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Kesha on Dolly Parton: ‘She’s a Guiding Light, and Has No Idea’

For this year’s Icons & Influences issue, we asked 10 artists to pay tribute to the women who have shaped their sound, provided an example, and inspired them to break down barriers. Pop rebel Kesha worshiped Dolly Parton growing up, and the country queen has been a “guiding light” throughout her own career. Eventually, they even got to work together.

When I was a little kid, my mom came back from the chiropractor and told me, “Oh, I just saw Dolly.” And I said, “What’s Dolly?” And she was like, “Oh, the queen.” And I asked, “What are you talking about? The Queen Dolly?” Then, a couple of years later, my mom told me she had written a song that Dolly Parton had recorded called “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You).” I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world. And I still do. Dolly didn’t seem like a real human to me. It was almost like when you talk about unicorns. I remember as a little kid, it was like she was this fable, like untouchable, unhuman, just badass.

The very first time I ever heard her music was when we were watching 9 to 5, and that’s when I actually became aware of who she was, what she looked like, how she’s this multifaceted artist of every genre, and so funny.

Before my album Rainbow, I thought people thought I was fun, but I sure as hell didn’t think they thought I was talented. And I sure as hell didn’t think I was talented enough to ask the queen to sing a song with me. When I was approaching Rainbow, I said, “You know what? If I don’t ask, the answer’s no.” So I just thought, “Fuck it, I’m going to ask Dolly Parton to sing a song with me.” I wept like a baby when she said she would. I’m getting teary-eyed right now.

It was a real corner turned in my mind once she said she would collaborate with me. I made a rule to not do any music — no matter how successful it could be, no matter how many people would love it — that Dolly Parton wouldn’t fuck with. I don’t ever want to put out any music that Dolly Parton wouldn’t enjoy or listen to, or find some humor in. She’s so much of a guiding light, and she has no idea.

I still have never met Dolly in person. We’ve talked and communicated, but we’ve yet to have the two bodies in the same room. To still have somebody you know that you’re going to get so nervous and act a fool around — it’s exciting to know. There’s a moment in my life that I’m still so looking forward to.

If I ever get married, I want to do it at Dollywood. I was just there a couple months ago. I’ve been there like 10 times. I’m obsessed with Dollywood. It’s just, like, the happiest place on earth. It’s in the middle of the Smoky Mountains. It’s a theme park that’s Dolly Parton-themed. Everybody should go to Dollywood.

At first I just thought she was fabulous, hilarious, and obviously very, very talented. And now I realize that it’s so much more than that. Her graciousness, her generosity, and the way that she will answer any question with so much respect — but she does not let people ever get one over on her. I always ask myself, “What would Dolly Parton do?” any time I don’t know what to do or say in an interview. I want the tattoo across my wrist — like, What Would Dolly Do?

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