When a person from East Tennessee says “my people” it means “family” and the people you’re close to. When Dolly Parton named her new Dollywood show “My People,” it left no doubt that it meant something special to her.
“It’s from a line in one of my songs called ‘My Mountains, My Home’ ‘my river, my mountains, my valleys, my home, these are my people,’” says Parton.
Sitting in a conference room at the Dollywood production offices, Parton is as homey and humble as her legend — despite the wig, makeup and sparkles on her denim. As the whole world knows, Parton grew up in poverty in a family of 12 children in the mountains of Sevier County to become one of the most iconic stars in the world. She partnered with Herschend Family Entertainment in 1986 to create Dollywood, a theme park that celebrates both Parton’s life and the culture of rural Appalachia. It quickly became one of the most popular theme parks in the United States.
The things she seems proudest of are her family and her songwriting. She says when it was time to create a new show about her life, she wrote something more personal than other shows had been.
“People expect to see something about my life. We had a play here years ago called ‘Paradise Road.’ The little girl that was on ‘American Idol,’ Janelle Arthur, she played me as a tiny little girl when that was on. Then we had the other one, ‘Heartsongs.’ But I wanted to do something that would involve my family. That’s where the idea came about.”
The new production, which is presented on most open days at Dollywood and is housed in the newly built Dreamsong Theater, is filled with family members. Parton’s brother Randy and sister Cassie play lead roles as the Parton parents, Robert and Avie, and her nieces Jada and Heidi and cousins Dwight and Debbie Jo are also in the show. Other family members are invited to drop in and be part of the performances as they can.
“When we first put it together, I wasn’t sure who was going to want to be in it,” says Parton.
She invited sisters Stella, Frieda and Rachel and brother Floyd to participate, but they didn’t want to be tied to the production full time. Randy, who had performed at Dollywood when it opened and for many years after, was ready to return to the park.
“I wanted him from the beginning,” says Parton. “Cassie, I didn’t even think about her wanting to do this and she said, ‘I’d love to do it. I would love to just be in it and have something of my own to do like the rest of you!’ ”
While Parton says Cassie was a natural singer (“All my people write and sing or pick and sing”), she had concentrated on raising her family and had never performed professionally.
“She’s doing great,” says Parton. “Cassie joked, ‘The very first time I decided to get into show business, Dolly built a theater for me! The rest of them had to sing on the Back Porch!’ ”
Parton’s outdoor Back Porch Theater was the usual venue for Parton family members.
Dolly says hearing her siblings sing her songs and portray their parents is very emotional.
“It’s like many voices of my own,” she says. “I hear different ones do little twists or twirls and it just brings tears to my eyes. I feel them and I know they feel the song, because it’s us. It’s all about us. They think of me when they sing it. They think of us. They think of Mama and Daddy, like I do. It’s touching.”
Parton collaborated with Paul Couch and Tom McBride on the show. She says it was McBride who decided to combine her songs “Mama” and “It Ain’t Easy Being Dad” into a piece that trades off between Cassie and Randy on different sides of the stage.
“I cry every time I watch it. ... My brother Randy looks so much like my daddy ... and Cassie looks so much like Mama when Mama was young. So I see Mama and Daddy. ...When they’re gone, they’re gone, but this is a way they can live again and that touches me, too. I just think if they’re out there somewhere, I bet they’re proud of us. If they really do look down. But it’s a nice thought thinking they’re there and they’re with us.”
Parton is in the show by way of video and sometimes sings with the rest of the performers.
“It’s structured to last a lifetime. If I die tomorrow I’ll always be there on video and the story will be the same.”
Parton also built a museum for Bill Owens, her uncle and first manager, that opened with the 2013 Dollywood season.
While “My People” refers specifically to Parton’s family, it also refers to place.
“I’m a hillbilly and proud of it,” says Parton. “If somebody calls me a redneck I say, ‘Thank you.’ Or even white trash. There’s a certain element of where I’m from. You know you’re white trash when you take that as a compliment. BUT, I take it like we’re real people. We’re real earth people. ... I’m proud that we were dirt poor. I remember even a lot my friends in high school wouldn’t want to take friends home with them, because they were so poor. And we were so poor, we were dirty poor. We had so many kids, so our house couldn’t stay clean because there were so many of us. But I never was ashamed of that. I never was ashamed that my mama had to wear a raggedy dress, with a string of diaper pins hanging down. A lot of people would’ve been, ‘Oh, I don’t want to bring my friends home.’ I never was like that. I was never ashamed of my people. I love them too much.”
