When you think of country music, there is a list of artists who instantly come to mind, and Dolly Parton is certainly at the top it. She isn’t a mere triple or quadruple threat, no, Parton is an octuple threat. Not only is she an acclaimed singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist in country music, but she is a beloved author, businesswoman, producer, actress, and philanthropist.
Parton grew up poor in Tennessee, the fourth of 12 children. An insatiable desire and love for music burned inside her, and she worked hard to become one of the most influential artists in country music. Many artists across most genres credit Parton as being someone they looked up to — not just for her strength and perseverance in the music industry, but for her selfless ability to give back. This year marks the 20th anniversary of her Imagination Library, a literacy program that has given away 100 million books to children across the country. The passion of helping children learn and grow has brought Parton to her newest musical project. I Believe in You is a 14 track album of uplifting and encouraging songs for children. Proceeds from the album go back into the Imagination Library, allowing more children to receive personalized books to their homes.
We had the immense honor of speaking with Ms. Parton about why the Imagination Library and children’s literacy is so important to her, I Believe in You, and how she has stayed inspired after all these years.
What inside of you made you want to enter the world of music and write songs, especially in a time when country was primarily a male dominated genre?
I just had this burning love for music and this burning desire to get out into the world. You know, I was a country girl and there was some fear there, but we are all afraid of something. My desire to do it was always greater than my fear. I just believed that I had something good. I would walk in and tell people, “I think I have something awesome that’s going to make us all money.” I just tried to go at it that way, but I never thought about whether I was a girl or a boy. I felt I had a gift, and was supposed to be doing something with it. I just always had that attitude about it, and people responded to that. I had a lot of help, maybe more than the other girls because I grew up with brothers and my father and uncles, so I knew how men were. They didn’t intimidate me.
Can you tell us about your first guitar and the instrument you dreamed of owning?
Music was such a big part of my family. My mama’s people were musical, they all played some sort of musical instrument. And of course I took my music very serious, I was always plucking along on someone’s instrument. But I always loved the guitar. One of my uncles had this little Martin guitar that I just loved. When he saw how serious I was about my music, he gave me that guitar. It was my treasure. When I left home at 18, I put it up in our loft because it was all beat up. I thought when I got rich and famous I would go back and have it fixed up. But we had a fire and that guitar got burned up in it. I only have the neck of it left. I’ve collected little Martin guitars through the years. I have a lot of classic guitars I love, especially the Baby Martin.
What is the songwriting process like for you?
I have so many ways of doing it. My favorite thing to do, if I have time, is to take off somewhere and just write songs. That’s not as apt to happen as much as in the past, but I can write songs anywhere. I always have a notepad with me and I’ll sit on my bed with a tape recorder. But I always have notepads all over. I do my best thinking when I’m traveling. I never know when a song is going to hit me, but I like to write a little something every day. Sometimes it’s an idea, sometimes a title or a few lines. If I’m lucky, I can write a few songs per week.
Was the writing process for your newest album I Believe in You different from your other albums?
It was fun for me because a big part of the album was inspired by the books we give out through the Imagination Library. Every new book we give out, I try to write a song that goes along with it. The first book we give out is The Little Engine That Could, so I Believe in You is about that little engine. These songs were fun for me because I love children. I have so many little nieces and nephews, and I practically raised my five younger siblings. I like to write things for my nieces and nephews to have when they come to visit me.
Do you have a particular song from the album that’s special to your heart?
Well, I love them all for different reasons, but on a more personal level “Chemo Hero” and probably “Brave Little Soldier.” Those songs are about children’s fears and doubts. Whether it’s an illness or family issues. “Makin’ Fun Ain’t Funny” has such a good message, but the songs are all like my kids. I always say, “My songs are like my children, and I expect them to support me when I’m old.”
“Makin’ Fun Ain’t Funny” has a very special message about bullying. Why was it important for you to include an anti-bullying song on the album?
