If Dolly Parton has a motto, it is likely quite similar to the words of 20th century author Og Mandino, who wrote, “Beginning today…extend to each person [you meet], no matter how trivial the contact, all the care and kindness and understanding and love that you can muster, and do it with no thought of any reward. Your life will never be the same again.”
When you meet Dolly Parton, it is a refreshing surprise that such an iconic, world-renowned superstar could be as kind and genuinely caring as Dolly is. She never averts her eyes away from you when answering a question – and she is considerate enough to ask questions of you in return. No matter the venue or the occasion, she seems truly interested in getting to know the people around her and not playing a role of feigned kindness.
Dolly is genuinely true to her reputation as a “salt-of the-earth,” Southern lady. She is not just a performer. She is a wife, sister, aunt, friend, businesswoman and much, much more. One of her foremost qualities is her loyalty. She is loyal to her family, friends, team, fans, her music and her dreams. Most admirably, Dolly Parton is true to herself, which can be hard to do in any business, let alone in the competitive and ever-evolving music industry.
Every one of Dolly’s team members, from her creative director (wardrobe guru) and her wig master to her publicist and manager, consider Dolly to be more than just their employer. They consider her a friend. But perhaps I should let them tell you in their own words.
CREATIVE DIRECTOR/WARDROBE – STEVE SUMMERS
Creative Director Steve Summers is in charge of everything visual for Dolly, including wardrobe and all other aspects of Dolly’s professional appearance. A twenty-three-year veteran of Dolly’s team, he started out as one of her dancers. “I used to complain about the fashion and the wardrobe, so they asked me to do something about it,” Steve chuckles. “So I started designing outfits for the performers who were on stage with Dolly or appearing in her shows. After a while, Dolly began to notice the outfits and….she asked me to create something for her. Eventually, it just turned out that I was designing everything – including her wardrobe for every show and every appearance.”
Of course, Dolly is very involved in the process. For the past ten years, she and Summers have worked together to create about three hundred outfits each year – complete with shoes and every accessory. It takes a full time staff to handle the tailoring and create the outfits! And it doesn’t start with merely creating a design. There is way more to it than that.
Summers enlightens us: “Dolly is an icon. And with an icon, you have to back into everything. What is she going to do in it? Is she going to have to stand on a stage? How did she get there? Is she sitting in a car? Is the dress going to wrinkle on the way there? If it’s a skirt, how long should it be?
“Further, you have to think about who she will be on stage with. If it’s a female and it’s a dignitary, should Dolly be dressed differently? In a different color? How do we respect the host?”
“And what are we going to take as options? I never go anywhere without four choices for everything… because she’s a girl and girls want options. They want to feel pretty.”
Summers continues: “We have to know how long she has to get in and out of every outfit. We have to think about accessories — whether or not she’ll be wearing a headset on stage to make sure she won’t be wearing a high collar or earrings that will clank on the mic. There’s a whole lot of questions you have to answer before you sit down to design anything, because there’s a whole set of rules you have to follow to make that outfit successful. That means a lot of planning and logistics, but we love it.”
WIG MASTER – CHERYL RIDDLE
Cheryl Riddle is the Wig Master extraordinaire for Dolly. Like Summers, she is a long-time and loyal team-member, having worked with Dolly for just over twenty-nine years. She moved from West Virginia in 1976 and began doing hair here in Nashville. As fate would have it, she worked with several of Dolly’s siblings. The Partons all liked her work so well they would repeatedly “put a good word in” with Dolly. So finally Dolly sent Riddle a wig, telling her to “do what she wanted with it.” Now Riddle is Dolly’s go-to, handling everything from the design of the wig to the stitching all the way to the final product.
What is involved in being a Wig Master to a legendary, world-renowned star?
“It takes a good basic and working knowledge of hair. You have to understand balance and density and things like that. And after working with her and seeing how certain hair works on her, then you learn how thick the density needs to be or not be,” explains Riddle.
