Dolly Parton has performed in massive, sold-out venues all over the world. While it may seem likely that, given her superstar career, Parton loves being in the spotlight, the 77-year-old says that she is actually quite shy, and has been all her life.
But it was while she was still a child, growing up in the mountains of East Tennessee, when Parton realized that when she played guitar and wrote her own songs, she got attention, attention that she continued to seek out, mostly through her music.
“I don’t know that it’s true that everybody wants to be seen,” Parton reflects on her What Would Dolly Do? Radio on Apple Music 1. “I think everybody wears a sign around their neck that says, ‘I want to be important,’ but a lot of people are basically shy. But I wanted the attention. I can’t explain it, but it’s pretty obvious. I guess I felt what I was going to be maybe, because I have a shy side, believe it or not.”
It wasn’t until Parton had success, which happened soon after she finished high school and moved to Nashville, that she was able to let the shy, reserved side of her go, at least while on stage.
“In my early days, till I learned what all I could do, what all I could get away with, that side of me was kind of always there,” Parton maintains. “But the more I felt my own power and my own importance, so to speak, the more I was free to get to be more of what I have become.”
The global superstar also developed her own sense of style early on, creating a vision for herself that she adhered to, even when — or especially when — other people didn’t understand it.
“One of my dear friends and one of the most beloved people in the whole business was Chet Atkins,” Parton shares. Atkins was the head of RCA Records, Parton’s record label at the time, and he was not at all a fan of Parton’s big hair, intense make-up and unique fashion.
“He pulled me over to the side because he really liked me,” Parton remembers. “He said, ‘Dolly, I really don’t believe that people are going to take you serious as a singer and songwriter unless you tone down your look. You’re a right pretty girl. You don’t need all that.’ And I said, ‘Well, okay, I’ll take that to heart, Mr. Atkins. Thank you for your advice.’
“And of course, I just got worse with it,” she continues. “And years later, after I became a star, he sidled up beside me and said, ‘Now, ain’t you glad you listened to my good advice?'”
Parton has sold millions of albums, starred in hit movies and TV shows, authored books, launched her own Dollywood theme park, and much more. It’s all successes that she says would have never happened if she hadn’t remained her authentic self.
“I’ve always been true to myself,” the 77-year-old tells The Guardian. “That was what my mama always used to say: to thine own self be true. I put a lot of stock in that. Everything I do, whether it’s my personality, how I conduct myself and business, or whatever, if I do it my way, according to what I understand and believe, there’s a strength in that. You can think, ‘I can stand by this, I can live by this.’”