American Songwriter November Cover Story: Dolly Parton—The Eternal Artist 

Dolly Parton can take a compliment. It’s just that she doesn’t always want to. In today’s age of political division and social media obsession, the songwriter and performer has become one of the few people, it seems, that nearly every person on the planet appreciates. She’s regularly compared to saints and angels. She’s beloved for her songs like “Jolene,” “I Will Always Love You,” and “9 to 5.” She’s an actor, a sight for many sore eyes. But she’s also just a human being. And she says when she hears the multitudes of hyperbole her fans and onlookers tend to offer her on the regular, it can be off-putting or jarring. Even “scary.” It’s odd territory, indeed. Parton grew up dirt poor in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. She headed later to Nashville seemingly a split second after graduating high school, and she’s been making hay there ever since. She’s generous and charitable. A woman of faith, she’s kind and honest, too. But at the end of the day, she’s a person. Just like any one of us. 

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“Nobody wants to be put on any kind of a pedestal,” Parton tells American Songwriter. “Because people also love to knock you off. Because I’m not all that. I just try to do my best. I’ve been as open and as honest as I can be and I’m certainly no angel. As I say, ‘I just play one on TV.’”

With her big head of wavy blond hair and signature hourglass figure, it can be hard to think of Parton as anything but otherworldly. Combine those with the 65 albums, give or take, she’s released, the many movies she’s starred in, and the timeless hits she’s given the world, it can feel only right to do just what she says she doesn’t want: put her on a pedestal. But the truth of the matter is that Parton, like you or me, has had her share of ups and downs and has paid costly dues. And as a woman of faith, Parton says she doesn’t believe in “idol worship.” She’s gracious, but inside she recoils at the thought. Focus not on idolatry, she says. Instead, eye the confidence she’s offered. 

Photo by Fran Strine / True Public Relations

“But I still feel a pride in thinking maybe I’ve done something good enough for people to trust me,” says Parton. “I think you can trust me to tell the truth, too, about myself. Sometimes I think, no, back off a little bit. I don’t want to be that responsible [for high praise]. Because I don’t really feel that I deserve all the stuff that people pile on me because I’m just a person working hard.” 

Parton calls herself a “seeker, like everybody else.” She’s “trying to figure it out, like everybody else.” Though, she admits with a wry little smile, that she does have the ability to “make it look easier than most.” In the end, though, she’s just someone who tries hard every day to build and sustain a career. She’s “just a working girl,” she says. “I always say I’m a workhorse that looks like a show horse. And that is the honest-to-God truth.” In her career, she’s worked with everyone from Porter Wagoner to Reba McEntire. But one may wonder, where did all this start? Where did Parton come from and how did she become the revered soul the world knows today? Well, it all began in Pittman Center, Tennessee, in a one-room cabin on the banks of the Little Pigeon River. 

“I am lucky that I was born into a very musical family,” Parton says. 

Her family members, especially on her mother’s side, were all singers and played various instruments. Some still remain in the industry today. The clan was always singing at weddings and funerals, Parton says, and all the “shindigs and jamborees.” At church, too. Her mother would sing little ditties about doing the daily chores. She provided the example for Parton to pick up the habit seamlessly. Parton’s uncle Bill, her mother’s younger brother, took an interest in her and would drive her to-and-fro to county fairs, local radio and TV stations, and even the city of Nashville. From a young age, Parton sensed there was a big world out there, and she wanted a piece of it. She learned guitar at 7 years old and started to make up songs almost immediately. 

“I had the gift of rhyme,” she says. “So, everything was a song to me.”

Parton’s career began in earnest when she was 10. She moved to Nashville after high school in 1964. Growing up poor, she says, taught her a lot. “Being poor made me realize that I didn’t want to always be poor,” she says, espousing her country wisdom. Parton says she was in no way ashamed of her family or where her home was. But she also realized that she had a gift from God, the skill to sing and write songs. And she felt it was her responsibility to hone that gift, share it, and see what it could offer both her family and the world. 

“I wanted to be able to do things,” she says. “To do for the people in my home area. I just wanted to see the world. I didn’t want to stay in the mountains, as proud as I was of them and my people.” 

She wanted to see beyond the Great Smoky Mountains. And doing so, she knew she’d take the country with her. When she decided to pick up and go find her fortunes, some people offered a bit of criticism, saying she was going to abandon her roots. To this day, the idea makes Parton chuckle. “How could I leave country?” she muses. “Nobody’s countrier than me!” She knew that, and she knew the world was big and could offer her much. Charity begins at home, she notes, so to foster her family, she had to see what she could find and, perhaps, bring back home. Family is important, especially to Parton. 

“That’s your foundation,” she says. “They’re a mirror of the worst and best in you … they’re a piece of you.”