There are so many bullies out there in this world, which I don’t like at all. I remember, with the coat of many colors, being made fun of as a child. We always had to wear ragged clothes, so we often were made fun of, but it wasn’t funny. We need to teach children that being a bully isn’t a good thing, and it hurts. It doesn’t feel good and you wouldn’t want it to happen to you. We’ve been dealing with it a lot recently with the suicides, kids are being bullied to the point of suicide. It’s terrible and is something I thought needed to be spoken to. It’s for the little kids, but for the adults too.
You mentioned that “Chemo Hero” and “Brave Little Soldier” were special to you, what makes those two songs so special?
Inside the actual cd, there is a picture of two little girls kissing me on the cheek. They’re two of my little nieces, and the one on the left is Hannah Dennison. She’s my sister Rachel’s daughter. When she was four she was diagnosed with Leukemia, we almost lost her. I wrote “Chemo Hero” and “Brave Little Soldier for her. I took a bunch of my little nieces and nephews and their friends into the recording studio, and we recorded those and a couple other children’s songs. We did it so she would have a little tape to listen to while she recuperating.
Why has being able to give back been so important throughout your career?
I’m sure my Christian background has something to do with it, but I feel like if you’re in the position to help you definitely should. You get a good feeling when you’re doing something for someone else. I’ve been so blessed in my life, that I want to give back. It makes me feel good and it’s my duty to do it.
The Imagination Library does great things for children’s literacy, how did you become so passionate about this cause?
Well, it’s very important to me. I think all children should learn to read. But actually, I started the Imagination Library over 20 years ago in honor of my father. He was never able to read or write, but he helped me start the library. He was so proud of me for doing that and involving him in it. Luckily he was able to live long enough to see it do well. He got such a kick out of people calling me the book lady. I just think it’s so important. If you can read, you can educate yourself on any subject. You don’t have to have the money to go to school. There is a book on anything you want to know.
On I Believe in You, you included a bonus track of you reading a selection from Coat of Many Colors. Why do you think people have connected so deeply to that story?
I think children like to see other children in movies. And I think they love to see how other people live. I feel like families really need to pull together. We are so apt to babysit our children with the television or games, we need to pull families together and have more love. I think people are hungry for a faith-based story. I miss things on TV like Little House on the Prairie or The Waltons, when it wasn’t so scary out there. I think the ratings were good for Coat of Many Colors because people were hungry for that.
“I Will Always Love You” is one of your best-known songs. What was the inspiration for it and how did Whitney Houston’s version make you feel?
The song is so deep seeded in my heart and my soul. Years ago, in my early days, I worked with Porter Wagner and we had one of those relationships where we were so much alike that 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. It was very hard though. He had a number one television show at the time, and for me to leave it would have taken a huge chunk out of his show. After much fighting between us, I wrote that song. I will always love you, 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 had done it, I didn’t know. I had sent it out to LA when they had asked for some of my music, Kevin Costner and his secretary loved that song. I sent it out and never heard whether or not they did anything with it. I was on my way home one day, turned on the radio and heard that acapella part. I was like “oooh what’s that!?” I knew it was something familiar, and by the time it dawned on me, she was going into the chorus. I had to stop the car because I almost wrecked. I thought my heart was going to bust right out of my body. It was the most powerful feeling. It sounded so great, and she sounded so good that I was just overwhelmed.
How have you kept inspired all these years?
You’d think you would run out of things to write about. But you can always put a twist on another song or melody. Everything is a rhyme to me and I’m always singing or whistling, so it’s always been easy for me. Because the days are always new and fresh, there’s always something you can find inspiration in.
It’s been 50 years since your debut album, Hello Dolly. If you could go back, what would you tell that Dolly?
I didn’t realize it was 50 years ago! I’d say I was probably in my second childhood. I’ve learned a lot since then. In some ways, you’re always learning and others you’ll always be stupid. I’ve learned a lot about life, and I hope a lot about songwriting. I feel like I’m that same gal I was back then. Back then, I was just dreaming of being a star, and I’ve been so fortunate to do all the things I’ve done. With all the movies, records, and I have Dollywood, still, the music is there in the heart of it all. After all these years, to be in the position to have wonderful programs because of my success like the Imagination Library is amazing. I’m just happy it all turned out the way it did.
Physical copies of I Believe in You are available today, and proceeds from the album go to benefit the Imagination Library.