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“I look so artificial, but I think it’s always worked because people know I’m real,” says Dolly Parton, one of the most popular singer/songwriters of all time — a woman who The Guardian, in 2008, described as “the biggest star country music has ever produced” — as we sit down at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s Awards Chatter podcast.
The self-proclaimed “Backwoods Barbie” has been a star for more than 40 years, seamlessly crossing between the country/western and pop genres — songs she wrote and sang include “Jolene,” “Nine to Five” and “Coat of Many Colors” — while also starring in movies and on TV. She has had a total of 110 singles hit the charts; 25 single or album releases certified as gold, platinum or multi-platinum; 26 songs top Billboard’s country charts and 42 albums crack its top 10, the former being a record for female artists and the latter a record for any artist; and #1 records in three different decades. She has also accumulated 46 Grammy noms (the second-most of any female artist ever, behind Beyonce) and seven Grammy wins, two Oscar noms, one Emmy nom and one Tony nom. She was also inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999, received the National Medal of Arts in 2005, was feted at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2006 and was presented with the Grammy for lifetime achievement in 2011.
Now, at 72, she is in the running for her third best original song Oscar nomination — she was previously nominated in 1981 for “Nine to Five” from Nine to Five and in 2007 for “Travelin’ Thru” from Transamerica — for “Girl in the Movies,” a tune she co-wrote, with former 4 Non Blondes lead singer/primary songwriter Linda Perry, and sings in the Netflix dramedy Dumplin’, which begins streaming on Dec. 7. “I think it’s one of the sweetest songs in there,” Parton says. “I’m really proud of the whole project.”
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 18:15], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Alex Honnold, the professional rock climber who is the subject of the acclaimed new National Geographic documentary Free Solo — which chronicles his death-defying quest to climb Yosemite National Park’s 3,000-foot El Capitan wall without a rope.
Check out our past episodes featuring the likes of Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, Justin Timberlake, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Carol Burnett, Will Smith, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone and Ryan Murphy.
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Parton was born and raised in the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee and says her Appalachian roots shaped the rest of her life. Born into a religious Christian family, she grew up with gospel music, as well as country mountain music and bluegrass. As the fourth of 12 children, she craved attention, and realized she could get it by writing and singing songs and playing guitar. As a young girl who “always felt so much more than how I looked” (“I’m not a natural beauty, but I always wanted to be pretty and I always wanted to look like a movie star, to be something more than what I was,” she explains), she “patterned my look” after “the town tramp,” wearing, as soon as she could afford to, loads of makeup, big hair and sexy clothes.
Starting at a very young age, Parton began making a name for herself. At 10, she was on the radio. At 13, she had a recording contract and was performing at the Grand Ole Opry, introduced by none other than Johnny Cash. At 15, she was signed to a major record label. After that, at 18, she left home with her uncle, who believed in her potential more than anyone else, and headed to Nashville. There, within 24 hours, she met the many who has been her husband for the last 52 years. Not long after, she and her uncle wrote a song called “Dumb Blonde,” on which they sang backup for a more established artist. That led to widespread inquiries about the girl backup singer, which, in turn, led her to one Porter Wagoner, the host of the highest-rated syndicated country TV show, who hired her to replace his singing sidekick, Norma Jean. She wasn’t immediately embraced — “My voice is so different, you either like it or you don’t,” she said — but, with time, she grew on people, and Wagoner helped her to sign a deal with RCA, which catapulted her profile.
However, after seven years alongside Wagoner, Parton began to crave independence. “I couldn’t be just a girl singer in somebody’s group,” she explains. “I’m not a person that can be controlled… I wanted to have my own group.” Wagoner fought to keep her, and things got ugly — until she wrote a farewell song for him that Elvis Presley would later ask to cover (she walked away from the deal when his manager, Col. Tom Parker, insisted that Elvis have half of the publishing rights) and Whitney Houston eventually did: “I Will Always Love You,” which remains one of the biggest hits of all time. After singing that song to Wagoner and allowing him to produce it, and after a brief attempt at a family group called Dolly Parton and the Travelin’ Family Band, Parton says, “I was free — I was the girl I wanted to be.”
In 1974, Parton, now a solo artist, exploded onto the national scene with four number one hits — one was a carryover from her time with Wagoner, but she had three new ones as well. She began to crossover into the mainstream — “I wanted to be more universal,” she acknowledges, “I don’t want to be pigeonholed” — with her album Here You Come Again and its titular single, and into acting with the 1980 film Nine to Five (for which she also wrote and sang the title song), which she soon followed with the 1982 film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. She earned Golden Globe nominations for both performances, but jokes, “I think I made a better whore than I did a secretary.” Many other acting jobs would follow, in films such as 1989’s Steel Magnolias and 1992’s Straight Talk, as well as many TV guest appearances.
Now comes Dumplin’, a film that was inspired by Julie Murphy‘s 2015 young adult novel that heavily references Parton and her sayings. Parton says she knew of the book when she first heard about the film project from Jennifer Aniston, who called to say she was producing a film version for Netflix and asked if Parton would provide music for the soundtrack in partnership with Perry. Parton, who had never previously worked with a female producer, agreed, and says she is so happy she did. “We just hit it right off,” she says of Perry. “We’re like music-mates.” The Dumplin’ soundtrack — which Dolly Records/RCA Nashville will release on Nov. 30, followed by the Dec. 7 release of the Aniston film — features a dozen tracks, six of which are Parton classics and six of which are news songs that Parton and Perry co-wrote. On several of those, Parton duets with the likes of Sia, Miranda Lambert, Macy Gray and Mavis Staples. On “Girl in the Movies,” though, it’s all Parton, still as great as ever.
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