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Dolly Parton: The Fresh Air Interview

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Dolly Parton: The Fresh Air Interview

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Dolly Parton: The Fresh Air Interview

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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're concluding our country music series today with interviews from our archive with Charlie Rich and Dolly Parton.

Parton is one of the few performers who have been successful enough to start her own theme park, but when I spoke with her in 2001, her recording career had recently taken a turn away from the more commercial end of country music to roots music. Her 1999 recording, "The Grass is Blue," won the International Bluegrass Music Association's Album of the Year award.

When I spoke with her, she had just released a follow-up called "Little Sparrow," that featured traditional mountain music she grew up with, as well as original songs in that vein.

From that album, here's her song "Little Sparrow."

(Soundbite of song, "Little Sparrow")

Ms. DOLLY PARTON (Musician): (Singing) Little sparrow, little sparrow, precious fragile little thing. Little sparrow, little sparrow flies so high and feels no pain.

All ye maidens heed my warning. Never trust the hearts of men. They will crush you like a sparrow, leaving you to never mend. They will vow...

GROSS: Dolly Parton made her debut at the Grand Ole Opry in 1959. She's written thousands of songs, including "Jolene," "Coat of Many Colors," and "I Will Always Love You," which was a big hit for Whitney Houston.

Now, you were born in 1946 in a one-room cabin in the Smoky Mountains of east Tennessee. What was the music you heard as a child?

Ms. PARTON: Well, a lot of the stuff that we heard was that old porch-picking music, old songs brought back from England and Ireland, that old Appalachian music and a lot of the stuff that people up in the mountains wrote.

So my mother was, and all my mama's people, used to always play and sing. Mama used to sing a lot. So we would sing like a lot of the old gospel songs. A lot of old gospel songs were written to sound old, like I say, by a lot of my own people.

GROSS: Who was most musical in your family?

Ms. PARTON: All of us. My mother was very musical, and my Grandpa Jake, I think, was a preacher, a Pentecostal preacher that I wrote a song about many years ago called "Daddy was an Old Time Preacher Man." I think he was, he was a music teacher of sorts back there in the hills. I think we really got our talent from, you know, from mama's side of the family, although some of my dad's people picking thing, as well.

But I have - there's 12 of us kids, six girls and six boys, and we all sing and write and play. It's just that I think I've taken it farther. I don't know that I'm near as good as some of the others, but I've been more willing to sacrifice and work a little harder than some of the others might have been willing, you know, to do just because they wanted to have a family and do other things. But there's a lot of talent in this family.

GROSS: When did you start writing songs and realizing that you had an ear for that, as well as for singing?

Ms. PARTON: Well, I started singing already on television when I was 10 years old, but I started playing guitar and writing serious songs when I was about seven.

And my mother was always fascinated with the fact that I could rhyme so much stuff. So she used to keep stuff that I didn't remember I had written. And she has stuff in a trunk, and many years ago, she said: Here's some stuff you may want to look at. This is stuff you used to write before you could write, before you could write it down. And she used to write it down. So actually, I've been doing it all my life, seriously and professionally since I was 10.

GROSS: Do you remember any of the songs you wrote as a girl?

Ms. PARTON: Oh, I used to write songs about cob dolls. I had this little cob doll. The first song I remember writing, her name was Tassletop. It was a little doll that mama daddy had burned poker-hole eyes in to make eyes, and mama had put the corn silk hair back on her and made a little dress for her, and her name was Tassletop.

And I did I think I was five or six, you know, somewhere in there, seven, and it was like:

Ms. PARTON: (Singing) Little, tiny Tassletop, I love you an awful lot. Hope you never go away. I want you to stay and so on and so on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARTON: So I just wrote all about her dress and all about her hair. So yeah, I just wrote about everything, you know, that come to mind.

GROSS: Were you writing about tragic love and heartbreak by the time you were 10?

Ms. PARTON: Yes, I was, as a matter of fact. I wrote a song, I can't remember exactly how it goes, but it was about a boy getting killed in the war because we used to hear all those stories back home. And if they weren't singing those sad-ass songs, they were telling stories about it, you know, and it's like and that makes an impression on a little child.

