For God and Country: The eternal country-and-western icon discusses her new bluegrass album, her faith and the joy of looking trashy.

Photograph by Dennis Carney


New York Times Magazine Nov. 21, 1999

Your audience is amazingly diverse, so much so that your concerts can sometimes seem like Benetton ads: older women with blue hair, punk holdovers with red Mohawks, cowboys. Why do you appeal to such different people?

Of course I'd like to think that it's my talent, but I think one reason is that I'm such a character. I'm kind of like Mickey Mouse, like a cartoon. Little kids and older people kind of think I'm a toy, a plaything that they can be close to. People feel that I'm not afraid to be who I am, therefore they can be comfortable being who they are in my presence. I've always accepted people as they are and I think the oddwads of the world kind of know that. I have a big gay following and I've always had a huge drag-queen following, so I think a lot of it is just the personality of being so accepting of everybody else.

Are those values you learned growing up? Deepest Appalachia is not a region known for its diverse countercultures.

I think a lot of it might have to do with the fact that I'm from such a big family and my people were very, very friendly. When we were kids growing up, we lived far back in the mountains. So when someone would make their way back there, we were so excited to see someone new that we didn't ever want them to leave. We had big hearts and big mouths and I had big dreams and I just kind of put it all together and made a big career out of it. It's not a fake. If I have some kind of magic with people, I think it's the fact that I look totally artificial but I'm totally real, and somewhere in between that is the thing that people respond to.

Now that you mention it, I suppose there might be something slightly unusual about your look. How do you describe it?

I patterned myself after this woman that was the town tramp back home. She had blond hair and high heels and red fingernails and lips, and to me she was like what movie stars were to other kids. We'd see her, and I'd say, "Oh, look, she's got plastic goldfish in her heels!" and my mama would say, "She ain't nothin' but trash, nothin' but trash," and I thought, "Ooh, that's what I'm gonna be when I grow up: trash!"

By contrast, your new album, "The Grass Is Blue," is bluegrass, a very untrashy art form. What inspired you to record it?

I knew all these songs from when I was 10 years old, but I just never thought there was an outlet for an entire album. Then the album's producer told me that they had done a survey asking, "Who would you most like to make a bluegrass album that has never done one?" Something like 10 to 1, the results said Dolly Parton. I said, "Are you serious?" You know that timing is everything to me. I believe that God is in everything and I never try to force or push nothing. I accept everything as it is as God's will. So it was just the time for this one. Now everybody says: "Oh, Dolly, this bluegrass album is so you. You should never do anything but this kind of music." And I think, "Well, bull!" I also love doing the other stuff.

Like what?

I just did a duet with Boy George called "Your Kisses Are Charity."

You and Boy George. Why didn't anyone think of that before?

He's the sweetest thing in the world. I was just jealous that he outdressed me. During rehearsal, he had on his boy clothes, and then when we came out onstage he had on this long rhinestone necklace and earrings. I leaned over and said, "I wish I'd known, I could have gone a lot further than this!"

It's funny, despite all the musical styles you're experimented with, your personal style has stayed constant. Did you ever think, "I'm a gigantic star, it's time for dark glasses and numerous layers of cashmere?"

Of course by now I can certainly afford to wear whatever I want. Some of my good friends are fashion people like Calvin Klein and Diane Von Furstenberg. They are not ashamed to be with me, and I'm not intimidated by them. If I wear my polyester while they are wearing their silks and satins, I don't care. I'm comfortable with me. And I have heard so many people say, "God, Dolly, if you would just let people know how serious you are, if you would just get rid of those wigs and fingernails and show how well you can play." It might be true, but I'm just not willing to give up the girl. It wouldn't be the same. I wouldn't be Dolly Parton.