Name it, and Dolly Parton’s done it. Take movie roles opposite the sublime—Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Sally Field, Shirley MacClaine and Queen Latifah—along with the sexy Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds and Sam Shepard. There’s her New York Times bestselling memoir, 2012’s Dream More, as well as The Imagination Library, which she started in East Tennessee to give a book a month to every child from birth through their fifth year. The library is now across the U.S. and Canada, as well as parts of China, and more than 100m books have arrived in children’s homes to inspire a love of reading.

She’s topped the pop, country and bluegrass charts 
as a recording artist. As a songwriter, she’s done the same, most notably with Whitney Houston’s 1992 version of “I Will Always Love You,” which spent 14 weeks at #1 and is one of the bestselling singles ever. She made the Album of the Year Grammy nominee Trio with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, as well as 1993’s Honky Tonk Angels with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. And she’s dueted with some of the hottest men of the last three decades—Kenny Rogers, Vince Gill and Smokey Robinson, for starters.

But beyond all that—or perhaps because of all that—Parton continually seeks to push the envelope as a writer, an artist, a singer, a woman, a human and messenger. Not one to preach, she lives to lift people up. Consequently, she serves as the inspiration for Julie Murphy’s 2015 YA bestseller, Dumplin’, in which an oversized teen (played by Danielle Macdonald of Patti Cake$) revolts against her disapproving former pageant-queen mother (played by producer Jennifer Aniston). This led to a Linda Perry-produced soundtrack that’s equal parts a recasting of Parton classics and a weaving of intriguing duet partners, including Sia, Miranda Lambert, Mavis Staples, Macy Gray, Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent, Willa and Elle King. And the half-dozen new songs often prove to be as compelling as her classics. Speaking of unlikely pairings, the very first country artist to be selected as MusiCares’ Person of the Year agreed to sit down with HITSHolly Gleason, with whom she discussed collaboration, feminism and standing up for others.

A record built for a movie holds together as a bona fide work. That’s amazing.
I did some really good work with Linda. We wrote five of the songs together, and then I wrote another one for the movie. Once I watched the movie, I realized I wanted to harness the all-over feel of what the story was about, but I didn’t want it to be just about the movie. I wanted it to be about feelings and emotions and, you know, just let the little girl try to have some confidence and positivity.

Having someone believe in you matters. You’ve always done that for people.
In the story, I loved that her aunt was such an inspiration. And through her aunt, I became an inspiration. I was very honored when that little book came out. That was before I knew it was ever going to be a movie.

Everybody said, “There’s this great little book I just read, and it’s about you.” So I read the book, and later somebody suggested I adapt it and make it into a movie. But I said I couldn’t do that—it’d be too self-serving. I said, “No, I’m just flattered and very honored to have a book written about me.” And then I found out that Jennifer Aniston had adapted it. They called me to see if I’d be involved. I told them the only way I could be involved—without it being self-serving or egotistical—would be through maybe writing a theme song or somehow being involved in the music. That would make sense.

I was emotionally attached to it, and I really tried very hard to serve the movie well. But I also had personal experiences. For instance, one of the songs is called “Push and Pull.” It seemed that was based on the relationship between Jennifer and her daughter, Willow. But one of my sisters was also going through the same thing with her daughter at the time. They’d just go back and forth, back and forth. It inspired me to write about that particular emotion that comes with trying to control another person. It became very personal to me.

You’ve got that transcendence, always. In 20 years, the outcast kids will be struggling, and they’ll go back to this record.
Well, I feel for everybody about everything. I am everybody, all the time. And as a writer, I really get involved with what people go through, how they feel—whether they’re gay or lesbian, whether they’re black, white or gray. I know everybody is who they are, and they should be allowed to be that. And I’m able to express that because my heart is so open to people.