So we thought we you know, I thought that you needed to write some really songs of tragedy. I thought you had to do that in order to be a mountain singer.

GROSS: And I wonder how it sounded with you as a girl singing these tragic songs.

Ms. PARTON: About the same as it does now. My voice ain't changed a lot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARTON: I kind of keep the same old voice. I sound like a little girl singing all these lord-awful songs. It's like this, like, Little Sparrow and The Silver Dagger from the other one, and, you know, Tender Lie from this one. It's like, I love to sing all those sad songs.

GROSS: Now, you've said that your grandfather was a preacher. Your mother was devout. What was church like when you were young?

Ms. PARTON: Oh, well, we were one of those shouting, healing, holy-roller churches, you know. And it was high-powered, which was great. I really learned to sing in church, I think, really with emotion. And we were a free, you know, it was a free-spirited church, and if youd wrote a song, a gospel song, of course, you could get up and sing it.

GROSS: Now, when you were young and singing in church, did you sing about God in church and then sing about sinning at home?

Ms. PARTON: Well, I used to sin at church and sin at home, and I'd talk about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARTON: I used to always sit in church looking out the windows at the boys, wondering if I could make an excuse to go out and, you know, go to the bathroom because all the outdoor toilets. But anyhow, I was only going out to see the boys.

But anyhow, I had a deep faith in God. But I also was, was high-spirited and fun-loving. And I, of course, was led to believe that everything you did, you know, was a sin. But I don't believe that now. I think it's a sin if you believe it to be, and if it hurts somebody else, it's a sin.

But I'm very deep in my faith. In fact, there's not an album that I do that I don't do something that is spiritual. In fact, a song I used to sing in church years ago that we did up-tempo, one of the songs we sang every time we went to church was a song called "In the Sweet By and By."

And I, when I - I wanted to do one of those gospel songs on this album. So I slowed this down, and it lended itself real nice to some more of that Irish feel. So at some point, if you want to play that one, I think that would be a good choice.

GROSS: Well, why don't we play that now?

Ms. PARTON: Okay, let's do.

(Soundbite of song, "In the Sweet By and By")

Ms. PARTON: (Singing) There's a land that is fairer than day, and by faith we can see it afar for the father waits over the way to prepare us a dwelling place there. In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore. In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore. We shall sing on that beautiful shore...

GROSS: That's "In the Sweet By and By" from Dolly Parton's new CD, "Little Sparrow."

Your first record, it was a 45. One side was "Puppy Love," and the other side was "Girl Left Alone." How old were you when this came out?

Ms. PARTON: I was about 10 or 11, I think, when I cut that. And that came out on Goldband Records, probably several months, a year or so after that.

That was my very first record, and that was a very exciting thing for me, the first time I ever heard that played on the radio. It was on a local radio show back home. It never did do anything other than just that it was the first. But it did play locally, you know.

But it was fun. I'll never forget the thrill of hearing myself the first time on the radio. I thought, well, I've made it now. Of course, I hadn't.

GROSS: Could you sing a few bars of one of those songs?

Ms. PARTON: Oh, I could sing "Puppy Love," yeah.

Ms. PARTON: (Singing) Puppy love, puppy love, they all call it puppy love. I'm old enough now to kiss and hug, and I like it. It's puppy love.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARTON: It's got one of those silly songs, you know...

(Singing) you pull my pig-tails, you make me mad. Then you kiss me, make me glad. Sometimes, you even make me sad. Still, you're the sweetest sweetheart I ever had. Oh, puppy love, puppy love...

Ms. PARTON: And I was trying to get all those little be-bop '50s kind of sounds in there, too. But anyhow, needless to say, it didn't sell much. But it was a start.

GROSS: Now, these were songs you co-wrote, I think with your uncle?

