Posted October 2017
My earliest memories of the legendary Dolly Parton go way back to the mid-sixties while visiting my grandparents in East Tennessee and they would watch the Porter Wagoner Show on television.
I’m sure that I wasn’t the kid in early grade school who became instantly smitten by the attractive and talented country star. For those from East Tennessee (like yours truly), it’s been a joy to watch the East Tennessee native and legendary icon as she rose to dizzying heights in her country career, crossover into the pop genre, then over into movies and then into non-musical ventures like the globally popular Dollywood.
This overwhelming, consistent success has allowed Dolly to give back – not only to her native Sevierville, Tennessee, but to the entire world. Her most notable way of doing this is through the Imagination Library that she founded to help stamp out child illiteracy. She’s funded this through her own donations as well as through the donations of fans from around the world.
Her latest donation is with a little twist that we can all take part in: For the first time in her fifty-year career, Dolly has recorded an entire children’s album entitled, “I Believe In You,” whereby the proceeds will go to the Imagination Library.
It was to promote her new CD that I was asked to participate in a “virtual press conference” with a handful of other entertainment writers and journalists. The focus was to be on the new CD but a few questions on other topics were slipped in by some of those participating.
To those of us who’ve never written a song, the process appears to be a mystery. When asked how she goes about writing a song – especially for “I Believe In You,” Dolly said:
“Well, I have so many ways of doing it. My favorite thing is - if I have the time – is to take a couple of weeks and take off and
just go somewhere and just write songs. But that’s not apt to happen these days as it was in the past. But I can write songs anywhere. I always keep a notepad by my bed at night and a tape recorder. I’ve always got a note pad everywhere. I do my best thinking when I’m traveling. So, I can write anywhere and I never know when a song is going to hit me. I write a little bit of something every day. An idea. A title or a few lines and, if I’m lucky, I can write a few songs per week.”
The song, “Making Fun Ain’t Funny” is a tremendous anti-bullying song. Ms. Parton shared what the inspiration was for such a tune.
“Well, all the bullies in this world which I do not like at all. And, of course, I remember with the Coat of Many Colors being made fun of and made light of as a child and we always had to wear ragged clothes so we often got made fun of and it was never funny to the one that you’re making fun of. But, especially now people are trying to teach children not to be bullies – that it hurts and it don’t feel good and how would you feel if it happened. So, it’s the anti-bullying thing that we’ve been dealing with the few years with the suicide (among) kids and the kids being bullied to the point of committing suicide. It’s just terrible so I thought that needs to be spoken to. It’s for the little kids but it’s also for the grownups, too.”
To me, the most poignant song on the CD is “Chemo Hero,” which is about pediatric cancer. It seemed very personal so, when it was my turn to ask a question, I asked if she could share the story behind it.
“Yes, I can! When you do see the actual CD of the album, inside there’s a picture of two little girls kissing me on the cheek. They’re two of my little nieces. The one on the left is Hannah Dennison. She’s my sister, Rachel’s daughter and when she was four years old, she got leukemia and we almost lost her for years and years.
“When she was sick, I wrote Chemo Hero and Brave Little Soldier for her and about her and, at that time, I took a bunch of my little nieces and nephews and her friends and took them into the recording studio and recorded that and some other children’s songs and fun things for her to have a little tape to listen to while she was recuperating. I just thought that children that go through all of that – sick children - not just necessarily cancer patients but sick children in general (would enjoy the song).
“The Brave Little Soldier was about that, too – children with other diseases. But Chemo Hero - I thought was a perfect title and I’m going to try to make something more of that. At some point, we may try to put that out as a single or, certainly, find all the chemo heroes with some of the children that have overcome the most – even some of the grownups that suffered that and won the battle.”
With all that Ms. Parton does regarding illiteracy, it’s obvious that it is a subject near and dear to her heart. She shared why that is:
“Well, it’s very important. I think all children should be able to read. I actually started the Imagination Library over twenty years ago when my father – I actually did it in honor of my father who was never able to read or write. My dad got to help me with it and he felt very proud for me to be doing that and to involve him in it. He got to live long enough to see it doing well. He got such a kick out of seeing people call me the Book Lady.
“I just think it’s important because if you can learn to read, you can educate yourself about any subject. You don’t have to have money if you can’t afford to go to school. There’s a book on anything you want to know but it’s not going to do you any good if you can’t read. So, that was the main thing: inspired by my dad and just knowing how important it is.”
