November 19, 2018 08:00 AM
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Dolly Parton is beloved for her sass and over-the-top personality, but there’s one part of her colorful world she keeps carefully guarded: her 52-year-long marriage to Carl Thomas Dean.

The country legend sat down with PEOPLE for its latest cover story and opened up exclusively about finding lasting love with Dean, whom she met when she was just 18 years old.

“I’ve been married for 53 years come next May, and my husband and I have a great relationship,” says the star, 72. “We’ve been together most of our lives.”

Dean has long shunned the spotlight and never appears at public events with his superstar wife — and that’s just the way the couple likes it.

“I always joke and laugh when people ask me what’s the key to my long marriage and lasting love,” says Parton, who recorded six new songs for the soundtrack of Dumplin, Netflix’s upcoming film (starring Jennifer Aniston) about an overweight teen inspired by the “Jolene” singer. “I always say ‘Stay gone!’ and there’s a lot of truth to that. I travel a lot, but we really enjoy each other when we’re together and the little things we do.”

RELATED: Who Is Dolly Parton’s Husband Carl Thomas Dean? Everything You Need to Know About the Singer’s Reclusive Partner of 50 Years

On her days off, Parton — who is MusiCares’ 2019 Person of the Year — and Dean take mini trips in their “little camper” and have picnic lunches in the Tennessee countryside. They also forgo glamorous date nights for low-key dinners at their favorite local restaurants.

“When I met my husband, he wanted to take me out to dinner. He pulled up to the drive-in window and got our food at McDonald’s,” recalls Parton about their early courtship. “We know a few little places we can go without being bothered. He only likes to go places where he can be comfortable!”

For much more on Dolly Parton’s fascinating life, long-lasting marriage and plans for the future, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Wednesday.

And though Parton certainly loves to get dolled up — “He knows I’m always going to kind of be fixed up for him because I don’t believe in going home and being a slouch” — she is most grateful that Dean sees her inner beauty. “He doesn’t care what I wear as long as I’m happy,” says Parton. “He loves me the way I am.”

Two years ago, the couple renewed their vows on their 50th anniversary at their “big ol’ house” in Nashville. When the couple wed in 1966, they were forced to elope because Parton’s record label preferred her to stay unwed.

“We’d already sent out invitations and so I thought, ‘I ain’t waiting!’ We went that same weekend to Ringgold, Georgia in a little church. I had a little white dress and little flowers, and my mom went with me.”

RELATED: Happy 72nd Birthday, Dolly Parton! 10 Reasons Why She Is Forever an Icon

For their “beautiful ceremony” two years ago, Parton — who is also executive producing an eight-part anthology series based on her music that’s set to debut on Netflix next year — finally got to wear the over-the-top wedding gown she had always dreamed of.

“I never really felt like I had the wedding that we really wanted,” she says. “He got all dressed up and I got all dressed up. Fifty years is a long time for anything, and I felt that we needed to do something to commemorate this. It’s been a good 50 years and I don’t know how many more years we’ll have left.”

Though the couple never had children of their own, they have plenty of nieces to dote on and are also close with Parton’s superstar goddaughter Miley Cyrus. The “I Will Always Love You” singer also loves children and donated her 100 millionth book earlier this year through her non-profit organization Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.

“Now that I’m older, I realize I didn’t have kids of my own, so everybody’s kids could be mine,” says Parton. “I [want to] empower children and give them confidence.”

RELATED VIDEO: Dolly Parton’s “Girl in the Movies” from the Dumplin’ Soundtrack

By participating in the soundtrack for Dumplin, Parton hopes to inspire young women who may be struggling to find their place in the world. “I grew up in a very poor family with no material things,” she says. “I had to claw and scratch my way through everything.”

Parton recorded new collaborations of some of her most popular songs for the Dumplin’ soundtrack, with stars like Miranda Lambert, Mavis Staples, Elle King, Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent. She and Linda Perry — who wrote the film’s score — also co-wrote six original new compositions for the LP, out Nov. 30.

Dolly Parton
Art Streiber

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Growing up with 11 siblings (including five sisters), the entertainer says she can relate to feeling lost like the teen (played by Danielle Macdonald) in Dumplin‘. “With a big family like mine, as many sisters and nieces and my girlfriends, I can certainly relate to what girls go through in their young years and even in their adult years,” she says. “It’s not easy for anybody, but for young girls, it’s good to inspire them and let them know that it’s okay to be you.”

At the end of the day, Parton — who says she will “never” retire — just wants to continue making a difference in the world by spreading her message of love.

“I believe that everyone should be able to love who they love how they love. Love is love,” she says. “When I was younger, I used to wonder what my life would be like when I was older. I always wanted to do something to touch people, and I am grateful that I’ve seen my dreams come true.”

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