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Dolly Parton will always love love

Jon Dekel

For more than 30 years, Dolly Parton has been trying to write “the ultimate cheating song.”

Parton, who turned 70 this year and boasts of her 50-year strong marriage to the publicity-shy Carl Dean, began her quest in 1984, when a close friend confided that she was in love with two men.

“I tried to be a shoulder to cry on in real life,” she recalls over the phone from Nashville, “and then I wrote a song about it.”

The resulting tune, “God Won’t Get You,” gave a biblical bent to the old as time theme, reminding the cheating party that flawed people are also God’s children:

Wonderin' if God loves us when we're cheatin',
Oh, but why he lets us feel things if it's wrong.
And I guess I should be singin' 'Rock of Ages,'
'Amazing Grace' and some of those good songs.
But my cheatin' heart will tell on me tomorrow,
If you think that God won't get you, well you're wrong.

Dolly Parton, "God Won't Get You"

The song gets a reprieve on Parton’s latest album, Pure & Simple, a collection of stripped-down love songs recorded as accompaniment to her first North American tour in 25 years.

“I always felt that was such a great song. One of my favourites. And I just had a lot of people say that song was confusing to them,” Parton explains. “And I just said, well it doesn't mean you won't have to pay for cheating."

"There were so many good lines in that song and I just never felt it had its due," she continues. "So when I started writing 'anything that feels this right can't be that wrong,' I just thought this would be clever because I'm not really thieving, the song had too many good things in it not to be brought into a bigger picture and been made understood or related to a little more.”

That line of thinking is indicative of much of what the feminist icon puts out these days: populist, with a message that speaks to a larger truth if left unscratched.

Seven decades deep, Parton — who runs a multi-million dollar empire — has embraced her own kind of feminism, playing within the patriarchal system rather than raging against it. When pressed, she prefers not to touch on the subject of politics or address LGBT issues head on, but takes pride that a woman is running for president and that her fanbase is all over the Kinsey scale.

Likewise, Parton speaks with a heightened sense of purpose. And, in her treatment of both business and music interests, one can see a proto-Kanye West approach: consistantly retooling and contextualizing as her popularity ebbs and flows. That brings us back to “God Won’t Get You,” which has been reworked as “Can’t Be Wrong.”

“That one came back to me because you do that when you write songs,” Parton explains. “My publishing company is like my workshop. Just like [on this album] I went all the way back to the '70s and pulled two songs from the Porter and Dolly days — which are songs I wrote about Carl and me when we first got married 50 years ago — so you always use, reuse, rework your songs. If you want to or need to, I have that right. I wrote 'em and I published them and I can whack them up if I want to.”

Below, Parton talks about finding her true self, the fallibility of love and the myth of her tattooed torso.

You’ve owned the idea of being a “Backwoods Barbie.” Who is the real Dolly Parton?

I think I'm a pure old country girl. I think I'm very basic in my thoughts and my presentation of myself. I look a little phony but I've always said if I have any magic it's because I look totally artificial but I'm totally real. So I'm simple in my tastes as far as what I enjoy doing and the music I like. I'm basically a farm girl and just a family person. I believe in old-fashion values and standards and principles. I just look like a phony.

You run a vast empire. How hands-on are you as a boss?

I try to stay up on stuff the best I can. As long as it doesn't put me in a strain or stress me out and get me out of my comfort zone. Because I have so many businesses, I surround myself with people that are in the know — all the high-tech stuff and online — but I myself don't really stress myself out with all that. I just make sure that it's all covered; that everything I need to get out there gets out there. I just follow my own feelings and my own gut of what's enough and when to do it and what and how much to do. That goes back to that pure and simple basic thinking.

It'd be great if I knew everything but I'm too old to learn everything. And I think I know everything I need to know. [laughs]

I read that you’re a big Adele fan. Do you listen to much modern music?

Listen, I stay up. I'll even go out and buy albums or have somebody pick up a few things of a certain music style or certain groups. I'll listen to what they're doing so at least I'll know what I'm talking about.

But I don't try to compare to everybody else's because my stuff is my stuff. To restore myself I listen to stuff that was inspiring to me back in the day. Like Cat Stevens, Otis Redding and old George Jones records. I have a tendency to want to listen to my old favourites.

As a feminist icon, did you worry that releasing an album of love songs in 2016 might be retrograde?

Love is never going to be old fashioned, no matter how high-tech or what people are into or how crazy or how much they numb their feelings to other things. Or how stupid we get; or how unspiritual, people are always going to fall in love. So, of course, because of that it changes its colours and the way people do — what they do and where they go when they're in love and how they get there. Because you're going to find your way to have babies, you're going to have sex, you're going to have kisses, you're going to have thoughts and fantasies and dreams, so love is going to always be there. Therefore, you'll have new twists and turns and new ways to write about it.

You’re playing a “painted lady” in the upcoming TV movie about your life. Does this mean you’ll finally be revealing your infamous tattooes?

First of all, I'll address the tattooes. Now I'm not tattooed up like a painted lady; like a bike chick. I have some scarring — I have a tendency to scar because I'm so fair skinned, the colour doesn't fade on those scars — so I started getting a few little tattooes just to keep me from having to look at scars, and for Carl. So I have a few little pastel tattooes around but I don't have them for the public to see. But somebody saw them and somebody made a big deal of it, so that said I'll address that: mine are pretty and pastel, I'm not all marked up with tattooes.

Right, you don't have sleeves.

Yeah. But being a painted lady, that was the person I patterned myself after when I was a kid. She was a loose woman in our town, the town trollop I guess you'd call her. She wore make-up and big hair and tight clothes, and I thought she was beautiful and it stuck in my mind. It made an impression when I was little, so that's how I patterned my look. And when we were putting this movie together [Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love] I thought it would be cool for me to have a small part in the movie. I thought, "I could be the lady I patterned my look after! Who better than me?"