Skip Matheny— currently a songwriter in the band Roman Candle and former bartender in a retirement community — caught up with Dolly Parton recently at her manager’s office in Nashville TN . ‘Drinks With’ is an interview series about the creative process, started in 2009 by Skip and Timshel Matheny. This interview was part of a round-robin discussion with a few journalists sitting around a table.
Dolly’s 42nd album Blue Smoke debuted last month as her highest charting solo album of her career. She will headline the UK’s legendary Glastonbury Festival alongside Arcade Fire and Metallica this week.
I’ve always loved how you talk about songwriting as your ‘private time with God.’ What is writing like for you now, after having written so many things? I remember you talking about writing your first song when you were five, about a corn cob doll, called “Little Tiny Tasseltop.” When you sit down to write a song now, is it roughly the same thing as when you were writing as a kid? Has the process of sitting down to makeup a song changed much for you over the years?
Well the process has not changed, because as a songwriter you always long for that time and that space, that I call that block of time where I can go on a writing binge. Because I’m addicted to my songwriting. That’s my favorite thing I do. I long for those days. When I get so busy that I think “Man I haven’t gotten to really take off time to just write,” although I write something almost everyday, in a hurry. Everything is a rhyme to me, everything is a song. But there’s nothing more sacred and more precious to me then when I really can get in that zone where its just God and me. And I really let those juices flow and I still get the same feeling from it as I did when I was young, trying to do it for money, or at least hoping I made money for it. I never did it for money. And I would still be doing it if I wasn’t making money.
Now I have more outlets for it. Sometimes its not as fun, when I write. I still love doing it. For instance, if I get commissioned to do something. If I’m writing a song for somebody else’s movie or if I’m writing, when I did Nine to Five the musical, that was hard because I had so many people telling me what to do. I would write a song that I thought was great and they would have the script changed before it ever got around to all the people, and then they’d want me to change this and change that. But I was lucky that I was skilled as a writer, I was quick. I could change it quick and they were impressed with that. But sometimes you just don’t want that many people in your business.(laughs) I thought “I will be glad to be done with this!” (laughs) Although I enjoyed it, and I’m glad that it turned out. Its like there were ‘too many chiefs’ as they say and sometimes that gets a little much. But other than that I still love it.
When I get a chance to do it I usually just block out [some time]. My dream is to just block out like three weeks to a month to say “Don’t bother me I’m going wherever I go and I’m just going to write songs, so just leave me alone.” Then turn off the phones and go do that. Its a sacred place for me.
Have any of your songs changed shape for you over time, or taken on a different meanings through the years? Take a famous example like, “I Will Always Love You.” Does your relationship to a song like that change, as it develops its own life in other people’s art? Or for you, is it roughly the same song that you recorded in 1973?
“I Will Always Love You” is just another one of those songs like “9 to 5,” it just keeps going and going. But I’ll probably be remembered for that more than anything. I wrote that about leaving The Porter Wagner Show — Porter being the guy that helped me the most in my early days. He had this syndicated show and, when I started with him, I already had like three chart records. I said that I’d stay for five years, but I wanted to have my own career and my own band. So, when five years ended we were really hot, and Porter didn’t want me to leave. And I said ‘You said I could,’ and he said ‘Well you’re not’ and I said ‘I am!’ and on and on like that. So we fought a lot over that, and I thought he’s so stubborn he’s never gonna listen to me, and this is going to be nothing but a heartache, and we’re going to go through this every day.
So I went home and I wrote the song out of what I was feeling in my heart, and took it back to him the next day. I said ‘Porter sit down, there’s something I need you to hear.’ So I started singing the song and I was emotional, he got emotional and we were both crying. By the time I finished the song he said ‘okay, that’s the best thing you’ve ever wrote and you can go, if I can produce the record on that song.’ I said, ‘Okay it’s a deal.’ And, so that’s how that came to be, and I had a number one record on it. And then again when I did The Best Little Whore House In Texas. It was in that, so it became number one again. Then Vince [Gill] and I had a Top 10 duet on it, but it was only when Whitney Houston took it all over the world with The Body Guard that it really became what it is today. So I always think of that as our song.
It just killed me when they lifted her coffin up at the funeral and when they started into that song. Man, it was like you could stab me into the heart with a dagger. It just, and that’s when I broke down over her I mean I really was, like everybody else, upset and hated it, but it was just then that I just started boohoo’n. I thought, those are my words, that’s my song – it’s her song. And I was thinking I bet you that won’t be the only coffin lifted up for that song to play. And when I’m dead it will probably be the same thing. It’s just overwhelming to me. But, I will always be grateful and thankful to her for making that song all the things that it is.
Your live performances have always had so much to do with the life of each song. How do you approach creating each live show, picking songs that are exciting to you, picking certain hits to play, leaving others out?
