She was exactly as you think she would be. Charming doesn’t begin to tell it.
It was the morning after election day in the U.S. and the phone rang, right on time. A friendly man asked me if I was ready for Dolly Parton.
“Oh, I’m ready,” I said with all the enthusiasm I felt – which also helped mask a bit of nervousness.
“I liiiiike how you said that,” Parton cooed into the phone – I hadn’t realized she was right there, listening. “I am ready for you,” she said back to me.
She had me at liiiiike.
Parton, who really does not need an introduction, is one of the few people actually worthy of the “iconic” descriptor. She is a country music star who became a mainstream superstar, having written some 3,000 songs – about 450 of which have been recorded. Amazingly, she thinks she may have written Jolene and I Will Always Love You – maybe two of the best songs known to woman – on the same day. In her new book, Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, she focuses on that first love: songwriting.
It’s a talent that goes all the way back to when Parton, who turns 75 in January, was five or six. That’s when she wrote her first song, Little Tiny Tassletop – an ode to a homemade corncob doll; her mother wrote the lyrics down for her.
Lately she’s been writing about – what else – the pandemic. She tells me about a song she composed early on during COVID-19, called When Life is Good Again. (“I’ll be a better friend, a better person, when life is good again.”)
She’s working on another one now called I Still Believe. “Even though we’re walking through the valley of death ... I believe to my very core that we’ll walk again in the sunshine by the seashore and we’ll dance and we’ll sing and be happy again,” she said, quoting some lyrics from the song-in-progress.
She said she’s doing well during the pandemic – staying busy writing and recording. “I’m not one to kind of sit around and do nothing,” she told me. She managed to create a new holiday album, A Holly Dolly Christmas – everyone working safely from their own studios. “We’re just being smart and getting it done.”
As for the other giant thing going on in her country, I was warned ahead of time not to ask her about the election. Parton doesn’t talk politics.
And yet, she has been something of a political force – not in terms of partisan politics, but in using her music to address important issues, in particular women’s rights.
She has written about the plight of women under the control of men, most famously in 9 to 5 – but also as a much younger artist, in songs that drew attention to and expressed outrage over gender inequality. Songs such as Daddy Come and Get Me, based on the real-life story of a woman driven crazy by her cheating man, who gets her locked up in what was then known as a mental institution. Or The Bridge, about a woman’s suicide, from her 1968 album Just Because I’m a Woman.
Many people – I include myself here – consider her a feminist icon, even if she’s not necessarily comfortable calling herself that. “Well you know I never like to have labels put on me, but I’ve always been one to uphold my own rights and women’s rights ... and I just think women should be treated with the utmost love and respect. We keep the whole world going,” she told me.
“I never felt like I needed to march in the streets or carry signs or go to extremes. I just always felt like I lived it and tried to represent us in the best way possible – in my songs and in what I say, like even [saying] this to you.”
Reading this book, I felt awed by her accomplishments. But I also felt a little angry about how she has been portrayed.
Country music was not part of my upbringing, but Dolly Parton was everywhere, her persona bigger than any of her songs. What I knew of her was not the fact that she was a gifted songwriter, angelic singer and musician who could expertly play a guitar lick, even with those long acrylic fingernails. I remember her name being almost synonymous with a joke – the dumb, well-endowed blonde. It was not something I learned from a specific person, but from the zeitgeist.
So I asked her about that – how did she deal with the focus on her body, the lewd comments, the jokes?
“Well you know I have to blame myself for a good bit of that. I’ve always made more jokes of myself than anybody else. I had the big boobs and I wasn’t shy about showing my cleavage and wearing my tight clothes and all of that. So I wasn’t going to get mad if somebody flirted or whatever. But to be treated with disrespect is one thing, but ... sometimes when men would whistle or say things, I would take that as a compliment. Because I was trying to be pretty, I was trying to be sexy,” she said, explaining that she patterned her look after the “town tramp” in her hometown – “a country girl’s idea of glamour,” she said. This may speak to why some people reject the feminist badge for Parton.
