Dolly Parton has enjoyed inspiring children throughout her life. And 50 years after the release of her first album, “Hello, I'm Dolly,” she is releasing her first children's album, “I Believe in You.”
Dolly Parton has enjoyed inspiring children throughout her life. And 50 years after the release of her first album, “Hello, I’m Dolly,” she is releasing her first children’s album, “I Believe in You.”
The new album includes songs that focus on a wide range of issues that affect children, from bullying, cancer and poverty, to friendship, confidence and imagination. All of the proceeds from the album sales will be given to Parton’s Imagination Library, which she launched in 1995 to help children in Tennessee foster a love of reading by providing the gift of a specially selected book each month.
The program was such a success that in 2000 she made the library available to any community that was willing to partner with her to support it locally and it has gone from mailing a few dozen books per month to more than 1,000,000 books to children each month in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Belize and the U.K.
The Imagination Library has greatly improved childhood literacy for children in the program and for Parton, this has been the realization of a lifelong goal that began when she was a young girl in Tennessee where she shared a one-room cabin with her parents and 11 siblings. She described the family as “dirt poor” and many of her relatives couldn’t read or write, including her father, Lee.
“It’s very important I think that all children should be able to read,” said Parton. I actually did it in honor of my father, who wasn’t able to read or write. My dad got to help me with it and he felt very proud for me to be doing that and involve him in it and he got to live long enough to see it doing well and he got such a kick out of people calling me the book lady. I just think it’s important because if you can learn to read you can educate yourself about any subject, you don’t need to have money if you can’t afford to go to school, there’s a book on anything you want to know. But it won’t do you any good if you can’t read, so that was the main thing, just involving my dad and knowing how important it is.”
Some of the songs on the new album were written when Parton almost lost her 4-year-old niece to leukemia. When she wrote “Chemo Hero” and “Brave Little Soldier” for her she brought all her nieces and nephews and the little girl’s friends to the studio to record the songs so that her niece could listen to them while recuperating.
“I just thought about the children who go through all of that, sick children, not necessarily just cancer patients, sick children in general, like the brave little soldier was,” said Parton. “But the chemo hero I thought was the perfect title and I’m going to try to make something more of that. At some point we may put that out as a single or certainly find all the chemo heroes and some of the children that have overcome the most, and even some of the grownups that have suffered and won the battle.”
She also tackles bullying in the song “Making Fun Ain’t Funny” by using her personal experience of being made fun of as a child while wearing a coat patched together from rag remnants that her mother had sewn for her. “The Coat of Many Colors” later became the name of one of her songs and also a TV movie about her family’s struggle with poverty. Parton said, “All the bullies in this world I do not like at all and I remember being made light of as a child, we always had to wear raggedy clothes. People are trying to teach children not to be bullies, that it hurts and it doesn’t feel good. It’s the anti-bullying thing that we’ve been dealing with for the last few years with kids being bullied to the point of suicide and I thought that needs to be spoken to. The song is for kids but it’s also for grownups too.”
“The Coat of Many Colors” is one of Parton’s favorite songs she has written and she believes it lets people know that we’re supposed to love one another for who and what we are, while celebrating our differences because, as she emphasizes, “We shouldn’t all be the same.”
Parton’s musical journey began when she was a child. Music was important to the whole family and all her mother’s relatives played some type of musical instruments.
“I took my music real seriously and I would always be plucking along with somebody’s instrument, something that would be laying around or whenever family would come,” said Parton. “But I always loved the guitar. Two of my uncles, my Uncle Bill, who helped me get started in the business, and my Uncle Willis were great guitar players and Uncle Willis had this little Martin guitar that I loved, so when he saw how serious I was about my music he gave me his Martin guitar and I thought that was my treasure. When I left it at home when I left when I was 18, I put it in the loft because it was beat up and I thought when I got money, when I got rich and famous I was going to have it fixed up. But the loft burned out of our house and burned up my little guitar so I only have the neck of that one, but I have collected little Martin guitars all through the years. I have some really classic little guitars, especially the baby Martins.”
When she was a young girl she knew she wanted to spend her life writing and performing music and she wasn’t going to let the fact that she was a woman impede her progress. “I just had this burning love for the music and this burning desire to get out into the bigger world. I was a country girl and people would say ‘aren’t you afraid?’ and I would say well, we’re all afraid of something but my desire to do it was always greater than my fear and I believe that I had something that might do good. I would always talk to people saying I think I have something that might make us all some money. And I never thought about it whether I was a girl or a boy. I just had a gift and I felt that it was God-given and I felt like I was supposed to be doing something with it and so I just always had that attitude about it and I guess people kind of responded and I had a lot of help and didn’t have as many problems as a lot of the young girls were having at the time because I grew up in a house full of brothers and my father and uncles understood me and they didn’t intimidate me.”
She has had many ways of composing songs over the years, but she says the best way is to take a couple of weeks, travel somewhere and focus on just writing songs. Since that’s not as apt to happen these days due to her busy schedule, she keeps a notepad and tape recorder by her bed so she can immediately capture words and notes that could be the stuff of future hits. She says she always does her best thinking when she is traveling and can write no matter where she is. “I can write anywhere. I never know when a song is going to hit me. I write everyday, a song, a title or a few lines and if I’m lucky, I can write a few songs per week.”
