Dolly Parton has developed a new Netflix anthology series called “Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings,” which dramatizes many of her beloved songs. The final episode of the season, titled “These Old Bones,” is being submitted at this year’s Emmys under the TV Movie category.
Parton recently spoke with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum about working with Netflix, what it’s been like adapting her various songs and her feelings on the loss of Kenny Rogers. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Dolly, thank you, first of all, for joining us again. It’s always a pleasure to see you.
Dolly Parton: Well, I’m happy to always do anything for you and for Netflix and to promote any of my products that I can and I’m very proud of the “Heartstrings” series. So thanks for having us on.
GD: Well, the leadoff episode in “Heartstrings” is “Jolene.” I know people have been after you for decades to put this on a feature film or television. Why was this the right time and why was this the right moment?
DP: Well, of course, “Jolene” is probably my biggest song. So of course, Netflix wanted to do that first. And of course, it’s hard to know actually how to tell that little story. But I was excited how [Patrick] Sean Smith had taken the story and made it different than what people really thought the Jolene story was or what it should be and having Julianne Hough play Jolene, who I think she did a beautiful job, she’s a beautiful girl and loved working with her. And so, she did a great Jolene and we thought, “Well, we have to do it. People want to hear what ‘Jolene’ is all about,” although it was a little different than the song. People seemed to enjoy it.
GD: And what was your experience like working with Netflix? They’ve got so many of the most talented showrunners and producers coming to them in the last few years. And now, of course, you and your team. What was that like?
DP: Well, I have to honestly say, working with Netflix has been one of the great joys of my business, because a lot of times when you work with networks or other shows, you really don’t have as much creative control as you’d like. What’s wonderful about Netflix, they’re willing to spend the money for marketing and promoting their things. They’re also willing to give you creative control and that’s very important to artists and to people that really have a real feel for what they want the things to be. Because so much of the time, a lot of producers come in and everybody just wants to change it ‘cause they can and they’ll mess up a good project. Netflix has been so good about letting us be creative and giving us great direction and guidelines and all, but they’re really just wonderful people. They seem to be excited about all their projects and they seem to be excited about me, and I love that. It made me want to do better and it inspired me to really give everything that I had. So, they’re a wonderful company and I hope to do many things with them through the years.
GD: One of your songs that was developed into an episode here, a TV movie, was “These Old Bones,” and that one is the one that your company is entering into the Emmy competition under the TV Movie category. What did you like most about that?
DP: Well, that story, like most of my songs, are very important to me. But that story I just really loved and when I actually recorded the song, I performed vocally, the old lady voice part, like the old mountain woman. I actually sang in my natural voice. But then I sang the old lady’s part. And so when we got Kathleen Turner, we were so lucky to get her and she did an incredible job playing the character of Old Bones. And for those that are just watching this interview that have not seen that, it’s really about this old lady in the mountains, this old clairvoyant, that actually knew everything that was going on, lived up in the mountains and people would come for advice and information. So that one was personal to me because it’s based on so many of my people and people in the mountains are known to know things. It kind of runs in my family, that psychic ability. So my mother had that and it goes kind of back all through the generations. But this one lady that actually was a relative of ours, when I was small, she had told my mom that she saw that I was anointed and that I was going to do great things. That really gave me confidence. When I asked Mama what anointed meant, I was a child. I didn’t know. She said, “Well, that just means God has His hand on you and you’re probably going to do something special in this world.” And I kind of kept that faith and knowing that she had told me that, that kind of thing encouraged me, I think, through the years. But that old character that when I started writing the song, I created a whole bunch of things that weren’t actually all part of her, but it was just a compilation and a combination of all those wonderful people and things that live in the mountains and those soothsayers, so to speak, or prophets. And I loved “Old Bones” and Kathleen Turner killed it. Nobody could have done that better than her.
GD: We’ve been watching her all the way back to the ’80s with “Body Heat” and “Romancing the Stone.” And I just thought she’s so different here than we’ve ever really seen her onscreen before.
DP: I thought that that was what was amazing about it, because she was always such a sex symbol and she’s such a great actress and we loved her, as you said, through all those movies that you mentioned. But, in her older years, she said, “I want to play something different. I want to play something different than anybody would think that I would play.” So she padded herself all up and yellowed up her teeth and got her hair all stringy and she really played that old wild mountain woman. She said a lot of her people were from Missouri and she was used to that accent and she would have me talk to her kind of how we talk in the mountains. And of course, she played a lot off of my song that I recorded where I actually was singing the old lady part and did a lot of talking in that old voice. So she said she loved playing with that, but she’s such a great actress. She just took it and made it her own. And I think people were just amazed to see Kathleen Turner doing this character of Old Bones. Hopefully, it’ll get nominated for an Emmy, and I’m proud of that. I think she would love having something special like that.
GD: The other thing about this episode, this TV movie, is I’ve always loved courtroom dramas all the way back to “Perry Mason” and so many others over the years. That’s a really special part of this, the legal drama that’s going on.