Parton remembers wanting to leave home to go to Music City. She turned 18 in January of her senior year (on the 19th, to be exact). But she knew that if she left school then, or even a touch before, her father would be angry and might send a “posse” after her to bring her back home. But when school concluded, she knew the decision was now hers alone. So, she headed out just as quickly as she could upon earning her diploma. Indeed, she was homesick not long after. But she also knew that Nashville was where she was supposed to be. She always knew she could return home if her dream was differed or smashed, but she held that option in her back pocket, not wanting to go back with her proverbial tail between her legs. 

Parton is smart. A genius, really. She’s one of those people who knew what she wanted and was confident enough in her own sense of self to believe that she deserved what she wanted and that she could eventually achieve it. 

“I believe that I had a talent and I believed that God gave that to me, and I believed that I had a responsibility,” Parton says. “To respect it and to develop it and to do whatever I could with it. I believed that was my way out of the mountains and a way to be helpful to my people, in addition to following a dream of my own.”

For Parton, it’s about the art, not the money (although some extra cash doesn’t hurt). To this day, she says, if she had never “made it,” she would likely be in a restaurant somewhere working, saving her tips for a demo recording she could hand to someone for a chance at airplay. Luckily for her, this never became her fate, in part because she’s always been willing to work hard and do whatever it took to move up. 

Photo by Rob Hoffman / True Public Relations

“I was willing to suffer for it,” she says. “I was willing to sacrifice for it as long as I didn’t sacrifice my principles and my values. I believed that it was alright for me to do whatever I needed to do to see that dream come true. It was not easy; it never is.” 

One reason it wasn’t easy is because Parton is a sensitive person. A “tender-hearted” soul. That’s why she writes songs, in truth. She makes sure her mind, heart, and hands are open for whatever the world tosses her. Though it was tough, she kept at it. “Do I just stop and give up and start crying?” she contemplates aloud. “Say, ‘Poor, pitiful me’? Or do I just pick it up and go on and just write a song about that? And maybe that will be a hit!” 

The thought is reminiscent of a new song, “Woman Up (And Take It Like A Man),” from Parton’s 2022 album, Run, Rose, Run, which includes the lyric, Is it easy? No it ain’t. Can I fix it? No I cain’t. But I sure ain’t gonna take it lyin’ down. While life was arduous, Parton had an ace up her sleeve. She was (and is) talented. For those who have the dream but not the gift, the road can be that much harder. 

“It’s easier if you truly have a talent,” she says. 

With the gift for song in tow, Parton says she writes what she feels. There are no tricks about it, she says. She writes what she’s going through, what she sees in the world. It’s this perspective that helped her write “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” within a handful of days of one another some years ago, creative lightning striking twice so quickly. She keeps her eyes and ears open. A songwriter is a songwriter, she notes. There is no forcing yourself into or out of the job. It just is. Well, maybe there is one trick: keeping a pad and pen around. Even if you have to secure them in a small plastic baggy.

“I have to say that I come up with some really great song titles,” Parton admits. “I carry a little baggy around, a little Ziploc baggy. I write down stuff [on a pad] and then I put it in that little baggy and look at it later. Because sometimes I think, ‘Golly, I don’t want to lose that.’”

Parton says she’ll write on anything—a common thing amongst songwriters, to be sure. She does not want to lose an idea, title, or notion for anything. She’ll scribble on cardboard boxes, on walls, on napkins, or even dirty paper plates. But in terms of content, she says, just write. She could work for Nike. “Just do it,” she explains. And the baggy helps to keep the notes waterproof in case something spills in her bag, from a bottle of water without a tightly screwed cap to errant makeup. If she lost a song title or an idea, it might drive her mad. 

“That would be a big bummer,” Parton says. “To mess up a title. I think the rest of my life I’d think, ‘What was that? I know it was great!’ But you can’t ever get it back.”

Parton has been in the music business for 60 years or more, depending on how you count. She first played the Grand Ole Opry at 13. As such, it’s enticing to ask her what her favorite career achievement is. What one moment on the long, long list really stands out? But of course, Parton has the perfect answer: It’s not about single achievements. It’s about a work ethic. Achievements come from putting your head down and forging forward. Add a little luck and being in the right place at the right time, and you can start a career. Those are the building blocks she still adheres to today. 

“I want to be used,” Parton says of her work. “I want to do good things, and if my creativity allows me to do that, if I get an idea for a song that I think might touch somebody, I’ll make myself sit down and write it.” 

Photo by Jeremy Westby

Parton is beloved. There’s no getting around it. And one reason that’s so is due to the fact she doesn’t involve herself in arguments that might otherwise fracture her heart or the fabric of her family (or fanbase). She’s seen first-hand how political divisions can disrupt and defeat family bonds and, to put it simply, she ain’t about that. She cares about civility and respect. She has a long view, not an in-the-moment partisan perspective. Extremism can destroy relationships that should otherwise stay intact. In a word, she doesn’t want her heart to harden. People may criticize her for this, to “get off the fence” and choose a side. But these barbs would be folly. Why? Because Parton is an artist, first and last. 

