NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. In a new book, Dolly Parton describes a quick, nervous glance through the curtain at an unusual audience for her: the graduating class of 2009 at the University of Tennessee's College of Arts and Sciences. The queen of country music was about to receive an honorary doctorate and deliver a commencement address.
Like most everything she's tried in her long career, she nailed it. That speech forms the basis of a new book about the principles behind her enormous success in music, in television, in movies and as a theme park entrepreneur. The first of them became the title: "Dream More."
In part, it's the story of the dreamer who told her high school graduating class that she planned to go to Nashville to be a star, how to visualize success and adjust your goals along the way. When and how have you revised your dream? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, an update on the constitutional crisis in Egypt. But first, Dolly Parton joins us from our bureau in New York, and welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
DOLLY PARTON: Well, hello there, and thank you for inviting me.
CONAN: I have to say, the first thing that surprised me in the book was the nerves that led to that peek between the curtains before your speech.
PARTON: Well, everybody says that, but I have to tell you, speaking like that in front of people is not really my expertise, because I'm better at writing songs or singing or telling a story about a song just before I sing it or telling a joke, that sort of thing. But when you do something serious, so serious that it could affect or possibly even change the lives of some of the young people sitting out there in the audience, not knowing if I'm qualified to do that, educated enough to try, and just knowing that I'm just kind of stepping out of my comfort zone, it was a little bit unnerving, to say the least.
But I knew I could do it. I mean, I never had second thoughts that I wasn't going to do it. And I'd worked hard to try to say things that would matter, but I still have to say I'd much be writing - I'd rather be writing and singing a song than making a speech. Let's put it that way.
But it seemed to have worked, and now it's, as you've said, led to this book that hopefully might have a few nuggets of wisdom and a little help for some people out there.
CONAN: One of the important distinctions you make is the distinction between dreams and wishes.
PARTON: Well, that's true, because a lot of people don't know the difference. I don't know if I can exactly define the difference. It's just that, to me, to dream something, actually, you really know that's something that you can have, and then you set about having to work it. You have to, as I've often said, you've got to put arms and legs and wings and feet and hands on dreams. You've got to get it out and make it come true.
But when you're just wishing something would happen, it's just kind of empty. It's just empty thoughts and dream there, or fantasize. And if you don't really get out and put some sweat into it and, really, some muscle power, it's not likely to happen. So you don't want to just wish your life away. You want to dream it and get out and do it.
CONAN: You describe yourself as a young girl on, I guess, your first stage, your front porch. Is that where your dream began?
PARTON: Yes. I think it was, because as I talked early on in the book about being a dress - I mean, a dream that dressed me up when I was ragged and a dream that filled me up when I was hungry. And it's been a dream that, you know, that's carried me all the way through. But I've worked it.
But, yes, when I was little, I used to put a tin can on a tobacco stalk, stick it down in the cracks on the front porch, and that was my stage. And all the little bitty kids and the animals out in the yard were my - that was my audience. But, you know, to me, I was pretending I was singing, you know, in the Grand Ole Opry or just singing, you know, thinking - I didn't really even know what all I was doing, except that I felt like I was entertaining, because music was a big part of my family - my mother's people, especially.
But I was dreaming. I was planning, and I was thinking about all those things, and I carried that all the way through my life and was dead serious about it by seventh and eighth grade, knowing that I was already prepping to go to Nashville, and that when I graduated in 1964, that's where I was heading. And that's where I went.
CONAN: We played that clip of tape of you talking about the - your own graduation from high school and how people responded when you said you were going to go to Nashville and be a star. But the dream is one thing. Then you hit the reality of Music City.
PARTON: Yeah, I did. But, you know, anywhere you go, people say, well, ain't you afraid you'll starve to death? Ain't you afraid you'll go hungry? I said, well I couldn't be any poorer than we've been here. And I'm not a bad-looking girl. I'm sure I can find a boyfriend to take me to some drive-in restaurant to get the cheeseburger and then probably talk him into getting me one to go.
