It’s not often in one’s life that the opportunity to meet a living legend arises. Rarer still is the opportunity to meet a genuine living legend, not once but, twice. I am testament to the fact that such a rarity does happen.
Recently I was at work minding my own business when a casual enquiry came my way, the kind of enquiry many of us have made of a colleague at work: “What are you up to this weekend?”
“Oh nothing”, I replied.
“Well, do you fancy flying to Nashville to meet Dolly Parton again?”
“Try stopping me!” was my reply.
You see I had the opportunity to sit down with Dolly about two years ago when she was in the UK on tour and promoting her ‘Better Day’ album. She had agreed to sit down with me for an hour backstage at the Liverpool Echo Arena whilst she was rehearsing the technical aspects of her show.
I had interviewed celebrities and Hollywood movie stars in the past but Dolly Parton is something quite different from all of those. She is, as I have already mentioned, a living legend.
The difficulty with meeting legends in real life is the worry that they will not live up to your expectations. Trust me, Dolly did not disappoint. She was friendly, charming, warm, professional and kind. She took the time to speak to every member of the production team that were there with me, shook them all by the hand and made them all feel like they had a personal moment with her. Best of all she complimented my interview skills and told me I was very good at my job. I could have died happy right there and then.
So when the opportunity to not only meet her again, but to meet with her in Nashville, the home of country music, presented itself I would have dropped any previous plans. To say I was excited would have been an understatement!
So, early on a Sunday morning I headed to the airport to catch a flight to Washington D.C. and then a connecting flight to Nashville. It was a long and at times arduous journey but like one of the knights of King Arthur on a quest to find the Holy Grail I was focused on getting to Dolly and nothing was going to dampen my enthusiasm.
For the entire duration of the first of my flights (8 hours) I had a very large file of notes in front of me detailing the album tracks, her home life and her career. From the moment of take off until we landed I trawled through every detail of her life and prepped my questions accordingly. I was so involved in what I was doing I actually didn’t eat or move the whole time I was there.
When I arrived at the airport I was met by a driver supplied by the record company to take me to the hotel they had booked me into. I was staying in downtown Nashville a short walk from the famous Ryman Auditorium. I was literally right in the epicentre of American country music. When I arrived at the hotel – which had an atrium in the reception that was 25 floors high – I approached check-in to be greeted by a poster with the question, “What would Dolly do!”
Yes indeed, there was no doubting that Dolly was the queen of country, this was her homeland and these were her people.
I got to my room and it too had the same poster over my bed, and I began to wonder if this should be one of the questions I was supposed to ask Dolly when I met her?
It had been arranged that I would meet Dolly early the next morning at about 11.30am at a TV studio soundstage on the edge of Nashville. Even though I wasn’t meant to be there for hours I got up at 5.30am, ordered breakfast in my room (a total indulgence I know, but I had work to do and this was an important interview!) and sat down at the enormous desk in my room to organise my interview.
In what seemed like five minutes it was time for me to jump in the shower, get in a cab and head to the TV studios.
I don’t mind admitting I was a little anxious now. As I have said, I have interviewed a lot of people in my career, world-champions of sport, Hollywood stars and chart-topping singers, but Dolly was different.
I arrived at the enormous soundstage at the TV studios and the first thing I saw was Dolly’s bus that she obviously travelled in when on these junkets. It was very large and shiny and I couldn’t help wondering if she was inside looking out of the window as I walked past. As I entered the backstage area I was greeted by a large team of people sitting at banks of laptops busily working away. I assumed they were all journalist waiting for their moment with Dolly, but it turned out they were all people involved in some way with organising the day as there were journalists from all over coming along to have their moment.
Some people were there to conduct radio interviews; some, like the BBC, were there just to get some voxpops (you know those little soundbytes on the radio saying, “Hi, I’m Dolly Parton and you are listening to my new album on XYZ FM”) and then there were people like myself and Ross King from Good Morning Britain who were there to have a sit down interview on camera.
