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Dolly Parton talks lost Elvis song, the story behind her best '9 to 5' line, and navigating showbiz: 'You gotta look like a woman and think like a man'

·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·9 min read
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This week, Dolly Parton was nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for the first time, plus it was announced that she will host the upcoming Academy of Country Music Awards. So, as she promotes her new line of Duncan Hines cake mixes and frostings on a confectionary-pink, Lisa Frank-like set, she’s clearly in a celebratory mood. She's even dressed for the occasion in true Dolly style — although she looks slightly less glam than she likely will be at the ACMs or at the Rock Hall's Class of 2022 induction ceremony later this year.

“I'm normally not wearing aprons or stuff. I'm usually wearing my gaudy stuff with my boobs hanging out or whatever, but I didn't wanna get icing on 'em,” Parton tells Yahoo Entertainment. (She even jokes about jumping out of a giant pastry, musing, “That'd probably sell a lot of cakes!”)

What ensues is a thoroughly charming and fascinating lightning-round chat about the celebrities Parton has baked for, the time Elvis Presley was supposed to record her hit “I Will Always Love You,” why she never considered herself a “natural beauty,” and the scary New York City altercation that inspired her infamous “rooster to a hen” zinger in 9 to 5. It’s a conversation that feels like a party from beginning to end, and totally belongs in the Interview Hall of Fame.

Yahoo Entertainment: You've probably had all sorts of people at your table who are some of the most famous people you've baked or cooked for?

Dolly Parton: Well, anybody that ever comes to my house that I'm starring with, whether it’s [Rhinestone co-star] Sylvester Stallone — who is more on a diet, he stays more on a diet. [Best Little Whorehouse in Texas co-star] Burt Reynolds always was happy to eat anything. I often cook for all the cast and crew when I'm doing a movie. Lily [Tomlin] and Jane [Fonda]… Jane at the time we did 9 to 5 was really heavy into her workout tapes and she wasn't eating a lot of greasy, buttery stuff, but Lily grew up in the South. So, she loved my cooking, and still does, if we get a chance to do it.

Have you ever baked for Elvis? Because I know that there's a famous story that one time he was going to record “I Will Always Love You.” And I know he liked his Southern food!

No, I didn't know Elvis. I never met him. I was going to meet him for the first time when he was coming to the studio to sing “I Will Always Love You,” which didn't work out, as you know, because Colonel Tom Parker, his manager, wanted half the publishing. But anyway, I would've cooked for him if he'd have wanted me to. But when he was going to do my song, I was gonna meet him and I'm sorry, I didn't get to meet him.

This year actually marks the 30th anniversary of The Bodyguard, so obviously someone else [Whitney Houston] went on to cover that song, and it was quite lucrative for you. You've always been so businesssavvy in your career. As it as cool as it would've been for Elvis to do that song, you must be grateful that you didn't cut what probably was not a very lucrative deal with Colonel Parker.

No, it wasn't. … “I Will Always Love You” I wrote when I had left The Port Wagoner Show. … But actually that had been my first No. 1 hit, and it was the most important song in my catalog at that time. So, if it had been a new song, if I'd had just written something for [Elvis Presley], I might have reconsidered that. I've still always wanted him to sing it. I wrote a song later called “I Dreamed About Elvis” and it was about dreaming about Elvis singing that song. And I had an Elvis soundalike to come in and sing the Elvis part, and it sounds great! Maybe one day I'll put that out.

It's interesting, the story of you breaking professionally from Porter, who had been so instrumental to your early career. I saw you give this speech at MusiCares  You went on to say that you actually “never met a man you didn't like,” and you also said, “I've never met a man whose ass I couldn't kick if you didn't treat me with respect.” Great quote, words to live by! How did you navigate things back then? Very different time in the business.

Well, I happened to have six brothers, uncles, cousins, that I loved. I know of the nature of men. I love men, and I love my husband. So, I was never intimidated by men. And I tried to always kind of be pretty and sexy. I mean, I wasn't a natural beauty, so the way I dressed was kind of provocative, and so I never took it as an insult — like, if men came on me, I thought it was like a compliment! But I was not bringing that in. … I never slept with anybody I didn't want to. I didn't feel intimidated to have to, you know, whatever. But I was lucky. I loved men and knew how to talk to men. I also knew how to express myself. Hey now, like I said, if I wanted to [be intimate with someone] that's different! But nobody ever made me or force me to do it.

I would always say, “You gotta look like a woman and think like a man.” And I really feel like I do that. I have a new song that's coming out called “Woman Up and Take It Like a Man.” Like, if you want to be strong, if you wanna be all that, you gotta kind of walk the walk and talk the talk, so to speak. There were some times that I was made to feel very uneasy, but I also knew that I was going get out of that — because I have a pretty good knee, too!

Did you actually ever do that? Do you have any stories? It doesn't have to be a story that involves a knee [to the groin], but stories where you were in a weird place, not being respected or whatever, where you took a stand and came out of it?

Yes, but it wasn't in Nashville. It was in my early days. My friend Judy and I'd never been to New York and I wanted to go. … We went down, walking down the street and we were looking around at all this stuff… and this guy came up and he started trying to put the make on me and saying all this stuff. And I was saying, ”No, now, get away! We're not interested. We're just out walking.” And he kept trying. And at that time my daddy had given me a gun when I left home, and he said, “You use it if you have to — but only if you have to. But it'll help you. If somebody knows you got a gun, they're gonna leave you alone.” So anyway, this guy would not stop. … I said, “If you touch me” — and I was really angry and scared — I said, “If you touch me one more time, I'm gonna shoot your, you know, crotch off!” That's kind of where that the [9 to 5] movie [line] came from, that “I'm gonna change it from a rooster to a hen,” that thing. Well, that actually happened me. And I said, “I'm gonna shoot it off!”

Anyway, Judy thought that was so funny. She started laughing, and I was so mad at her that I turned around and I said, “I'm gonna shoot you too! Why are you laughing? This is serious!” Well, about that time, she just thought that was so funny. We were both scared though. But a guy came up to me and he knew who I was. He said, “Are you girls lost?” I said, “Yes, we are.” We didn't know how to get back to our hotel. We wound up… is it 52nd Street? Or one of those where the whores run in pairs. We did didn't know that. And we did look the part, ‘cause we both were, you know, country and tacky. … And so he took us back to the Americana [Hotel] and sure enough, they had locked us out of our room. They thought we were trash, and because we had one room, they thought we were turning tricks in our room! They had put all of our stuff out in the hall and had locked the door. So, we had to go to the airport, get a cab and go to the airport, and wait for hours till we could get back home. And I thought, “I'm never going back to New York again!” But anyway, you have your stories, you live your life. And then you have memories and they make fun stories.

You’ve got many good stories! I did want ask something to pick up on something you said earlier: Do you really think you are not a natural beauty? Because I would beg to differ, as would many fans of yours.

Well, I'm telling you, I'm not. I've seen me before you do! I am not a natural beauty. I have to work hard to look good. I like to look a certain way, but I honestly I am not a natural beauty. I try hard to look as good as I can, because I have a certain way to. But I try to shine from the inside to make up for a lot of other stuff. But no. But that's OK. I do all right.

Obviously, you're doing all right! You're a mogul! ... Did anyone ever advise you that your image was going to make it so you wouldn't get the respect that you obviously now have?

In the early days, a lot of people tried to tell me that. But I didn't listen. And I'm still not listening when it comes to people trying to tell me what to do.

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— Video produced by Jen Kucsak, edited by Jimmie Rhee