Why the songbird sings: Dolly Parton reveals the stories behind her hits

Jacqueline Cutler, New York Daily News
·6 min read

She was born with music in her.

Singing as soon as she could talk, putting down lyrics as soon as she could write, Dolly Rebecca Parton was always a songwriter. Even when her only audience was the squirrels in the trees, she would raise up her voice.

She still does.

“Songteller: My Life in Lyrics” is her story. It’s more than a memoir. It’s a keepsake, filled with pictures of favorite performances and people, handwritten notes for songs, and the fascinating history behind the hits.

It’s a big book, fitting for Parton’s big career. She’s written over 3,000 songs. More than 40 of her albums landed in country’s Top Ten. Her net worth has been estimated at $500 million, and she gives back constantly to medical research, childhood literacy programs, and local Tennessee charities.

Not bad for a dirt-poor country girl.

Born in 1946, in a log cabin in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, her father grew tobacco and sold moonshine for extra cash to take care of his 12 children. There was no electricity or indoor plumbing. Their one luxury was a battery-operated radio.

Anything you wanted to eat, wear, or play with, you made yourself. Parton’s first doll was a corncob wrapped in a rag. She wrote a song about it when she was 6, “Little Tiny Tasseltop.” “Hear this song this little thing has made up, it’s really good,” her mother would brag and ask Dolly to sing.

“Because there were so many of us, any special attention was good,” Parton says. “So I learned early on to get attention through my songwriting.”

Her Uncle Billy sang at county fairs. When a radio show in Knoxville advertised for talent, he took 10-year-old Dolly with him. She performed a George Jones song, “You Gotta Be My Baby.” After, she marched up to the producer and told him he should hire her.

He did, beginning her professional career earning $5 a show.

By the time she was 13, Parton had written and recorded a record, “Puppy Love,” – not the Paul Anka hit -- and made her debut at the Grand Ole Opry. Johnny Cash introduced her. Later, she confessed just standing next to him made her go weak.

“He was the sexiest thing I ever saw,” Parton recalls. “That’s when I first felt hormones raging. It was his charisma and me being a growing girl. It was the first time a man had ever made me feel like a woman.”

Parton was ready to start her career. But her father insisted she finish school. Becoming the first in her family to earn a high school diploma, the day after graduation she headed to the mecca of country music, Nashville.

Within a year, Parton signed contracts with two companies, one as a singer and the other as a songwriter.

The next year she married Carl Dean, who ran an asphalt-spreading business. He was happy she had a career and even happier not to be part of it. Even when she started touring, he stayed in Tennessee.

“You know, he don’t want to be around anybody but me anyway, and he loves to be home,” she explains. “So that worked out fine.”

For a while, she says, people wondered if she even had a husband. Others asked just how real their marriage was.

“I write a lot of love songs,” Parton says. “I write so many of them that people say, ‘You have to have had affairs.’ I say, ‘Well, I don’t admit or deny anything’… Hell, I had boyfriends from the time I was three years old!”

But, she adds, there’s only one man she loves – her husband.

“He puts up with me and accepts me,” she says. “He knew I was always coming home, and he knew our strength as a couple.”

In 1967, when country star Porter Wagoner made Parton the new “girl singer” on his TV show, it felt like a lucky break. But after a few years, it threatened to break her. Wagoner was a domineering boss. Parton was a salaried employee, paid as little as $200 a concert.

By 1974, it was time to get out. Typically, Parton put how she felt into a song. She called it, “I Will Always Love You.”

“I went home and wrote this song about bittersweet memories – ‘If I stay, I would only be in your way,’” she writes. “But I should have said, ‘You’d only be in my way.’ Ha-ha. Really, we were in each other’s way. He was trying to control something that’s not controllable, and that was making him miserable and me miserable.”

The partners agreed to part, and Parton went on to even greater success as a solo artist. “I Will Always Love You” became her biggest hit, with Whitney Houston’s 1992 version sending sales even higher. But Parton had other hits, too. And other artists – from Kris Kristofferson to the White Stripes – rushing to record them.

While Parton didn’t label herself a feminist, her songs slammed sexual double standards. Her 1978 single “It’s All Wrong, But It’s All Right” included “I like your looks, I love your smile, could I use you for a while?” shocked some, but Parton was unapologetic. “I’ve always been drawn to sexy songs,” she says. “My weakness is food, sex and music – but not necessarily in that order.”

Parton wasn’t just changing country music. She was changing herself. She began the ’80s by going Hollywood, with a lead role in “9 to 5.” She followed up with another movie hit, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” then moved into producing.

There were some setbacks in the early ’80s; “I went through a lot of health problems and emotional things,” is as much as she’ll say now. But there were high points later, like recording “Trio” with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, and “Honky Tonk Angels” with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.

“I love men,” Parton reiterates. “But I love my girls, too. I love singing and working with them. There are no cat fights. You are professionals, so you’re going to work that way.”

The challenges, and triumphs, have continued. Parton made another, no-cat fight movie collaboration, “Steel Magnolias.” She opened Dollywood, a theme park that draws 3 million visitors a year. Her song, “Coat of Many Colors,” was turned into two TV films, and “9 to 5” adapted into a Broadway musical.

She’s still going. Just this year, Parton won her 10th Grammy award, sharing it with For King & Country, for “God Only Knows.” And, she’s writing a musical about her life.

At 74, her backwoods Barbie image has only been burnished. Of course she’s in on the joke. “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap!” Parton likes to say, reminding folks, “there’s a brain and a heart underneath the hair and the boobs.”

And that they underestimate her at their peril.

“I might look artificial and corny to you,” Parton says. “I know I look phony. But I’m totally real. I’m comfortable with who I am and the way I feel. Sometimes if my spiritual self gets after me, I wonder if I am overdoing it a little bit. But there’s no way to tame me down.”

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