Ms. PARTON: My aunt, Dorothy Jo(ph), co-wrote the other side, "A Girl Left Alone." Oh yeah, that's when you was talking earlier about singing those sad songs, I was 10 years old, singing:

(Singing) I'm a girl left alone. There's no hope for me. I'm tossed to and fro like a ship on a sea. I made my mistakes, and now I must pay.

Ms. PARTON: Now, how many mistakes could I have made at 10 years old?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARTON: (Singing) Now I can see that there's no hope for me.

Ms. PARTON: But anyway, it's like at 10 years old. So I wrote my Uncle Bill(ph), who was also my manager at the time and also produced that record, the A and the B side, we wrote "Puppy Love" together. So those were just, you know, I say you've got to start somewhere.

And then my first record after that I wrote with another uncle of mine. I was 15 years old and got on a major label, which was Mercury. And I had a song called "It May Not Kill Me, But It's Sure Gonna Hurt."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How did that go?

Ms. PARTON: Oh, that's about it:

Ms. PARTON: (Singing) It may not kill me, but it's sure gonna hurt.

Ms. PARTON: And then it goes into fast tempo, and it's just about, like, losing somebody. It's like you're going to walk away, and I'm going to stay, and, you know, and I don't like it. It may not kill me, but it's sure gonna hurt.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 2001 interview with Dolly Parton. We'll more on this final day of our country music series after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're concluding our country music series today. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Dolly Parton in 2001.

There were 12 kids in your family. Looking at your mother and the life that she was leading and the other women in the family, what did you think the life of an adult woman was going to be for you?

Ms. PARTON: Well, I knew it wasn't going to be that. I knew that I had to go. It wasn't that I wasn't proud of who I was and where I was from, but I had a dream. I just couldn't imagine myself I was babysitting from the time I have a sister and two brothers older, and there was eight children younger than me.

So I had a house full of kids because mama was sick a lot. She had one on her and one in her for as long as I remember. So those of us that, you know, were home, we had to kind of to do the chores.

So I had kids. I had a house full of kids, and I just knew that I wanted to do something with my music, and I knew that I was going to leave when I was 18 years old. And I graduated from high school on a Friday night, and I left for Nashville the next Saturday morning. I was ready to go.

And then I met my husband the first day I got there, and unfortunately, we never were able to have children of our own. But that's okay, too, because after I moved Nashville, I brought five of my younger brothers and sisters to Nashville that lived with me. We sent them to school.

Now they have kids, and those kids call me Aunt Granny and my husband Uncle Pee-Paw. So we're really like grandparents to them. So I've still been saddled with a bunch of kids but no kids of my own.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So when you were 18, and you took a bus to Nashville, left home, were you hoping to be a performer, a songwriter, both?

Ms. PARTON: Yeah, I was going to be all of that. I was going to be everything I could be. But definitely, I was going to be a songwriter and a singer, and that was what I headed out to be was to be a star.

And I vowed that I wouldn't go home until I had something to show for it, and I didn't. But I was very, very homesick, and it was well, I actually got real lucky. But it was about a year before I really had enough to show for it to think I could go home.

And then I got lucky, too. I had a top 10 record on a song called "Dumb Blonde," like: Just because I'm blonde, don't think I'm dumb 'cuz this dumb blonde ain't nobody's fool. That was my first top 10 record, and I was, I guess that was in about '65, I guess, somewhere in there.

So I just knew that that's what I had to do, and that was my destiny. I know now how lucky I was because I know a lot of people that got there about the same time I did and had twice the talent, still ain't made it.

So I know how lucky I've been, and I'm grateful for it every day because I love what I do.

GROSS: Now, another thing you did early on is that you sent songs to Buddy Killen, the head of Tree Publishing, which is a big country music publisher. And did you get other people to record your songs?

Ms. PARTON: Well, I wrote a song with my Uncle Bill Owens, the same uncle that I was talking about. We had the song of the year, the BMI Song of the Year in 1966. And Bill Phillips had a song called "Put It Off Until Tomorrow, You've Hurt Me Enough Today."

And a lot of people through the years have recorded that song. So yes, I had different songs recorded by different artists, that being the biggest at that time. And I did write for Tree for a while. Buddy Killen was very good to me. And then I had two or three top 10 records before I started with the Porter Wagoner show in 1967.

