'Dream It On Through': Dolly Parton On Her New Album, Inspiring Young People And More

Dec 9, 2018
Originally published on December 9, 2018 9:38 am

The new Netflix comedy Dumplin' is all about Dolly Parton. But she's not in it. And that was deliberate. Instead, Dolly did what Dolly does best — write and sing songs for the movie.

The film follows a young girl, Willowdean (Danielle Macdonald), who lacks confidence, but after being inspired by Parton's music, participates in a beauty pageant in Clover City, Tx., despite her mom's objections. That mom is played by Jennifer Aniston, who also co-produced the film and helped get Parton on board.

The soundtrack for Dumplin' features five new songs, co-written by Parton with hitmaker and 4 Non Blondes frontwoman Linda Perry and re-recordings of some of Parton's classics. The album boasts guest performances by Miranda Lambert, Sia, Mavis Staples and more.

Parton saw the film with Linda Perry before writing any of the music and immediately felt a connection to Willowdean. She says she wrote the song "Girl in the Movies" for Willowdean and every little girl and boy as a reminder: "Don't just live in a fantasy of watching someone else live their lives. You star in your own role. You be the star of your own life."

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"You never going to know if you don't get out there and try," Parton says. "Everyone should try to find out who they are and really work that out and then be willing to stand by that and just be willing to sacrifice, stand up for it fight for it and just dream it on through."

Dumplin' and Dumplin' (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) are both out now. Parton spoke with NPR's Lulu-Garcia Navarro about songwriting, her own acting career and more. Hear their full conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The new Netflix film "Dumplin'" is all about Dolly - Parton, of course. She's not in the movie. But her music and wisdom are. "Dumplin'" tells the story of Willowdean, a young woman who competes in a beauty pageant in Clover City, Texas, over her mom's objections. That mom is played by Jennifer Aniston, who's also a producer on the film. Parton told me it's Aniston who called her up and asked to use some of Parton's hit songs in the film.

DOLLY PARTON: And I said, well, absolutely. I'd be honored. And she said, would you consider writing some new music? And I said, well, sure. What do you need? So we just had a wonderful group of people show up and say, well, we'll sing on this. And I thought, well, come on then. Let's do it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The group includes the prolific music producer Linda Perry, who helped co-write new songs for the soundtrack. Parton's joined by artists like Macy Gray, Sia, Elle King and Miranda Lambert. Here are Parton and Lambert singing together on "Dumb Blonde."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DUMB BLONDE")

DOLLY PARTON AND MIRANDA LAMBERT: (Singing) When you left, you thought I'd sit. And you thought I'd wait. And you thought I'd cry. And you called me a dumb blonde. Oh, but somehow, I lived through it. And you know if there's one thing this blonde has learned - blondes have more fun.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Blondes have more fun.

(LAUGHTER)

PARTON: That was my first chart record back - Lord - in the 60s, I guess. And so that was one that they revamped and made it into, you know, more modern version. But it's still the same arrangement and everything as it was. But singing with Miranda was a wonderful experience. She's a sweet girl. I always love her music anyway.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This movie is about a young girl who's overweight. And she's always felt overshadowed by her beautiful mother, who's a pageant winner and now the director of a local pageant, which is a big deal in the small Texas town where the film takes place. And the girl Willowdean Dickson, played by Danielle MacDonald, is inspired by you. Let's listen to a clip of the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUMPLIN'")

DANIELLE MACDONALD: (As Willowdean Dickson) My Aunt Lucy loved her. I'm probably singing Dolly before I could talk. There's just something amazing about her, you know? She's in on every joke you could possibly tell about her. And she's got this wicked sense of humor. And it's like she's always one step ahead, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think when you hear that?

PARTON: You know what? It really makes me emotional, really, because, you know, when you start out in the business, you never know how you're going to be thought of when you're older. And I used to think about that, you know, wonder how I'd be remembered if I was lucky enough to make it. But seeing a lot of these things like this - young people saying they've been inspired - it really touches my heart. It makes me feel like I might've done something right. But I just really am touched by this whole process. And this is a really wonderful project for me to be involved in 'cause it shows me up as a writer. And it looks like I'm a worthwhile person. And it makes me feel good because I want to be.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Well, I think you are, obviously. And this is a movie about being your authentic self. And you are quoted in this film over and over - "find out who you are and do it on purpose," which I have to say I hadn't heard that before. But it made me emotional watching the film. When did you figure that out?

PARTON: Well, early on in my life, when I decided I was going to head out - being just a poor country girl. And I thought, well, I've got to get out there and do something. And so what's the worst that can happen? I can always go back home. My folks will always accept me. But you're never going know if you don't get out there and try. So I just felt like I needed to find out who I was, which I felt I always did. That I just needed to not only do it on purpose but with purpose. And I just really think that everyone should try to find out who they are and then be willing to sacrifice, stand up for it, fight for it and just dream it on through.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is a line in the film about going big or going home but doing either in a pair of red shoes, which is a good line. This song has some personal significance for you.

PARTON: Well, it does because first of all, there was a pair of red shoes in my childhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED SHOES")

PARTON: (Singing) I remember as a child, I was absolutely wild about some red shoes that my Aunt Lucy wore.

We were very poor kids. I grew up in a family of 12, just mountain people. And they used to send boxes of clothes up to our little one-room school. And I remember as a little child - maybe 7, 8 years old - there was a pair of high-heel shoes - red shoes. And they looked small to me because they were, you know, high heels. And I thought those were my shoes. And I wanted them. And the grown-ups wouldn't let me have them - oh, these are grown-ups. And I was like, no, these are my shoes. And so I cried and cried because I didn't get my red shoes. So soon as I had an opportunity, of course, I always had red shoes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED SHOES")

PARTON: (Singing) I will walk the streets of glory. I will tell my Lucy story and walk with her in red shoes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I read that you never thought of yourself as a great actress. And I have to say I think of you that way. Did you think you couldn't be both? That your songwriting and your singing would suffer if you gave yourself over to the movies?

