With so many young people returning to college in a few weeks, CMT.com visited with Dolly Parton — who accepted an honorary doctorate in May from the University of Tennessee — about moving to Nashville, meeting husband Carl Dean and making smart business decisions and managing employees.
You moved to Nashville immediately after graduating from high school. What do you remember about your first summer in Nashville?
Parton: Well, I met my husband my first day in Nashville because I was doing dirty laundry at a little place down on Wedgewood Avenue called the Wishy Washy. I was here looking around, thinking of my future and what all it was going to be, and that there were going to be no men in the picture at that time. So I met him and two years later, I married him. But he never held me back on my dream because he knew I had come here to be a singer and a songwriter. I just couldn’t believe the day I got here. I thought, “I’m here. I’m really here. I’m really here forever. I’m here to live and to be part of it.” I had made different trips back and forth, of course. It was home and has been ever since ’64.
What odd jobs did you have when you first arrived?
Actually, I got lucky early on. I got a chance to write for a publishing company and had a little bit of money coming in. But before that, I used to fill up the ketchup and mustard bottles and fill the salt and pepper shakers at a restaurant called Couser’s. They’re still in business. It’s the best country food in Nashville. It was then and it is now. They used to let me eat free if I would do those little things, so it really wasn’t about money as much as it was just a swap-off for food.
You scored some cuts as a songwriter before your own performing career took off. What do you remember about that time?
Actually, the first one that was recorded by another artist was a song my uncle Bill Owens and I wrote. It was called “Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” and it was the BMI song of the year (in 1966). … Bill Phillips on Decca Records recorded it. I had sent the demo over. My uncle was singing the lead and I was singing harmony, so when [Phillips] got ready to record that, he said, “I want whoever that girl was to sing the same harmony.” So I went to sing with him, which was a big deal because he was a big artist at that time. … It was because of me singing on it that people started saying, “Who is that girl?” And when they found out, that’s how I got my first record deal, as well.
I’ve seen episodes of The Porter Wagoner Show from the ’60s where Porter puts his arm around people and pulls them right up to him. Was that typical of his personality?
Oh, yeah. Porter was a very warm, friendly country boy and was a real down-home person. Country people believe in putting their arm around you or slapping you on the back or whatever.
Being so early in your career, were you nervous about the TV cameras?
I was nervous with Porter! (laughs and lightly kicks the reporter in the shins) Getting back to being serious … I remember when I was a little kid back in Knoxville, I was singing on a local show and one of the camera men said to me, “Just make friends with that camera and these red lights on the front of the camera.” He said, “I know that’ll be intimidating, but just look at that camera like you are looking at somebody in your family — like you’re looking at your mama.” So from then on, I just looked at the camera like it was someone I knew, like it was my family looking back at me. Or somebody I had a crush on, depending on what song I was singing. If it was a love song, I’d look at that camera and flirt with it like it was a boy. … I was never afraid of the camera, and I learned how to move back and forth with the red lights. I learned that early on.
When did you realize you had a knack for business?
Well, you don’t really realize what you know until you look back later, when other people say, “How’d you know to do that?” To me, it was just natural to be protective of my songs. The second I was able to publish my own songs, I thought, “Why do I need to be letting other people handle my songs?” You have to do business in order to get ahead. … The second I saw that I had enough going that I could start my own publishing company, not even knowing what I was doing, I started putting that together. That was one of the best moves I ever made.
What advice would you give for entrepreneurs hoping to hire the right people?
It’s helpful if you’ve got that thing inside you to know what to do. If you don’t know what to do, at least have a feel for what kind of people to choose. … Knowing you don’t know everything, go find the people that do know and don’t begrudge what little dab of money you’re going to pay them. A lot of people don’t want to pay a percentage to have a manager or somebody to help them. But it’s like that old saying: “I’d rather have half of something than all of nothing.” You’ve got to let people do what they do, and you’ve got to find the people that know what they’re doing. Keep your eye on them and make sure they’re honest people. If they’re not, get away from them as soon as you can. Take your losses and run.View photos of Dolly Parton.