Everywhere you look or listen these days, seems like Dolly Parton is there. She’s a special guest on new recordings by her goddaughter Miley Cyrus and pop star Kesha. She’s just released her first ever children’s album, I Believe in You, and she’s written new music for Jennifer Aniston’s upcoming film Dumplin”.
In addition to making an onslaught of TV appearances promoting the children’s album, she still found time to go by Monroe Carell Jr. Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital to visit with ailing kids and to also make a million dollar donation to the hospital.
The good work they do at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital holds a special place in Parton’s heart as her niece Hannah spent years there battling leukemia. (Hannah is the daughter of Dolly’s sister Rachel and longtime band member Richard Dennison.) Two of the songs on I Believe in You —“Chemo Hero” and “Brave Little Soldier”—were inspired by Hannah’s experiences. “She is 29 now. She got leukemia when she was four, and until she was about nine, we really had problems. We were so afraid we were going to lose her,” Dolly tells Sounds Like Nashville. “I used to write songs and put them down on cassette for her to listen to when she was ill. ‘Chemo Hero’ came out of that when she lost her hair and was feeling not good at all, and I was trying to build her confidence. ‘Brave Little Soldier’ I wrote that at that time too.”
These days Hannah is healthy and sometimes visits children’s hospitals with Dolly to encourage young patients. “Hannah is going around with me when we do some things with kids,” Parton shares. “I tell them she’s 29-years-old now. She survived and I say, ‘Look at that head of hair she’s got now!’ So I use her and she’s been happy to get to do it and visit these children.”
Beyond encouraging children who are battling an illness, Parton’s new album shares messages about bullying, perseverance and responsibility. “I wanted to be like a second teacher or parent or grandparent, just another one of those people who tries to teach kids those lessons about some things. I wanted them to go away feeling like they are being better little people,” says Parton, who is donating proceeds from the album’s sales to the Imagination Library, a nonprofit organization she founded in 1995 to promote literacy by giving free books to children. “I tried to incorporate things that they go through, little things I know for a fact that children feel and need to know about like the anti-bullying song [that says] ‘making fun ain’t funny’ because a lot of times children are cruel without even realizing they are. They just don’t know any better and so I tried to put in all these songs little messages, little life lessons that would make them better little people. And I wanted to make them fun and singable little melodies to where they could be a part of it and feel like it is about them, and that they are going to participate in something special.”
Parton has been recording for 50 years. Why is her first children’s album coming now? “It’s been overdue,” she admits. “I’ve been wanting to do a children’s album for years, but usually when you are an artist, you’ve got managers, record labels, promoters and people that usually try to talk you into doing mainstream stuff to promote a tour or to maybe make the bigger money because these things like children’s albums, Christmas albums, gospel albums, they are considered novelty albums so you just kind of put it off for business reasons. But when I found out that the Imagination Library was giving out it’s 100 millionth book, and the fact that with the ‘Coat of Many Colors’ movies that we did we really got a lot of new young fans, it was like a light bulb went off and said, ‘Do it now! Do the children’s album now!’ It’s the right thing to do. And it’s right here at the holidays. It makes a wonderful Christmas present from grandparents, aunts and uncles and friends to give to children; plus all the money goes back into the Imagination Library to put more books in the hands of more children.”
As much as Parton obviously loves children, it’s surprising that she and her husband of 51 years, Carl Dean, never became parents. “I never thought I wouldn’t,” she says of motherhood. “I just always assumed I would when Carl and I first got married. I remember, like all girls when you think you are going to have children, you think up names and all of that. We went for years not trying to avoid it [pregnancy]. Nothing happened, and then after my career got going, then I did do birth control for a while. Then I stopped doing that a while and nothing ever happened, so I don’t think it was meant for me to have kids. I always say, ‘I think it was meant for me not to have kids so everybody’s kids could be mine.’”
Most recently Parton’s mothering instincts have extended to the pop music community as she’s recently worked with two young stars. Parton and Cyrus recorded “Rainbowland” for Cyrus’ new album Younger Now, and Parton recorded “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You)” on Kesha’s new album Rainbow. “That’s been one of my favorite songs ever written and her mother wrote that you know,” Parton says of the song, which was written by Kesha’s mother Pebe Sebert and Hugh Moffatt. “It was a No. 1 song for me back in the day [in 1980] and I sang that song as a duet with my brother Randy. Then when Kesha was going to record it, she asked if I would sing on it and I said, ‘Yes, I will because that’s one of my favorite songs!’”
Parton also loved getting a chance to record with Cyrus. “It’s about time we did something together,” she says. “We wrote ‘Rainbowland’ together and we sang it together. It was a thrill to get to do something with Miley because we’re so connected with her being my goddaughter and all, so we’re proud of that.”
So in the process of these collaborations, did she have any advice to share with her young cohorts? “I always said, ‘I don’t give advice.’ I’m full of information, but I don’t give advice because I think everybody’s life is their own,” she states. “Everybody’s decisions are their own, but information I’ve got. I always just tell them, ‘You’ve got to know who you are. You’ve got to believe in your own talents. You’ve got to be willing to sacrifice.’ My favorite saying of all times — and it’s been a key to live by — is, ‘To thine own self be true.’ You have to have faith in yourself and in God, in my case. Some people don’t believe in God, but I do and it’s carried me through my whole life. I pray about things I do, and if you don’t want to pray, at least ponder and think on what you are doing and what you really want, and try to work towards that. Otherwise, if you don’t have a plan, you are just going to be spinning your wheels.”
Turns out Parton’s sage advice and potent songs play a key role in the upcoming Aniston film Dumplin’. “It’s a movie that’s based on a book that was out several years ago where the little character in the book was a Dolly fan and so they are using a lot of my music in the movie,” she says. “Jennifer Aniston is playing the mother to the little girl, Dumplin’. She was a beauty contest winner years ago and still hosts the beauty pageant every year and her little daughter, who is overweight, wants to be in the contest. She builds her confidence with my sayings and my songs. So they asked me if I would do the music for it. They are going to actually have a lot of my old music in it and I’ve written two or three new pieces for it, so I’m only involved in the music. I’m not in the movie.”
Parton’s children’s album is available for purchase in stores and online now.