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.
2020 was anything but predictable. Thankfully, the constant for me remained writing about what I love: country music. While the year brought about a lay-off from Billboard in April, I began freelancing in May for Forbes, Sounds Like Nashville and CMA Close Up before joining Country Insider full-time in October.
Interviews looked a little different this year between Zoom and phoners due to COVID-19. Before the world shut down in March, I was able to do a few in-person interviews including my first of the year with Dierks Bentley’s alter-ego Douglas D. Douglason of his ’90s-influenced band Hot Country Knights and shadowing Lainey Wilson as she made her Grand Ole Opry debut.
Here’s a look back at my favorite interviews from 2020.
1. Dolly Parton
While I’ve attended press conferences of Dolly’s before, getting 20 minutes of one-on-one time over the phone was added pressure. What has Dolly never been asked before? How do you cover everything she’s been working on in 20 minutes? I tried my best! From her giving heart to writing in graveyards and not giving up her publishing of “I Will Always Love You” to Elvis Presley, Parton shared a lot of her journey and career with me for Sounds Like Nashville’s December cover story. She also touched upon why it’s important to give back following her $1 million donation to Nashville’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center to aid researchers studying COVID-19.
“It’s better to give than receive, but it’s just as important that once you get into a position to be able to help that you really should,” she tells me. “It really helps a lot of people and it makes you feel good about yourself. I love being able to be in a position to help. There’s a scripture in the Bible that says, ‘To whom much is given, much is required.’ I always think about that. I’ve been given so much, so why not give back?”
I’ve followed Brett’s career since the beginning and have been interviewing him over the past seven years. We’ve grown up in the country industry together and our chats about songwriting and Nashville have always been my favorites. (Here’s a photo of us after a chat in 2013!) His 2020 album Sunday Drive shows his growth as an artist and songwriter. During our conversation for Sounds Like Nashville’s July cover, he opened up about signing off from social media and stepping away from the spotlight to write his fifth studio album and shared many of the stories behind the songs on the project.
“As soon as I started giving myself the time to feel things and to be vulnerable, it was the most empowering thing. It was also the most creatively, supercharging thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “All these lyrics and all these melodies, all these things were coming up in my mind and in my heart because I was not distracting myself with phones or with anything. I was just being and that’s a huge thing to do.”
3. Hot Country Knights
My first interview of 2020 was one I’ll never forget. I spent nearly an hour with Douglas D. Douglason – aka Dierks Bentley’s alter ego and lead singer of ’90s-influenced country band Hot Country Knights – for Billboard. Mullet, ’90s attire and all, Doug kept me on my toes with his comical stories of his band’s escapades and how the Hot Country Knights planned to shake up country music.
“Look, the ’90s are hot right now,” Douglason says matter-of-factly. “[Bentley is] pretty much riding our mullets to the finish line on this one. He wanted to get involved with us and produce us and [we] wrote some original songs. It’s been awhile since I’ve done that—writing. Just using a pen. I don’t read or write much. He wrote most of them but stole most of my ideas.”
4. Sam Hunt
Sam’s sophomore release Southside was the album country fans had been waiting six years for. With the coronavirus at the forefront of everyone’s minds, our normal chats about the story behind the song and evolution of the project turned into album release plans in the midst of a pandemic for an article in the April 25 print issue of Billboard. At the time, a tour in support of Southside was up in the air but there was no doubt in the singer’s mind about releasing his much anticipated second album.
“People are at home on their phones entertaining themselves with music and videos — it’s a perfect time to release an album,” he says.
5. Nashville songwriters
I have been fascinated with songwriters for as long as I can remember. How do they walk into a room with nothing and several hours later leave with a three-minute song that can change a person’s life? For months I had worked on a story about the Evolution of the Nashville songwriter which published on Forbesin May. Quite possibly the longest feature I’ve written to date, it was a look into how Music City’s songwriters have changed since the ’90s.
Since the article published I’ve continued writing about songwriters for both Forbes and my monthly column for Sounds Like Nashville. This year I’ve been fortunate to interview the genre’s most revered country songwriters including Shane McAnally, Ashley Gorley, Nicolle Galyon, Hillary Lindsey, Kent Blazy and Ray Fulcher. I could probably fill up another Top 10 list with all these chats! Maybe next year!
6. Kip Moore
It’s no surprise that Kip would end up on my year-end list. He’s long been my favorite interview for his honesty and fresh perspective on country music, songwriting and life. (Above is a photo of our first chat in 2014!) I had the pleasure of interviewing him three times this year for three separate publications. In March, Billboard announced the date of his fourth studio album aptly titled Wild World.