When asked has her faith in Jesus made a difference in her life and in her work for children, Dolly’s answer was straightforward and unwavering.
“Well, I think that you need to have a great spiritual background. I grew up in a church. My grandpa was a preach and we were taught Jesus loved us and we loved Jesus and in order to do that we needed to love one another, as well. So, I think that my faith has played a part in every single thing that I do. I think that’s one of the reasons The Coat of Many Colors movie did so well. I think people who are Christians – I think it really spoke to them. I just think family based/faith based stuff is really important. Especially this day and time. Any song I write, whether it’s about a child or anybody else, I always pray that God will lead me to say something that will glorify Him and uplift mankind somehow.”
The book and movie, Coat of Many Colors, really resonated with Parton’s fans. One of the standout quotes from the movie is, “you’re only poor if you choose to be.” Dolly feels that message needs to be embedded in children’s minds. When asked why – and why the movie was such a smash hit, she shared:
“Well, first of all, I think children love to see other children in movies. I think they love to see how other people live. Based on the question I was just asked before what I was talking about, I really think there’s a need for families to pull together more. I think we’re so apt to babysit our children with television or with games and all that.
“So, I really think to just pull the family together; to have more love – that kind of faith based story. I think people are kind of hungry for that this day and time. I know I miss things on television like Little House On The Prairie and The Walton’s and things that were simpler – when life was simpler, not as complicated and not so scary out there. I think the ratings were good because I think people are kind of longing for that.”
Opry City Stage is opening in New York City’s Times Square later this year so Ms. Parton was asked what she thought of New York as a home for country music.
“I think country music is so big any more. It’s worldwide. Use to, back in the old days, it was considered this corny music. But now, as you well know, it’s become, really, a very important thing. And I just think – kinda based on what I was saying about the Coat of Many Colors – I think there’s a simplicity about it. People like something that’s not SO complicated; easier to understand; easy to listen to. It’s ordinary stories about ordinary people. I’m sure that in that particular show it’ll be done in an extraordinary way. But people relate to it. I think families relate to it. It’s day-to-day living. It’s stories about real things.”
In the movie, there’s a great line where you and your mother were going through some tough times that said, “Mama ain’t sewin’ and Dolly ain’t singin’.” Dolly shared about the connection between sewing and singing and especially as creative outlets for her and her mother.
“I think any creative thing – like you said – we’re all good at something. I think that cooking and sewing and all those things that you do with your hands and with your mind – all those things that touch the senses. It’s like with me, I was always singing and that was a true line, ‘If Dolly ain’t singin’, sumpin’ bad’s wrong!’ And, ‘If Mama ain’t sewin’’ – ‘cause Mama sewed all the time because she loved to sew but she had to sew, also. So, I just think that whole thing of just doing things for one another. Creating things for your family. I just think that music and all those creative things are all part of our makeup.”
About halfway through the call, Dolly shared the story of her first guitar and the instrument that she dreamed of owning when she was growing up.
“Oh, well, music was such a part of our whole family. All of my mama’s people were musical. They all played some sort of a musical instrument. And, of course, I took my music real serious and I was always pluckin’ along on somebody’s instrument – whatever they would be layin’ around or whenever family would come. But I always loved the guitar.
“One of my uncles – actually, two of my uncles – my Uncle Bill Owens, who helped me get in the business (and) I had another Uncle, Lewis, who was also a great guitar player and he had this little Martin guitar that I loved. When he saw how serious I was about my music, he gave me his little Martin guitar. That was my treasure. When I left it home when I left when I was eighteen years old, I put it in the loft because it was beat up and I was going to – when I got money - when I got rich and famous – I was going to have it fixed up. The loft burned out of our house and burned up my little guitar. I only have the neck of that one but I have collected little Martin guitars all through the years. I have some really classic little guitars – especially the Martin’s – the baby Martin.”
The questioning veered back to Ms. Parton’s songwriting and if it differed for I Believe In You differ from other albums.
“It was fun for me because, actually, the biggest part of the songs on this album were inspired by the book that we give away through the Imagination Library. Every time we give out the book, we get a new book, I write a song kinda based loosely on what the idea of that book is about. The very first one, I Believe In You – the very first book that we give out is The Little Engine That Could – that’s the first book we give out through the Imagination Library. I use that line in that – just that positive thinking. I believe in you just like that little engine that we’ve all read about.
