Dolly Parton never had children, but she’s always had a special bond with kids.
“I grew up in a big old family with eight kids younger than me and several of my brothers and sisters came to live with me early on in my life,” she tells PEOPLE Country. “I’ve loved their kids just like they’re my grandkids, and now I’ve got great-grand-kids!”
Her husband Carl Dean is “Uncle PeePaw” to their nieces and nephews, “and they call me ‘Aunt Granny,’ ” says Parton, 68, who just released her 42nd studio album Blue Smoke. “Now I’m GeeGee, which is great-granny. I often think, it just wasn’t meant for me to have kids so everybody’s kids can be mine.”
Her maternal instinct also extends to the many children who have benefited from her Imagination Library, a non-profit that provides free books to preschoolers, who know her as the “Book Lady” rather than a country star.
“I think kids relate to me because they think of me like a Mother Goose or a Fairy Godmother,” says the singer. “I’m like a cartoon character – my voice is little and I’m an excitable little person like them! I’m very childlike in that way, in my nature.”