In years past, Dolly Parton used to cohost a glittering annual Christmas party in Beverly Hills filled with couture-clad celebrities. “I mean every person in Hollywood, they’d all come,” Dolly recalls. “One year, there was a full church choir on the staircase when you walked in. Everybody would jump in and sing along. Oh, it was amazing.”
Dolly doesn’t get to Beverly Hills as much these days. The beloved icon is still active and working, but she’s quit touring and traveling too far away from her husband, Carl Dean, who was reportedly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease three years ago. “I’ve done that my whole life, and it takes so much time and energy,” says Dolly, who mounted her 12th and final headlining concert tour with 60 shows in 2016. “I like to stay a little closer to home with my husband.”
It’s a big change. Throughout their long marriage, Dolly, 76, and Carl, 80, who met in Nashville in 1964 when she was 18, have led fiercely independent lives. “He’s a country boy, he loves to work on his tractors, he was in asphalt paving,” says Dolly, who never demanded that Carl join her in the show-business spotlight. “He likes the privacy, and he would never in a million years do an interview.”
The couple, who have no children, liked to spend their time together quietly, often taking their RV for long road trips across America. On her vacations with Carl, Dolly would ditch the wigs, makeup and fancy clothes so that they could visit national parks, antique shops and barbecue joints without being noticed. “[Carl] is great, and we get along great and have a lot of fun together,” Dolly said back then. “He makes me laugh all the time. It is one of the things that has kept us together all of this time.”
Carl’s health issues, which reportedly also include high blood pressure and a weak heart, have changed the dynamics of their marriage. “They’re not as active physically as they once were. Carl’s not jumping in the car and ready for an adventure like he used to be. It’s called slowing down — he relies on Dolly and the staff more these days — but Dolly says it’s better than the alternative,” confides an insider, who notes that Dolly is “fiercely private about her personal life and protective of Carl.”
After all the years that Carl supported and cheered her on, Dolly feels it’s her duty to be there for him. “We’re getting older now, and I don’t want to be gone for four or five weeks at a time. Something could happen,” Dolly explains. “I would not feel right about that, if I were gone and somebody needed me. Or I would feel bad if I had to leave a tour if somebody got sick at home and needed me and then I had to walk out on the fans.”
Committed to making every day she and Carl spend together at home in Nashville special, Dolly started decorating for Christmas on the day after Thanksgiving. There’s a festive tree in every room, holiday lights, wreaths in the windows, and a cross placed on top of the small chapel on their property where Dolly likes to pray and meditate. “The holidays make me very creative, ’cause I’m happy,” says Dolly. “Even if you don’t believe in Jesus, the spirit is really about giving and tolerance, understanding and acceptance.”
In the face of Carl’s illness, she is leaning on her faith a lot harder. “It keeps her going,” says the insider. “That and her love of music, performing and the fans. She says her music and faith give her strength.”
That’s why, especially now, Dolly has not stopped working. She may not sit down to write songs every day, but her mind is always percolating with ideas based on her own life. “I’ve been able to work through every problem I’ve ever had [by writing songs]. Everything that I go through or everything that I see someone go through that I love or care about, I’m able to write for them,” she says.
So, it’s little surprise that Dolly is working on an album that she is dedicating to Carl. “When I got nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I thought, ‘Well, no better time to do it,’” she says of creating a rock-oriented album. “My husband is a big hard rock ’n’ roll fan, and for years I thought, ‘One of these days I’d like to do an album mainly just for him.’”
If she and Carl are feeling up for company, Dolly will invite some family and friends over on Christmas Eve. There will be a spiked punch, holiday music and movies from the Hallmark Channel on TV. “Then they’ll spend Christmas Day at home — just the two of them. And that’s just fine with Dolly,” says the insider.
Dolly still enjoys cooking for Carl. Her homemade chicken and dumplings remain a favorite. Carl also has a sweet tooth and looks forward to holiday fruit cake and pie. “She’ll order up his favorite pie and will just sit with him and talk,” says the insider. “She’ll tell him about country stars and what’s going on in Hollywood, and he’ll usually just roll his eyes.”
Sometimes they don’t need to talk at all. Just being together in the same room is enough. “She doesn’t need to do anything special. Carl knows Dolly loves him. He used to joke that she wouldn’t have stuck around this long if she didn’t,” says the insider. “At home with Carl, they watch movies and go for walks when he feels up to it — Dolly’s finally taking some downtime for herself.”