“These songs were fun for me because I love children and I have so many nieces and nephews and I practically raised five of my younger brothers and sisters. So, I’m very close to my family. I like to write things for them, too; to have things to entertain my little nieces and nephews when they come to visit and play. So, these were fun songs to write.”
Well into the call, Dolly was asked for the story behind her smash hit, I Will Always Love You, and what did it mean to her years later when Whitney Houston recorded it and made it one of the biggest songs of all time.
“That’s a very good question. That song is so deep-seated in my heart, in my soul. Back years ago – in my early days – I worked with a man named Porter Wagoner. We had one of those relationships that we were so much alike that we couldn’t get along – or we were so different we couldn’t get along. But we had a great love. It was kind of a love/hate relationship. I always wanted to have my own band and I told him at the start that I wanted to go out on my own. But it was very, very hard. He had a number one television show at the time and for me to leave was going to take a big hunk out of his show but I still wanted to get on.
“Anyhow, after much fighting with all of the love and the depth we had for each other, I wrote that song to try to say, ‘Here’s how I feel. I’ll always love you. I have to go but I have to leave.’ It was a very hard song but when I sang it to him, he said, ‘Okay, you can go but let me produce that record.’
“So, it was personal to us. Then, years later, when Whitney did it, I didn’t know she had done it. I had sent it out to L.A. when they had asked for some of my music. Kevin Costner – he and his secretary had loved that song. I sent it out but I hadn’t heard anything about whether or not they did it.
“I was on my way home and I turned the radio on and all of a sudden, I heard that acapella part and it was just like, ‘Woo hoo! What’s that?!’ I knew it was something familiar. Then, by the time it dawned on me what I was hearing when she went into that chorus, I had to stop the car because I almost wrecked. I thought my heart was gonna bust right out of my body. It was the most powerful feeling, I guess, that I’ve ever had. It was such a shock and it was so great and she sang it so good that I was just overwhelmed.”
Ms. Parton then her confidence in entering the country music world and determination in charting her own path in it – especially as a woman.
“I just had this burning love for music. I had burning desire to get out into the bigger world. I was a country girl and there was some fear there. People always say, ‘Weren’t you afraid?’ We’re all afraid of something but my true line is that my desire to do it was always greater than my fear. I just believed that I had something that might do good. I would always go in, talking to people and say, ‘I think I have something that might make us all some money,’ or try to go at it that way. I never thought about it - whether I was a girl or a boy. I just had a gift and I felt that it was God-given and I felt that I was supposed to be doing something with it. So, I just had that attitude about it and I guess people responded. I had a lot of people help and I didn’t have as many problems as many of the young girls were having at the time, I guess, because I grew up in a house full of brothers and my dad and uncle so I understood men and they didn’t intimidate me.”
Favorite song on the CD?
“I like them all for different reasons. Of course, the Little Coat of Many Colors I’ve done in so many ways so many times and now we have a children’s book, also, so I did do the reading of that. Probably, on the more personal level, the little song, Chemo Hero, because it was about family – and Brave Little Soldier – about children facing a lot of fears and doubts – whether it be about illnesses or going through divorce with their parents. So, that one meant a lot to me. The little song, Making Fun Ain’t Funny, has such a good message for this time. They’re all like my kids. I always say my songs are like my children. I expect them to support me when I’m old. I have some that are prettier than others but I love them all.”
Giving back is, obviously, a huge part of Dolly Parton’s life. She explained why.
“I think that it was that Christian background – about giving. It’s better to give than to receive and all those sayings that we’ve heard through the years. But I really think that when you’re in a position to help, you definitely should help. You get a good feeling when you feel that you’re doing something for somebody else because I’ve been so blessed in my life that I want to give back. Whether you’re paying your tithes or whatever, if God’s been good to you, b good to other people! That’s how we spread the love around. It just makes me feel good to do it and I think it is my duty to do it.”
Fifty years ago, Dolly released her debut project and today, I Believe In You. She was asked the “I Believe In You” Dolly would say to mentor the “Hello, It’s Dolly” artist?
“Ha! Ha! I think I would say, ‘I think she’s in her second childhood!’ I didn’t realize that it was fifty years ago! Then, I was a young girl and now I’m doing a children’s album! I think I’m in my second childhood! Ha! Ha! That just hit me funny when you was sayin’ that!
