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Dolly Parton is one of USA TODAY's Women of the Century. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, we've assembled a list of 100 women who've made a substantial impact on our country or our lives over the past 100 years. Read about them all at usatoday.com/womenofthecentury.
Even as a little girl, Dolly Parton knew how to draw an audience.
She would stand on the porch of her Locust Ridge house in the Great Smoky Mountains of east Tennessee, put a tobacco stick in the cracks of the porch and place a tin can on the stick for a microphone.
Then she would sing to the chickens and the pigs and the dogs and the kids and picture a bigger world. "I imagined it, I dreamed it, I worked for it," she said, "and God was good enough to let me have it."
Her parents married as teenagers. "By the time they were 35 and 37, they had 12 kids – six girls, six boys. We just were mountain people, grew up in the church," she said. "We grew up knowing Jesus loved us and through God all things are possible, so I've carried that all the way through my life and gathered a lot of strength from that as well.
"I just always felt like I knew who I was, and I just try to stay anchored within myself and my beliefs."
And that's the secret, she says. Staying anchored, authentic. It's led to 49 Grammy nominations and nine wins for the singer/songwriter. Also an actress and author, she's been nominated for two Oscars, three Emmys and a Tony. She runs an entertainment empire, the Dollywood Company, that employs thousands.
"The whole magic about me is that I look artificial but I'm totally real," she said. "People can see that. They forgive me for being gaudy. They forgive me for not being stylish. They forgive me for not being as smart as some educated people might be. People see me. I want them to know me. I'm not bashful."
Parton, 74, stays out of politics, but speaks out when moved. She recently told Billboard, “I understand people having to make themselves known and felt and seen. And of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No!”
Question: Can you tell me more about growing up? Did your parents pay the doctor who delivered you in cornmeal?
Dolly Parton: Actually, it's true. We lived way back in the mountains. We didn't have roads where people could come in and out, and no hospitals nearby. We had a missionary doctor that had been sent to the Smoky Mountains to take care of the poor mountain people.
He used to have to ride in on horseback, and the mountain people didn't have any way to pay him with money, so you paid them with whatever you had, your canned goods or some ham or some whatever. We grew corn, and Daddy would take our corn to the mill to be ground. Mama was having problems with me, so Daddy had to run out and get (the doctor). They came back on horseback and Daddy paid him with a sack of cornmeal, and I've always joked and said that I've been raking in the dough ever since.
Who paved the way for you?
My mother's people were musical, mostly gospel, but my mother and all of her people play some musical instruments, and some of my daddy's people. I had an uncle, Bill Owens, that used to take me around to different places to sing. He had taught me all the chords on the guitar, because he saw early on that I was serious about my singing.
I was on television before we ever owned one, on local TV. My dad loved the Grand Ole Opry. Before we had electricity, we had an old battery radio that we used to pour water on the ground wire in order to bring it in. I just knew that I wanted to be out in a bigger world. I knew there was more than just the Smokies. I love my people, I love my home, but I just wanted to do more.
Do you have a proudest moment?
Oh, I have so many proud moments, I couldn't even begin to tell you, but one of the first early proud moments was when I got to be a member of the Grand Ole Opry. When I became a member back in 1969, that was a big, big night for me, knowing that my people were listening and that I had made it. Just like the song about New York and Broadway. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. Well, country singers always think, "If I can make it to the Grand Ole Opry, beyond the Grand Ole Opry, then you've made it."
Photo gallery: The ageless Dolly Parton through the years
You’ve encouraged kids to dream more, learn more, care more. You had a big dream from the beginning.
When we were graduating, (high school classmates) were making little speeches and saying, "Well, I'm going to nursing school, I'm going to join the service, I'm going to get married."
When I got up, I said, "I'm going to Nashville to be a star." There was a lot of laughter, and it kind of embarrassed me, because to me, that was what I was going to do. It was only years later that I realized that, that was just a big dream for a little kid. It was not so much of making fun as just a reaction to a big dreamer like that.
But you can't dream at someone else's expense. You've got to get out there, make those dreams come true. You've got to be the one to sacrifice what you need, to lean on who all will help you. You've got to get out there and put legs on them, wings on them, feet on them, hands on them, fingers. You've got to get out there and work it.
What about people, especially in these hard times, who do dream but feel hopeless. Any advice?
Well, for myself, I have a very spiritual base, and I lean on that. I really think that we're to be learning a lot from this. I know I am personally, but it is scary and it is crazy. You don't know what's going on, and these days, you don't even know how much it's political or whatever. You just have to pray, if you're a faith-based person, for strength. If not, you just have to keep your wits about you and lean on your higher wisdom to know that things happen, and most things we get through, and usually we come out better on the other side.