I figured I wasn't going to go hungry even if I just had to - will date for food, you know, that kind of thing.
PARTON: And I used to walk through the halls of, like, the Holiday Inn and a few little hotels around there, and I'd get the food, you know, that people had set outside their doors, you know, because there's a lot of good food that people throw out. You know, there's nothing wrong with picking up a french fry. Even if it's a little cold and soggy, they ain't touched that.
But you do what you got to do. So I made do. I'd take a bottle of ketchup, make it last forever, make tomato soup and water, or mustard soup and water. So I went the whole bit with all that in the early days, but I wouldn't take nothing for it. I wouldn't change it.
CONAN: Did you have to recalibrate, adjust your dream to say, look, this is what I thought I wanted, but I'm going to have to try to go about this a different way?
PARTON: No, I was lucky. I got hooked up with good people, early on. People saw how serious I was. And I had so many brothers, and my dad. I knew how to deal with men. I've often said that I look like a woman, but I think like a man, or I certainly can think like a man. And I was not intimidated by that, and I was never insulted when a, you know, when a guy would, you know, come on to me.
I was as big a flirt as anybody. But I never did sell myself to try to get ahead in the business. You know, I never did have to do any of that. But I saw early on that I was watching everything that everybody was doing, and I started making some pretty good moves early on, and I just prayed hard and worked hard, and I guess momma was praying real hard back home, too.
So, evidently, it must have worked, because you really - I look back on it now, I'll find old books and old calendars, or people will send me tapes and things from years and years ago, and I think, oh, my Lord. You know, back in the '70s, I forget the other day we were counting up, and I forget how many dates I'd worked that year.
I mean, it was just outrageous. And I thought: How did I even do all that? I don't even remember it because when you love something, you just do what you're doing, or you do what you've got to do to make it work. And I had to work to keep a bus and a band and all that before I got - you know, even before I got with Porter. And then after I got with Porter, I had to make ends meet for myself.
CONAN: Porter, of course, Porter Wagoner.
PARTON: Porter Wagoner. Yes, I'm sorry.
CONAN: And the TV show that you were on with him, where you first, I guess, well, hit it bigger, and also decided at some point you had to leave.
PARTON: Well, actually we'll go back just a little bit. I had a couple of chart records before I started working with "The Porter Wagoner Show," which Porter's show was the number one syndicated show in the country at that time. And Porter had actually found me, had seen me on some local TV, and different people were talking about me to him.
And he was looking for a girl singer, because his singer had - was leaving the show and moving back to somewhere else. She'd gotten married, I guess, or something. And so when he called me in, I thought it was about some songs I had written, because I was sending songs to him and the girl, Norma Jean, that was on his show at the time.
I would send songs over to his office, and I thought it was probably about that when I heard that he wanted to see me, wanted to have a meeting with me. So I went in, took my guitar, and said, well, was there something you wanted to hear, or whatever? And he said no, I wanted to offer you a job if you're interested. And so it was too good of a deal to turn down.
But I told him at that time that I wanted to have my own band, I wanted to have my own show and that I would stay, you know, for a few years. I said I can't possibly stay more than five. I stayed seven. We didn't get along that well. We were both very headstrong. But we had a lot of success, and there was a lot of love, too, but it was, like, just one of those things where we disagreed on so many things.
But it was a wonderful start for me, and I'll always be grateful. And it was because of me wanting to go and him having a fit about it that I finally wrote the song "I Will Always Love You," which really kind of sums it up. And that was the song that kind of melted the ice there, and he produced it, and I left.
CONAN: And you weren't the only one who had a success with it, of course.
PARTON: No, of course not. That song was - well, with Whitney, you know, she took it worldwide, and with Kevin Costner choosing it for the theme song for "The Bodyguard" movie. Then it just went - just became one of the biggest love songs ever. And it's just a gift that keeps on giving. But it started as a very simple song based on a heartfelt feeling.
