MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, as part of our celebration of Black History Month, we pay tribute to Bessie Smith, better known as the Empress of the Blues. But first, it's time for our Wisdom Watch. That's a moment each week on the program where we talk to people who have wisdom to share. Today, living legend Dolly Parton.
(Soundbite of song "9 to 5")
Ms. DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Working 9 to 5 What a way to make a living Barely getting by It's all taking And no giving They just use your mind And they never give you credit It's enough to drive you Crazy if you let it. Nine to 5...
MARTIN: She grew up in rural Tennessee, one of 12 siblings born to her sharecropping parents. She sang in church along with many of her siblings, and at the age of 18, she followed her passion for singing to the stage in Nashville, where she launched a music and acting career that spanned decades.
She's written more than 3,000 songs. She's sold more than a hundred million records. She's won too many music awards to count and been nominated for an Oscar twice. I'm here with an American cultural icon, Dolly Parton. We caught up with her at the Gaylord Hotel in Washington. It's a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for taking the time.
Ms. DOLLY PARTON (Singer; Songwriter; Actor): Well, I'm happy to be here. I didn't even know all that stuff about me. You've been doing your homework and mine.
MARTIN: That's right. We had to refresh your memory. I want to talk for a minute about what brought you to Washington. You came to talk about your Imagination Library. It's a program you created to promote literacy. How did that get to be such a passion of yours?
Ms. PARTON: Well, this actually started several years ago because of the kids in my own hometown in Sevierville County. Actually, we were just having a local program there to give children a book a month from the time they were born 'til they started kindergarten.
And I actually came up with the idea because my own family, being brought up, as you mentioned, from such a poor family. A lot of my people didn't get an education. My own dad couldn't read nor write, but he was a smart man in spite of that, and I just saw how crippling that was to so many of my relatives, thinking what great minds they had, but they didn't have the chance to do a lot of things they would have had they had an education.
MARTIN: Did you have books at home growing up? Did you have books in your house?
Ms. PARTON: No, because there were so many children. The Bible was our main book. My mama used to read from that. But we couldn't bring books home from school because of all the kids. We couldn't, you know, they'd just tear them up and, you know, chew them up and whatever else.
So it was because of my love for my family and the great need that I saw that, you know, they had, you know, for that, and so it started as a small thing in my hometown, and it grew and it grew and it grew and before I lost my parents, they were both so very proud of the success of the Imagination Library.
MARTIN: You're also in town celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You grew up just miles from the park, and your '73 album, "My Tennessee Mountain Home," was about that and - can I just - I was going to play a short clip from the title track, that wonderful song.
(Soundbite of song "My Tennessee Mountain Home")
Ms. DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) In my Tennessee mountain home Crickets singing in the fields nearby.
And honeysuckle vine clings to the fence along the lane Their fragrance makes the summer wind so sweet And on a distant hilltop, an eagle spreads its wings And a songbird on a fence post sings a melody In my Tennessee...
MARTIN: You know, you could live anywhere. You could live in Paris, you could live in Rome, you could live in Beverly Hills, and I think some people wonder what keeps drawing you back to your real hometown.
Ms. PARTON: Well, the good news is, I do have a lot of places in different parts of the world, but I love the Smoky Mountains, and I was so honored when they asked me to be the international ambassador for the 75th anniversary of the park. But it's a beautiful part of the world.
I loved my childhood there. We had hard times. We were very poor people. But there was nothing more beautiful than the mountains and all the things that, you know, just the beauty, just being surrounded by that and anytime I can go back - when we were doing, you know, Dollywood, I spend as much time as I can. But even when I'm in other places of the world, all I have to do is just close my eyes, and I'm back in the Smokys because the Smokys are in my heart and on my mind.
MARTIN: And you've got a new musical at Dollywood. It's called - tell me, it's called...
Ms. PARTON: It's hard to say that word, isn't it? It's called...
MARTIN: It is to me.
Ms. PARTON: Shaconage.
Ms. PARTON: Yeah, and that is a Cherokee word meaning land of the blue smoke.
(Soundbite of song "Shaconage")
Ms. PARTON: (Singing) There are spirits in these hills Home of the wind and the wiper wills. Stories carried through the years Warriors, chiefs turn to tears You see beauty when the blue smoke's rising You can feel it when the eagle's flying Every blossom rock and brook Looking like a picture angels took...
Ms. PARTON: It's about the people, and when they had to be rooted out of the Smoky Mountains for the park to take over. So, it's a lot of heart, lot of emotion.
MARTIN: A couple of questions I wanted to ask you, but how did you put yourself in the mind of those who were displaced?
Ms. PARTON: Well, that wasn't hard to do because I hear all the stories myself, and we were - like I say, just mountain people, and we moved around a lot. In my early life, my dad was just a farmer because, like I say, he couldn't read and write, and that's all he knew.
But I knew those people, you know, in my heart and in my mind, they're part of my DNA. It's all in - you know, these were my people. These were my - you know, in one of the songs, its like, these are my people, these are my mountains, these are my memories, this is my home. You know, it's like all of that is just part of who and what I am. So, it was not hard at all for me to know how those people felt, having to leave what they knew, what they loved and try to, you know, be uprooted from everything that they were.
MARTIN: How do you make time to write still with all that you have going on at this stage of your life? I mean, you've got all these projects, and how do you - do you find a quiet place everyday to write?
