Dolly Parton on the Most Prolific and Invigorating Music of Her Career

“I’ll grab anything to write down a song title. I’ve done it on Kleenex boxes.” Photo: Vulture ; Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Dolly Parton has always been a rock star, even if it took her a bit of time to weave that title into her coat of many colors. It began last year, when she held a contrarian view of her Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination: Parton rejected it — a very Sex Pistols move — believing she wasn’t worthy of the honor. However, she would go on to warmly accept her induction at the annual ceremony, which culminated in the promise of recording a rock album to affirm her acrylics-on-electric-guitar finesse. That opus, Rockstar, features 21 covers and nine original songs with just about every name in the classic canon. (Hell, she reunited the living Beatles.)

The new album is also, somehow, the 49th in Parton’s discography. But her sprawling, decades-long career doesn’t mean we know everything. Rather, the country legend and entrepreneur prefers to channel most of her emotions and beliefs through her songwriting. “If you want to know about me and my life, you’ll find every piece of me in a song,” she explains. “I always write a little bit of something about me without realizing, because it is me. I’m all in, wound and woven in and out of my songs.” This ethos has affected every stage of Parton’s career, dating back to her 1967 Nashville debut, Hello, I’m Dolly; her late-’70s crossover to Hollywood stardom; and now her arrival at Rockstar. And while her succinct Dollyisms might make us smile — as does her exaggerated style, favoring rhinestones and sky-high hair — when it comes to the craft, Parton knows how much of a prolific storyteller she really is. “A lot of people can sing,” she says, “but not everybody can write and make up stuff for other people to sing.”

Song that cemented your creative freedom

I started making songs before I was able to write them down. My first story of “Little Tiny Tasseltop” goes, “You’re the only friend I got, I hope you never go away, I want you to stay.” It was my little cob doll. I was born with the gift of rhyme, so I knew early on that I was going to love making up songs and doing rhymes and all that. I learned how to play the guitar when I was 7 years old, so after I started writing very serious songs. I love to sing them, of course, because I’m from a musical family, so it was always natural to sing. But as the years went by, I realized when other people recorded my songs that I was more excited about having them sing songs I wrote than I was about singing those songs myself.

I realized in my teenage years how seriously I was taking myself as a songwriter. “My Tennessee Mountain Home” was one of my first big songs early on in my country-music career. But, I mean, they’re all important to me. My songs are like my kids, and I expect them to support me when I’m old — and some of them are. I feel that way about it because when I write a song, I’ve left something in the world today that wasn’t there yesterday. It’s something that will live on.

Song that took the longest journey to finish

Some of the songs from the musical 9 to 5, because I was writing for all of those characters. Even for Mr. Hart, when I had to be a male-chauvinist pig. I enjoyed doing it, but because of all the different personalities and characters, that whole process was the longest time I’ve ever taken to write songs. For the most part, my songs — even my classic ones, like “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene” — come pretty quick for me. To spend a whole day on a song is rare. Sometimes I’ll go back to a song I’ve started. Maybe I didn’t have the time to finish it and I’ll go off and on again. When I have to write things I’ve been commissioned to do, it takes me longer because I have to put more thought into it. I’m not working on my own as much as I’m having to do what other people asked me and then carry a story and all that. It always stalls me a little bit, but I’m proud I’m able to do it.

Lord, I have hundreds of unfinished songs. I have great ideas and maybe get a verse or two, but then don’t have the time to do anything else. When I sit down to really write, if I’ve taken the time to start a song, I’ll usually finish it. But then I move onto other things, forgetting that I’ve written down some of these ideas. I’ve got hundreds of song titles and song ideas that I’m always dragging out. I’ll even look through a book I’ve got of unfinished songs. I’ll look back and I’ll sometimes think, “Oh, that was a great idea. That was a great title. Why didn’t I pursue this?” Then if I grab it out again, I’ll usually finish it pretty quick.

