It’s November 1st, and Dolly Parton has already started putting up her Christmas trees. Halloween is officially over, folks. It is Christmastime.
“I’m like you,” she says when I mention that I’m totally on board with the early start to the season. She classily moves right past my exploding heart at the suggestion that the Backwoods Barbie and I are in any way the same. “Christmas can’t come soon enough.”
She talks about the decorations going up at her mountain home in Chattanooga, her chirping Tennessee drawl crackling like flames on a yule log as she sets the scene. “I just love it,” she says, and I swear to god Dolly Parton squeals. Merry Christmas to me.
We talk a lot about Christmas, for reasons including: We both love it, she has a TV movie coming out based on her childhood and set at Christmastime, and I have been told that we would only be discussing this film. The film, however, was not available for me to see at the time of our interview. And so here we are, talking about Christmas trees.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“So what are you gettin’ me?” she asks, yodeling that cackle of a laugh that she’s become so famous for and that, after hearing it directed at me, I am more certain than ever of its spiritual and healing powers. “It’s a surprise!” I tell her. I know she was kidding. I still haven’t stopped thinking about what I should send her.
“All right,” she says, doing one of those deep sighs after a few seconds of laughter indicating that she’s had enough. “Let’s get goin’.”
Dolly Parton is, easily, the warmest, kindest, wittiest icon that lowly ole me has interviewed. She’s a genuine, glowing spirit—exactly as you imagined. But she also didn’t become an icon for nothing: Enough with the chitchat, there’s a movie to promote.
Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love premieres on NBC Wednesday, a no-brainer sequel to last year’s monstrously successful Coat of Many Colors, which scored a whopping 16 million viewers, set a ratings record for TV films, and proved that the 70-year-old Tennessee songbird is still the most dependable entertainer the industry can offer.
The autobiographical film, which is based as directly on Parton’s cherished song—she’s called it her favorite—as it is her life, centered around her childhood growing up in the Great Smoky Mountains as one of eight children to parents Robert Lee (played by Ricky Schroeder in the film) and Avie Lee (Jennifer Nettles). The couple could barely provide for their brood on Robert’s earnings as a tobacco sharecropper—a household that’s a far cry from the veritable snow-globe holiday utopia Parton had just finished describing to me.
If you’re a Parton fan—and excuse you if you aren’t—you know the plot. The Coat of Many Colors was a garment that then 9-year-old Dolly’s mother stitched for her as a gift using scraps from other clothes she’d sewn for her kids. It was all she could afford to give her daughter as a present, and Dolly beamed with pride while wearing it… until bullies teased her for wearing a coat fashioned from rags.
But as the family suffers a series of tragedies, their faith in the Lord brings them together, leading Dolly to ultimately realize how invaluable her coat was as a gift. It was made with her mother’s love.
Coat of Many Colors, with its preachiness and brazen earnestness, suffered its fair share of critical bah-humbugs. But, as faith-based family entertainment at a time when pop culture was overrun with cynicism and agnosticism, the film was a holy unicorn for viewers, who tuned in like churchgoers gathering for Mass. (At the Church of Dolly, of course.)
“I think folks were starved for something like this,” Parton says. “It’s not often you can all sit down and watch something that’s not shy about family and about God anymore.”
She remembers watching Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons, programs that showed not only the struggles of the family, but how love and faith can get you through hard times. Only Dolly Parton could make the argument that what the world needs in 2016 is more TV like The Waltons and have you nodding your head in agreement. Because, actually, she’s right.
“It can be cold and dark out there, ya know?” Parton says. Oh, do I. People like to see survival, she says, and like to think that believing in something higher than themselves can help them through it. “We’re hoping these films will get people to make more things like it.”
Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love, which, like last year’s film, Parton produced as part of a lucrative deal with NBC, is also autobiographical. In it, Parton plays a prostitute.
It’s not typical for a producer to cast themselves as a prostitute in a film, I tell her. “Certainly not for a Christmas film!” she throws right back. Dolly Parton is the best.
“I felt like I had to play her,” she continues. “She’s a very important person in my life and my career.”
Again, as many fans know, it was a young Parton’s fascination with “the town trollop,” as she calls her, that inspired the “it takes a lotta money to look this cheap!” look that Parton’s made her signature. She used to call her “The Painted Lady,” she says, because of her tight clothes, makeup, and big hair, and sees value in showing how she never judged her, in the truly Christian way.
“It wasn’t a big stretch for me!” Parton says about playing her. “I already kind of dress like her in real life.” In fact, she says, “We kind of Hollywood-ed her up a bit. She looked a little better in the movie. I wanted her to look cheaper! I wanted her to look really trashy.”
Parton’s turn as the Painted Lady is more of a cameo. She does, however, narrate the film, which chronicles one Christmas season growing up where Dolly’s father enlists the entire family to sacrifice in order to save up enough money to buy her mother the wedding ring she never got. There is also a bit of a Christmas miracle, as the family survives a harrowing blizzard “that about done us in.” She quips that “tears were freezing to our faces,” a line that also makes it into the movie.
The tears resurfaced when Parton was on set, when she’d allow herself moments to take a step back from the producer chair and watch the story of her life and her family being recreated after all these years of working hard for success. “It was very emotional, I have to tell you,” she says. “It makes me remember Mom and Daddy, and where I came from.”
Where she came from seems to be a near-constant fascination among her fans, so she sees these films as a vehicle for showing the family support and, more importantly, faith that got her to where she is.
“People like a good rags-to-riches Cinderella story and I guess I did that pretty well,” she says. “Now I get to pay tribute to and honor the place and people that I love. It makes me proud.”
In other words: She’s never forgotten that home.
On Tuesday, the day before Christmas of Many Colors is set to premiere, Parton found her name trending on social media, and not just because of excitement over the film. Wildfires raging in the Gatlinburg area of Tennessee led to the evacuation of her famed Dollywood theme park.
“I have been watching the terrible fires in the Great Smoky Mountains and I am heartbroken,” she said in a statement. “I am praying for all the families affected by the fire and the firefighters who are working so hard to keep everyone safe. It is a blessing that my Dollywood theme park, the DreamMore Resort, and so many businesses in Pigeon Forge have been spared.”
The tragic fires—so far at least three people have lost their lives—lends added poignancy to Christmas of Many Color’s airing, not to mention Parton’s trumpeting of faith.
Parton is shocked, she maintains, that she has become this icon of family entertainment, particularly around the holidays, but it’s purely a byproduct of the artist’s mandate: writing what you know. And for her, that’s her life.
And as she continues her production deal with NBC, that means that the content will soon veer away from the warm and fuzzies of the two Coat of Many Color films. “It means a lot,” she says of her newfound status as a beacon of wholesome family entertainment. “On the other hand we’re making a movie out of ‘Jolene’ and that’s not very family-friendly.”
She lets out another whoop of a laugh. “So I gotta deal with her being a whore and whatever with all that!” she continues. “But I’m a writer first and foremost and these are all parts of who I am.”
They’re all her, ahem, colors.
And you know what? I’d like to think that Dolly would’ve appreciated that pun, too.