“My first hope at all times is that it does something to your soul when you’re listening to it,” Moore says. “I never want it to be fodder and just words and melodies. I hope that it somehow applies to other people’s lives and brings them a little peace with questions they have and their own internal struggles they’re having. I’m always hoping they can feel my heart as far as that goes. My heart was put in the project.”
In May, I caught up with him for Forbeswhere he detailed releasing music in a pandemic and why he hopes Wild World serves as escapism for his fans. “My hope was that new music would offer that to anyone needing to immerse themselves in something outside of everything that is happening for a moment.”
Several months later I hopped on Zoom for Country Insider to discuss Kip’s music video for “Don’t Go Changing” and why it was important to raise awareness and money for Nashville’s struggling music venues after they were forced to close their doors in March due to COVID-19. He urged those who had the means to donate via Music Venue Alliance Nashville’s website.
“If we can’t make society get back to that stage, then we have to take care of our own. You can’t just walk around in a fog and expect everything to be normal if you’re not doing your part to take care of these people,” he stresses. “Those venues that you think you’re just going to walk back into at some point — they’re not going to be there. It breaks my heart when I think about it.”
I’ve interviewed Cam several times over the years and after every chat I walk away with a new perspective. This year’s conversation for Sounds Like Nashville about her sophomore album The Otherside was no different.
“I think because I came from a psychology background I always think of songwriting as pulling out something from the subconscious,” she says. “That’s something that I feel in my gut. I have to say it, I have to wrap it up in a story so that I can face it and heal from it. ‘Redwood Tree’ is definitely poignant right now with how you spend your limited time here, what amount of that you get with your parents and your family.”
8. Lainey Wilson
Watching an artist make her debut at the Grand Ole Opry is always special but being asked to shadow her throughout the process is an experience like no other. I was lucky enough to spend Feb. 14 at the Opry as Lainey rehearsed for her debut later that night. Surrounded by friends, family and industry executives, Lainey shared with me her backstory and journey to the famed stage from her first trip to Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry at the age of 9.
“I knew eventually I would have this opportunity; I just didn’t know when. This is the ultimate goal for anybody that does country music. When you play the Grand Ole Opry, you’re on the right track,” she says.
9. Carly Pearce
Carly Pearce went through a lot in 2020. “It’s no secret that I’ve had the worst yet best year ever,” Pearce told me over the phone during a chat for Country Insider. “Anything that I’m releasing right now is obviously reflective of that.” The singer finds her songs under the microscope following her divorce from Michael Ray earlier this year and was honest about the music she’s releasing.
“I’m the type of artist that I don’t know how to not write what I go through, regardless of if that’s about somebody that everyone knows or not,” she says. “Not to say that every single song I’m putting out is about this person or this relationship: It’s about relationships in general. But I had to make the decision and I don’t know how to not do that.”
10. Martina McBride
Martina has played a big role in my career as a country music journalist. She was one of the first country acts I interviewed during my first trip to Nashville in 2009. She also served as my first live coverage for Billboardback in 2011 when I covered her performance atop the Empire State Building.
It was only fitting that she was my first artist interview for Forbesin May when I began contributing to the publication. We discussed the recording of her latest single “Girls Like Me,” featured on Songland, during the pandemic.
“It’s challenging,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Nashville. “Studios are closed, and you’re not allowed to have musicians congregating together to record. So even before this pandemic happened, I started sitting with the song. I knew that I wanted the producer to be Nathan Chapman, who I’ve worked with before. I went to his house and played him the song and talked about it.
“After that, we never spent a second in the same building together throughout the whole recording process,” she continues. “Luckily, he’s an extremely gifted musician and producer so he was able to play all the instruments and record from his home studio.”
Caitlyn Smith has been writing for as long as she can remember. As a kid, she’d sit in her bedroom for hours coming up with stories and songs.
“I started writing when I was 8 years old,” she told me over coffee during a recent visit to New York. “And instead of doing the normal kid thing of sports, I would come home from school and go into my closet and push the dresser all the way to the side and sit in my closet and write. I would write poetry. I would write songs. I would just make stuff up for hours.”
All that practice came to fruition last year when the country singer-songwriter heard a song she had written on the radio for the first time. It was a song she’d written with her husband, Rollie Gaalswyk, over a bottle of red wine called “Wasting All These Tears,” which was recorded by Cassadee Pope.
“He [Gaalswyk] was in the garage and had the radio on, and the song came on and he runs in the house and he’s like, ‘Get out here!’ And so I run out into the garage and we turn it up all the way and dance around our garage. It was just a super magical moment. Really, really fun,” she recalls with a big smile.