One of the stories she recounts in the book is hearing the Whitney Houston version of I Will Always Love You for the first time. After Parton’s office consented to the song’s use for the film The Bodyguard, she hadn’t really paid attention. Then one day, she was driving home in her Cadillac and heard those first haunting notes. It caught her ear, although she didn’t recognize it. But when the music started, she almost crashed the car, she was so overwhelmed. “I have never experienced a greater feeling in my life than hearing Whitney Houston sing that song for the first time,” she writes.
Jolene came from a post-show autograph session, when she was asked to sign something for a fan named “Jolene.” Parton was so taken with the unusual name, she repeated it all the way to the bus so she wouldn’t forget it. Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene. And then she wrote the song – again repeating the name.
She says the inspiration for the Jolene story came from a harmless flirtation her husband, Carl, was having with a woman who worked at the bank. How, I asked Parton, does she manage to portray rejection and heartbreak so authentically when she has been in such a long – more than 50 years together – happy marriage?
“Well I’m married, but I ain’t dead and I ain’t blind,” she said. (You can just hear her saying it, right?) “But you know ... I was a hopeless romantic from the time I was just a little kid. I was always writing songs and getting crushes on boys. I do write a lot from my own experience. But I write so much for the people that I do know and love and I write about their relationships, their heartaches, their divorces, their problems, all the problems they have with their kids. So there’s always something to write about. ”
The first in her family to graduate from high school, Parton was one of 12 children born to Avie Lee Owens Parton and Robert Lee Parton – her parents uneducated, but wise; hard-working , but impoverished. Her story is literally one of rags to riches. Her 1971 classic Coat of Many Colors was based on a true story: her mama (sorry, but I can’t think about Dolly Parton’s mother and not use that word) made her a coat out of rags, which young Dolly was so proud of. But when she wore it to school, the kids laughed at her. When she was being bullied in school over that coat, as she recounts in the book, she thought, why is this happening? “Now I know it was so I could write this song.” She wrote the lyrics on a dry-cleaning receipt belonging to her then-TV co-star Porter Wagoner, which she found on their tour bus.
Her father could not read or write – which ultimately led to the establishment of Parton’s literacy charity, the Imagination Library. Robert Parton, who died in 2000, was its chief inspiration and helped with the program, which has distributed more than 100 million books to young children – including in Canada. He loved when people called his daughter “The Book Lady.” When I asked her if he ever did learn to read – he didn’t – it reminded her of something from long ago.
When she was growing up, as winter approached, all the kids would need new shoes, after going barefoot all summer. Her father would measure each child’s foot using a stick, and take those sticks to town, pushing them into shoes to find ones that would fit. Not being able to write, he would scrawl something on a little tag to indicate which stick belonged to which child. “It wasn’t really that readable, but he could tell what it was,” Parton remembered. “He could do it well enough to know which kid was which, even though he didn’t spell it exactly right. But that’s kind of touching; I hadn’t thought of that in years. Hmm.”
It really is extraordinary, how far she has come and her impact on the world. Something I learned listening to the 2019 nine-part WNYC podcast series Dolly Parton’s America was that deep into his prison term at Robben Island, Nelson Mandela was sometimes able to request music to be played over the loudspeaker. One of the songs he asked for was Jolene. Can you imagine Parton’s voice floating through that notorious South African apartheid-era institution filled with political prisoners, over a tinny P.A. system?
Even if I’m not supposed to ask Parton about politics, we sort of got there – in a roundabout way, talking about toxic divisiveness as we discussed her collaboration with Galantis, Faith. As she writes in her book, having faith and showing respect are what we need to hear right now. I asked her: What are you seeing around you that made you write that?
“I just really see that every day. I just really don’t understand why we won’t open our hearts to let people in and to let the light in and let love in,” she said, again quoting her song When Life is Good Again. “I just care about people; we’re supposed to care about each other, we’re supposed to love our neighbour as ourselves.” And then she moved on to her song I Still Believe. “No matter what happens, I’m still going to believe in people, I’m still going to believe in God and I’m still going to believe that a better way and a better day [are] coming.”
As if she hadn’t lifted me up enough already, she ended with a few kind words specifically for me. I’m sure she says something lovely to all the interviewers – but it had me floating on air and gave me what I needed on that difficult day to feel a little better about the world. It was a gift from a woman who knows her power and has chosen to use it for good.
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