DP: Yeah, it really kind of took me back, too. I thought the way that it was shot was absolutely wonderful. We had wonderful actors, wonderful directors, wonderful writers and everything on all these projects were great. Sam Haskell, my partner and executive producer, he saw to it that we had the best of all of the people and he loves the movies anyway. So he loved the idea of getting in the courtroom and recreating that whole thing, like you say, “Perry Mason,” how you love going into those beautiful old courtrooms and all that wood and mahogany. And on the set, I just loved being there in that courtroom, just kind of on the sidelines watching as a producer and just enjoying watching all the acting being done. But really, you just feel like you’re right there in the courtroom. But I thought that was a wonderful element, too.
GD: Another TV movie that you have as part of the anthology, how in the world did you get Mac Davis? He’s sort of been semi-retired. We haven’t seen him in a while. How did you get here?
DP: Well, it wasn’t hard ‘cause Mac Davis and I have been friends since we were young. And we’re not young anymore. But Mac is a great actor, and I knew that, and when I did the song “J.J. Sneed,” which is a song I wrote with my aunt, Dorothy Jo, one of my mom’s sisters, we had this song for years and I always thought it would make a great Western. So when we got to putting it together, I thought, “Well, I’ve got to get Mac Davis to be in this movie,” ‘cause he’s old enough and there was a wonderful part for him. So I just called him up. I said, “Well, I’m doing a series of movies on Netflix and there’s a part for you. Would you like to do it?” He said, “Hell yeah, I’d like to do it!” So he came down to Atlanta and we had a really good time. He brought his guitar and in between takes and when we were on breaks, he’d be in the bus singing and we wrote a lot of songs together so we had a chance to kind of get caught up on some of that as well. But I think Mac did a wonderful job doing that. If we do more, I don’t know if we’ll continue with this or not, everything’s changed since all the COVID and just the whole music show business in general, but there’ll be movies of the week and there’ll be other things, and hopefully, I’ll be able to have Mac do some more things because he’s really good. And I loved him. He helped me early on in my music career. He helped get me with all the right people in the early days. So we’ve been friends for a long, long time.
GD: Well, he was a huge superstar in the ‘70s. I still remember his variety show.
DP: Well, that’s when I first met Mac. Mac’s from Texas but I was a guest when he was actually doing his TV show. That’s when we met and we stayed friends because T for Texas, T for Tennessee. Texas people and Tennessee people are so much alike. So we were just having a lot of fun doing whatever. So then Mac had me on his show and then after I left a show that I was on, “The Porter Wagoner Show,” and kind of branched out on my own, Mac was very, very beneficial in helping me get with the right management and people. Not only that, he also let me front his shows and I traveled with Matt because he was really hot and he was on the road doing concerts and he let me around his shows and gave me that break, too. So we’ve stayed very close to the years. I owe him a great deal.
GD: I wish you would use your powers of influence and get him into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He deserves to be in there.
DP: Well, I think he does, too. And maybe that’s something I can work on. I didn’t realize he wasn’t in there! I guess I just assumed.
GD: Every year I wonder who is going to make it out of that veteran group and I’ve just always been surprised he’s not in there.
DP: Well, you know what? That’s just one of those things you kind of look over. I did not realize he wasn’t. He’s a classic to me, so I just assumed he was. So that might be something I can work on. Thanks for bringing that up.
GD: Yeah, make those phone calls to those right people and get him in there. Speaking of Hall of Fame, we all lost a friend, I feel like, a few months ago in Kenny Rogers, just a really special friend of you and a duet partner. Tell us about the first time you ever met him.
DP: Well, I also met Kenny when I was actually doing a little show of my own right after I had left “The Porter Wagoner Show” back in the ‘70s. I had a little variety show, the first Dolly show later on. Later on I had the big variety show on networks, but this was back in the mid-’70s. That’s back when Kenny was with The First Edition and he was just beginning to kind of branch out on his own and he was kind enough to come and be a guest on my little television show. And we, like Mac and I, he was another Texas boy. I just kind of get along good with Texas people. But we became friends and we just started singing together different times, just back in the dressing room, realized that we did sing good together. But I wasn’t thinking anything about doing duets until Barry Gibb was producing an album with Kenny and they had written that song, “Islands in the Stream.” Barry had written that with his brother Andy and his other brother. “Do you know Dolly Parton?” he said to Kenny. He said they’d try to do the song and it wasn’t hitting on anything. And so Barry had asked Kenny if he knew me. He said, “Yeah, I know her.” And he said, “Well, can you get in touch with her? ‘Cause I think Dolly’s voice would be perfect for this song.” And it just so happened that I was just up the hill from Lion Share Studio, which was Kenny’s studio where they were working, doing that album, and they had tracked me down, thought I was in Nashville, seeing if at some point I could come sing. And Kenny said, “Where are you? I said, “Well, I’m on Sunset in L.A.” And he said, “You’re on Sunset? Well get your ass down here and see if you can sing this song with me.” So I dressed in a matter of minutes, got down to the studio and the rest is history. So “Islands in the Stream” became one of the biggest duets ever and that’s when Kenny and I became famous as a duet. We recorded several things, toured together and losing him was just like losing a member of my family. It just broke my heart. Ever since then, I just think of him all the time. He’s never, never far away.