To some, it might sound strange to write a breakup song like “Wasting All These Tears” with your husband, but for Smith it’s just another day at work.
“We’re both writers and we both have crazy ideas and crazy lines coming,” she admits. “I don’t always write from, ‘I have lived every word of this song.’ Sometimes when you write you put on an actor hat and you can play a different character, which makes writing breakup songs with your husband a little easier.”
She says that the two of them “keep doing it because we like writing with each other. Sometimes it ends in a fight,” she laughs, “and sometimes it’s awesome.”
“Wasting All These Tears” became a platinum-selling single for Pope. But it’s not the only song that has helped raise Smith’s profile as a writer. Her catalog also includes songs that have been cut by such high-profile artists as Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton (the GRAMMY-nominated “You Can’t Make Old Friends”), Lady Antebellum (“747″), Rascal Flatts (“Let It Hurt”) and even Garth Brooks (“Tacoma”). More recently, Smith has her writing credit on Meghan Trainor’s new album Title where Trainor duets with John Legend on a song called “Like I’m Gonna Lose You.”
In addition to songwriting, Smith has been a performer as well for years. She’s recorded and released several albums on her own—her first at 15 years old—and just this past fall released a seven-song EP titled Everything To You. While “Tacoma” isn’t on the track list, the EP does include Smith’s own version of “Wasting All These Tears,” along with six more tracks that showcase her powerful storytelling.
For more of my interview with Caitlyn Smith, visit Radio.com.
With my high school reunion approaching and one of my close friends getting married next weekend, I thought this song was fitting for my song of the week. A sweet sentiment, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s song hits close to home as it’s so true — you can’t make old friends.
I’m blessed to still consider my best friends girls that I grew up with and met in middle school (and obsessed about boy bands with). It’s crazy to think I still keep in touch with people I met when I was 10-years-old, but over the years they’ve come to be my biggest supporters and I really don’t know what I’d do without them. It’s so rare to have friends that you’ve known for nearly two decades and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Kenny Rogers’ album, You Can’t Make Old Friends, will be released this Tuesday, October 8th. I’m interviewing him tomorrow for Radio.com so stay tuned for my complete article!
On the eve of her record release, UK sensation Adele performed for lucky audience members at Ed Sullivan Theater Monday night. Part of the “Live on Letterman” broadcast, the show aired live on CBS.com. A comedian in her own right, Adele walked to the stage shortly after 9PM, surprised she made it without a fall.
“I was convinced I was going to drop on my face then. I’m trying to learn how to wear high heels. This was a steep floor,” she said. “Thank you very much for coming and braving the cold,” she continued before she performed her first track of the evening.
Clad in black from head to toe, Adele sat on her stool most of the night. With impassioned vocals and soaring piano and guitar accompaniment, she captivated the theater. “I hope you don’t mind me sitting down, it’s just that I knew you’d be sitting down and like I said, I’m practicing. I look better sitting in heels than I do standing in them,” she said.
An impressive mix of old and new songs along with two powerful covers — a stripped down performance of The Cure’s “Love Song” followed by Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” — Adele’s soulful vocals and comedic onstage banter impressed.
The soulful Brit showcased her versatility throughout the night. In fact, the country-infused “Don’t You Remember,” off 21, was inspired by Lady Antebellum’s latest release, Need You Now.
“That was the last song I wrote for the new record. I was in Malibu and Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now was everywhere. I love Need You Now and then I got into early Dolly Parton stuff. She was a bit goth back in the day, wasn’t she? Yeah, a bit dark. It’s got quite an Americana sound to it and it’s one of my favorites.”
The remainder of her set included old fan favorites like hit single, “Chasing Pavements” as well as her first UK No. 1 single, the emotional “Someone Like You.” Soft piano helped accentuate the track and Adele even got choked up while she sang.
“I almost stopped singing at the wrong place, could you tell?” she asked the audience. “My heart was in my throat.”
Before she played the energetic set closer “Rolling In the Deep,” she told the crowd she was going to switch things up. “I’m going to play you an upbeat song. I don’t have many, but I come alive when I do. I’m going to stand up – ah!”
The song demonstrated her soulful side as the audience and band clapped along while Adele and her backup singers worked their vocal magic to finished the set. An adequate preview to her upcoming release, the 45-minute performance further convinced concertgoers of the UK singer’s talent and no doubt resulted in a purchase of her sophomore release the next day.
To watch the complete performance, visit CBS.com or see the video below.