Riddle regularly works in tandem with Steve Summers, and like Summers, she has to “back into” the design process. “Sometimes you have to approach Dolly like that to stay one step ahead of her. Because as busy as she is, the biggest challenge we have is to stay one step ahead of her and know what she’s going to need, how many, when, and so forth.”
In order to make sure they have all the bases covered, there are a number of wigs that are shipped for every event and public appearance. There are about 70 wigs currently in circulation for Dolly so that there are multiple choices for each venue.
“If she’s doing a show…and she puts on a wig to get ready to go out and that wig has something not quite right about it, she can have a new hairstyle in three-and-a-half seconds, basically. So we always send options,” Riddle summarizes.
Dolly has been known to joke a great deal about her hair. If you were to ask her how long it takes her to get her hair done, she’ll likely say she doesn’t know… because she’s never there!
What is Riddle’s favorite thing about Dolly? “She’s an excellent friend. I love her honesty and her spirituality. And those two things are really inspiring to me in my everyday life – especially the spirituality. She has a way of taking a situation – and I can be distraught over something that happened – and she can say just a few words. She always seems to have the right words, and I’ll just feel like a little angel just touched me. She has that ability like no- body else. I think God really blessed her… and in turn, blessed me.”
MANAGER- DANNY NOZELL
Danny Nozell has been Dolly’s manager for nearly nine years. Laughingly, Danny relates that he started out in rock’n’roll. REAL HARD ROCK’n’ROLL. He toured with folks like Sevendust, Mudvayne, Godsmack, Motörhead and Cold Chamber.
So how exactly does one get from metal-rock to Dolly Parton? Nozell first took an entry-level position with a production company as a “runner” and used that experience to learn everything he could about the industry. It paid off.
Nozell started consulting and landed a gig with House of Blues-LiveNation, who’d just bought a Dolly Parton tour. Once the tour closed, Nozell passed his business card on to Dolly, telling her if she ever needed him, he’d be there. Sure enough, about six months later, Nozell’s phone rang. The rest, as they say, is history.
While many artists who’ve had long-term careers find themselves with less going on as the years pass by, that is certainly not the case with Dolly. Her career seems to keep growing, due in no small part to Nozell’s unending determination and tenacity. In fact, Dolly’s publicist Kirt Webster is quick to praise Danny’s invaluable impact on Dolly’s current career successes. “Danny is the mastermind behind all of details of Dolly’s career over the past nine years. She is performing to sell-out crowds around the world and in today’s music world — has sold over 100 million records worldwide. It takes a village, and Danny is the one that keeps it going — from CEO-level decision making to having a plan and a back-up plan for every detail!”
Nozell admits it’s not an eight-to-five job. It’s a commitment to long hours and to resolving big issues and challenges, but it’s for all the right reasons. To him, there is nothing better, despite the vast responsibilities of overseeing the tours, Dolly’s record label, merchandising, and logistics for all events and many other aspects.
Nozell enthusiastically states, “With the record industry the way it is and record sales declining, we’ve actually been profitable with every record we’ve released, and we’ve actually been doing it on a global level. The ‘Blue Smoke’ album has been released on a global level with Sony Masterworks as our partner. They distribute it, and it works great…They’re doing a phenomenal job.”
Apparently, the relationship works very well, as “Blue Smoke – The Best Of,” debuted at No. 6 in the U.S. and was Dolly’s highest-charting, and first top 10, solo album ever. It has also spent 13 weeks in the Top 10, peaking at No. 2.
And when you have a great album, you need a great tour. A World Tour.
Nozell says it all starts with an idea that he takes to Dolly for her approval. From there, they begin booking all the shows with the agent – getting all the budgets down and making sure it makes a profit. “Everything with Dolly has to be done meticulously, so we do all the research, plan all the logistics and then create strategies to execute it all. That includes airfreight, slow-boat freight — we even shipped the buses over to Australia. We had two buses built for her in America in 2006. In 2007, we had two buses built overseas in Austria, which is how she’s able to tour overseas. And we fit the buses with all the comforts of home — everything from candles and teas to blankets and fans.