GROSS: Well, since you mention Porter Wagoner, let me play a recording that you made with him in 1968, and then we'll talk about that period of your life. And the song is "Just Between You and Me." Who wrote the song? Did you write this?

Ms. PARTON: No, I didn't write that, and come to think of it, I don't know who wrote that, off the top of my head. That's been a few years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay, so this is Dolly Parton with Porter Wagoner, recorded in 1968.

(Soundbite of song, "Just Between You and Me")

Ms. PARTON and Mr. PORTER WAGONER (Musician): So I feel so blue sometimes I want to die, and so I've got a broken heart. So what?

They say that time will heal all wounds in mice and men, and I know that someday I'll forget and love again.

Just between you and me, I've got my doubts about it. Just between you and me, you're too much to forget.

GROSS: That's Dolly Parton with Porter Wagoner. You performed on his popular TV show for a while and, you know, made several recordings with him. How did you start working with him?

Ms. PARTON: Well, Porter had the number one syndicated country television show in the country at that time. He had a girl on there for many years named Norma Jean(ph), who had become a very big country star in her own right.

And she got married, was getting married and moving back to Oklahoma City and left the show. And that left a spot. So Porter was looking for a girl singer, and I'd had people had been talking about me in town, you know, the new girl in town and that I had "Something Fishy," "Dumb Blonde" and a couple of other songs.

And so Porter had just got wind of that, and he just called me down to his office for an interview. And so, I sat down with my guitar and started singing songs that I'd written. And he was very impressed, and I got the job, and that's how that happened.

Then we started doing duets together, which we were very successful. I was with the show for seven years.

GROSS: Well, I thought we could hear your original version of "I Will Always Love You," which was used again in the movie "The Bodyguard" and was a huge hit for Whitney Houston. Do you remember writing this song and what you were thinking of when you wrote it?

Ms. PARTON: Oh, absolutely, I remember that one. That one was about when I was leaving Porter Wagoner because I had been with him seven years. I had told him because, see, I had plans to have a solo career of my own. I hadn't planned to get caught up with another group.

The Porter show was very successful, and it was a thing to do. And when I had told him I would stay, I told him I would stay for five years because I wanted to go on.

But I stayed two years longer. But I kept staying and staying, and I kept wanting to go because I felt like I really needed to go out on my own if I was ever really going to have a solo career.

And Porter was dead against it. He wouldn't hear of it. And he had a fit. We fought a lot. There was a lot of problems going on. And no matter how I tried to talk to him to make I could not make him understand. And I thought, well, why don't you just write a song about him? Just say you appreciate him, and you appreciate everything he does and that you'll always love him for everything he's done and that you'll always love him, period.

So I just, out of a broken heart of not being heard or anything, knowing I had to make major decisions that would ultimately change my life forever, and his for that matter, I wrote that song one night out of great grief and depth and just trying to say the right things to say goodbye.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear you version, your original version of "I Will Always Love You."

Ms. PARTON: Okay.

(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, will always love you.

GROSS: That's Dolly Parton, recorded in 1974. So do you know how this song ended up being used in "The Bodyguard"?

Ms. PARTON: Well, they had told me that when Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston were doing this movie, Kevin also I think produced this movie and put all this stuff together. There was a song they had wanted to use, that they had planned to use that as the theme instead of "I Will Always Love You." And then come to find out like a few weeks before that they had I don't know what the song was, but a few weeks before, the song they had planned to use, someone else recorded it and put it out.

So they were in desperate need of a song to say basically what I Will Always Love You said. And from what I understand, Kevin Costner's secretary said: Did you ever hear a song that Dolly Parton, that country star, you know, the one with the big boobs and the big hair...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARTON: Seriously, she said: Dolly Parton, that country star she said she had a song called "I Will Always Love You," and I think itd be perfect. And she brought it into him. And they said he loved it. And so they chose it.