GD: Well, I think we all felt that way, even so many of us that didn’t meet him personally. He had just been such a big part of our lives all the way back to the ‘70s, really. And we all miss him right now.
DP: Yeah, it’s true. Kenny did have several careers. He had The First Edition, then he went out on his own. Then he had a slump and then he came back. So he just kept going and coming and coming and going. But he was a great actor, too, or he liked to act, but he did several movies. He was an all-around entertainer and a great human being. Loved him like a brother.
GD: I loved seeing you a few months ago, and we’re talking about several country music legends here, including you, Dolly, but that country music documentary series that you were in that Ken Burns produced, that was so amazing. I learned so many things and stories that I’ve never heard before.
DP: Well, Ken Burns does a wonderful job with whatever he does and I was just proud to be part of that whole thing that he put together. So that was really a magnificent thing that he did on country music. We were all so proud to be part of that. So that’s just one of those things that you just feel lucky and fortunate that you can be a part of.
GD: We’re all hoping to see you back at the Emmys this year. The last time we talked you had just been nominated for the NBC TV movie and then that night of the Emmys, you and Lily [Tomlin] and Jane [Fonda] reunited to present a category and the crowd just went crazy when the three of you came out and they’re playing “9 to 5” music. Tell us what you enjoyed about that particular night at the Emmys.
DP: Well, it’s always fun to get to do something with Jane and Lilly because I love them. We really made history together doing the “9 to 5” movie, really made a lot of changes, helped a lot with women in the workplace. Although, there’s still more work to be done. But we felt like that at that time, we really had done some good work in kind of presenting the idea and opening people’s eyes to that. But people just love us together and we’ve been hoping all these years that we would be able to do a sequel to “9 to 5.” Never happened. It went by the wayside here recently, so we’re probably not going to be doing that. But we still hope at some point there’s a movie for three older women that would be fun. And I hope to still be on their show at some point. But just being there that night and seeing that reaction of the audience made us realize that people still loved us and really what a powerhouse that whole movie and that whole trio of us was.
GD: One last question. We’ve all been going through the tragic events of the last few months and Dollywood, just like everything, had to shut down. What’s the status right now and what can people do and how do they come back and enjoy your wonderful place there?
DP: Well, we have been very, very careful, as everyone should be, and we did not open when the governor said we could. We took those few weeks to actually get back up there, to retrain and to rework and make sure that all our safety measures were in place to make sure of the social distancing and deciding on what was safe, what was not safe. So we’ve done everything in our power and we did open the second week in June, and that was mostly for the season pass holders. Now we’ve opened up for the main public, but we still are not having shows in theaters. We’re not doing anything where we cannot actually follow all the safety rules. So we’re doing our best to make it still enjoyable and hopefully, we’ll get everything back in line at some point. But hopefully people are going to enjoy it, what they can do. We’re just being smart and safe and hopefully, things will be good again before you know it. It’s just been a crazy year, but everybody has to kind of roll along with what’s going on and just do your best and be smart and be as safe as you can.
GD: This process while you’ve been isolated like everybody, has that allowed you to write even more music?
DP: You know, this has really been, as awful as it is and as terrible as it’s been for the whole world, it has been really an amazing time for me personally because I have been able to really go inside and really do a lot of work because I never let it scare me because I believe God is in everything, or at least I know He’ll help us through it. So I think I’ve really strengthened my spiritual self and my creative self, and I’ve always lived on spiritual and creative energy anyway. So it’s made me really more creative. It’s made me want to do more for people. A lot of people don’t know how to express what they feel. I’ve been able to hopefully write that and as a musician, writer, singer, I can kind of get some things out and do things that might help people that are closed and that are just scared. I just really feel like I spent a good time for me, self-analysis. I imagine a lot of people feel that way. And I do think that we’ll all be better people after this is over. I just wish it would get over, as we all do. But I really think that even if it gets worse before it gets better, things will be all right again. But I’ll continue trying to uplift people and glorify God and do the best I can.
GD: Well, it’s always such a pleasure to talk with you and I really have a feeling we’re gonna see you back in that TV movie category at this year’s Emmys for “These Old Bones.” I hope so. That would be wonderful.
DP: Well, that would be wonderful for everybody. It would be nice for me too, but I would wish that for Kathleen and for Sam Haskell and for all those wonderful actors and actresses and directors, the writers. So that would be a wonderful thing for everybody. But whether or not we win an award, we’re always happy to be a part of the whole scene. So thank you for having me on. And hopefully, people will enjoy our little chat.