Dolly Parton on the Joys of Songwriting: ‘It’s What I Do and Who I Am’

Dolly Parton on the Joys of Songwriting: ‘It’s What I Do and Who I Am’
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Dolly Parton already knows how she will spend her 75th birthday on Jan. 19, 2021: As she does every year to mark the occasion, she will write a song. “It’s a commemorative thing to write something on my birthday — it’s what I do and what I am,” she says. “I just think it’s my gift to myself.”

Her songs have also been her gift to the world. As one of the most revered singer-songwriters of the modern era, Parton has taken 26 titles to No. 1 on Billboard’s country charts and scored 44 top 10 country albums. From her first No. 1 single, 1971’s “Joshua,” to her most recent chart-topping album, October’s A Holly Dolly Christmas, Parton has contributed dozens of classics to the contemporary canon, including “Jolene,” “Coat of Many Colors” and “I Will Always Love You.”

The joy that this year’s Billboard Women in Music Hitmaker takes in her craft hasn’t changed one bit, though. “It’s something I love to do,” she says. “I love thinking I’m putting something in the world today that wasn’t there yesterday — and hopefully will be there forever.”

Who are your songwriting heroes?

I have so many: Merle Haggard, Elton John, Billy Joel, Paul Simon. Hank Williams is one of the greatest ever because people can take his songs and do them in any fashion. They are simple, sweet songs, but they just touch your guts and reach you wherever they want to.

How did your first No. 1 hit change your life?

I remember feeling like all our hard work had paid off: I was going to be able to make a life in this business. I don’t remember making that much money from [“Joshua”] at that time, but I’m sure I spent it on stage clothes or my family or something like that. I remember watching it rise up the charts and thinking, “Golly, that’s such a great feeling!”

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You’ve talked very eloquently about experiencing rough times in your life, especially during the 1980s. How did songwriting help you get through them?

My guitar and my songwriting: That’s my therapy; that’s my doctors, my nurses, my medicine. I really think my music has saved me — and saved a lot of other people because I’m able to write the feelings of people who are broken and don’t know how to express it. I can do it for them, and it really seems to help. It is wonderful when you’re going through hurt to be able to write about it.

What did you think the first time you heard Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You”?

When I heard that huge production with Whitney’s voice, my gosh, who could even sing better than that? And David Foster’s arrangement overwhelmed me. I would have never in a million years believed that my little heartfelt song could have turned into one of the biggest love songs of all time. I was never so proud in my life as a songwriter to think that my little song could be that good and that big.

In an interview with Billboard this summer, you said, “Of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter?” Your words ricocheted across social media — there was even a mural painted of you with that quote in Nashville. Did that reaction surprise you?

I don’t really realize it until it’s already said. I just answer from my heart when somebody asks me a direct question. I love everybody. And, of course, Black lives matter. We all matter. We’re all God’s children. I hope people learn to love one another a little more than they do, and if I can be any help in that respect, then I hope to be.

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This article originally appeared in the Dec. 5, 2020, issue of Billboard.