GROSS: Dolly Parton, recorded in 2001. We'll hear the final part of that interview in the second half of that show as our country music series concludes. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Behind Closed Doors")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross. We're concluding our country music series today. Let's get back to our 2001 interview with Dolly Parton.

Now you said that when you were young, you knew you wanted to be a big star. Why did you want to be a star?

Ms. PARTON: Because I wanted to be rich. I wanted to travel. I wanted to be famous. I wanted to do stuff. I wanted to be seen, I guess. I need a lot of attention. Being brought up in a family of 12, you dont get much attention unless youre in trouble. You know, it's like - so I think it was just I just had a very outgoing personality and I wanted to be outgoing all the time.

GROSS: When you got to Nashville and you started actually performing in the country music world, you started to meet people who had already been stars. What did you see about their lives that you liked and that you didnt like? And when you started realizing that there were certain traps that one could fall into if one became famous.

Ms. PARTON: Well, I dont think I even looked at it in that way. I just - being from a big family of all kinds of people, I know that people have problems. I just knew that I would always be myself. I would always stay anchored in the love of my family and in my faith in God. And if I stayed true to my music, if I stayed true to myself more than anything else, you know, that I would do that. I just always felt sorry for people who would get themselves in such messes. I've been in enough of my own, but I figured that was my own, you know, choice to get in it and to get out of it.

So, but you learn, you see and I learned real quick. But I think being brought up in a big family and all those brothers, and my father and being very close to my uncles, I think I had a good understanding of men, so I knew how to maneuver and not allow myself to get caught in that trap.

Just because I was a girl, you know, didnt mean anything. I was very serious-minded about my work but knew how to enjoy men, knew how to, you know, maneuver in that world. So it was much easier, you know, for me than it seemed to have been for a lot of the girls, especially, you know, that were new in town. So being a girl always served me well.

GROSS: Now youve joked that if you were a man you would've been a drag queen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARTON: I always say that it's a good thing that I was women because if I'd have been a man I would've been a drag queen, just 'cause I'm so damned gaudy. Because I like all the flash and the glitter and, you know, I just love, you know, just I love playing in my clothes. I love playing, you know, in my life because I love makeup, I love clothes and I've got the kind of personality that can pull it off. And I just love, you know, what I do. I'm comfortable being myself, even if I make other people uncomfortable with the way I look. If I'm comfortable with it, then it, you know, it's okay with me.

GROSS: How did you first start dressing in that, what's the word I'm looking for? Almost oversized...

Ms. PARTON: Gaudy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...gaudy, oversized kind of way, where if your hair was big it was going to be real big and, you know...

Ms. PARTON: Well, I think a lot of that came, though, from a very serious place. That was country girl's idea of what glamour was. And when I, you know, I didnt have any money to have stuff and I've often joked about it, but it's the real truth that I patterned myself after what they considered the trash in our hometown.

There was this one woman, I thought she was beautiful and, you know, she had the peroxide hair and she, you know, had it all piled up on her head and had red fingernails and red lipstick and, you know, wore her powder. And I just thought she was the prettiest thing I'd ever seen. And Mommy said, oh, quit looking at her. She ain't nothing but trash. And I though ooh, that's what I want to be when I grow up, trash.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARTON: So that's where kind of my look came from. And then how the glamour girls and the movie stars all that, you know, it was really like that. But it was still, you know, I mean, I enjoy it, I still like doing it, and I've always just, it's like when they say less is more, that's not my motto. Mine is more is more and the more I can get the more I want of life and of everything.

And it's like - but in addition to me being all that gaudy and all, I take my music and my writing very very serious. And hopefully, people know that my heart is true. And I've always believed that a part of my magic, if there was any, was the fact that I look so artificial but I am so totally real. And I think when you hear these kinds of songs, I think you know that it has to come from the heart.

GROSS: Dolly Parton, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Ms. PARTON: Well, thank you.

Dolly Parton, recorded in 2001.

Coming up, we conclude our country music series with Charlie Rich, who got his start at Sun Records, then became an originator of the countrypolitan sound.

This is FRESH AIR.

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