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Happy Birthday, Dolly Parton!

| January 19, 2016 | 1 Comment

“Without a doubt, songwriting is my greatest source of joy and the best outlet for my creativity,” says Dolly Parton, who since penning her first tune at age 5, has published over 3,000 songs, including country classics such as “Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” “Joshua,” “Jolene,” “Coat Of Many Colors,” “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy,” “Touch Your Woman,” “Just Because I’m A Woman,” “The Last One To Touch Me,” “Yellow Roses” and the most successful crossover single of the past three decades, “I Will Always Love You.”

Yet for all this, in the public eye, Dolly the songwriter is regularly eclipsed by all the other Dollys we know and love: legend of country music, platinum recording artist, charismatic stage performer, wisecracking comedienne, star of movies and television, tabloid trash queen, savvy entrepreneur, multi-millionairess, warm-hearted philanthropist and of course, cultural icon. In the ’80s, it was written that Dolly’s image—the cascading blond wigs, the carefully applied make-up and the impossibly pulchritudinous figure—was the most universally recognized of any celebrity, meaning that even farmers in remote regions of Soviet Georgia could smile and say, “Dolly Parton.”

These far-reaching accomplishments are more incredible when you consider her beginnings. Dolly Rebecca Parton entered this world on January 19, 1946, in a one-room cabin in the mountains of East Tennessee, the fourth of 12 children born to poor sharecropper parents. While Dolly grew up without electricity, running water, a telephone or indoor plumbing, she was surrounded by a loving family who instilled in her a sense of humor, a good dose of common sense and a passion for music. “I’m proud of the humble beginnings,” Dolly has said, “and the fact that dreams can come true for just simple, ordinary people.”

To celebrate her 70th birthday today, Performing Songwriter has gone into the archives to pull out an interview Bill DeMain had with this remarkable woman on her favorite subject—songwriting.

You’ve been writing songs almost your whole life and I get the sense that it’s something that comes naturally to you. Is that true?

It is true. In fact, everything I think or see is a song. I’m like one of those crazy people that when I’m carrying on a conversation with somebody, I’ll think, “Oh, that’s a great idea for a song,” or I’ll say something to them and I’ll think, “I need to write a song about that (laughs).” It’s just natural. I was born with the gift to rhyme. Ever since I was a little bitty kid, I could just rhyme everything. Every story was a rhyme. It was always fun and it just kind of carried on over the years. I love to write. That’s my favorite thing of all. To me, I’d rather write than to sing. My biggest thrill is to write songs then go in the studio and hear them back.

When you first came to Nashville in the ’60s, were there certain songwriters who you looked up to or who helped you?

Well, most of my influences as singers and as writers were in my family. My family was very musical. My grandfather was a wonderful writer, and he was also a minister. But he used to write some of the most beautiful songs. All my uncles wrote, my mother wrote, my grandma wrote. On my grandpa Owens’ side, his mother, who everybody called Mammy, she played the autoharp, she played the banjo, she smoked a pipe (laughs) and she wrote all these incredible songs. So I got to hear all these songs handed down. Of course, my own mother played the guitar and she used to sing.

So I don’t remember being influenced by anybody in Nashville. I was just young when I first started coming here. I started on radio and TV when I was 10, and I was making trips back and forth with my Uncle Bill. So it wasn’t that I was swept up with other people’s writing. I was just swept up with the idea of being in Nashville where the music lived, where the records were made and where the songs were written. I just wanted to come as my own writer and be my own singer. When I got to know people, of course, I had friends who were writers. Like Willie Nelson and I, we both were working with Fred Foster [head of Monument Records] when I first came here, and Willie had his hair real short and his face was clean shaven, and he just looked like a nerd (laughs). Anyway, I got to where I admired so many of the songwriters more after I was here than what brought me here. I loved Kristofferson’s writing, still do.

When you first started writing, you’ve talked about being influenced by the sounds around you—the call of a bob white, the rhythm of your mother snapping peas. Is this still a place you like to start?

I have no control over that. Everything is a song to me. Even sometimes when I’m doing my laundry (laughs). Like in L.A., I have this house and I have a washer and dryer that’s right off my bedroom. I didn’t learn for a long time that if you don’t have a big load of laundry, that you had to put the setting on small, large or medium. When you had too few clothes in the machine when it was set on large, it starts to rock and shake in this rhythmic sound (laughs). So I remember one day I wrote a song to the washing machine in L.A. It sounded liked boom-ba-doomdoom and I just got right in with it, instead of wondering what the hell was wrong with my washing machine (laughs). So I started writing this train song. Everything that has a steady rhythm is a song to me.

