As a child growing up in the SmokyMountains, Dolly Parton had a homemade doll that her mother fashioned from a corn cob, with shucks for a dress and a corn tassel on top. The handmade playmate would inspire Parton’s very first song, “Tiny Tassel Top,” written when she was just five years old. A little over a decade later, Parton would leave her Tennessee mountain home for the bright lights of Nashville, yet exploring darker themes in songs such as “Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark” and “Down From Dover.” Of course, Parton is best known for her empowering anthems (“9 to 5″), heartbreaking ballads (“I Will Always Love You”) and the warm-hearted reflections of her backwoods upbringing, with no more beloved tune in that realm than her “Coat of Many Colors.”
With 50 years of albums behind her since the release of the magnificent Hello, I’m Dolly in 1967, there was precious little the globally recognized icon hadn’t done musically, with one exception – a children’s album. Today, she checks yet another achievement off a seemingly endless list with the release of the irresistible I Believe in You, 13 Parton originals (and a spoken-word recording of her Coat of Many Colors book), which speak directly to children – and the young person in all of us – with typical Dolly-fied wisdom, compassion, inspiration and empathy, not to mention some of the most infectious, hummable melodies Parton has ever crafted. All of the proceeds from the sale of the LP will benefit Parton’s Imagination Library, which she founded 20 years ago in her hometown of Sevierville, Tennessee, to help foster a love of reading in preschool children from the area by mailing them a new book every month from the time they are born. In 2000, the program expanded throughout the U.S. and is now in place in the U.K., and Canada, providing new books in more than 1,600 communities to more than one million children each month.
The always effervescent Parton recently spoke with Rolling Stone Country about I Believe in You, the storybook-like fascination children have with her and the unique challenges of writing for a different target audience. She also found out a surprising fact surrounding her recent “Rainbowland” duet with goddaughter Miley Cyrus and reveals the hurtful backlash she suffered after the recent Emmy Awards reunion with 9 to 5 co-stars Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, whose not-so-veiled references to President Trump had her diverting attention to the familiar physical attributes she jokingly referred to on the Emmys stage as “Shock” and “Awe.”
These have to be some of the catchiest songs you’ve ever created, which is saying something.
Well, good! I tried to create fun little melodies to sing, along with having some good messages. I felt like the parents would enjoy it about as much as the kids, because they’re positive, uplifting little messages. I think we need all that, whether we’re kids or grownups, at this day and time.
How did your process here differ from the way you normally write?
When you write mainstream songs, you can say whatever you want to say, even be risqué or whatever. You also try to be commercial, what’s gonna be played or whatever. But with the children’s stuff, I didn’t think about that all. I just put myself in a little child’s place. I have so many nieces and nephews, so many friends, all my band members, all the people that work for me, and all their little kids. I’m surrounded by kids, and they all love me. They think I’m Mother Goose or Cinderella, or one of those old exaggerated cartoon characters, so they love to play with me. I’m kinda like just their playmate. On all my properties, since I love children so much and I’m so involved with family, I have treehouses. I have the fantasy playhouses, the fairy princess house outdoors. I mean big stuff, where I actually have little refrigerators, little microwaves, little TVs, and things that we can do on the place. When I was writing a lot of these songs, I would go up to the treehouse, or in the playhouses, and I would remember things that we talked about, certain little personalities, different ones of the kids’. I would write some songs thinking how they would relate to it. Or what I wanted to teach them, what I wanted them to know. I would write songs based on little things that I would pick up from them.
You’ll probably get a lot of requests for playdates now.
I do love to play with the kids. They do wear me out, just because they’re so full of energy. I am too, to a degree, but I’m older, so sometimes I have to say, “Hey now, let’s take a break! Gigi needs a break!” They all call me Gigi, so it’s “Gigi needs a break! Let’s have something to drink! Let’s have a snack!” They go full-bore all the time! But it’s energizing, it’s healthy for you to be around children, I think.
With the Imagination Library now having been around for more than 20 years, you must have some great stories about the children who have benefited from receiving the books?
It’s really amazing, it’s so fun how kids relate. In fact, I just had a little kid the other day, just came to me crying because he was turning six and he didn’t want to turn six because that meant he wasn’t going to get the books anymore! Because they only get them until they’re five. So, I said, “Oh, don’t cry! I bet you’re gonna have another little brother or sister, and they’ll get them, and they’ll still come in the mail!” They really love getting these little books with their own name on them in the mail. I’ve had children that are graduating from high school, or going to college saying how much that meant to them, and how they always thought my name was “Dolly Partner,” and that I was like their partner. I was “Dolly Partner, the Book Lady.” I just get the cutest and the most wonderful little stories from parents and from children.