I think every songwriter is like me. When I get an idea for a song, it can be right in the middle of a business meeting. It can be in the middle of a restaurant. I’ll grab a piece of paper and scoot it over to me, not letting somebody think I’m writing a song title. I’ll let them think I’m just making notes from the meeting. If I don’t have an actual pencil, I’ll grab an eyebrow pencil or a lipstick tube, and I’ll write on a napkin. I’ll grab anything to write down a song title. I’ve done it on Kleenex boxes. If you come up with a great idea for a song, you need to write it down because you think you’ll remember it, but you won’t.

Album you sacrificed the most to make

That would have to be New Harvest … First Gathering. It was the first album I did after I left The Porter Wagoner Show, and I had such a struggle trying to get to a place where I was actually out on my own and doing my own thing. I wrote my song of deliverance the day I finally departed the show for good. When I left Porter’s office on my way back to my house, I started writing “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” in the car. It just meant a new day was coming, and the album was my first gathering of songs of my own. I thought New Harvest … First Gathering was a perfect title for that. I had been dying to get to work on my own albums, produce, and get involved in having the freedom to be on my own. It took longer because I savored every minute of it and I wanted it to be good. That’s my album of deliverance and sacrifice, and I’m very proud of it.

It was a very special time recording and I remember feeling so free — like I had been delivered. Like I was on my own. I had arrived and I had earned it. I already had big hits with “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You,” but this album was my first where I felt like I had all the say in doing what I wanted to and choosing who I wanted to work with. The feeling of freedom is an incredible thing. I’ll always be grateful for anybody who helped me along the way, but I was born to be free. That’s one of the lines in the song: “I’ve been like a captured eagle / You know an eagle’s born to fly / And now that I have won my freedom / Like an eagle I’m eager for the sky.”

Song that transformed the country music industry

“Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” transformed me and my career. I love what I do and tend to make it look effortless because these things come to me. I’m a workhorse that looks like a showhorse, and I love my work because it’s easy for me to write. Nothing makes me happier than being able to have some time to say, “I’m taking this week off to write songs.” Of course I’m going to sing them, of course I want to hear them in the studio, so I’m going to put them down. Not that I wouldn’t be as happy as I am getting to do everything I want to do, but I could be satisfied if I just had the freedom to write all the time. I spend long hours working, but nobody enjoys it more than me. I know nobody could ever enjoy it more than me.

With “Jolene,” I remember hearing so many people say, “That’s such a humble song. It’s a true song.” For a woman to say, I can’t compete with you, I’m not as beautiful as you, I’m never going to be that beautiful, your beauty is beyond compare, but I don’t have all that going for me? It was unusual at the time in songwriting. So many women through the years related to that song, and they’ve told me so. A woman may not be as beautiful as a mistress that some guy may be overwhelmed by and make a mistake with without even realizing it. You know, the idea of being blinded by beauty. Then to have someone love a man so much that she would, rather than giving him up and being mad about him having an affair, but loving him enough to understand how he would fall in love with someone else because they’re that beautiful. I had to have this talk with you. You don’t understand what he means to me. You could have anybody, but I won’t be able to love again. People thought it was a very honest, open, and humble kind of song about the subject. Nobody had been writing about affairs from that side of it — to go to the person who was trying to steal your man.

People appreciate it to this day, and many have said to me, “Well, Dolly, I doubt somebody will take your man.” And to that I say, “Look, there’s always somebody more beautiful than you. There’s always somebody more special than you, and you’re going to always feel a bit threatened and insecure when it comes to someone you love.” There’s a certain amount of fear that you hope to be able to hang on to them and you don’t want to take anything for granted. All of that is summed up within that one song, and it’s a singable song on top of that.

Favorite song you wrote for someone else

I guess it would have to be “I Will Always Love You.” I didn’t, of course, write it for Whitney Houston, but she took it on a worldwide level and made it feel like it was new again. I wrote a song called “Kentucky Gambler” for Merle Haggard many years ago, which I loved. I always thought that would’ve made a great movie. But I’m proud when anybody records any of my songs. “Jolene” has been recorded worldwide over 500 times since it came out 50 years ago — that’s the most recorded song I’ve written. It’s always nice when I hear a new version of any of these songs.

