Dolly Parton has picked out her shoes, her dress and of course, her wig. But she isn't giving much away about the get-up she'll be sporting when she becomes a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors next Sunday.
What she does reveal, is that her dress - created for this occasion by Robert Bahar, who designs her costumes - is a flowing white gown with a train.
"If I can keep that president off of my train that'll be good. I don't want to have to slap that Texas guy. 'Get off my dress, cowboy!'" she says, with a big, full-throated laugh.
Over the phone from the small apartment she keeps next to her Nashville office, Parton's voice is lower than the almost child-like quality it has on her records. But it's unmistakably Dolly - quirky, perky and with her Tennessee roots showing.
Parton - whose fellow 2006 honorees are Andrew Lloyd Webber, Zubin Mehta, Smokey Robinson and Steven Spielberg - is only the second female country star to receive the Kennedy Center Honors (the first was Loretta Lynn in 2003). But while Dolly may be getting all dolled up for her visit to Washington, the honors have hardly gone to her head. She didn't even realize what a big deal the accolade was until the flowers started pouring in - "every day I get another BOH-kay," as she puts it.
From the time she was 10 years old and appearing regularly on a local TV show in Knoxville, Tenn., Parton, 60, has made the most of her strengths - and her weaknesses - with no apologies to anyone.
"I'm confident in my talent. I'm confident in my personality. I know who I am, and I just am gonna be myself, and if you like it, that's great, and I hope you do. But if you don't, well, I'm not going to change just because you think I should be something else," she says.
Describing Parton as "one of the most successful [country stars] ever," Michael McCall, writer and editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, says, "She never tried to hide where she came from. She's always embraced being from Tennessee and the mountains. She uses it to distinguish herself - the way she talks, the way she dresses, certainly her accent has never changed."
Despite her confidence in her identity, however, Parton has often been seen as a contradiction or paradox. And she understands that. "If there's any magic about me, it's the fact that I look totally artificial, but I'm totally real, because I'm real inside, where it counts, and the rest is just like fun," she explains.
"I'm not a natural beauty, and I'm little, so I just try to make positives out of my negatives. I'm short, so I wear high heels. I've got short fingers, so I wear long nails. I've got [bad] hair, so I wear wigs ... I'm kind of a character, so I look like one. I'm more like a cartoon; I look like a cartoon. It's comfortable and fun for me."
Though her look hasn't changed much over her five decades in show business, her career has varied widely. "Part of her greatness [is] that she has always envisioned herself as someone who never put walls around herself or her imagination, beginning with the time she was a child in the Smoky Mountains. She always saw beyond the mountains," says Alanna Nash, author of Dolly: The Biography. "She knew that she had a talent that transcended categories."
Named "Female Vocalist of the Year" by the Country Music Association in 1975 and 1976, Parton set out to broaden her appeal - and faced backlash because of it. "Nashville was so aghast in the mid-1970s because they saw her thinking beyond sheer country music as a betrayal. She wanted to do more than country music and they thought she was turning her back on them, and she was very agitated that people mistook that," says Nash.
Parton's instincts were validated when her initial crossover effort, "Here You Come Again," became her first million-selling record. "I said when I was making that crossover, 'I'm not leaving country. I will always take it with me,'" she says. And, as if to prove her point, the single was also her first Grammy Award winner - for "best country vocal performance by a female."
But though she has written thousands of songs and recorded hundreds, music hasn't been enough to contain Parton's creative energies. In 1980, she co-starred with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in her first Hollywood film, 9 to 5, followed by The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Steel Magnolias later that decade.
As she recounts in her 1994 autobiography, Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business, the famed Hollywood sign made a lasting impression: "I can remember looking up at the Hollywood sign the first time I was in L.A. and thinking I would like to change that H into a D." In 1986, she unveiled Dollywood, a 125-acre theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., which draws 3 million visitors annually to attractions ranging from Dollywood's Splash Country to Chasing Rainbows, a museum dedicated to her life story.
The park isn't the only thing bearing the Dollywood title. There's also the Dollywood Foundation, whose literacy program, Imagination Library, began in 1996 by distributing a book a month to each child under 5 in Sevier County, Tenn., where Parton was born.
"So many of my own people couldn't read and write and didn't get a chance at an education - my own father - and so it's something personal and special to me," she says of the program, which is now nationwide and gave out 3 million books last year. (The program also expanded into Canada this month.)
Then there's Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede, a chain of dinner theaters that feature horses, buffalo and ostriches, and are in Pigeon Forge; Branson, Mo.; Orlando, Fla.; and Myrtle Beach, S.C.
"The wheels are always turning. She's always creating. I've never seen anybody like her," says Steve Buckingham, her longtime record producer.
Buckingham, who will be her escort at the Kennedy Center Honors, recalls driving her to Washington for an interview at National Public Radio a few years ago. "She always keeps tablets wherever she is, and she would be jotting down a title or idea for a television show or a restaurant or a food line or a lingerie line. I said, 'I can hear the gears turning over here driving.'"
'In my God zone'
Whatever her other activities, however, songwriting remains her passion. "I've been writing since I was a very, very small child. Even before I could write, my mother used to write down things I would make up," she says.