Is it hard to keep your heart that open?
It’s not hard, it’s my nature—and as a writer I have to leave my heart open. I’ve always said I could never harden my heart, even against hurt, or anything. As a writer, if you harden your heart, you’re not going to feel all that emotion you need to feel, because you won’t be able to write what people feel. And listen to what you feel. So I’ve strengthened the muscles around my heart, but I’ve never hardened it. You have to know [your limits]. But it’s my nature to love people, and that’s why it’s so hard when I get hit upside the head with people wanting me to be something, even politically speaking. I vote for everybody. I am an entertainer, I am a writer. I want to entertain everybody. I want to be loved by everybody, though that’s not possible. But I don’t pick people for their religion or their politics; I just love the person. I try to find the God-like in everybody. And I try to play to that.

Do you feel like you were writing not just to comfort and lift up, but also to create an understanding?
Yes, absolutely. I really tried to teach, to show, to have people think. Like, what are you doing? We’re supposed to love each other. We don’t have to understand all that we know, if we look.

Why can’t we just love each other? I’m not a silly person; I know how that goes. But still, people don’t even try? I wanted these songs to touch people in a way they maybe hadn’t thought of before. All my life I’ve loved the underdog, I’ve always been prone to go to the unusual. I love different people. I love the spice of life, the variety. I’m just drawn to unusual people, and I’m drawn to helping people up when they feel down. I’m prone to standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. If I saw somebody beating on their kid, I’d get a brick and hit ’em in the head with it; I’d go shove them down or do something. If I saw somebody beating a dog, I’d go kick the hell out of them. I’d say, “What are you doing?!”

I just love people, and I think people are blind without knowing it sometimes. Sometimes you can open their eyes and throw a little light on the darkness, and they didn’t even realize they were in darkness. Hopefully, through music, we can do a lot of that.

When I heard you were working with Linda Perry, I was like, “Whoa! What’s that going to be like?”
You’d be surprised; we were just natural. I really appreciate great musicians, and she’s got an amazing ear for music, and has some top-notch melodies. She really got me out of a box. I write my own music, and sometimes you kind of get stale or stuck into where your melodies can only go so far. But she had these great melodies, and we really worked well together. We liked each other. We are completely different people, and yet we’re almost the same on a creative level.

And I’ve never worked with a woman before! I’ve never worked with a female producer. I’ve never written with anybody. I mean, I’ve written a few things with my aunt, a couple sisters and all that, but not with someone else in the business. And she’s gay! I’d never worked that closely with anyone on a creative level like that. It opened up a whole lot. I can tell we’ll always be compatible musically and that we’ll always be friends.

People got so aghast when Whitney Houston did “I Will Always Love You.”
So did I!

That was the first time it occurred to people that you were such a pure songwriter. And on this record, you’ve got Elle King, who’s kind of punk, and Mavis Staples, who’s totally soul-gospel…
I love her. I picked her myself. She was always my favorite. She and Otis Redding were always my favorite blues-type singers. It was a thrill to sing with all of them—I’m honored and pleased—but singing with Mavis was one of the thrills of my life. I know what she meant to my soul—how much I loved her before, her dad and her whole family back in the day, when her dad had that big old guitar. And just to hear her next to me, singing, it was amazing.

Then there’s Macy Gray on “Two Doors Down.”
I love Macy too. She’s so unusual. My voice is freaky-sounding and weird, and I’ve always wondered what we’d sound like together. I just love her sound, and she’s such a weird bird—I got such a kick out of her. As a person, she’s just as unusual as her look and her voice. She’s unique in every way; she personifies the word.

Were you surprised at the range? You went from Elle to Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent, who are more expected.
Well, yeah, they’re my little sisters in the business, and I wanted them on it, because I didn’t want to only have all these people from the pop world. I said, “I gotta have my little girls—I gotta have Rhonda and Alison.”

I was amazed at all the different people we could just do all these things with. That new little girl, Willa? She’s great. And young—she’s only 14, but it’s like she’s 30 years old in her talent and in her intelligence. She’s one of Linda’s artists, and so is Dorothy, the other girl who sang on “Two Doors Down.” And Miranda Lambert—I love her. I hope to write and record some stuff with her someday. I was honored to just be able to work with all these people. The new ones, the middle ones and the old ones.

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Adele Adele; Adele.

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