CONAN: We're talking with Dolly Parton about her new book "Dream More: Celebrate the Dreamer in You." And we want to hear from the dreamers in our audience and how you've had to adjust them: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's start with Louis, and Louis on the line with us from Boulder, in Colorado.
LOUIS: How are you doing this afternoon?
CONAN: Good, thanks. Go ahead.
LOUIS: Well, myself, I find sometimes dreams just come back after a very extended period of time. When I was a kid, I was pretty into science. You know, I was one of those kind of nerdy kids, idolized Albert Einstein. Unfortunately, I was also blessed with ADD and wound up out of school by middle school. And by my 20s, my main ambition was to be in the Cirque du Soleil. I was making a living off of street performance, doing a lot of traveling, until I blew a knee out during a New Year's Eve performance and wound up having to reevaluate that dream.
CONAN: I can understand that. So what did you decide to do?
LOUIS: Well, you fast-forward about 10 years, and I'm just wrapped up as a green environmental engineer and going out to San Francisco to present my research next week. So sometimes one dream getting killed just makes you wait for another dream to come back and get a second chance.
CONAN: It sounds like there's one constant, though: working at it.
LOUIS: Oh, no. You don't get anywhere without work, at least nowhere worth getting to, I reckon.
CONAN: Dolly Parton, I think you can probably relate to that.
PARTON: Yeah. Well, actually, I admire him, because, see, a lot of people, dreams - wishes and dreams, we were talking about the difference there, but a lot of dreams can turn to nightmares, as well, if you don't really work them. And sometimes you can have these dreams, and you can take all the scripture of - through God all things are possible, and things still don't work out.
But then you've got to look at it like maybe God had something bigger for you to start with. Maybe what you wanted was not necessarily what you should have, but he didn't stop dreaming. And I think that's wonderful, because he's right about, you know, one dream can lead into another, till maybe your ultimate dream is more what was best for you, anyway.
CONAN: Louis, good luck to you. Thanks very much for the call.
LOUIS: Well, hey. Have a good one.
CONAN: We're talking with Dolly Parton. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOLENE")
PARTON: (Singing) Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, I'm begging of you please don't take my man. Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, please don't take him just because you can.
CONAN: Dolly Parton with "Jolene." In 1973, that song became one of her first hit singles, and the story of a woman begging Jolene, the temptress with flaming locks of auburn hair, not to steal husband, has haunted musicians ever since. It was an early success in a long career, the career she dreamed of as a little girl and made happen in Nashville.
If you have a long-held dream you've revised and worked along the way, call and tell us about it, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Dolly Parton's new book is "Dream More," and she's with us from our bureau in New York. And let's see if we can go to Catherine(ph), Catherine with us from Mountain View in California.
CATHERINE: Hello, thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
CATHERINE: Yeah, I wanted to share my story. I was doing my graduate work in counseling in Vermont, and during that time I got into bike riding, which turned into bike racing. And when I completed my graduate degree, I decided to pursue my dream of being a professional cyclist.
So I packed up my car, my bikes, drove across the country, landed in California with - knowing two people, and for the next eight years, I competed as a professional cyclist, racing around the world. And it was definitely a 180 from, you know, a master's in counseling to being a professional cyclist. And I have no regrets. It was the best eight years - yeah.
CONAN: You had to have some real gut belief that you were good enough.
CATHERINE: Yeah, and I did. I mean similar to Ms. Parton, growing up in a musical family, I grew up in an athletic family. And it was definitely a calculated risk. But I remember driving across the country being like what in the heck am I doing with my life?
CATHERINE: And, you know, I just kind of had faith that my skills, of hard work, determination, fortitude and stubbornness that, you know, I was going to make it. And for me it was more about the process than the goal in terms of pursuing something that I was passionate about, and I feel really lucky to have been able to do that.
CONAN: And professional cycling is not a long-term career. Are you going to fall back on that master's?
CATHERINE: You know, ironically enough, no. I am now the office manager for a company that imports and distributes wine.
CATHERINE: So another different - but I use my skills that I learned as a counselor, you know, on a daily basis, not just, kind of, the mental health counseling, which we all could use at one time or another, but just general skills and again hard work, determination. So...