I’ve been impressed by how you can take a simple, little song like “I Will Always Love You” and arrange it into something bigger. Look at my version compared to Whitney’s. I would’ve never in my wildest imagination believed that “I Will Always Love You,” my country version, would turn into that. It’s overwhelming and very exciting when you hear other people sing your songs. I’ve had so many versions of “Jolene” that I’ve loved. Jack White, with the White Stripes, and Miley Cyrus come to mind. Some people say, “Oh, I bet you hated that version.” And I’ll say back, “No, I love to hear all the ways that people choose to interpret them.” It never changes it for me, because I know what I was saying and writing about. That’s just centered in my soul.

Song that best embodies your own mythology

I write a lot of uplifting songs, but I think “World on Fire” makes a statement because people often say, “Oh, I didn’t know you’re political.” And I’ll respond, “Look, I’m not being political here. I’m a person in a position to have a voice and this world is going up in flames. Nobody seems to care enough to get out and do something about it.” I’ve written several songs along those lines, but I felt the need to write “World on Fire” to reflect this point in time. I had the thought for the lyrics: “Don’t get me started on politics. How are we to live in a world like this?” Some of the lyrics even sound like kids: “Liar liar, pants on fire.” I think this is an anthem for me, where I am in my life right now, and the things I’m worried about — which are the same things we all need to be worried about and I’m sure we are. Who’s going to rise up, who’s going to try to make a change, and what are we going to do to make a difference? What I do best is write and sing and get out there and preach my gospel in my own way.

I also wanted to have something catchy. I wanted to draw people’s attention to things. You don’t know how much, or if anything, is a help. But when you’re like me, when your heart is tender and you care about human beings and our civilization — the world in general — you feel helpless if you don’t do something. I’m not one to be marching in the streets with a sign or holding a gun or a knife, but my words are my tools and my weapons. I try to draw attention, point a finger, and throw some light on dark situations. And I’ll continue to do that. I’ve tried to do that all through the years, even with songs like “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” or “Better Get to Livin.’” I’m always trying to say, Hey, rise up. Look up. Do better.

Song you wish got a stronger reception

I have a few of those. There was a song I wrote years ago called “The Bargain Store,” and nobody played it on the radio because they were acting like I was implying something else. My life is likened to a bargain store: I may have just what you’re looking for / If you don’t mind the fact that all the merchandise is used / But with a little mending, it could be as good as new … The bargain store is open, come inside. I’m saying come inside my heart. I’m talking about a broken heart and how we can put the pieces back together if we’re willing to try. I thought that was one of my most clever songs, and it’s still one of my favorites. But at that time, they were saying it was vulgar and I was saying something else. The bargain store, open, come inside. You get it.

Another song I loved and still do, and it’s a favorite of a lot of people, is “Down From Dover.” I wrote that back during a time when people didn’t talk about unwed mothers — much less a child dying and all that. She kept waiting for him to come down from Dover when he said he would. He left her there pregnant. They wouldn’t play that on the radio. And now you can just get pregnant on TV. I felt those songs were strong when I wrote them and I thought both times, Oh, man, this could be a big hit. A lot of people will relate to this and it’s a great story. It would make a great movie. I have a lot of songs that have been just shady enough. “Evening Shade” was about an orphanage where the children had been mistreated. The name of the old orphanage was Evening Shade, because it was positioned in the back of the shade of these trees. So the kids decide to undermine the old matron and they burn the place down. She burns down with it. It’s just so well rhymed and all. They wouldn’t play that one on the radio either. They thought it was going to incite violence or something. I don’t write songs thinking like that. I come up with all of these stories. They make good movies in my mind when I write. They paint pictures.