“We arrange and take full security detail, including two attack dogs. We carry full sound, lights and video, and we carry it everywhere we go, even if it is around the world…The planning and logistics of that is a lot — plus the freight. And just getting it all set up from start to finish takes about a solid seven months of 20-hour days.”
Which brings us to Nozell’s favorite things about Dolly…
“Her work ethic and her heart are absolutely amazing. She has an incredible business mind, and she challenges me all the time. I consider myself a hard worker, but one of my biggest challenges is keeping up with her! I feel like at times I’m chasing after her, because though I’m a hard worker, she works even harder.”
PUBLICIST – KIRT WEBSTER
If it seems that Dolly has fans even in her own camp, it is little wonder.
Her publicist Kirt Webster had these thoughtful words to say. “Dolly is always good about saying ‘thank you.’ She is always sure to tell us we’re doing a great job. And that never gets old. “We all agree that she already is an icon. If you know her, you know she’s a great person. She’s a shoulder for those around her to lean on. She’s an incredibly hard worker, and she has really strong values.
Though Dolly is a real person, she’s also still a dreamer at heart. If she dreams it, she can achieve it. That is something all of us find inspiring. To work under that kind of inspiration is fun no matter the hours. It’s a great feeling of accomplishment, knowing you’re helping someone be all they can be.”
But what inspired Dolly to write music? What makes her the caring, kind woman that she is?
In Dolly’s own words
“I grew up with the music. My mother’s people were always very musical. There was always singing going on — someone picking a guitar or banjo. On weekends, Mama’s brothers and sisters would come up, and we’d sit on the porch and we’d all pick and sing. And we’d travel around and sing at all the different churches and all.
“But I started learning to play the guitar when I was about 7 years old. My uncle Lewis gave me…a baby Martin guitar.” Laughing, Dolly continues. “And after I learned to play, I was writing some serious songs at 7 and 8 years old. I’d hear all them talking about all the stories, and I’d hear all these other songs that people would write, so I’d write — and boy, I was writing some heartbreaking songs at an early age,” she relates, lightheartedly.
“But I think the fact that everything just touches me as a song and that I have the ability to rhyme has truly blessed me. When I was little, I’d write songs about everything. My first little doll — I had a little cob doll with corn silk hair that Mama had put together and her name was Tassletop – so I wrote a little song about her. I didn’t remember writing it but Mama kept it… So I think just the gift of rhyme and just the gift of music and the fact that life’s a song to me — that’s how I express myself.
“I usually prefer to write alone, because I have such definite thoughts and it’s really my time with God. I have written with a few people… But my writing is just so personal to me that I write alone a lot of the time.”
Unexpectedly, one of those “knock me over with a feather” questions came my way. After asking her about her songwriting collaborations, Dolly asked me, “Why do you ask? Do you write music?” I was so surprised and humbled that, I must admit, it first occurred to me to lie to Dolly Parton in my shock. But instead, I told the truth. “Yes, I do.”
Then came the big “pinch me-did she just say that?” part, when Dolly Parton looked me straight in the eye and said, “Well, maybe you and I could write a song together sometime.” And the angels sing! Even though I’m certain this was born of Dolly’s sincere politeness and kindness, I realize the odds. But my life is now complete.
The “Blue Smoke… The Best Of” album
Dolly spoke of her recent album next. “I didn’t know for sure what all this should be. I kept thinking, ‘Now what songs do I want to do?’”
“I do like doing covers of other people’s songs. I love Bob Dylan, and I always wanted to record ‘Don’t Think Twice.’ I wanted to do ‘Banks of the Ohio,’ and it dawned on me that I could do things that had all the colors of my career — from bluegrass to gospel, to country to mountain to rock.”
