Dolly Parton: Songwriting Is Her Priority
It’s no secret that Dolly Parton is a woman of many talents. As a singer, songwriter and actress she has carved a successful niche for herself in the entertainment community. Of all the many facets of her career, however, songwriting is nearest and dearest to her heart.
“It’s number one,” she responded enthusiastically when asked, on a scale of one to ten, how important her songwriting was to her career. “I’ve always prided myself as a songwriter more than anything else. That’s my personal feelings. That’s not to say that’s what I do best. That’s my way of speaking for myself and speaking for life the way I see it. It’s an ability that I have and I’ve always loved being able to express myself.”
“Parton doesn’t perceive songwriting to be just another way to make money in her career. “It’s therapy. It’s fun. It’s creative. I love getting on a big writing binge and staying up a couple days working on song and knowing at the end of those two or three days that I’ve created something that was never in the world before. It’s like a feeling of creating, not that the same stories ain’t been told before, but it ain’t been told through my point of view. And it’s my way of relaxing. Songwriting is a hobby and to me it’s therapy. It’s a joy. It’s a thrill. It’s like mind exercises or something.”
Though the personal satisfaction Parton gets from penning tunes is the most important part of writing to her, she also has more than a few tangible rewards for her efforts. She won a Grammy for the tune “Nine to Five,” which she penned for the movie in which she co-starred with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. She’s received numerous BMI awards. Many of the tunes she’s written, such as “To Daddy,” “Coat of Many Colors” and “I Will Always Love You,” have become standards.
As a child growing up near Sevierville, Tennessee, Parton’s imagination took her far beyond the limitations of her poor Smokey Mountain life. Though she may not have had every material luxury, she had a rich imagination that led her to begin writing songs at an early age.
“My first song I wrote before I could write,” she recalls. “My momma wrote it down. I would just always write songs about things that I understood and I could always rhyme things. I always had a gift of rhyme. I wrote a song called “Little Tiny Tassle Top” about a little corn cob doll I had because we didn’t have store-bought toys. I had this little doll that Daddy had burnt poker holes for eyes in and momma put the corn silk back on it and made a dress. I was five years old.
“Then I started playing guitar and writing serious when I was about seven and I started singing on radio and TV when I was 10. And I’ve been writing ever since.”
Obviously the subject matter in her tunes has matured over the years and Parton says her experiences have helped hone and shape her craft.
“I’ve improved just by growing older and living. Also, I think my writing gets better because my life is more involved. I can still write country better than anything and that’s something that never left me. That’s why some of the songs on this album White Limozeen are a little special. It was so easy for me to write those. It’s harder for me to write songs that are not as true to myself and my own personality. I just write about whatever I’m feeling at the time or whatever I’m going through.”
Her current album, White Limozeen, showcases Parton’s writing skills as well as her talent for spotting hit tunes penned by other writers. She recorded an REO Speedwagon tune written by Kevin Cronin called “Time for Me to Fly,” giving the pop tune a bluegrass flavor. She recorded songs by popular Nashville tunesmiths such as Diana Rae, Jim Rushing, Wayland Patton, and Karen Staley.
Parton co-wrote the autobiographical title tune with friend and fellow songwriter Mac Davis. The two also co-wrote and sang “Wait Till I Get You Home.”
“Mac is one of the most gifted songwriters in the world,” Parton enthuses. “Mac got pretty rich and he was playing a lot of golf and wasn’t writing as much as I thought he ought to be and I just hated seeing all that talents go to waste. So I called him one day and said ‘why don’t you put that golf bag in the closet for a few days and why don’t we get together and write a few songs.”
On this LP she also finally recorded Don Francisco tune “He’s Alive,” a gospel song that she had wanted to record for years. “My husband Carl and I were traveling back from California and we were riding through this little town and listening to the local radio station and they played that song and we both got chill bumps. So we stopped and called that station to find out who the person was and when we got to Nashville I tracked down that album.
“I always intended to do it because it moved me and I hadn’t had the opportunity because I wanted to do it with somebody that was Christian, which Ricky [White Limozeen producer Ricky Skaggs] is, somebody that accepted that whole concept. You have to really feel something and be passionate about it and believe in it to do it. I felt Ricky was the perfect one to do it with because he is so passionate about religion. I’m not as religious as Ricky but my faith is as strong in its way. The song meant a lot to me.”
Content was obviously a consideration for Dolly in recording “He’s Alive.” When asked what other factors she considers when reviewing outside material, Parton replied “I look for a song that I can sing, that the chorus structure is something I can sing, not being a trained singer. I look for subjects that I understand and that make sense to me, things that are real rather than just a bunch of hokey stuff, or something that triggers something in me or something I think I could do a great performance on.
“Usually it’s stuff that I should have wrote myself, but didn’t have the talent to say it exactly that way. Usually I saw ‘why didn’t I think of that. I should have wrote that or I could have wrote that.’ So I guess it just means things that move me and places that I’ve been, just songs I never got to (write), I guess.”
When it comes to the type of demos she prefers to hear, Dolly says it really doesn’t matter if they are full-blown demos or just simply piano/vocal or guitar/vocal demos.
“It doesn’t matter to me if I hear a song that I love,” she says. “It I hear a good song I’ll know it. I can always picture what music would do it.
“I always try to demo my songs before I send them places because I know some people don’t have the imagination, but I am a writer and an arranger in my head, so I can hear a song where maybe some artist might not be able to.”
As a recording artist, Parton can record her own songs, but that doesn’t keep her from wanting to get cuts by other artists. When somebody does cut one of her tunes, she’s not opposed to them taking a little creative license and molding the song to fit their needs.
When asked who she’d like to cut one of her songs, the 43-year-old entertainer replied, “Everybody, anybody. I’ll take anybody. I’m always flattered that anybody would record my songs, even if they change them. Certain ones of my songs, I’ll hear somebody do it and I’ve had mixed emotions. I think either ‘wow, that’s great. I never thought of hearing it like that’ or I’ll think ‘Oh Lord, they’ve ruined that song.’
“But you’re still glad as a writer that they did it, no matter how it turns out. You’re just glad that somebody liked your song enough to record it. But you do have your favorites. I guess the ones I’d like to record my songs right now are the ones having hits and make me the most money.”
As the interview winds to a close, Parton admits that it’s difficult to give advice to aspiring songwriters because there is no clear-cut road to success as a writer.
“There no such thing as a set pattern,” she says. “Like somebody was asking me yesterday about somebody else that they really believed in, saying this person was such a great writer and great singer and that they were thinking about trying to do something for that person, they themselves also being a writer and singer.
“I said ‘you’ve got to be crazy. This person has been in the business that many years and they’re still working on another job and expecting somebody else to get there and do it for them. You need to pay attention to your own music and if that person is sincere they’ll find a way.’
“You have to be willing to sacrifice. You have to be willing to pay those processes. And I’ve never seen it done any differently unless you were just the luckiest person in the world to have somebody come knockin’ at your door and say ‘hey I’m your opportunity. I’m gonna take your tapes’-and that has happened.
“But to be realistic a body just has to stick with it. If you really believe that’s true talent and that’s all you know and want to do, you’ll find a way to do it. Just don’t give up if that’s where you think you’re true talent is. That’s not to say you can’t work on a job where you can make some money, we all have to do that, but you still have to get out and pretty much put yourself into it.”