Editor’s note: CMT Greatest Moments: Dolly Parton premieres Friday (July 7) at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
Everybody — yes, everybody — knows Dolly Parton. Whether it’s her magnificent Dollywood theme park, her eloquent “I Will Always Love You,” her bubbly roles in the films Steel Magnolias and 9 to 5, her shapely figure on the cover of Playboy or her double Oscar nominations for songwriting, Parton has proven that a country star can dream without boundaries. Here, the Country Music Hall of Fame member talks to CMT producer Jeremy Thacker about several highlights from her brilliant career.
CMT: Is it true that Elvis also wanted to record “I Will Always Love You”?
Parton: I hesitated to tell it for a long time because I thought maybe people would not take it right because it was Elvis. But Elvis loved “I Will Always Love You,” and he wanted to record it. I got the word that he was going to record it, and I was so excited. I told everybody I knew, “Elvis is going to record my song. You’re not going to believe who’s recording my song.” It’s like one of those things I told everybody. I thought it was a done deal because he don’t just say he’s going to do something. Anyway, he sent word that he loved it and he was doing it. They get to town and they call and they ask if I want to come to the session — and, of course, I was going to go.
Then Colonel Tom [Parker, Presley's manager] gets on the phone and said, “You know, I really love this song,” and I said, “You cannot imagine how excited I am about this. This is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me as a songwriter.” He said, “Now you know we have a rule that Elvis don’t record anything that we don’t take half the publishing.” And I was really quiet. I said, “Well, now it’s already been a hit. I wrote it and I’ve already published it. And this is the stuff I’m leaving for my family when I’m dead and gone. That money goes in for stuff for my brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews, so I can’t give up half the publishing.” And he said, “Well then, we can’t record it.” I guess they thought since they already had it prepared and already had it ready, that I would do it.
I said, “I’m really sorry,” and I cried all night. I mean, it was like the worst thing. You know, it’s like, “Oh, my God … Elvis Presley.” And other people were saying, “You’re nuts. It’s Elvis Presley. I mean, hell, I’d give him all of it.” I said, “I can’t do that. Something in my heart says, ‘Don’t do that.’” And I just didn’t do it, and they just didn’t do it. But I always wondered what it would sound like. I know he’d kill it. Don’t you? He would have killed it. But anyway, so he didn’t. Then when Whitney [Houston's version] came out, I made enough money to buy Graceland. (laughs)
Tell us about making 9 to 5 with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.
9 to 5 will always be special to me because it was my first movie. It’s kind of like my first love. And even though I did other things after — and, hopefully, will do other things, as well — that one will always be special because it was the first time I had ever done a movie. I had never even seen a movie made. I made a lot of silly mistakes that they laughed at me about. Like, I memorized the whole script, not knowing. I thought you did a movie like a play. I thought you started it and you went straight through it. I didn’t know that you stopped and started so many times. But, anyhow, I memorized it.
But I was very excited because I had been offered movies before. But up until then, I hadn’t seen anything I really wanted to do because my music was more important. But when this came along, Jane Fonda was a huge star. Lily Tomlin, I was crazy about. She was a big star at the time, too. And so I thought, “Wow, this can only be great. And if it’s a big success, then I’ll just be in there with them, and I’ll be part of it. And if it’s a big flop, I’m just gonna blame them. I’ll go back to singing.”
On the set with all the people, I made a lot of great friends. I had the great opportunity to write the theme song for it, which I wrote right on the set. … I would do the “Working 9 to 5/What a way to make a living.” Then I’d watch what was going on all through the day on the set, and I’d get inspiration, and I’d go back to the hotel at night and work on the verses. It was really a labor of love all the way through, and it turned out to be a little classic.
You were on the cover of Playboy. Even though you didn’t take anything off, people just gasped.
I think people gasped when I was on the cover of Playboy because they thought I probably had some nude layouts inside, but I did not. I just wore that cute little bunny suit that the girls wear at the club — well, my own version of it — and the little bunny ears and all. Actually, they did a very good article inside the magazine. That was when I was beginning to grow and cross over in the business. I was having some pop records and had good management, so therefore I had some good PR people, and they were putting together these types of things. But I’m not embarrassed by that. Every now and then, somebody will bring that cover of an old magazine. Some old horny man will still have it — “Will you sign this for me?” Have slobber specks on it and stuff. (laughs) But I sign it.
You just had a No. 1 song with Brad Paisley with “When I Get Where I’m Going.” You are one of the only artists who has had a Top 10 hit in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and 2000s. How does that feel?
It feels great to be No. 1, no matter whose coattail you’re riding on. In that particular case with Brad Paisley’s song, I just felt very lucky to be a part of that. That was a great song, first of all. The guys that wrote that, it came straight from their heart, and it was based on some truth in their lives. Then, Brad, of course, is one of the great singers and one of the most precious people in the entire world. And he asked if I would come sing on it. I said, “Is anybody else going to be singing?” Because I was trying to figure out what harmony part I’d sing. He said, “No, it’s just going to be you and me.” I said “So can I just sing anything I want to on it, just whatever I feel led to sing?” He said, “Absolutely. That’s exactly what I want you to do.” So I got in the studio. He had already put his part down, and I had the headphones on and I just sat. You know, just like I always do. I just said, “Just be here. Just feed me what you want me to do.” And so I just started singing.
The song first of all really touched me, and then when I started singing and heard our voices together, it really inspired me to sing the way that I sang it. And the tears were rolling down my face just hearing the song and hearing our voices together. It made me see every dead person, every dead relative I had ever loved and lost. It made me have hope that they were really there. That song just touched my soul, and what came out of me was just what God put in my heart to sing. That song, to this day, every time I hear it, the tears come to my eyes. And I lost my mom and dad not terribly long ago, and I’m going to cry. It touches me, and I was just very proud. It wasn’t about being No. 1. It was about being a part of something great.
You’re known by one name, like Madonna or Cher. How do you feel to be a pop icon? Do you consider yourself that?
Oh, I don’t know how I consider myself. I’m just Dolly. To me, I’m still just that little ragged girl that grew up dreaming in the Smoky Mountains, and now I’m seeing it come true. That’s a great feeling. I’m very grateful. The older I get, the more I realize how lucky that I’ve been. A whole lot of it has to do with luck. You’ve got to have talent, and I’ve always had more guts than I’ve had talent. But I always try to back it up. I’m willing to work, though. I work hard for everything I get. I’ve been blessed, and it’s like when people know my name, that’s a great, great honor. And so I wouldn’t put me there with Madonna. Maybe Methuselah. (laughs)