As a small child, Parton began pouring her feelings into songs. She has never once experienced writer’s block and she says she never really stops writing. Her longtime husband, Carl Dean, jokes that she cannot pass a guitar or a piano without playing a few notes and sometimes a simple strum will result in Parton stopping to write. She keeps a pencil and paper by her bed in case she dreams a song or is inspired in the middle of the night. Generally, what she writes, she says, is “right from the gut.”
“My songwriting is my therapy. I’ve never had to go to a psychiatrist, because I’ve always had God and my songs. Everything I feel, everything I think, I can cleverly disguise it until I can say everything I need to say. Whether it’s anger or it’s hurt or frustration, I get it all out in my songs and rhyme it and turn it into something. I can turn something that’s really negative into something positive by writing something that can live and help somebody else. If I don’t want to write exactly everything in the same song I can mix and match it and spread it around. But I write my heart. I write my thoughts. There’s so much truth in everything I write, but there’s just enough of the other thing that I can deny it if I need to!”
She sometimes marks out a couple of weeks to return to Sevier County and write in the rebuilt cabin on the property where she grew up. She walks and she fasts for two days.
“Oh, it’s awful! Don’t try it!” says Parton with a laugh. “I’m a very spiritual person, like my mother, and we grew up like that. You’re not supposed to tell people when you fast or if you fast and I don’t tell ’em when. I do it a lot of times just to humble myself and to clean myself out of all the junk you eat and drink. I think I don’t want to be sluggish. I want to write and I also want to get close to God and try to communicate better with that. So when I’m off those two weeks, it’s like a little spiritual journey. My writing is very spiritual to me. It’s my best time between me and God. That’s as close to God as I ever feel is when I’m writing.”
Parton says she can sometimes write 20 to 30 songs in those two-week periods.
“They’re not all good. But I’ll get at least five or six really good songs out of a two-week bash.”
Dolly Parton performs "Jolene"
Parton has written a raft of classic songs. Her song “Jolene” has been covered 400 times (“I’m still not sure I believe that,” she says) and “I Will Always Love You,” as recorded by Whitney Houston, is one of the top-selling songs of all time.
“Probably the two songs I will be remembered by are ‘I Will Always Love You’ and ‘Coat of Many Colors’ ” says Parton. “ ‘Coat of Many Colors’ is my favorite song because it’s more than a song. It’s a philosophy.”
The song is, of course, about Parton’s mother sewing Parton a coat from scrap fabric, and other schoolchildren making fun of her.
“You know they teach through that in schools now? They teach children about bullying and to not make fun of other kids. And it’s OK to be poor. You have people in all walks of life and you don’t have to have money to be important. So it’s a really good lesson. And I’m very proud of that song.”
She says it feels good to write songs that mean something important to people.
“I always feel like this is what God meant for me to do. I’m not a fanatic. I’m a seeker. I’m as big a sinner as anybody and I’ve done all sort of things! But I’m a very tender-hearted person and I have a very spiritual base. And I ask God to give me words that other people can’t say because this is my talent and I can put it in words and I ask to be able to be able to express other people’s feelings as well as my own”
Parton has several projects still in the works. Among them, she co-wrote a version of “A Christmas Carol” that will be presented at Dollywood during Christmas. She’s working on a Broadway show about her life, which she predicts is two to three years from completion. She’s bought several pieces of property in East Tennessee, including the farm that her father owned and what the family calls “Mama’s Pout House,” where her mother would retreat when she was at odds with Parton’s father. She says she’s back often and may one day return to live permanently in East Tennessee.
“Even when I’m writing other stuff, it’s the depth that I remember from here that allows me to write. It’s the feeling and the depth. My home is never out of my mind. My people are never out of my mind. ... Oh, the older you get the sappier you get.”
© 2013, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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