Well, you always have that trouble when you’re going to go on tour, but I’ve done that year in and year out. And, because you’re going to play to a lot of the same people, but you know you have to always do hits and of course there’s a lot of them we didn’t do, but we did the main ones like “I Will Always Love You,” “Jolene,” “Coat of Many Colors,” “Islands in the Stream,” There’s just some you know you have to do. There are some some songs that are famous that were not hits like “Apple Jack” that people like to hear, playing the banjo. So you try to base it on how you entertain the crowd and how your dynamics go up and down.
My favorite part of the show is the family segment, the Tennessee Mountain Home segment, and trying to choose what to do. So its not an easy job. You just try to figure out what you think they’ll enjoy most, and what you can entertain them with the most, what to your best stories will be about this song or how that song came to be. You have to leave out so much stuff it just breaks your heart. And, in fact people say “Why didn’t you do so-and-so?” and somebody else will say “You didn’t do my favorite” but its really hard and just a decision you have to make.
Are your audiences overseas much different than U.S. audiences? I know you have had an enthusiastic following in the UK for decades.
There are more similarities, but the difference is, in the United States — I certainly would never down my crowds here because we have wonderful crowds, we have wonderful fans and I appreciate them all — but, here they know they can see you the next time, even if its at DollyWood, because you’re not out of reach. So when you go overseas, I don’t get there that often and I have a huge fan base over there, and have had sense Coat of Many Colors for forty years or more. For forty-five years I’ve had fans there and so they’re glad to get to see you and so they really want you to know that they’re so glad to see you and they want to really be over-excited because they want you to come back. So, sometimes they really get a little rowdy only because they are excited and want you to know they love you.
So many people have interpreted your songs over the years, are there any that stand out in your memory?
Well it always feels great. You don’t expect them to sing it like you, and I’ve heard people say ‘Oh I hated her version of that or his version of your song.’ I said well that was my version.
I love the way people interpret my songs. I love it. They did that tribute album a few years back with all those girls and I was surprised with all of the different ways they did my songs. I think probably one of my favorite things, well outside of the Whitney thing that will always be great, but Emmylou did a song of mine called “To Daddy” and a lot people don’t even know that I wrote that song, because there’s a story about it. But I always thought that was such a great record that she did.
I had written that song, and [it was] one of the biggest fights that Porter and I had ever had. He had produced that on me, and this goes to show you how songwriters are. We recorded it and he thought that we should put it out as a single, on me. Well, Emmylou being a friend, she was down at the studio, and we were recording and we were playing the stuff and she turned to me and she said ‘Dolly I have to have that song.’
Porter said, ‘You can’t have that song because we’re going to put that out.’ and I said ‘She can have that song’ and he said ‘She can’t have that song’ and then Emmylou said ‘I don’t mean to start trouble but I would really love to have that song because you can write some more.’ (laughs) Well, anyways I fought Porter over it and I guess you know who won. So, he never did forgive me when it became number one because he had produced the one on me. But, anyway I was always really proud of that and have a story to go along with it. So as a songwriter you give up stuff. I gave up a hit record as a singer to have a song that I had written to a major artist at the time.
There was a song from Backwoods Barbie called “Only Dreaming” which I heard you had written while riding around New York City. It has such a traditional folk melody for being composed in New York. I wanted to ask how your location or immediate surroundings affect your writing.
I was in New York and we were doing rehearsals for the Broadway Musical 9 to 5. All of the big city lights and all of the big music and it was my birthday and I usually try to write something on my birthday every year and so I was just riding in a limousine and I was looking out at the skyline, and I was thinking ‘lord here I am in New York City!’ all the way from the Smoky Mountains. And I was just singing in the back of the car while we were getting to the place and I started singing “Oh I know I am only dreaming,” just to take myself back home. And it kept getting gooder and gooder! I thought wow! This is kinda an unusual feeling to being in the big city writing something that “mountainish” and so I got out of the car and I was going up the elevator because I thought there was a piano or something up there. And, I was writing it on the back of my script because I didn’t have paper, my 9 to 5 script and I was writing on the back of it. So I went in and this woman said ‘do you need anything?’ and I said ‘no I’m writing a song I need to get somewhere’ and she said ‘do you need a piano?’ and I said ‘no you don’t have a dulcimer do you?’ And, so I just put it down.
When I got back to the hotel I put it down on a cassette and I went in the studio with Kent Wells, and we were recording at the time probably Backwoods Barbie, after I got back from New York. I said ‘Kent I wrote a song that I really think is good, but I didn’t put it down with any music so I’m just going to sing it a cappella.’ So I was down in the studio and I just started singing the song and I sang the whole song a cappella and Kent said ‘God! I love that!’ And so he just started putting instruments on it and so we didn’t record it like a record, he just started adding what he felt was that old timey sound and so he tuned his guitar down into that old mountain sound. Then we started adding stuff to it and it was all based on my original emotion singing it a cappella. And that’s one of my favorites too by the way, thank you. I love to sing it because I love them honkin’ beautiful sounds.