Photo gallery: Never-before-seen photos of Dolly Parton
What are you learning?
Patience, for one thing. I've known that I've just always just been able to just go, go, go, had the freedom to work, go wherever I needed to go. I'm learning a lot more responsibility. I think I was a fairly good person, but I think I'm going to be a better person after all this is over. I wrote a song recently called "When Life Is Good Again." It's like, "When life is good again, I'll be a better friend, a better person when life is good again." I think if we all look at ourselves like that, that attitude will spill out into the world.
Your fans are different types of people, from all walks of life. So many people love you. What's your secret?
I think that one of the things is because I love people, and I think they feel that, they sense that. I've been around a long time, and I grew up with humble beginnings. I think that people know that I've worked hard to get where I'm at and that I've stayed sane, for the most part.
You’ve been called the saucy grandmother of social media. You’ve got a whole new generation of fans. What do you think of that title?
I think it's great. I'm really amazed at, all through the years, every decade, something happens. Just like, for instance, when Miley Cyrus started on that "Hannah Montana" show. She actually is my goddaughter, and she calls me Aunt Dolly. I was on the show a few times as Aunt Dolly, so I kind of built that base because of all those young kids. Then they started following me, and now their kids know.
Because I'm a songwriter too, a lot of the new artists coming up, they find my songs, especially the young women. I'm so happy to be an inspiration to women and to young girls because I did it back in a time when it was even harder. I kind of understand men, and I was never intimidated by them. I'm just redneck enough that if things ain't exactly how I want them to be, I'll find a way to get it that way. I always say I can tell you where to put it if I don't like where you got it, and I'm kind of like that.
Photos: Dolly Parton through the years
Was there a moment in your life that was more disheartening?
You cannot live in this world and be successful and not have heartaches, troubles, disappointments. It's how you deal with it. I've had a lot of dreams, and most of them have come true, but a lot of them have not.
Years and years ago, I had a variety show called "Dolly," and it got so much hype. People were expecting so much. The producers and all the Hollywood people, they were trying to bring variety back. But see, I was not that type of person to do a Hollywood-type show, and I kept wanting to be myself. The show didn't do that well, and it didn't last too long. That was a big disappointment, but I was almost relieved in a way, because I always pray that everything will go out of my life that ain't right.
I remember at one point in my life when I was going through the change, or a change in my life at midlife, I gained a lot of weight and that was kind of depressing. I remember going through a very dark period, but I still leaned on my faith and my family and my friends to get through all that.
PHOTOS: 30 years of Dolly at Dollywood
You don’t talk much about politics. Is that a choice?
Well, it is a choice, because I don't like to get involved in politics, because first of all, I have as many Republican fans as I do Democrats. I don't want to offend anybody, I have a right to myself. Like God gave us free will, America gave us free speech, but you've got to be responsible for anything you say and do.
Besides that, really I'm more about the person and about the message. I like watching all of it. I watch Fox News. I watch CNN. It's like I don't even know what to believe, but I just watch it out of curiosity because it's good television. Crazy, lunacy, but I just don't get involved. I am not political, and I refuse to get caught up in political things. I just look at it, and I just think what I think. I'm just saying, "Good Lord, what are these people doing? Crazy. They don't care about us."
As someone who brings people together, do you have any advice for those in leadership right now?
You need to pray more. You need to look at people. No matter who's in (charge), you've got to look at who you're supposed to be representing. We're all God's children. We're all out here trying to do our thing. It's like I don't understand why we just have to fight about every damn thing in the world. It's like we can't even say hello. It's like, "Well, what do you mean by that?" You know? It's like it's just crazy.
I don't care if that's Bush or Clinton or Obama or Trump or Biden or whoever it may be. They need to think more about the people instead of about the party.
Do you have a change in the world you’d like to see in the next 100 years?
If we could just be peaceful, if we could just try to work through things with a little more peace, a little more love, a little more harmony, a little more understanding. I pray about it every day.
What advice would you give your younger self, that Dolly on your porch singing into a tin can?
I would just say buckle up, you little barefooted hick, and know that you're in for the ride of your life. This is what you want and you're going to get it, but you're going to have to work for it and try to love it. Just try to be strong, try to be tough and use all that redneck strength and knowledge you have and connect that with all the good things you can learn from it, but just know that you're a tough little cookie. You're going to have a wild ride, but you're going to love it.
Nicole Carroll is the editor in chief of USA TODAY. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dolly Parton on growing up in Tennessee, her faith, family and fans