Ms. PARTON: I don't just sit down and write songs every day but every day, a song comes to my mind. And I can be cooking, I can be taking a bath, I can be putting on my make-up. I always keep a tape recorder so I don't lose a melody that comes to me, or I keep a notepad where I'll write down a great idea, a great title. And then when I do get a chance, I, you know, sit down and finish it up. But so many times when I write, stuff just comes to me; I have no choice in the matter. It's a way of life with me. It's how I express my feelings.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with actor, singer, songwriter, philanthropist, businesswoman Dolly Parton. I hope this doesn't come off the wrong way, but you have the reputation of being one of the nicest people in one of the ugliest businesses there is.
Ms. PARTON: Ha(ph).
MARTIN: And I just wonder how that's possible.
Ms. PARTON: Well, you can be decent, and you can be successful. That's not to say that people don't get on your nerves. You know, I'm one of those kind of people. I'm - you know, I've got my own thoughts and my own mind, and I'm definitely one of those people that can tell you where to put it if I don't like where you got it.
Like I say, the reason it's never gone to my head is because this is a way of life with me. This is who I am. This is what I do. I mean, I'm not a star to me. I'm a working girl, and I want to make the money because I want to be able to be there. I want to do the job, first of all, because I love that. But I, of course, want the money, and I'll spend plenty of it on myself. But I want to be able to have money, too. If somebody I love or my family needs me, that I'll have things for them, too.
MARTIN: Of course, we all want to quote the famous Dolly line: It costs a lot to look this cheap.
Ms. PARTON: Well, it's true. I always say it, and it does.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: You opened the door...
Ms. PARTON: I spend money on myself.
MARTIN: But I wanted to talk to you about that. There's a time when, talk about telling people where to put it. There's this famous story about how Elvis wanted to cover "I Will Always Love You."
(Soundbite of song "I Will Always Love You")
Ms. PARTON: (Singing) If I should stay I would only be in your way So I'll go, but I know I'll think of you each step of the way And I will always love you...
MARTIN: But he wanted you to sign over half the rights, and you refused to do it. Is that story true?
Ms. PARTON: That's a true story. This was...
MARTIN: How did you get the moxie for that? I just want to ask - I mean, there are famous stories about people signing away their rights for these kinds of songs, particularly in country, not exclusively. But how did you get the moxie to say no?
Ms. PARTON: Well, my songs are my children, as I say, and I expect them to support me when I'm old. And, you know, it's like my publishing and my songs is what I'm going to leave for my family. And to me, I was building a company. I'd already recorded that song, and I already had it published. I had 100 percent of the publishing.
And for Colonel Tom to ask to give me up half of a song - they waited, though, 'til the last day, when they were recording, then just sprang that one on me after I told everybody Elvis was going to record my song, and I cried. I cried all night about that. And I - you know, and it was such a disappointment, but I thought, no, I'm not giving you people half of my song.
MARTIN: It must have been sweet vindication, though, when Whitney Houston...
Ms. PARTON: Oh, it was. I wanted to kiss her.
MARTIN: Covered it years later, and it became another monster hit.
Ms. PARTON: I know, it's like when - well, I had the record of it, but it was when, you know, Whitney made it like a world-known song.
Ms. WHITNEY HOUSTON: (Singing) And I will always love you. I will always love you I will always...
Ms. PARTON: Thank God for Whitney. And it was a great, great record. But I made a ton of money, you know, for myself and for my family, and I thought well, Priscilla and Lisa didn't need that money. They got plenty of money.
MARTIN: But doesn't it trip you out that here you are this girl from, you know, rural Tennessee and this kind of black girl from the city, and then the two worlds collided in your song. Does that just make your head spin?
Ms. PARTON: It's great. I love how God works. I love how those things come to be.
MARTIN: Any thoughts about, in just a couple of minutes that we have left, you are a person who was born into great poverty. You have achieved great wealth. A lot of people are suffering right about now. Do you have any - any thoughts that you have to share about how people should think about this time?
Ms. PARTON: Well, you've got to keep your faith, first of all. I pray every day, I always have. I always believed that God would provide. But I think people are going to have to just really keep the faith. They're going to have to concentrate on what's going on. Be aware, maybe more aware than what they've had to be. We all are having to really pay attention now. We've been so spoiled so long, those of us who do have money.
But I have been very poor, and I know a lot of poor people or, you know, that were having hard times before and now they're having worse times. So, more than anything, just pay attention, keep the faith, and we'll just pray for our president, we'll pray for our country and do the best we can. And hopefully, we can all pull together, and pull ourselves out of this mess and be prosperous again.
If not, we'll still have to hang in there together. Even if we go down the tubes, let's go hand in hand trying to do something about it.
MARTIN: And finally, as a - I know you don't talk a lot about politics per se, but do you have any thoughts about the milestone that this country has just achieved, its first African-American president. Is that interesting to you? Is there anything interesting about it?
Ms. PARTON: Very interesting. I think it's very interesting, and I think it's very great. I really think it's a wonderful time in our lives. I just hate that Obama had to go in with this big burden on him. It's like, you know, it's like no matter what he's, you know, does, its going to, you know, people are going to slap him around. But we should all pray for him. We should all pray and be supportive. So, it's really like a joy mixed with sorrow. But let's hope that they all work well together, and let's hope we all pull together.
MARTIN: Joy mixed with sorrow - that sounds like a song.
Ms. PARTON: Yeah.
MARTIN: Actor, singer, songwriter, philanthropist, businesswoman, cultural icon Dolly Parton, thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. PARTON: Thank you, too.
(Soundbite of song "Jolene")
Ms. DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene I'm begging of you please don't take my man...
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