CONAN: Well Catherine, that's a great story. Thank you so much for sharing it.
CATHERINE: Thank you very much, and Ms. Parton, I'm a huge fan. So this is an honor to be on a show with you.
PARTON: Well thank you so much. I think that's amazing what you did. I talk in my book about putting arms and legs and wings on dreams, and you certainly had to use them arms and legs on that bicycle, didn't you?
CATHERINE: Yes, ma'am, I did.
PARTON: And if you drink enough wine, you can just forget about all of it when you get older.
CATHERINE: Yes, exactly.
CATHERINE: Amen to that.
PARTON: Or you can remember it fondly, all of it.
CONAN: Thanks again, Catherine.
CATHERINE: Thank you.
CONAN: But that moment of gee, I wonder if I know what I'm doing, there's a moment in your book, you're about to open Dollywood, and you approach some people with this idea, and they say you are out of your mind.
PARTON: That's true, because I know ever since I started to make it in the business, I'd always thought if I do make or when I make it, I want to do something great back home to honor my father and mother, and, you know, have the, you know, the family be proud of me up there and all the folks in that area.
So I'd had that dream to have Dollywood, and I went to my lawyers and managers at the time - or my accountants, and they said this is insane, just like you said. And so I felt so passionate about it, I thought well, this is what I want to do, and I feel it in my gut. I just feel that this is the right thing to do.
So I went over their heads and did it anyway. And as you can see, it's a huge success. And needless to say, I don't use those people anymore.
CONAN: Here's an email we have from Gwynneth(ph): Well, I was working towards becoming an astronomer when I went blind. Nothing like shift happening. So now I'm a blind mom back in college learning everything I can get my hands on and loving every minute of it. So fate can intervene in your dreams, as well.
This from Leah(ph) in Santiago, Chile: Revised dreams, when the bank took my house and everything I own back in 2008, after spending a number of months crying, I thought well, now that I don't have a mortgage, furniture or a place to live and none of the responsibility that comes with those things anymore, I'm free to do something new. So I thought well, I've always wanted to leave the U.S. and live in South America.
Moved here, Chile, in 2009 with the only thing I had left: my German shepherd. Still here three and a half years later. Good job, found another foreigner for a boyfriend, learned the language, got my driver's license, about to buy a new truck and thinking about starting my own business. No, I'm not lucky. It's been real hard. But meeting the challenge with gusto makes me thrilled with living.
And I wanted to ask you a little bit more about dreams. You represent to a lot of people the enormous success of Nashville. And there are thousands who come there every year with dreams, not unlike yours. And thousands who, even if they're talented, you've always said you had more guts than talent. But even if you were - even if they have the talent and work hard at it, it just never happens for them.
PARTON: Well, that's very true. A lot of it has to do with attitude, just like Leah and the other folks that you were talking about. At least they have a good attitude. But it's true, even within my own family I talk about in the book, too, how I have a guilt complex about being the one that's so successful when so many of them are so much more talented than me. And so many friends that I know in Nashville that have twice the talent that I've had, that I've seen them come and go through the years and never see their dream come true.
You don't really know that individual's life. A lot of people get off-track. A lot of people will have a lot of momentum going, they'll get something going, and they'll either fall in love, and they'll be with someone who's not good for them, they get off-track, they let too much time go by, they lose momentum, so - or some get on drugs, some get on alcohol, some get on - you know, they get off of the path that they have to stay on.
Some are not willing to sacrifice what it takes to do it. So there's all kinds of reasons for it, and one never knows another's, you know, life. And that's why people say oh, can you give me advice, I say I don't give advice, I'll just give you some information, maybe a few pointers here and there, just like in the book.
You can't run another's life. But I know I've just been blessed, and I've just been thankful. And whatever it is, I've never lost my faith, and I never lost momentum. I never got off-track. I never turned loose from my dream. And I'm still onto it tight as I can.
CONAN: How do you keep focus in the face of challenges, in the face of time, in the face of what you describe people who are energy vampires?