“Anyway, I’ve learned a lot. In some ways, you learn a lot and in some ways, you’re always stupid. I think I’ve learned a lot about life and, hopefully, I’ve learned a lot about songwriting, too. I’m the same ol’ gal I was back then. Back then, I was just dreaming about being a star. I’ve been so fortunate and lucky I got to do so many things – the movies, do records, and writing songs for movies and do some business things and have Dollywood. But, still, the music is always right there in the heart of it all. But, now, all these years later, for me to even be in a position to have wonderful programs because of my success – things like the Imagination Library where you can give back and do things. It’s a good feeling that I can do that so I just think, ‘Well, I’m just happy it all turned out the way it did!’
When congratulated on Dollywood receiving the Golden Ticket Award, Ms. Parton replied:
“Well, thank you! We’re very proud of Dollywood and all the wonderful things we’ve got to do. Like I say, I’ve been blessed so I’m happy to give back and I really love this little children’s album because I love kids and the money’s going to a real good place to put more books into the hands of more children all over the world!”
Dolly later explained why it is important that she be such a strong advocate for children with Imagination Library and album.
“There’s an old Whitney Houston song – speaking of Whitney Houston who’s been good to me because of I’ll Always Love You – but there’s a song she had called ‘Children Are Our Future’. I loved that song and I think that’s such a true statement. We have to teach the children, like that old song, Teach Your Children Well, and if you can teach them to read – even if they never have the money to further their education – they can find something they can read up on anything they want to know and least learn it.
“But it’s really a handicap if you can’t read. I really think that that’s important because I know how children need to have self-esteem and that gives them confidence if they can do those little things. To put books into the hands of children – that’s the reason why we put their little name on it personally so that they get these books in the mail box with their name on it. They’re gonna wait there for the mail or they’re gonna get home from wherever they’ve been and go to the mail box to see if their little book is there. They have a sense of pride that makes them take some time. It’s important for children to have self-esteem and to know how to read and to feel important, that they can do something.
“I know that my father couldn’t read and write like so many of my relatives because they were poor people – country people – had to work at home. One room schools and bad weather and all that. But, anyway, it just means a lot to me to be able to do something in that area.”
Dolly shared how she keeps herself inspired to make music after all these years.
“Well, you’d think that you’d run out of stuff to write about. The same melodies and the same story lines but there’s always a little twist in everything. You can kinda change it around just enough. Since everything is a rhyme to me and I love melodies, I love to sing or whistle or hum – and so I’m just always doing it so it’s easy for me to write. Whatever I’m writing about at the time – because the day’s new and fresh – there’s always a new and fresh twist to some song even though it’s about just ordinary things. You can make it a little special if you’re the least bit creative – and I try to be!”
It’s been almost 40 years since she recorded, “Here I Come Again,” which was a big turning point in her plan to breakout beyond country and catapult her into superstardom. There was industry uproar and fear of what that meant back then. What did she think about it back in that time and what did she know that everyone else didn’t?
“I just always wanted to do more than to just settle where I was. Even to this day, as I often say, I wake up with new dreams every day. People say, ‘Oh my god! You can’t possibly be thinking of doing something else!’ And I say, ‘Yes, I do! I wake up all the time with new thoughts. I’ve dreamed myself into a corner, in a way, because I have to be responsible for the dreams that I’ve seen come true. But that’s part of it. But it doesn’t stop me dreamin’. Just like back then, forty years ago, I was longing to get out and do stuff on a broader scale; do more world music and travel around the world more; to get into movies; go to California; to get big time management so that I could do more things. That was just my crossover hit and, like you said, I had a lot of flak from the country people saying I was selling out. I said back then, ‘I’m not leaving country. I’ll take that with me wherever I go because that’s just who I am.’ I think I’ve lived up to that and I was so happy that I was right about that. If it had flopped, I’d had egg all over my face, wouldn’t I?”
As the call wrapped up, Ms. Parton was asked if this children’s album connected her to her childhood in any way and, more specifically, any memories she might have had of her mom growing up.
“I have so many memories of my mom and, yes, I always think of my family, my brothers and sisters, and my childhood when I write any of these songs; think of just children in general, and I try to become that little child again the way that I was back then: the little musical child that did want to write and sing. So, it’s easy for me to put myself in that place. But, certainly, my mother – the older I get the more I realize how much she really meant to all of us and what all she instilled in us.
“I’m a lot like my mother and the older I get the more I realize that. I have my momma’s creativity and her spirituality but I have my dad’s work ethic. So, I’m proud to have a good part of them in me. I have so many memories of my dad and my mom and when I write these songs, of course I think of them and my brothers and sisters.”