Song that made you realize you were a gay icon

Dolly said ... gay rights! From left: Photo: Paul Drinkwater/NBCPhoto: London Entertainment/Alamy Stock Photo
Dolly said ... gay rights! From left: Photo: Paul Drinkwater/NBCPhoto: London Entertainment/Alamy Stock Photo

I think it was less to do with my songs and more to do when people started imitating the way I look. Drag queens, drag Halloweens, and when people began to dress like me. I started realizing it when I chose to be myself — being different and saying I’m different. It’s okay to be different. I think a lot of the gays and a lot of the people who were having problems were drawn to me because I was saying what they’d like to believe about themselves: Why can’t I do that? Why can’t I stand up like Dolly? Why can’t I be accepted for being who I am? When I started realizing I was being helpful, I would get letters from gay people saying, “You saved my life. I was suicidal. My parents wouldn’t accept me, but your songs did. I read your songs and I heard you say this or that and you seemed so loving and nonjudgemental.” It was a gradual thing. My heart is open to everybody.

I always say that I try not to judge. I’m not a good enough person to judge somebody else, so I see the love and the greatness and the God light in everybody. We all have it. My heart is open to all people, all colors, all shades, all whatever, whoever you are. Just like “Be That” goes: “Whatever you do, do that. Anything else is just an act. So whoever you are, be that. Whatever you do, do that.” That’s how I feel about life and I’ve always been proud of my gay following. I cater to them. I love them. I appreciate them. Everybody wants to be loved and I want to be loved by everybody.

Song that wasn’t fully realized until performed live

When I think of little songs that I started doing onstage just to have a variety, “Applejack” comes to mind. It was about an old man I grew up knowing and loving. I played the banjo on stage while telling that story. It became one of my most loved songs when I was on tour. If there were some nights I didn’t do “Applejack” and it looked like the show was winding down, somebody would always say, “Dolly, sing ‘Applejack.’” You’ll have surprises like that. There’s another song called “Marry Me” that’s more of a personality piece. It’s like when I started singing “Little Tiny Tassletop.” When I sing it like that, and when I say this is my very first song, people cherish that. They love thinking about me being four and five years old and making up a song when I couldn’t even write yet. My mama wrote it down and kept it. It’s more like little things I would do to color up the show and then through the years if I didn’t do those songs, people would miss them.

Most reinvigorating album for your soul

Here You Come Again. It was yet another moment of deliverance for my career. When I left The Porter Wagoner Show, everybody was saying that I was making a big mistake. And then, in a few months, I had done New Harvest … First Gathering. But I knew I needed bigger things. I needed to go big or stay home. So I started looking for management. That’s when I got the song “Here You Come Again” presented to me, which helped give me my first crossover record. It was also my first million-selling record. But I was a little apprehensive, starting the album. I wanted to do good, and I wanted to prove I was right in making the move over from country to pop. I thought, Well, I don’t want to scare my fans to death. I knew I was making the right move, and I knew they would eventually accept me doing it, but I still thought, I need to at least keep a little bit of the country sound. Although it was a very pop song, I wanted to add a little steel guitar as a security blanket — more for me than for the fans. Something I could kind of lean on and recognize.

Most ambitious thing you have left to do

I’m doing my life story as a musical on Broadway. I’ve written all the songs, and we have the script. We’re hoping to be on Broadway in 2025. That’s very ambitious because there’s about 30 or 40 pieces of music in it. I’ve been involved in writing the book as well as choosing all the songs. I’ve been working really hard on it — about ten years’ worth of work. I’ve really buckled down over the past two years, and we’ve got it pegged down. We’ve just been in the studio recording the music. Once we get it on its feet, we’ll have to cut and change some things and whatnot. I’m so ready for it.

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The short-lived musical based on the 1980 film debuted on Broadway in April 2009. It featured Allison Janey, Stephanie J. Block, and Megan Hilty in the main roles. She’s being modest: She wrote them both in the span of one day. Parton’s version was written and recorded in 1973; Houston recorded her cover for The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992. Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for over three months. Parton’s goddaughter. Released as a single in September 1977, it’s one of the rare hits in Parton’s oveure that she didn’t write herself.
Dolly Parton on the Most Prolific Music of Her Career