PARTON: Well, I never wanted to have to work a real job. I never wanted to work that hard. I knew that God gave me a talent, and he gave me the kind of personality that I could use my personality, as well as my talent. And I just felt like if I, kind of, followed direction, I pray and ask for guidance, and I believe what I pray, and I just kind of wait for, you know, answers or at least a kind of feel of how to do it and what not to do and, you know, who to work with, who not to work with.
I just kind of have a gut feeling about those kind of things, and I'd like to think that's because I've really work hard at trying to stay focused on the spiritual end of it and just kind of stay in tune to myself and stay in tune with other people - because I'm very intuitive, you know, about stuff like that.
So - but I just know that this is what I've - this is what God gave me. And I feel like that I've been able to make a living at it, and I'd be sinning against my gifts if I didn't do this. I don't know enough about anything else to say that I could make a go of it. Or maybe I could, but I haven't had to change my dream. I haven't been forced to do that.
So I feel double blessed because of that.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Jim, and Jim's with us from Reno.
JIM: Hey. It's a real pleasure to talk to both of you today.
CONAN: Thank you.
JIM: Yeah. Yeah. You know, I can relate to what Mrs. Parton is saying. I wanted to be a pilot as a kid. I was - actually, I was four years old, my first airline trip. And the pilot came back, you know, and, boy, I thought he was back there to talk to me. It took me years before I realized it was my hot mom, probably. But - so, you know, I kept that through middle school, but I had a pretty tough time. We were poor, and there was a lot of violence and drugs in the house.
And somewhere along the line I kind of lost that, so I was a motorcycle mechanic. And I guess I was about 20 and kind of halfheartedly going to college, didn't know what I wanted to do. So I got a little sailboat, and I sailed down to Mexico and was down there for about six months. And I was running around on the beach like a caged tiger, and I'm like, what am I going to do? And then it hit me: Yeah, I want to fly. That's what I wanted to do. That's what I need to do.
And I came home, got another job as a motorcycle mechanic, went through school. Fifteen years later, I was captain on a 747, and you know, she's absolutely right. You just have to make it happen. I mean, I remember telling my dad as I worked with - when I was finally leaving, you know, I'm going to go be a pilot. And he's like, ah, you're too old. It'll never work. It's not going to happen. And - but it did, you know? It just took a lot of work and a lot of going in the same direction.
CONAN: Was your dad still around when you got the chance to fly him in a 747?
JIM: Yeah. Mom and Dad are actually very young. When I was four -ow, of course, having been a pilot, I know that the guy was back there to talk to my mom. She had me when she was 18, and she's like Dolly, you know, a little cute blonde. And...
PARTON: Hah. Thank you.
JIM: So Mom is only 65 now, and Dad is 66. So, yeah, they were pretty proud of me.
CONAN: Congratulations, Jim.
PARTON: Well, I'm proud of you too. I think that's a wonderful story. That's great.
JIM: Thank you. Thank you very much.
JIM: Pleasure to talk to you both.
PARTON: Maybe I'll fly with you someday.
JIM: Well, you never know. You just might.
PARTON: You don't. You don't.
CONAN: Thanks, Jim.
JIM: It's a small world. Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an email we have, this from Patty(ph): As a teenager, I wanted to join the Peace Corps. Well, children, life and other things took over. The dream was put on hold. Now at 56, almost 57, I will graduate with my B.A. in English. My children are grown and happy. My application to the Peace Corps is almost complete, and I hope to leave in the beginning of 2014.
We're talking about dreams with Dolly Parton. Her new book is called "Dream More: Celebrate the Dreamer in You." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.
Michael's on the line with us from Birmingham.
MICHAEL: Hi, Neal. Hi, Dolly.
MICHAEL: When I was 31, I started writing. It was my dream to write a novel. I would work on it an hour before work each morning. It got published: "A Place Called Wiregrass," "Slow Way Home," and "Man in the Blue Moon." And one day I got a letter from Dolly, and I just want to tell you how much that meant to me, and it's one of my most prized possessions. So thank you so much for encouraging me and so many other people to follow our dreams.