What surrounded the writing of “I Will Always Love You”?

I wrote it when I left Porter Wagoner [they’d been performing as a duo]. So it was so full of every kind of emotion you could imagine. You know, seven years of fighting and creativity and our success and our relationship, it was just all those things. When you are able to write all those feelings, that’s what I think truly makes the classic songs.

But I remember exactly where I was sitting when I wrote it, I remember the time of day, I remember the fireplace. It was in my husband’s and my first house, and we had a den that was part music room. The fireplace was right in front of the couch, and I always had my writing spot when I would write there. I always sat in the very corner of the couch. You remember those days when you really wrote something great. But I pretty much remember where I was and what I felt with every song I ever wrote. Even with the thousands of songs I’ve written, I almost remember what time of year it was, what time of day it was, if I was inside or outside, if I was on the porch, if I was in the car. You just remember those things when you allow yourself to feel that deeply. They leave an impression.

“I Will Always Love You” seems like it would be the hardest kind of song to write because it’s so simply laid out and beautifully direct.

It depends. That one was easy because the times were so hard. And it was so hard for me to communicate with Porter, so therefore after I decided that the only way I could tell him what I was trying to tell him … he wouldn’t listen to nothing at that time because he was so angry and so spiteful and so mean about the whole thing that he wouldn’t allow me a conversation to try to explain why I was doing what I was doing. I thought, “Well, the only way I’m going to be able to express it is to write it.” Everybody can understand a song. There were so many things I wanted to say, there was so much emotion, feeling and heartache on his part and on my part. Once I started it, the song seemed to pour out. But I know exactly what you mean. Some of my simplest sounding songs have been the hardest to write.

What’s the story about Elvis Presley wanting to record the song?

Elvis loved the song. I never met Elvis and there were many times I could have. I don’t know why I didn’t, I think I just wanted him to always be the way he was in my mind. I had met some people that I wish I hadn’t, you know what I mean? Not that you wish you hadn’t, but he was just so special, he was so spiritual and out there anyway, I didn’t want nothing to blow the image. So I just wouldn’t meet him. Jarvis was producing him at the time, and Felton was a friend of mine. So often, when Elvis would come to town, they would tell me. I would always say, “Maybe next time he’s in town I’ll meet him.” And so they would always let me know when he was in town, and I’d always make an excuse (laughs) not to go down there to the recording studio.

But at any rate, he had heard that song and he loved it. He was here recording and he wanted to do it, so they notified me and I was so excited. So, the next thing they said was, “But you know Elvis has to have half the publishing on the song. Everything he records, unless it’s already a standard, he has to have half the publishing.” I said, “Well, I’m really sorry, but I don’t give my publishing to nobody. Not half of it, not 10 percent of it, not any of it.” I had just started my own publishing company, and I said, “If he loves the song and the song is that good, then he’ll record it anyway. And if he don’t, well just say that I’m flattered with the thought.”

But I would not give up the publishing, and thank God I didn’t, because that song made me more money than all of the others put together. If I’d given up half the publishing then I would’ve made half the money, plus I would’ve lost half the pride in it. The fact that I wrote the song by myself and published it myself just made the whole thing more special. It was not something you had to share.

It sounds like it was the Colonel’s idea.

To be honest, it was. They say that Elvis didn’t know that much about that kind of stuff. He wasn’t that involved in the business side of it, but Colonel Tom was. It was Felton, who was producing him at the time, that called me about it, and I said “No.” And I never was sorry. I would have loved to hear him do it. He also loved “Coat Of Many Colors,” but I wouldn’t give up the publishing on that either.

It was interesting in the book when you described the incident when you were still unknown and you recorded a song of yours called “Everything Is Beautiful” with Ray Stevens producing. The intimation that maybe he later stole the song made me think about how it was to be a woman in the music business back then. What kind of perspective do you have on that now?

First of all, let me say that I never thought about whether I was a girl or a boy. I was a songwriter, I was a singer, and I think you get treated pretty much with the respect that you have for yourself. Being stupid, as I probably was, and country, I never thought about it. I always took when men would flirt with me or all that stuff as kind of a compliment. I also had all these brothers and my dad and all these uncles, so I had a great communication with men in general. So I just would walk right in with my songs or with my business ideas, and I never felt the effects of being a woman, or that I was kept down.