PARTON: Well, I never thought about giving myself over to the movies. And I still don't because my music was always my first love. And I figured if I did well with my music that there would be opportunities for me. And when the time was right with "9 To 5," when I was already being a very successful singer and personality and people were talking about me - and Jane Fonda said well, Dolly will get us the South. Let's see if we can get her in this movie. So I hadn't even thought about doing it. But it was perfect timing because Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda were both very big stars at the time. And I thought, well, this is perfect for me to move over now. But I still wanted my music. And part of my deal was that they would be willing to let me write the theme song - "9 to 5." So I'm still dragging my music behind me.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Or in front of you.

PARTON: Or in front of me...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah...

PARTON: Yeah...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...I'd say.

PARTON: ...Really. Pushing my music in front of me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And I hear there's a "9 To 5" reboot in the works.

PARTON: Yeah. There is. Pat Resnik, who actually was the writer of the original - she came up with a clever idea. And she and Rashida Jones are working on that now. So that's going to be something - hopefully, we'll get a chance to do sometime next year.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So exciting. You know, I look back at that film, which came out in 1980 - a long time ago. And it ends - and I'll always remember this because it was so inspiring - with the three women taking over the company and putting a daycare and a flexible work schedule in 1980. It's so before its time if you think that women today are still fighting for maternity leave. I mean, it was so revolutionary at the time to see that.

PARTON: It really was. And it did a lot of good. But we still have a lot of the same challenges. And I think that's what inspired this whole sequel - is because - with the #MeToo movement. And women just trying to find their spots and get equal pay for equal work and all that. This was just a perfect time to revisit that whole issue. So like the same original, this will be funny.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

PARTON: And I think that the three new girls consolidated, meet up. They go find the three of us - the older women that made such changes years ago. And out of that comes some, you know, great acting and some great fun and some meaningful issues, as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I hope so.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOLLY PARTON, MACY GRAY AND DOROTHY SONG, "TWO DOORS DOWN")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I saw you tweet that you're celebrating 50 years of being a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Congratulations. That is an extraordinary achievement.

PARTON: Well, it is. That was always my dream as a child. That was my first goal - was to be a member of the famous Grand Ole Opry because everybody in country music, you know - we listened to the Grand Ole Opry when we were kids. And so that was the ultimate at that time. So that was back in, I guess, '68 or '69...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: '69, I think I read.

PARTON: Yeah, '69 yeah. And so I became a member. And I've been proud and honored to be a member of the Grand Ole Opry ever since. And now I'm going to do a little celebration and do...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think it's for a weeklong celebration. It's not a little celebration. It's a...

PARTON: Well, it's a weeklong...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Dolly Parton-sized celebration. It's huge.

PARTON: Well, good. Yeah. And I'm going to be there and do my things - whatever they are - and sing some of the songs through the years that I've been doing on the Opry for the last 50 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWO DOORS DOWN")

DOLLY PARTON, MACY GRAY AND DOROTHY: (Singing) Yeah. Two doors down, they're laughing and drinking and having a party. But two doors down, they're not aware that I'm around.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you look back at everything you've done, what are you proudest of?

PARTON: Well, I am proud of all of it. I'm just proud that I saw my dreams come true. I'm so very proud of Dollywood, the theme park, because it's a wonderful thing to leave as a legacy and provides work for so many people in the community, a lot of my own family, as well. And I'm very, very proud of the Imagination Library, where we give books to children from the time they're born. They get a book once a month with their own little name on it in the mail box until they start school. And so we've given away about 100 million books now worldwide. And so I'm very proud of that. But I'm just proud and honored to be acknowledged for anything that I do because I don't work for awards or rewards. I just work 'cause I love what I do. And I'm just always floored and honored, you know, when I do get something.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, this film is targeted at young audiences. But, of course, it's, I think, applicable and interesting to anybody who wants to watch it on Netflix. But there are maybe young people who may not know you. And this might be their first exposure to you. What do you want young people who may see this story and get to know Dolly Parton for the first time to sort of get?

PARTON: Well, I hope they get what's portrayed in the movie - that you don't have to be physically perfect to be beautiful. You don't have to be like somebody else to be important and special. You just need to be you and be your best you and know who you are and just draw from that. And just know that it's OK. You're special just the way you are - and that you don't have to try to compare yourself to anybody or anything. You just find your best self and just make the most of that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think that leads me to my favorite song on the soundtrack, "Wonder Why" (ph) with Mavis Staples. Let's listen.

PARTON: Yay.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHY")

DOLLY PARTON AND MAVIS STAPLES: (Singing) I wonder why we can't just speak out and say, I see you, my brother. And I love you that way. Just be as you are with purpose and pride because God loves us all. And I bet he wonders why we can't love one another...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What an uplifting tune. Love one another the way that we are. We need a lot more of that in the world.

PARTON: Oh, don't we, though? And I love Mavis. That was one of my favorite days spent in all of my career because I've always loved her and her family. And just singing her with her was just such a joy for me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. It's a beautiful song. Dolly...

PARTON: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Parton, my personal hero, thank you so much.

PARTON: Well, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOLLY PARTON SONG, "GIRL IN THE MOVIES")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And one more thing - congratulations to Dolly Parton. She's just been nominated for a Golden Globe for this song from "Dumplin'" - "Girl In The Movies."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL IN THE MOVIES")

PARTON: (Singing) It's time I show the world just what I'm about. I'm stepping up. And I'm stepping out. I'm feeling bold, and I'm feeling proud. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.