For decades, Dolly Parton has been an American treasure and 2020 saw the country singer, revered entertainer and global icon further illustrating this designation. During a year when many struggled with natural disasters, job loss and a health crisis due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Parton has served as a constant ray of light at a difficult time.
In April, the singer donated $1 million to Nashville’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center to aid researchers studying COVID-19. By the end of November, it was reported that Moderna’s vaccine, funded in part by Parton’s contribution, is 94.5% effective against the coronavirus. Parton is no stranger to helping those in need. In 2016, after wildfires destroyed the area she grew up in Sevier County, TN, the singer hosted a telethon that raised over $13 million. She also donated $1,000 a month to each family left homeless by the wildfires. Giving back is inherent to Parton, who encourages others to do the same.
“I think we should all be givers, that’s what Christmas is all about,” Parton tells Sounds Like Nashville over the phone from Music City. “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. 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?”
Parton has given back much this year. In addition to donating to aid COVID-19 research, the 74-year-old launched a web series called Goodnight with Dolly, in which she read bedtime stories for children, and also shared music that offers hope to those struggling. “When Life Is Good Again” was released in May and has the singer promising to be “more in the moment when life is good again.” She penned the song with her longtime producer Kent Wells and says they wrote the song while she was working on her holiday album, A Holly Dolly Christmas.
She also teamed up with Christian artist Zach Williams for “There Was Jesus,” which earned the singer her first No. 1 song on Billboard’s Christian Airplay chart. The song’s success followed another first for Parton, who received her first-ever No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic Digital Song Sales chart in 2019 for her collaboration with Swedish DJ/production duo Galantis for their remake of John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me.”
“I had a couple more [song] ideas and so I have more stuff that’s spiritual based and more about lifting people up,” Parton says. “I’ve been doing all these spiritual things, and that has lifted me up personally, getting to be involved with these other people that are doing all this uplifting work as well. Those just kind of fell in my lap. They weren’t planned at all. It came through the spirit. Working with other people on their songs has really been great. Knowing that we have touched so many people with those has really been uplifting to me.”
Parton is at ease collaborating with others. Her latest release, A Holly Dolly Christmas, includes duets with a wide array of guests in the music and entertainment world including Miley Cyrus, Michael Bublé, Willie Nelson, Billy Ray Cyrus, Randy Parton and Jimmy Fallon. Released in October, A Holly Dolly Christmas marks Parton’s first holiday album in 30 years and the success proves her holiday projects have been missed as it landed atop both Billboard’s Top Country Albums and Top Holiday Albums charts. The album’s success also makes Parton the only woman with top 10 country albums in each of the last seven decades.
To get into the holiday spirit, Parton says she decorated the studio while she was recording just like she did years ago with her 1984 Once Upon a Christmas album with Kenny Rogers. “When we were recording we had the air conditioner down on real cool and we had Christmas trees and all that,” she reflects. “So, I’ve put up Christmas decorations when I’m writing and when we’re in the studio we bring each other presents just for fun, keeping the spirit alive. At the end of the day we’d say, ‘Merry Christmas, see ya later.’”
Parton wrote six of the album’s 12 songs. Her originals sit beside beloved classics like “Holly Jolly Christmas,” “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “Mary, Did You Know?” She hopes some of her own songs will be included with the holiday classics one day. “You’re always hopeful that you write some songs that last forever,” she says.
One of the tracks, “Circle of Love,” may be that song. Written and featured in Parton’s 2016 NBC film Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love, the singer says she’s been hearing from churches and other performers wanting to record the song or use it during the holidays. “Circle of Love” comes from a special place for Parton and is based on the wedding ring that her father bought her mother years after the couple were married.
“With that house full of kids, he never could afford a ring and that Christmas we all pitched in our little part of what we might’ve got for Christmas to buy Mama a ring,” she says. “That little circle represents family, and that little circle was the ring. The whole story of Christmas of Many Colors, like my Coat of Many Colors, is about our family. That song is very singable, but it came to me very divinely blessed, I guess you’d say, so that one’s real special to me.”