I’m so lucky now, I see that, but I never had those problems that a lot of people did. I don’t know, looking back and hearing what people say about what they’ve gone through, I never thought that I was held back. And I thought it served me well, but then again, the certain type of woman I am, I guess they all thought I was a whore, ‘cause I looked like it (laughs) and I was a good ole girl. I’d go in and I’d tell a joke as bad as they would. I kind of fit in and I was just one of the boys, so to speak, even though I was very feminine and all that too. It’s a little different than if I would’ve been very strict and straight-laced business woman. Anyhow, I didn’t have those problems.

And what about the Ray Stevens thing?

I don’t believe that Ray Stevens realized he had heard this song before. I really don’t. I think he heard it and I think it impressed him, the title of it, him being a songwriter. I know him and I know his work, and I think he’s brilliant, and I think he’s a spectacular songwriter, so I never could find it in myself to believe that he stole that song on purpose. I think once it got out and once he realized what he’d done, I want to believe, and I truly do think that he thought, “Oh my God, that’s right, we did do a song called “Everything Is Beautiful In Its Own Way.” And although it was two totally different styles.

It was more the people that published the song that pitched the fit. That was Fred Foster, who also published my song and he also was the one on Monument Records that hired Ray Stevens to produce me. So I think Fred believed that Ray had done this on purpose, and he knew what he was doing, and Fred wanted to sue as a publisher, and I would not allow it. I don’t think he did it on purpose, because you know and I know, as songwriters sometimes you’ll hear something or you’ll write a song and somebody will say, “Oh that sounds like so and so,” or somebody will say, “There is a song called that,” and you didn’t realize it because it came from somewhere else with you. Or it might’ve been something that got lodged in your subconscious, you might’ve been asleep and the radio came on (laughs). It’s very possible, and that’s what I want to believe. Because I don’t believe that Ray Stevens, at that time who was successful and who is so talented in his own right, would have the need to steal somebody’s song.

Although, I wasn’t doing anything at the time, and he probably thought nothing would happen with my song. He just thought, “Well, nobody’s ever going to hear that.” If he did take the idea, nobody’s ever going to hear it anyway. It’s a good title, so what happens, happens. I have no resentment about it. I wouldn’t let them sue him, though I could have got half of his song for sure because of the fact that we were both working at Monument and he was producing me, produced that very song, and the songs had a few similar lines – “the snow covered mountains” and different little things. But still, I’d like to think it was an accident (laughs).

You said you didn’t think of yourself as a girl or a boy, but as a songwriter, yet I did want to ask you about songs like “Just Because I’m A Woman” which is a pretty strong feminist song.

It was at the time. But it wasn’t about women in general. It was just about a fight. I remember the reason I wrote that particular song, “Just Because I’m A Woman.” It was after my husband and I had been married for a year, he asked me if I’d ever been with anybody else, and I didn’t feel like lying, and I had been. But he’d never asked me before, so I certainly wasn’t gonna volunteer any information (laughs). So I said yes, and he was really hurt, he was crushed with that, and he was in a terrible mood for two or three months over that. And I just felt terrible, so I wrote that from a very personal place. Not just about women in general or how they’re treated. It was just about that relationship, that moment in time, like my mistakes are no worse than yours just because I’m a woman.

That all cleared up later, and he was all fine after I’d said “You can kiss my ass” enough times. I did it, and I can’t say I’m sorry I did it because that was part of my growing up and part of my life. I’m just sorry that you’re acting like this about it, because I could’ve lied to you and then done it too. If I had to do it over, I would, so I just said, “My mistakes are no worse than yours.”

One thing about the struggle to make it as a songwriter is it can be pretty hard on the ego. You always seem like a person who has a surplus of positive attitude. How do you maintain that?

Well, I know I have a gift that God gave me, and nobody can take it away. I have to be true to the God given gift and cannot allow for someone to hurt my little ego and my little feelings to the point where it cripples what God has given me. So I have to rise above that, as all people do. You’re going to get rejected. I’ve certainly sent more songs out than I’ve ever got recorded. You may send a thousand songs out or three thousand, but if you get one recorded, it was worth it.

—By Bill DeMain

Excerpted from Performing Songwriter Issue 20, Sept/Oct 1996

Category: In Case You Haven't Heard

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  1. Shan Marie says:

    Wow, I just now found out that Dolly Parton almost let Elvis record “I Will Always Love You.” That would’ve been amazing, but I certainly can understand her reasons for not doing it.

    Anyway, I went looking for more information and came across this page. I hadn’t realized just how deeply personal the song is to Dolly. It’s truly an iconic song and I, for one, am so glad she decided to pen it, whatever her motivation was.

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