Lately she has been absorbed in two songwriting projects - a new CD with the working title Country Is As Country Does, which she hopes to release in the spring, and a Broadway musical adaptation of 9 to 5, which she expects to open in 2008. Between the two, she has written 47 songs in the past three months. "Now that I've kind of had the floodgates open," she says, "the songs kind of come every day. They're not all good, but some of them turned out real good."
Parton usually begins writing about 3 a.m. "I kind of get in my God zone, I call it - my God space, or just my creative place. It's like a little field of energy that I get in," she says. "I call it my wee-hour wisdom."
Buckingham says, "She gets up and cooks and thinks and writes. One time she told me she likes getting up that early and talking to God because she feels there aren't as many people up at that time of the morning to talk to him, so she feels she has a freer line."
Writing for Broadway is a new experience, and she's thoroughly enjoying it. 9 to 5 will have a book by Patricia Resnick, who co-wrote the screenplay, and direction by Tony Award-winner Joe Mantello.
"I really seem to have a knack for it. What I've loved about it - it's not as limiting as really trying to do commercial songs for radio. I'm kind of free to write what I think and what I feel. It's not structured to where you have to have two verses and a chorus and a bridge," says Parton, who won't appear in the show ("There's no place for me. I'm too old for that - well, they think so, but I'd love to do it. But, no.")
She also feels her work on the Broadway score has had a positive effect on her other writing. "It's really opened up my mind a lot. It's made my other songwriting better by having to think so deep," she says.
9 to 5 may be her Broadway debut, but it isn't her only musical. She also has written a stage version of her 1971 autobiographical song, "Coat of Many Colors," about a coat her mother made from fabric scraps for her when she was a girl. And for several years, she has been working on a broader musical about her life.
As "Coat of Many Colors" suggests, her life is literally a rags-to-riches tale. Parton was the fourth of 12 children born to an East Tennessee sharecropper and his wife in a two-room shack.
"Being poor," she writes in her autobiography, "makes a person more creative." She fashioned her first guitar out of strings from a broken-down church piano and a mandolin she found in a barn. And though her father forbid his daughters to wear makeup, young Dolly and her sisters would use flour as face powder and Mercurochrome as lipstick.
Perhaps the taboo against makeup contributed to her lifelong penchant for it. "I love playing in the makeup," she says. "It's like playing with paints and crayons every morning." Nor is she shy about discussing her cosmetic surgery. Thanks to Botox and collagen, she says she hasn't had a recent need for "the whacking and the nipping and tucking." But, she quips, "I'll never graduate from collagen."
She was, however, the first member of her family to graduate from high school. By then, she'd already cut a couple of records, performed at the Grand Ole Opry and been a regular on local TV. The day after her 1964 graduation, she set off for Nashville.
Almost immediately, she met the man who became her husband, a contractor named Carl Dean, who rarely appears with her in public and will not be attending the Kennedy Center Honors. After accompanying her to an awards ceremony in 1966, he told her, "I am not going to any more of these wingdings." And, she writes in her book, "He has been a wingdingless man of his word ever since."
Parton spent seven years, from 1967 to 1974, on Porter Wagoner's syndicated TV show before striking out on her own. She suffered a bout of depression that lasted about 18 months in the early 1980s.
"I was having a lot of hormonal things, female problems and overweight and all sorts of things. I think I just worked so fast, so hard, all my life, it's just one of those times where God just had to knock me down to say, 'Now get up and act right,'" she says. "Actually, I was much better after that all happened."
She has been pretty unstoppable since. Her current schedule includes casino dates followed by a month-long tour of the British Isles and Scandinavia in March.
Buckingham, her producer and Kennedy Center escort, has been at her side for other accolades - her 1999 induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame; her 2001 induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame; and the 2004 Living Legend Award ceremony at the Library of Congress.
While the Kennedy Center Honors may have come as a surprise to her, the tribute didn't surprise him at all.
Parton's impact has been "huge," Buckingham says, "not just because of her body of work as a singer and songwriter and an actress but her philanthropic work." That impact isn't limited to this country.
"I've been around different parts of the world with her - the U.K., Switzerland, Amsterdam, Paris," he says. "There's no place you go ... that people don't know her. I always say, the one thing you never hear when you're anywhere with her is, 'I wonder if that's Dolly Parton?' because there's no doubt."
Jan. 19, 1946, near Sevierville, Tenn.
25 No. 1 country singles, including "Jolene" (1973), "I Will Always Love You" (1974 and 1982), "Here You Come Again" (1977), "Islands in the Stream" (1983), "Why'd You Come in Here Lookin' Like That" (1989)
9 to 5 (1980), The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), Rhinestone (1984), Steel Magnolias (1989), Straight Talk (1992)
Country Music Association Awards including Female Vocalist of the Year (1975, 1976), Entertainer of the Year (1978), Musical Event of the Year (2006, with Brad Paisley); Country Music Hall of Fame (1999); Songwriters Hall of Fame (2001); Library of Congress Living Legend (2004); Kennedy Center Honors (2006)
Composing score for Broadway musical of 9 to 5; European tour, March; working on new CD, Country Is As Country Does
Married to Carl Dean, a contractor, since 1966
On her signature look:
"It costs a lot to make a person look this cheap."