One of the songs that parents will most likely be touched by is “Brave Little Soldier,” because it’s really quite simple but the title can really refer to so many different things. Where did the idea come from?
I wrote that at the same time I wrote “Chemo Hero” for the same reason. I had a little niece named Hannah Dennison. She had leukemia when she was four. She’s 29 now. When I wrote those songs, I wrote bunches of songs for her while she was going through treatment. While she was laying around, not feeling good, I would put songs on cassettes, children’s songs, I’d write songs or sing her other famous children’s songs. But with “Brave Little Soldier” I wanted to address issues that children have, whether they’re going through abuse, whether they’re crippled children, whether they’re sick children, or these days… gay children or transgender children. All those things where you don’t even know what you’re going through, but you’re different and you’re going through something. I wanted “Brave Little Soldier” to mean “you’re not the only one that’s ever felt this way. There are a lot of people out there, but you’re a brave little soldier, we’re gonna fight this feeling, we’re gonna fight this disease, we’re gonna fight whatever this thing is we’re going through, and we’re gonna win. We’re together, we’re a unit. There’s bunches of us out there and we’re gonna march and march until we march on through.”
Your goddaughter, Miley Cyrus, has released her country-pop influenced album, Younger Now, and it features a duet the two of you wrote called ‘Rainbowland.’ Have you heard the finished product yet?
I haven’t heard it. They haven’t talked about it being a single or anything, but we’ve always wanted to do something together. It’s odd that we never have. On different shows … we’ll sing something like “Jolene” or whatever, but we’ve never recorded anything. So, we wrote that together, and we sing it together. It was so funny, we were both so busy, we were writing on the phone, we were sending tapes back and forth to each other, trying to get all the pieces together, and we did. I’m proud of that. That’s another one of those things we felt like the world needed a little message right now. If we could just do a little better, try a little harder, try to get along a little better, we could live in Rainbowland. If nothing else, if we tried a little harder at least we’d be a little more colorful than it is right now, a little brighter, a little shinier out there.
Were you aware of the voicemails between the two of you becoming part of the song itself?
She put that on the record?
Oh my god! Our little talks back and forth? Oh, lord, there’s a lot of ‘em! We talked forever! I hope she ain’t gonna hang me! I didn’t know she’d done that on the record. I’m gonna have to kick her butt! [Laughs] I’m gonna have to listen now. I didn’t hear that part. I just heard the song!
It adds a nice little dimension to the song, which really does have a great message at a time when we could certainly use it – which brings us to the Emmy Awards. People seemed upset that you were onstage when there were comments being made directed at the president and even though you basically changed the subject, you still took heat for it. How soon were you aware of what people were saying about you?
I didn’t know for several days that there had been that much of a … where I was being crucified, so to speak. I was shocked and surprised that I was being bashed on. I thought, “Well, I didn’t do anything.” I can’t answer for Lily and Jane! I don’t do politics. I’m an entertainer. I don’t ever voice my personal opinions about stuff like that. I don’t know what it is that everybody thought I should or shouldn’t have done. I couldn’t tell them what to do. I mean, everybody knows that about them. But I was just happy to be back out there with the two of them, the three of us. We got a standing ovation, the first time since 9 to 5, which was such a powerhouse of a movie. I just don’t go that route, and like I say, when I get uneasy or when all else fails I just do a boob joke or something to kinda divert attention. But I was shocked that people had really hated me on that. It hurt my heart really bad.
You know times are strange when people are criticizing Dolly Parton.
[Laughs] I don’t know what it is they thought I should have or shouldn’t have done. But I learned a good lesson years ago – the Dixie Chicks. At the height of their career they stated their personal opinions on their politics. They had every right to do that, and they’re one of the greatest groups that ever was, but they lost so many fans. My philosophy is I’m an entertainer, that’s not the place for me to go voicing my opinion because no matter what I would have said, I’d have pissed half the people off! I have fans that are Democrats and Republicans. I always just make a joke: “I’m neither Republican or Democrat, I’m a Hip-o-crat!” I just don’t like to get into controversial things or to do politics, so I just try to steer clear of that. I just try to be fun, and I’d like to be light in this world and keep things light if I can. So that was my point. I didn’t feel like I did anything wrong, and I’m sorry if some felt I did. I was just trying to keep things moving. I didn’t want to get involved in all that.