Parton said after more than half a century of songwriting “you would think a person would run out of stuff to write about.” But limited melodies and story lines don’t challenge Parton. She believes there is always a way that the writing process can be refreshed. “I love to sing or whistle or hum and so it’s easy for me to write, and whatever I’m writing about at the time, because the day is new and fresh, there’s always a new and fresh twist to a song even though it’s about just ordinary things. I can always make it a little special and I try to be creative.”
Her 1973 hit, “I Will Always Love You” reached number one on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 1974 and again in 1982 after re-recording it for the “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” movie. The song propelled her to become the first singer ever to hit the number-one notch twice for the same song. When Whitney Houston recorded her version for “The Bodyguard” it was number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 14 weeks.
The song made history by becoming one of the best-selling singles of all time. And it also holds tender memories for Parton.
“That song is so deep-seated in my heart and in my soul. Back years ago in my early days when I worked with a man named Porter Wagoner we had one of those relationships where we were so much alike that we couldn’t get along or we were so different that we couldn’t get along. But we had a great love. It was kind of a love/hate relationship. And I always wanted to have my own band and I had told him at the start that I wanted to go out on my own. But it was very, very hard and he had the number one television show at the time and for me to leave would take a big hunk out of his show. But I still wanted to get on, so after much fighting and with all the love and the depth that we had for each other I wrote that song to try to say here’s how I feel and I’ll always love you. But I have to leave. It was a very hard song but when I sang it to him he said ‘OK, you can go, but let me produce that record.’ So it was personal to us, and then years later when Whitney (Houston) did it I didn’t know she had done it. I had sent it out to LA when they had asked for some of my music.
“Kevin Costner and his secretary had loved that song so I sent it out, but I hadn’t heard anything about whether or not they used it and I was on my way home and I turned the radio on and all of a sudden I heard that ‘a cappella’ part and it was like whew, what’s that? I knew it was something familiar. Then when it dawned on me what I was hearing when she went into that chorus I had to stop the car because I almost wrecked. I felt like my heart was just going to bust right out of my body. It was the most powerful feeling I ever had. It was such a shock and it was so brave and she sang it so good that I was just overwhelmed.”
Forty years ago Parton shook up the country music world when she recorded “Here you Come Again” and crossed over to pop. “I just always wanted to do more than just settle for where I was. Even to this day I wake up with new dreams everyday and people say, ‘oh you can’t be thinking of doing something else,’ but I do. I wake up all the time to new thoughts and dreams. Even 40 years ago I was longing to get out and do stuff on a broader scale, do more world music and travel around the world more to get in the movies, go to California to get big-time management so I could do more things and ‘Here you Come Again’ was a crossover hit and I had a lot of flack from the country people saying I was selling out. I said back then I’m not leaving country, I’ll take that with me wherever I go because that’s just who I am and I think I’ve lived up to that.”
The inspiration for most of the songs on the new album came from the books that are given away through the Imagination Library.
Every month a new book is given out and Parton writes a song loosely based on the book’s theme. The album’s title, “I Believe in You” comes from “The Little Engine that Could,” and for Parton symbolizes the importance of positive thinking. Parton has thoroughly learned the ins and outs of the music business over the last 50 years, but the most important role for her now is being an advocate for children.
“There’s an old Whitney Houston song called “Children are our Future” and I love that song and I think that is such a true statement. We have to teach the children, like that old song ‘Treat Your Children Well,’ and if you can teach them to read even if they don’t have the money to further their education, they can read up on anything they want to know and learn it. It’s a handicap if you can’t read. I really think that that’s important because I know how children need to have self esteem and that gives them confidence. That’s the reason we put their names on the books. They get these books in the mailbox with their name on it so they’re going to wait there for the mail or they’re going to get home and see their book is there and they will have a sense of pride.
Parton believes that her Christian background has been the basis for her attitude that it’s better to give than to receive. But her fame has reinforced her belief that once you are in a position to help, you definitely should. She gets a good feeling when she is doing something for someone else. “I’ve been so blessed in my life that I want to give back. If God’s been good to you be good to other people. That’s how we spread the love around. It just makes me feel good to do it and it’s my duty to do it. I’ve learned a lot. In some ways we learn a lot and in some ways we’re always stupid. I’ve learned a lot about life and hopefully I’ve learned a lot about songwriting too. I’m the same old gal I was back then. Back then I was just dreaming about being a star and I’ve been so fortunate and lucky I’ve got to do so many things, the movies, the records and write songs for movies and do some business things and have Dollywood, but still the music is always right there in the heart of it all.
“But now all these years later for me to even be in a position to have wonderful programs because of my successful things like the Imagination Library where I can give back and do things, it’s a good feeling. I’m just happy that it all turned out the way it did. The money from the album is going to a real good place where we can put books in the hands of more children all over the world.”