PARTON: Well, I love that - I've told you in the letter that I loved your books, and I did encourage you, and thank you for sending me the second one too. I just really think you're spectacular, and I - that's amazing that you called in today. So I'm proud of you. You're following your dream, and you're good at it too.
MICHAEL: Well, thank you so much. And I just want to thank you publicly too for what you do for the Imagination Library and wish you could talk a little bit about that and how you got the dream to start that wonderful program too.
CONAN: Oh, go ahead, please.
PARTON: Well, that's actually one of my favorite things that I do. I'm known as the Book Lady. The kids all call me that because, as you know, we send books from - to children from the time they're born till they start school. And they get a book a month in their name in the mailbox, so they're kind of, you know, really selfish about their books. They don't want anybody messing with it unless they're going to help them to read. So it's their little property.
But I just felt like that it was better to teach children when they're very young and most impressionable. And the idea came from the fact that a lot of my own relatives - my dad couldn't read and write, didn't get a chance to go to school, but was a very, very smart man, and I saw how crippling that was to him. And so I dedicated the book to my dad, but I just think we can't get enough books in the hands of enough children.
So we've given away 47 million books to date, and hopefully there will be millions and millions and millions more just because children can - if you can read, you can self-educate yourself. If you don't have the money to go to school, there's a book on anything you want to learn about. So you can be whatever if you can read.
CONAN: ...thanks very much for the prompt.
MICHAEL: Thank you so much, and thank you, Dolly. God bless you.
PARTON: Thank you. Send me anything you write. I love it.
MICHAEL: Thank you. Bye-bye.
CONAN: And let's see if we can go to Steven(ph), Steven with us from Jackson Hole in Wyoming.
STEVEN: Hi, Neal. Hi, Dolly.
CONAN: How you doing?
STEVEN: I'm doing well. What a wonderful message, Dolly. And my story about dreams and dreaming is I moved to Jackson Hole to learn to snowboard, which was my early dream to take a year off before college. And I did that. That was 26 years ago.
And then as I got - learned this new sport of snowboarding, I became passionate about it. I wanted to take it one step further and one step further. And I was looking up into the high Teton Mountains around Jackson Hole, and they hadn't been snowboarded back then, and I thought, wow, I want to go and snowboard up on the Grand Teton and make the first snowboard descent.
STEVEN: And I knew I needed something more than what I had. I had talent and ability in snowboarding, but I didn't know how to climb, and I knew I needed mentors, people to help me learn things that I didn't know. And I found some mentors who were willing to literally teach me the ropes and taught me how to climb and then took me up the Grand Teton, and I made that first descent in 1989.
STEVEN: And then I was thinking, well, what's next? What can I do next? I'm still passionate about the sport of snowboarding and climbing in the mountains. And I thought of the - I read a book by Dick Bass called "The Seven Summits" and - about the highest mountain on each continent. And they had never been snowboarded. And I thought, whoa, I want to try and snowboard the seven summits.
CONAN: Steven, I don't mean to hustle you along, but we got about 30 seconds left.
STEVEN: OK, yeah. So anyway, I snowboarded the seven summits over the course of 10 years.
STEVEN: I snowboarded - well, I snowboarded six of them and Mount Everest was the last one, the grand daddy of them all.
STEVEN: And I was trying the north face of it without oxygen and with a very small team to try and make a complete descent, which had not been done. And halfway up I had to turn around. I decided that it just wasn't worth the risk at that point. And so my dream changed from the seven summits snowboarding quest, and I totally stopped that. And now I call it six and a half.
PARTON: Yeah. But man, that's an amazing thing that you've done there. I mean - I can't say nothing to a dreamer like you, but yay, you. Wow.
CONAN: Dolly Parton - yay, you - thank you for being with us today.
PARTON: Thank you.
CONAN: Dolly Parton's new book is "Dream More." Stay with us. It's NPR News.
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