Long Reads

We asked Dolly Parton to share her advice on building a stellar career

As Dolly Parton’s Dumplin’ lands on Netflix, Stylist speaks to the world’s most beloved country music singer to get her advice on everything from how to say no, to fulfilling your dreams…

I am on the phone with Dolly Parton, and she is making me laugh.

Ten minutes previously I had been sat in my flat waiting for her agent to call me from LA, feeling slightly apprehensive at the thought of interviewing one of my all-time heroes. But as soon as I hear her Southern drawl purring through the other end of the line, I relax. Parton is instantly honest, friendly and – yes – very, very funny.

We’re rattling through a list of her biggest career highlights – of which there are many – and she’s telling my how proud she is to have received the Kennedy Center Honors, and to be recognised in the Songwriters Hall of Fame (“the country one, and the big one!”, as she is quick to point out). She takes her songwriting “more seriously” than anything else, so “being nominated or acknowledged for songs I have written have been my true career highlights”. 

As I said, there are many: Parton has nine Grammy Awards, 10 Country Music Association Awards and three American Music Awards, among others. She has been nominated for a Grammy no less than 47 times, and received two nominations for an Academy Award.

“Those moments stand out, and I appreciate every single one of them,” she says. Then, in the same breath, she adds: “You never get tired of being appreciated and acknowledged… I don’t work for that, but it’s nice when it happens.”

I can almost feel her winking down the phone at me.

Dolly Parton

A portrait of Parton from the Seventies

Parton’s latest moment of appreciation and acknowledgement comes courtesy of Dumplin’, a heartwarming new film from Netflix that follows Parton super-fan Willowdean Opal (played by Danielle Macdonald) as she takes on the world – and her mother (played by Jennifer Aniston) – when she enters a local beauty pageant. 

Parton curated the film’s incredible 12-song soundtrack, which includes a reworking of her hit Jolene alongside a number of new songs featuring artists including Sia, Macy Gary and Miranda Lambert. 

Danielle Macdonald and Jennifer Aniston in Netflix’s hit film Dumplin’

As well as Dumplin’, I’m here to talk to Parton about her career as a whole and, more specifically, to get her best words of wisdom for how to excel in our own working lives.

From the importance of dreams and wishes (two very different things, according to Parton), to the necessity of learning how to say no, read on for Parton’s top advice for 2019 - all served up in her typically no-nonsense manner.

Dolly Parton singer

Parton performing in 1976

There’s a strong theme of overcoming obstacles in Dumplin’. What would you say to someone battling their own obstacle?

Everyone is different… I try to go inside myself and figure things out, rather than get too scattered or crazy with the situation. You really need to anchor yourself – even if you don’t believe in God, meditate or find some way to find inner peace and think about it. Ponder what your problems are and make notes and lists of the positives and negatives. Look at these and ask yourself, what can I accomplish? What should I do first?

The Girl In The Movies [an original song written by Parton for Dumplin’] is all about trying to make it. What is your advice for someone on that path?

I work really hard and there is a certain amount of luck, I suppose, depending on how you look at it. But you still have to be on the job. You have to really work your dream.

You have to stay with it. You can’t get going and then let someone sidetrack you with some romance or some divorce, or some this or some that. We all have responsibilities and duties that come along but you cannot lose sight of your journey and where you’re headed. You have to stay focused on that – even when you do have to take a little detour, you know you have to get back on the main road.

You can’t lose momentum. Most people that have made it and have stayed there are the ones who have never given up. They have lived their lives and taken care of their responsibilities when needed to, but they never lost sight of the journey and what they were hoping to accomplish with that.

As a woman, are there times when your power has been underestimated?

There are times I’ve had to battle a little harder because I am a woman. But I still use my power as a woman as a weapon and a tool.

I’ve never backed down to the point where I feel I’ve had to sacrifice my integrity, or what I thought my true gifts were. If I was uncomfortable in a situation, and it was going to require certain sacrifices that I was not willing to make, I would just walk away.

I think women should do that – anyone should do that. If you don’t feel right about something, and it doesn’t feel like it’s coming from the right place, and it’s going against what you believe, your values and principles, you’d be better off to just walk away and hope for a better thing at another time.

Can you give me an example of a time when you’ve done this in your career?

I had a variety show here [in the US] several years ago that I had high hopes for. But when I got involved in the show I had too many bosses, and there were too many people thinking they knew more about who Dolly Parton was than Dolly Parton herself!

I had to fight a lot of battles and I was under a lot of stress, but I still stood up for what I believed in and I was not willing to continue with it the way that it was. We walked away from the show because it was not doing what it should do. 

I wasn’t allowed to be myself and I don’t know how to be somebody else. If you let me be me, then I’m OK. But when you try to create something around me, and just use my name to do it, it will never work. So I’m often having to say, ‘nope, that ain’t right, that ain’t me, I’m not doing it, forget about it’.

And what is your advice for women who want to say no in their careers?

You need to know what your worth and value is, and you need to be strong enough to stand up for what you believe in. When you have to say no, even if it hurts you, you have to do it. You owe that to yourself. I started my own publishing company very early on because I wanted to keep hold of all of my things. It’s always hard to make those decisions but you have to stand up for yourself.

And just because you’re a woman, it doesn’t mean you don’t have that power. Exercise it. It might be harder for some than others but you still need to believe in yourself and know that you have that power – and that right.

“Just because you’re a woman, it doesn’t mean you don’t have the power to say no”: Parton photographed in 2008

How can someone find their passion?

I definitely found my passion early on. I never wanted to do anything but write, sing and go wherever that led me. I knew that if things went well it would lead me to where I am today. But when you start out, you have to learn to crawl before you can walk and you have to walk before you can run… and you have to run before you can run faster!

You’ve got to be able to build yourself up until you’re strong enough to withstand whatever you’ve built. Now I work all the time and people say to me, ‘why are you working so hard?’ And I say, ‘well, I dreamed myself into a corner. I wanted all these things to come true and they did, and now I have to be responsible for all that.’

When you figure out your passion, you’ve got to be willing to sacrifice for it, if that’s what you have to do. And you have to stay with it, its not going to just happen.

Dreams and wishes are two different things. You’ve got to dream, but you have to work for your dreams. You’ve got to put legs on them, they’re not going to just happen. And a wish is not going to come true just because you’ve wished it. You can sit around and wish all day long, but if you don’t get out and work, it’s not gong to happen. So find out what your passion is and find out who you are, and do it on purpose, with purpose.

Dolly Parton Glastonbury

“You’ve got to dream, but you have to work for your dreams”: Parton on stage at Glastonbury in 2014

Finally, what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given was from my mother. I remember her saying, ‘don’t lose sight of who you are, those old sayings are said for a reason. Don’t lose sight of who your family is, or where you came from. 

’Just know who you are and just go and do it.’ And I’ve done it!

Dumplin’ is available to watch on Netflix now

Images: Getty

The evidence of stress in our lives is everywhere, from bad sleep to increased anxiety. So in January 2019, stylist.co.uk is dedicated to creating a life less frazzled. We’ll be focusing on uplifting news, feelgood features and recommendations for fun things to do, with the goal of making you feel calmer and more positive about the coming year.

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