“I try to stay soft enough to be able to write a song or to do the things I need to be doing in this world,” she says. “I always say I can’t harden my heart. I just need to strengthen the muscles around it. There’s nothing wrong with that. You have to, to survive. But I just think that people are too hard on themselves and other people right now.” 

But while Parton isn’t political, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have her feet on the ground. Yes, her head is not in the clouds. She’s vigilant and aware of the world around her as much as any. Famously, a couple of years ago, she donated $1 million to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in her home state of Tennessee for COVID-19 research and to aid in the creation of a vaccine. She also launched the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, which mails a book each month to each child enrolled in the program from their birth until kindergarten.

“I started that from a tender place in my heart,” Parton says of the program, “because my dad couldn’t read and write. And I got my daddy involved in that to try to give him some pride in thinking there were a lot of people who can’t read and write and to have him help me with something so that we could have little children learn to read at an early age.” 

Parton’s father, she says, was too ashamed to learn how to read and write as an adult. But she helped provide an avenue that could help him improve the world through letters, nevertheless. The charity is emblematic of Parton, in full. The Imagination Library helps the world as well as one single person from her home life. Remarkable stuff. Today, states across the country are lining up to adopt the program, and she’s supplied millions of titles to children. But her efforts don’t stop there. 

Speaking of books, Parton co-wrote a new one—her first novel—with author James Patterson, who has sold more books than any other living author. The novel came out in conjunction with Parton’s latest album, and the two share the same title: Run, Rose, Run. The tome is dramatic, riveting, and emotional. The co-authors, along with Parton’s team, are in the middle of turning the novel into a screenplay for a movie they’re set to begin shooting next summer. She’ll play one of the leads.

“I did most of [my writing] through the writing of songs,” says Parton, speaking about her role in the creation of the novel. 

Patterson would send her pages for her review, and she’d tell him that, no, a character wouldn’t play a mandolin solo on stage like that, or what music term indicated what in a given context. She also helped to flesh out the characters through her songwriting. Songs like “Big Dreams and Faded Jeans,” “Driven,” “Run,” “Firecracker” and more all intertwine with the text and bolster the narrative. 

And speaking of movies, Parton’s new Christmas movie-musical, Mountain Magic Christmas, is slated for release this winter. A meta-story about the making of a Christmas movie, it will feature stars including Jimmy Fallon, Miley Cyrus, Billy Ray Cyrus, Willie Nelson, Jimmie Allen, and Zach Williams, with whom Parton released a popular song, “There Was Jesus” in 2019 on Williams’ album, Rescue Story. Parton also put out a holiday album in 2020, A Holly Dolly Christmas, and there is a deluxe version slated to drop this year. 

“Christmas is a time to be joyful,” Parton says. “I think that’s why people love it.”

She loves the holiday season because it’s a chance to let out the childlike qualities she harbors inside. The same can be said for many people in the world. We want to believe Santa is real, that magic exists. She remembers her duet album with Kenny Rogers, Once Upon a Christmas, which still puts a smile on her face and in her heart. The two legends also shot a TV movie in 1984, A Christmas to Remember. And she has more holiday music to her name, too. Indeed, Parton loves the season. From choosing between eggs or ham in the morning to listening to Christmas songs throughout the day. It’s a chance to entertain and catch up with family, a chance to celebrate with her longtime beau, husband Carl Dean. 

“I’m going to have my coffee before I have anything else,” Parton says of her Christmas morning routine. “But I might put a little whipped cream on it if it’s Christmas!” 

Holidays, for all their joy, also mark the passing of time. There’s no way around it, we’re all getting older. For Parton, that means both acknowledging that fact and making sure she seizes every moment. At 76, she’s honest with herself. There is no guarantee for any of us, but that promise gets slimmer as one’s age gets higher. Nevertheless, Parton remains driven. She wants to continue her legacy if for no other reason than it will help to continue to set up her family for years—generations—to come. She’s gotten her estate in order, her will completed. Waking up with aches and pains some mornings reminds her this is the right choice. And as she ponders the future, she continues to put out work and even put her name on products she believes in, like fragrances and confections. She wants to do more movies and record more songs. She even mentioned the possibility of a “network.” (Could a Dolly Parton TV channel be coming soon?) For someone who grew up dirt poor, this is evidence she’s touched the constellations. All because she had an instinctual knack for rhyming and writing songs. 

“I love that I can express every thought and feeling that I’ve ever had through music,” Parton says. “Music is the voice of the soul, and it will live on forever.”

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