Dolly Parton wrote and recorded her first song, “Puppy Love,” in 1960. Since then, she’s written countless chart-toppers, starred in movies with Julia Roberts and Burt Reynolds, and made a whole bunch of money off Whitney Houston’s pipes. What’s most impressive about her 50-odd-year career, though, is that it remains vital to this day. Her latest record, Better Day, came out in June, and her Better Day World Tour kicks off in Knoxville on July 17. Parton remains big-breasted, brassy-haired, and bold, and as true to herself and her talent as ever. The A.V. Club caught up with the living legend to talk about Porter Wagoner, how she stays current, and whether she still thinks she’s country.
The A.V. Club: The first single off the new record, “Together You And I,” is an updated version of a song you recorded in the ’70s with Porter Wagoner. Why did you decide to bring it back now, and why that song?
Dolly Parton: Well, Kent Wells, who produced and arranged the CD, he knew that song from my past. He’d gone through my catalogue many times, looking for songs to record with the other artists he produces. When I told him I wanted to do a very uplifting love story instead of just a life story, he said, “You have a song I remember that I’ve always liked called ‘Together You And I.’ Can I bring it up to date and rearrange it? I wrote a little bridge for it.” It was just one of those things that he remembered. I didn’t even remember it, but I was happy that he did, because it was really nice.
AVC: When you write songs, do you take on personas other than yourself, or are your love songs always about your husband or your life?
DP: Both. I write for myself things that I’ve gone through. Even back in my teenage years, or first loves, or little flirtatious feelings I’ve had, or I write for the people I love. I’ve never had a divorce, but I’ve seen so many of my friends, my sister, my family go through that stuff, so I try to write for the people that can’t write about it. I take on their sorrow, so I’m able to kind of express it, or their joy.
AVC: One song on the new record is “Country Is As Country Does.” Do you think you’re still country?
DP: What do you think? [Laughs.] Yeah, I really am. I never have changed in my taste, and the things that I love, and the way that I act, and all that. And the things that I love are still very much—I have new friends, but I never got over being country. I never wanted to change, I just wanted to be successful, and be able to do more things for more people, and for myself as well. But yeah, if I ain’t country, I don’t know what is.
AVC: Why do you think so many people identify with you? What is it that they connect with?
DP: I think that people, first of all, have grown up with me. I’ve been around longer than most of my fans have been alive. I have a lot of new friends, fans that have found me through the years. Still have a lot of the older ones as well. But I think people just relate to me. They know I’m a regular person brought up in a hardworking, poor family, that I’ve had all the struggles that people have. I’m just a friendly person; that runs in my family. And I hopefully have a good sense of humor. People get a kick out of my stupidity. So I just think people feel comfortable with me because I’m comfortable with myself, and comfortable with them.
AVC: You’ve talked about that a lot in connection with your lesbian and gay fans, being comfortable with who you are and it being okay. Is that something that your parents taught you about?
DP: I just remember that we were very friendly, comfortable people. People liked us, and all of my people had a great sense of humor. And because of our spirituality, especially on my mother’s side, we were very accepting. There’s a lot of rednecks in the country where I grew up. Been a lot of that Bible Belt folks that don’t accept a lot of things and a lot of people. But I just always had a very open mind and a very open heart. I got that from my mother, and my mother’s side, I think. Just being more open to people and loving people like that. I just always look for the good in everybody and the God in everybody. I play to that. And I just love people. I love the difference in people. I love getting to know people. I appreciate getting accepted myself, because I know I’m unusual. And I love the unusual in other people.
AVC: Do you keep up on trends? Do you listen to the radio when you’re in your car? Do you watch Glee? Do you buy records?
DP: Well, I have to honestly say I don’t keep up with a lot of trends. I don’t. I’ve never been a fashion horse. I’m so busy writing my songs, trying to maintain my business, and all the new things that come along. I stay working all the time. I will catch an episode of Glee or different things now and then, but I never follow those things, never get the chance to sit down and say, “Oh, I watch this and that,” or, “I’m a fan of this and that.” I usually watch a round of news in the morning, and I’ll either read a book or something, read myself to sleep at night, or watch some forensic shows that may be on TV. Put myself to sleep. I love that old stuff.
AVC: You wrote the rhythm line to “9 To 5” by tapping your nails together, right? Have there been other unconventional ways that songs have come to you?
DP: Yes I did! Oh yeah, I write anywhere. I’m always banging around on the dashboard. Whatever I’m doing. I can make music out of anything. Whenever a song hits me, I’ll pick some sort of melody or rhythm out on it, and kind of enhance the song. Music just lives in me. Life is a song to me. I have the gift of rhyme, and I’m always trying to write and rhyme. Music is just natural everyday occurrence with me.
AVC: What are you most proud of that you’ve done so far? What haven’t you done that you’re still trying to accomplish?
DP: Well, I’m proud of everything I’ve done so far. There’s been great highlights in my life. And I love the accomplishments and the awards that I’ve received through the years. But I’ve always worked more for the rewards than the awards. I’ve always counted my blessings before I’ve counted my money. I’m glad that I’m still active in the business, and that new dreams come to me everyday. I never know tomorrow what I might be doing. I just ask God to lead me and show me and direct me and help me and support me in it. So I just wait to hear the call.
AVC: Are you still working on a musical about your life?
DP: Yes, that is one of those dreams I have for the future. I’ve been working on that for a few years now, and whenever I do get that finished, I will actually be presenting that. And possibly a movie of my life. I’d love to do a children’s show, some children’s books and CDs. I have many dreams left to accomplish; we’ll see what shows its head first.
AVC: Do you have a favorite song to sing, or does it change?
DP: Well I have a favorite song that I love that I’ve written, which is “Coat Of Many Colors.” But I enjoy singing a lot of the different ones. I love to sing “I Will Always Love You,” because I love sad songs. We’re working up to the new tour now and I’m enjoying singing some of the songs from the CD like “The Sacrifice,” and “In The Meantime,” “Together You And I.” It’s fun to have something fresh for myself to sing onstage. Of course we’ll always do all the old songs that we do in the show that people expect, the “I Will Always Love You,” “9 To 5,” “Here You Come Again,” “Coat Of Many Colors,” all of those. Plus all the new stuff that we’ve added, I think we’re going to have a fun tour.