemaker she plays that when she stopped by the real-life beauty parlor that inspired Truvy's, it was only a matter of moments before the locals got over Parton's celebrity and began "dishing" as if they'd known each other for years. "Well, people are people," Parton says of the incident. "And I've always believed that if you're friendly and genuine, if you don't think you're any big deal, people will treat you that way too."

It's hard to imagine Dolly Parton being anything but a big deal. After all, she has recorded 50 albums since 1968; has had 15 singles going to No. 1 on the country charts and two of those topping the pop charts; and has earned three Grammy Awards, a slew of Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music awards, three Golden Globe nominations for her work in 9 to 5, and a Ms. Woman of the Year Award in 1986.

Yet Dolly Parton has never been one to focus on what's happened. She's more concerned with what's next. Even with "Why'd Ya Come In Here Lookin' Like That?" becoming her first No. 1 country single in years and a sold-out concert tour taking her across the country, it's obvious that as much as the twanging songwriter loves performing, her mind is consumed with thoughts of other projects.

And no wonder. As much as country artists love to open amusement parks, Parton is the only one who can say that hers is successful. Dollywood, situated in the hills of Pigeon Forge, is as down-home as the woman it's named for. Mixing elements of her mountain heritage (from handicrafts to music to food) with the usual rides, the park offers people a look at Appalachian culture.

Although Dollywood certainly provides jobs for the local people, Parton's commitment to the area is far more aggressive, and it reaches beyond the obvious. In 1987, she became the national spokesperson for the Dr. Robert F. Thomas Foundation--named for the doctor who delivered Dolly. (His payment? A sack of potatoes.) The foundation's Sevier County Hospital was planned as a prototype for all small communities. Last year, she launched a scholarship foundation to help support continuing education among students in Sevier County.

"We're trying to find ways to keep the kids in school," Parton says, leaning closer for emphasis. "We're struggling with what we can do, because Sevier County has the highest dropout rate of anywhere in the United States. That's because a lot of the kids are poor and don't have a lot of clothes to wear--and their parents didn't go to school, because they'd've had to stop working to do it. In fact, a lot of these kids have to work too, because their families need that money coming in. All those things combine and they just don't view it as important, because `My dad didn't go to school, so why should I?"

There's empathy in Parton's voice --she grew up in the same environment, under the same conditions--but it's tempered with determination. "I didn't like school, either, and I understand how kids drop out," she concedes. "I wanted to stay in school because I felt it was important, because if my career went the way I wanted it to, I'd be working with all sorts of people and I'd need to know things. And it was also my discipline. I knew if I dropped out, I'd probably not make it in the music business either. My attitude was `If I quit on that, I'll probably quit on something else down the road.' But most of these kids don't have that reason to stay in school, which they've got to do if they want to be able to get better jobs. I've seen how hard it can be [without an education] and how it can stall people with that kind of better intelligence."

Caring is something that Dolly Parton does well. She learned it growing up in a large poor Southern family. It's essential to who she is. "The reason I think I work so well with women is because I have so many sisters and aunts--and they've all got different personalities," Parton says. "I'm able to look at other women I work with as an extended family.

"And I've had some wonderful luck! With Jane [Fonda] and Lily [Tomlin, her 9 to 5 costars], because we were all strong women and we all knew who we were, things couldn't have been better. It was the same way with Linda [Ronstadt] and Emmylou [Harris, with whom she recorded the nearly platinum Trio in 1987]--we knew what we were each about, so nobody was threatened or needed to prove anything to each other.

"Even with all the women on Steel Magnolias, we never got into any of that. We were all pretty much in the same shape: playing Southern women, the clothes weren't great, the dressing rooms were exactly the same, and we all had a certain amount of celebrity, so nobody had anything to prove to anyone else...

"Consequently, we were all able to get on with being friends, and there were really no favorites. We'd get together for hen parties--we were just a bunch of old hens, talking about our cramps, life as we knew it, and then the young ones talking about life as they'd hoped it to be. Those are the kind of things that make an experience like this extra special."

Working keeps her sane, she says, and she's learned to accept the setbacks as well as the successes that go with a show biz career. Even when her much-touted TV variety show was panned by critics and fans, she shrugged off the defeat. "To me, the end of a show isn't the end of my life, it's just work, the end of a job. And while it's disappointing, it didn't cripple me like they keep writing.

"And I'm not embarrassed that I tried, either," Parton says of the endeavor. "I think I'd've been embarrassed if I hadn't tried. But when one thing ends, there's always other opportunities waiting...."

Like White Limozeen, a concert tour, Steel Magnolias. And Parton's finding there's a certain continuum developing among all of her projects. After years of struggling to make it as a country artist, she's now able to bring country consciousness to a world that stretches far beyond the traditional country audience.

"I had to leave country because I wasn't making any money," Parton admits bluntly. "I was a big star, but I wasn't making anything. I wanted to have a broader appeal, to bring people into country music who might not have listened otherwise. I always knew I was country--and nobody was ever going to deny that. Nobody could ever take that from me, either. So with that knowledge, I went forward."

She adds, "Besides, I like the idea that I'm able to expose people to country music and country people, just so those folks who don't know firsthand can see that everybody from the country isn't a hick or Hollywood's version of a hillbilly."

And though regional pride wasn't the reason Parton did Steel Magnolias, she couldn't help finding herself as a one-woman booster committee for the part of the country she still calls home. "I know I felt the need to explain certain things with the South," Parton admits. "I felt responsible for explaining the weather--`Well, you know, it's hot down here in the summer.' You want to protect and defend it, because it's yours and you understand it.

"It's just like when the people are extremely friendly, you explain that it's just how people in the South are," she says. "They're not trying to invade your privacy or get close to you because you're a star; they just want you to feel welcome--and it's one of the things that filming in Louisiana gave us, that true sense of the South."

The afternoon almost gone, Dolly Parton stretches her arms over her head and collects her thoughts. Although she's done so much, she hasn't lost her drive. She speaks of publishing a book of her stories, and she finds she's enjoying the concert circuit. There are songs to write, records to make, a few movie projects to consider--and maybe even another television show.

"I just hope I'm able to keep doing good work," Parton says. "And most importantly, I don't have any desire to do things that aren't true to me. True to me is being a country person with a country accent--and there are so many possibilities that still haven't been touched."

PHOTO : With Olympia Dukakis in Steel Magnolias: "It's a very special movie," Parton says. "It

PHOTO : makes you laugh a lot, but some parts will make you cry your eyes out."

PHOTO : After 50 albums and 15 No. 1 hit singles, Parton has her own opinion of how she hopes fans

PHOTO : will view her music: it's not country or pop--it's just "Dolly."

PHOTO : On the set, costars like Daryl Hannah become part of Parton's "extended family."

PHOTO : Current success is measured not in "hardware" but in the number of scholarships funded by

PHOTO : her Dollywood Foundation.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Gleason, Holly
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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