“When I decided I was going to do a rock song, I was thinking, ‘Now, what will that be? I want it to be something more powerful — something more rock’n’roll for that group of fans.’ Then I remembered Bon Jovi’s ‘Lay Your Hands On Me,’ and how I thought that would make such a great gospel song when I first heard it. And it was then that this album started taking a different kind of shape and I was thinking, ‘Wow, this really is all the colors of me.’ I’ve had the chance to just kind of round up my whole career in this one CD.”
Dolly makes no secret of the fact that she was raised up going to church and singing in the churches around her home. For Dolly, music is very much like a ministry. She is always hopeful that it proves healing in some way and tries to write and sing songs that people can relate to. And having a good sense of humor is one of the ways she tries to lift people up with her music and in her performances.
Dolly’s sister Stella has called Dolly “the greatest songwriter alive today, one of the best business women in the world and one of the prettiest girls in the world, and a woman who can dream bigger than anybody.”
The Partons still put God and family first, with their love and respect for each other completely trans- parent. Dolly supported and performed at the Red Tent Event, an annual event for empowering women that Stella imagined, created and implemented.
“I’m very proud of her,” Dolly says of her sister, “because Stella is the kind of person that when she believes in something, she’ll work it and work it until she falls over.”
Together, Dolly and Stella wrote a song for the event titled “More Power to You,” which they performed with their sister, Rachel.
Later, at a Knoxville concert – a stone’s throw from her childhood home in Sevier County – Dolly was joined by lots of family — with nearly the first two rows completely filled with brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles. Dolly is fondly known as Gigi to the little ones, and during her concert, she spoke with each one, reminding them that she loved them. It was a great thing to behold.
DOLLY IN CONCERT
And speaking of her concert, you wouldn’t believe what it is like to sit in the audience of a sold-out arena, watching Dolly Parton perform for three solid hours! You’re left feeling like the only word in the English language is, “Wow!”
Let me take you there….
Imagine…You’re sitting in one of UT’s Thompson-Boling Arena’s 22,000 seats, and it’s bulging at the seams with fans. The lights go out, and every- one starts screaming. One might be expecting an opening act at this point, but no! There, on the stage! The lights are swirling, the music is playing, and you begin to recognize the song. Then, there she is, in a gorgeous “UT orange” outfit, almost dancing across the stage and singing “Baby, I’m Burnin,” and she is on fire. She has so much energy and charisma — and a singing voice even better than it was twenty years ago, if you can believe it. You find yourself singing along. Lo and behold, you know the words to almost every single song, even to ones you thought you’d long for- gotten! You stop singing for a moment, just to hear an entire arena singing “I Will Always Love You.” You smile to yourself. And you just know at that very moment that God is so proud of Himself for having created… Dolly Parton.
Now, now you understand why the only word that you find yourself mumbling all the way to the car is simply, “Wow!”
But…let’s get back to a few more words of wisdom from Dolly.
DOLLY’S WORDS OF WISDOM
“I started out as a very young child. Living in America, we’re allowed to follow our dreams. If the good Lord is kind and if you work hard, good things can happen. And I would encourage you to always try. Because above everything else I’ve done, I’ve always said I probably had more guts than I had talent. But I also always had enough talent to kind of carry me through. This is what I’ve always wanted to do, and I’ve been through a lot. It ain’t all glamour — that’s certainly true. But it’s been worth it for me.”
“Above everything else, I have always tried. And I actually even wrote a song, which is the theme song for the Imagination Library called ‘Try.’ And in that song I say ‘dreams are special things, but dreams are of no value if they’re not equipped with wings.’ It just tells you kind of how I feel about my own life and the journey through it.”
“I just try to be the best person I can be, and people have been so kind to me over the years. As I get older, I get even more humble. I’m so grateful that I’ve had a chance to see my dreams come true. There are a lot of people in this world who can’t say that.”
“But the fact that I’ve loved it, enjoyed it, and had these people stay with me all these years? I’m grateful. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
For more on Dolly’s team, read about her producer, bandleader and trusted friend Kent Wells.