Editor’s Note: In celebration of Women’s History Month, You Sing I Write is highlighting female country artists and songwriters throughout March.
Who better to close out Women’s History Month than Dolly Parton? An American treasure, Parton has served as a constant ray of light at a difficult time. My personal highlight of 2020 was interviewing the singer. A larger than life figure, Parton was never someone I considered interviewing — it just didn’t seem possible. My 20-minute phone interview proved that maybe it’s time to dream a little bigger. Below is an excerpt of my chat with the legend from a cover story for Sounds Like Nashville.
Parton gets personal in her latest book, Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. Within the pages Parton tells the stories behind some of her biggest hits as well as shares never-before-seen photos, memorabilia, and handwritten lyrics to her songs including one of the receipts from Porter Wagoner’s dry-cleaning which she wrote “Coat of Many Colors” on. The songwriter has penned nearly 3,000 songs and estimates around 450 have been recorded by her or other artists.
Throughout her seven-decade career, Parton has amassed 25 No. 1s on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart and 10 GRAMMY Awards. In Songteller, Parton tells the stories behind one of her biggest hits – “I Will Always Love You.” She released the song twice in two separate decades with both versions (in 1974 and 1982, respectively) becoming a No. 1 hit, making her the only person to have two different chart-topping recordings of the same song. When Whitney Houston recorded the track for the 1992 film The Bodyguard, her version spent 14 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Originally written by Parton for Wagoner to tell her longtime collaborator that she needed to leave The Porter Wagoner Show, “I Will Always Love You” has been deemed one of the greatest love songs ever written.
“That’s just the gift that keeps on giving, that song. Elvis [Presley] almost recorded it. I kept hold of my publishing and I cried my eyes out ’cause Elvis didn’t get to do it. It was his manager that said he had to publish it if he did it and I wouldn’t let him have publishing,” Parton explains. “That one has so many stories and so many heart wrenching things, and so many memories. I have to say that revisiting that was more moving to me.”
In Songteller, Parton reveals that she learned Presley was such a big fan of the song even though he never got to record it himself. While she was working with Priscilla Presley, the late singer’s ex-wife shared with her Elvis’ love of the powerful ballad.
“We were thinking about writing a musical about her story. I think that may still be in the works somewhere, but she had been interested in maybe me writing the music for it, so I had gone to meet her,” Parton recalls. “In that process of us talking I said, ‘One of my greatest disappointments is that I didn’t get to hear Elvis sing ‘I Will Always Love You,’ but I couldn’t give up my publishing.’ She said, ‘Oh, he loved that song. When we divorced, when we were coming down the steps from the courthouse, he was singing ‘I Will Always Love You.’ That made me chill all over, that was so sweet. I was so happy she told me that.”
While Parton shares that “Coat of Many Colors” is her favorite of all her songs as it means so much to her personally, she also confesses that she loves to search for song ideas in the graveyard. She assures she’s not morbid, it’s simply a very peaceful place for her to gather her thoughts.
“I write a lot of songs in the graveyard because it’s peaceful and quiet. I love to go there and read. I love to picnic; take a blanket and go take a book or take my writing pad and sit and just think. It’s just so peaceful. It’s not morbid to me because they’re in peace. Like I’ve said before, it’s not the dead that scare me, it’s the living,” she jokes.
“Years ago, I visited this graveyard and there was a little oil lamp, an eternal flame, and it was still burning, and I was so fascinated. Somebody said, ‘That’s called an eternal flame.’ It was a child’s grave,” she recalls. “I was always afraid of the dark myself, so I wrote a song called ‘Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark.’ Her parents knew she was afraid of the dark and when she died, they put an eternal flame on her grave.”
Parton says she’s gotten character names for her songs from the tombstones in graveyards. “I really think that some thoughts just come to me that maybe were floating around out there, not knowing exactly which grave it came from. Floating on the wind, some thoughts and some ideas and feelings,” she adds.
For more of my interview with Dolly Parton, visit Sounds Like Nashville.