With a career spanning nearly 45 years, Dolly Parton shows no signs of slowing down.
In fact, the legendary singer-songwriter, known for her poetic lyrics, charisma, glitzy couture and quips (“It takes a lot of money to look this cheap”), is busier than ever. And for a woman who’s mastered nearly every stage possible — from Nashville to Hollywood to Broadway — she’ll be the first to say her work is never done.
Her latest project, Better Day, is a 12-song compilation of original and heartening new music. The first single, “Together You and I,” is a remake of a song she first recorded in 1974 with singing partner Porter Wagoner. What began as a tender ode to her husband over 40 years ago has now taken on a contemporary sound and even suggests a more universal idea.
To spread not only her music but also her encouraging message, she is embarking on an international tour, beginning in July, with stops in the United States, Europe and Australia. But before she leaves for her first stop in Knoxville, Tenn., (near her childhood home), Parton stopped by CMT’s offices for an in-depth and personal conversation. As she looks forward to the future, the musical icon also reflects on the past — revealing both heartaches and hopes — and her faith in a better day.
“I ask God every day to work through me and to help me do things that will uplift the human spirit, which is really the big reason why I wanted to do an uplifting album now,” she said. “The Better Day CD is to kind of make people feel better about themselves and about life and just about things right now.”
Here’s the first half of a two-part interview.
Having listened to your music since I was a little girl, I’ve always admired your positivity. How do you remain so optimistic?
Parton: I was born with a happy heart, and I try to keep a good attitude. It’s not true that I’m happy all the time because nobody is, and we all go through our things. As I often say, I’m a songwriter, so I have to live with my feelings on my sleeve and leave my heart soft enough to be able to feel enough stuff to write songs about. I just try to look for the good in things. When I wake up, I expect things to be good. If they’re not, then I try to set about trying to make them as good as I can ’cause I know I’m gonna have to live that day anyway. So why not try to make the most of it if you can? Somedays, they pan out a little better than others, but you still gotta always just try.
“Together You and I” was a song you originally recorded with Porter Wagoner. Why did you decide to remake and re-record it?
Kent Wells is the one that decided to remake it. He’s the one that arranged and produced the album. He remembered it from my catalog ’cause he works in my publishing, sometimes finding songs for some of his artists or other people. When I was talking about doing positive songs — love songs and songs of life that were uplifting — he said, “Can I take that ‘Together You and I’ and bring it up to date and kind of modernize it a little bit and rearrange it?” And I said, “Yeah!” So it turned out great, and people think it’s just something brand new. As a songwriter, I’m proud because it goes to show you that a good song can stand up through the years.
What do you remember about recording this song with Porter?
I remember everything about it! That’s back when we had just first started our recording career, and it was a big excitement for me to have something I had written in the albums. I wasn’t getting that many songs recorded yet, so to have any song recorded in any album — and especially to get to sing my own song with somebody in a real record on RCA Records — was a big thrill for me.
What was your motivation behind the song?
Well, I think I wrote the song for my husband. I wrote the song in the late ’60s. It was copyrighted in ’72 and I recorded it with Porter in ’74, so it was just a song about true love — love that you hope will last forever, like that fairy tale love. When we fall in love, we want to think it’s gonna be like the storybooks, so I’m sure it was just a love song that I was feeling at the time. And being a songwriter, Lord knows what I really wrote it about. (laughs)
And you recently celebrated your anniversary. Congratulations.
Yes. Thank you. We were married 45 years on the 30th of May.
When you sat down to write iconic hits like “I Will Always Love You” and “Coat of Many Colors,” did you ever imagine they would become such successes?
Well, you never think in those terms. As a songwriter, you first of all, have to get out a feelin’ that you’ve got in you and an idea you have for a song. Then your second thought is, “I hope this is a hit. I hope this is as good as I think it is or as good as I hope it is.” Or “I hope this is commercial.” That was the word we always used to use. People often told me that my songs were not commercial because they were stories — too involved. I was telling too much. Porter used to tell me that a lot when I was first writing. He said, “You’re writing too many stories. Nobody cares about stories. They just want a good melody and a good theme.” But I just loved writing, so you just hope that the songs you write are gonna touch somebody else and be a hit.
Your mother. What did she think of “Coat of Many Colors?”
Oh! She was so proud of that song. I wrote a lot of songs about mama and daddy both through the years, and they were all just so touched — always so touched and proud of anything I wrote.
But that little song really changed a lot of people’s lives. In fact, when I first wrote it, I didn’t even know I was gonna write it, and I didn’t even realize I had carried that hurt around for so many years. That song started coming out and once I had it written, I felt so relieved within myself. It’s like therapy. Then when it became a hit and so many people related to it, I realized. I got mail about people that had been made fun of maybe because they were crippled or overweight or too tall or too skinny or bad skin or whatever. So there’s something in everybody’s life where you’ve been made fun of or been made to feel like you were less than what you wanted to feel. And so people related to it for that. Mama was proud of it for all those reasons and the fact that it was about her and that I thought of her as such a good mother.
I used to be made fun of for these big, thick glasses I wore to school, and I remember that song and how it helped me.
See. That’s what I mean. I heard from people. Even to this day, people will come up to me and say, “Oh, it was you because I had to go to school in a wheelchair and the kids all laughed and called me these names.” And I thought, “Man, you just never know how God works through you because I believe that that was meant to be.”Read the second part of the Dolly Parton interview.