“Christmas On the Square,” another song Parton wrote for the project, is also featured in her 2020 Netflix holiday musical of the same name. “I did the one in my Christmas album more of a bluegrass country flavor, but in the Netflix musical of Christmas On the Square, it’s more of a Broadway, big production number. It’s going to be a real special Christmas. I love doing Christmas specials.”
In addition to several holiday specials this year, including a one-hour CBS television special Dec. 6 at 8:30 p.m. ET, Parton has teamed up with Time Life to release the 19-DVD set Dolly: The Ultimate Collection. The 35 hours of footage includes episodes from her days on The Porter Wagoner Show as well as her own variety show and clips of interviews with Oprah Winfrey and appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It was a walk down memory lane for Parton going through the footage, and some moments she enjoyed looking back on more than others.
“I’ve really been jolted out of my own skin and out of my own self by having to divulge so much of myself to get out there to the public. I’m hoping that it might be good for somebody out there. At my age, I suppose it’s about time. If I’m going to expose it all, might as well do it now ’cause I ain’t getting no younger but I refuse to get any older!” she says with a laugh.
“It was very cathartic. It’s like therapy, doing all these things and going back through all the stuff — good and bad. Some things I learned to forget that I had to remember that I realized maybe I need to clean that mess up a little more. It’s like anything else when you lay it out in the open … It’s been good for me in a way, but it wore me out a bit,” she confesses. “Maybe it’s reminded me that I don’t want to do nothing else: Okay, here it is, here’s my life! Now I’m going to fade off into the distance.”
Parton gets even more 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.
While Parton doesn’t shy away from sharing her life with others, along the way the singer’s many sayings and words of wisdom have become mantras for her legions of fans. So much so, she even has her own line of cards with American Greetings including virtual holiday cards and a customizable Christmas card for 2020. More recently, Parton has been sharing her “Dolly-isms” on social media. When asked her advice for women navigating the entertainment industry, she offered up universal wisdom to anyone chasing a dream.
“There’s those old sayings that I’ve often talked about and say so much like, ‘To thine own self be true.’ And then I have my own quotes, my Dolly-isms, like ‘Find out who you are and do it on purpose.’ Meaning, be true to you,” she stresses. “Know who you are. It’s great to have heroes and people to look up to, but don’t ever mimic or try to be somebody else because you’re never going to know who you are. You have to know your own strengths and your own weaknesses. You’ve got to face them both, you got to make them work together.”
She adds that it’s important not to sacrifice one’s principals or values when chasing a dream. “We all have to compromise sometimes to some degree more than we would at times, but don’t ever lose sight of who you are and don’t ever give away your sacred self. There are energy vampires out there and there are creative vampires out there. They’ll steal you blind if you let them, but you just have to stay true to you and be true to what you think your talent is,” she says. “I believe that all things are possible through God … Stay focused on who you are and be honest with yourself about all the pieces of you, not just what you want or wish for.”
Parton has learned all these lessons herself, sometimes the hard way. In doing so, it has made her stronger and more compassionate for others. In Songteller, Parton admits that as a songwriter and as a person it’s important for her to remain vulnerable. “I have to leave myself wide open. I suffer a lot, because I am open to so much,” she writes.
It’s this openness and caring for others that has many likening Parton to a real-life fairy godmother. She’s made countless charitable efforts over the years, including this year’s donation to COVID-19 research and her 2017 gift of $1 million to Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, as well as numerous scholarships to students living in Sevier County. Her ongoing work with her Imagination Library, which she founded in 1995 to aid in children’s literacy by gifting a book to a child each month until they turn 5, has amounted in over 147 million books sent to children around the world.
“I’m a very sensitive person,” she admits. “I’m a writer and I can’t harden my heart. I’ve often said that I can strengthen the muscles around it, but I can’t harden it because then I couldn’t write. If I couldn’t feel everything for myself and everybody else, I wouldn’t be able to write the way I do.”
Thanks to Parton’s sensitive heart, the world is a much better place.