I waited for my turn. Ross King was in before me and then there were some Christmas photos, with full on winter wonderland setting and fake snow, to be done for another media outlet that was followed, immediately, by a radio interview and then me!
I watched from the background as Dolly just kept working away, pausing only for costume changes between interviews and photoshoots. Never a word of complaint or even a hint of diva behaviour, quite the opposite in fact. Dolly was a consummate professional of the old-school variety. She laughed and joked with the crew keeping the mood in the room buoyant, making each interviewer feel welcome, and, whilst they were working with her, she made them feel like they were the only person she was interested in.
In fact, so hardworking is Dolly that I overheard one of the people on her team mention to another that they had scheduled in breaks between interviews and set aside a 30 minute lunch break too, but the other guy simply replied that she wouldn’t take any breaks at all, not even lunch as she never takes breaks, she just prefers to get the job done. At 68 years of age, how can you not admire a woman who still has that kind of work ethic? Such an antidote to the celebrity culture we live in today were many young people see being famous as a career with no consideration for the fact that most people are famous because of hard work and outstanding talent!
Dolly popped out to her trailer for a quick costume change while my interview area was set up. I busied myself with checking my questions and talking with the cameramen about how we were going to shoot the interview. I wrapped myself up in these preparations partly to ensure that everything went smoothly and partly to distract myself from becoming nervous. It was made very clear to me that I would have 30 minutes with Dolly and everything I needed to get done had to fit into those minutes, no exceptions. I had previously been worried that I may not have enough questions prepped – now I was worried that maybe I had too many to fit into the allotted time.
Busy as I was, I didn’t notice Dolly return to the studio and just then I heard a voice: “Well hi there, I remember you!”
I turned and looked at that big friendly smile (and that even bigger hair), and all my worry melted away. There she was shimmering in golden sequins from head to toe accessorised with a sparking pearly white smile, and before I even had time to comment she was chattering away like we had known each other for years.
“I saw your name on the list and I remembered you from the last time and I was so pleased it was you”, she beamed. Whether it was true or not I didn’t care, I was hooked.
We took our places on our little set for our interview, sound checks were made, make-up was touched up (mostly mine…) and Dolly’s personal stylist called out to check if my feet were in vision. He was told they were and he gave me a heads up that one of my socks was wrinkled and to pull it up. I made a joke about being told to pull my socks up before I had even started, Dolly laughed and suddenly we were rolling.
The cameras were running and we just chatted up a storm. It was over in no time and Dolly being the star (I use the term advisedly) that she is, once again complimented me for being so professional, we laughed about a few things we had said during the interview and then we were done, off she went for another quick change and on to the next interview or photoshoot. I was exhausted but not Dolly – she had more energy than everyone else in the room combined.
I had to wait outside the studio for some technical things to happen with the interview before it was entrusted into my care to bring all the way back to the UK and as I waited Dolly reappeared in a completely different outfit ready to go again. As she passed me I expected her and her entourage to just keep moving but she stopped and asked me if I was ready to go again for another interview with her. I told her I would do another interview with her anytime, she laughed grabbed my hand in a high-five kind of gesture and marched off (surprisingly easily given the height of her heels!)
What surprises me more than anything about Dolly is that she genuinely has a natural homely wholesome quality about her (a prime example of never judging a book by its cover). I imagine she is still very similar to the young girl who grew up in Locust Ridge all those years before listening to her mother singing old songs that spread the news of the day or at her local church singing gospel songs. Her joy of growing up in that time surrounded by those sounds is still so evident from how she talks about them during our interview and indeed from listening to the tracks she has chosen for the Blue Smoke album. I have so enjoyed listening to the album and I know you will too whether you are a dyed-in-the-wool Dolly fan or listening for the very first time.
If you missed my interview with Dolly here it is again. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed doing it..
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Until next time,