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Dolly Parton talks crushing on Johnny Cash and the meaning of Jolene

Dolly Parton tells Jane Graham about the secrets of her success and the highs and lows of her career in The Big Issue’s Letter To My Younger Self.
Image credit: Stacie Huckeba Courtesy of Butterfly Records LLC

Dolly Parton believes in sticking to her principles. If she wants something, she’s prepared to do whatever it takes to get it.

“I know who I am. I know what I’m not. I know what I can and cannot do. I don’t get myself involved in things that I know are out of my realm. But if there’s something I can do and I want to do, hell or high water ain’t gonna stop me,” she says, in The Big Issue’s Letter To My Younger Self.

That drive has been the secret to her success, she says, or that and getting up early. But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

She reveals the highs and lows of her career, including crushing on Johnny Cash, turning down Elvis and the meaning of Jolene in an exclusive interview with Jane Graham, starting from when she was a teenager.

I actually was a pretty good girl at 16. I was in high school at the time but I had been taking my music very seriously for several years before that, taking trips back and forth to Nashville with my Uncle Bill Owens, from my home in east Tennessee 200 miles away. We’d take some old car, and sleep in the car, trying to go into different offices in Nashville. We’d stay a few days to try to get a few things going. I didn’t have time to run around and mess with boys. And my dad was pretty strict anyway, so I pretty much spent my teenage years just working on my music and hanging out with friends when I had an opportunity.

I was about 13 when I first met Johnny Cash and that’s when Johnny was all strung out on drugs and everything, but he was so magnetic, so sexy. He was my first male grown-up crush, he just really moved me. That’s when I realised what hormones do and what sex appeal really means. He just kind of stirred me somehow. And so I guess that’s when I realised I was becoming a little woman. Oh, we laughed about it through the years. I told him, you know you were my very first crush, my first sexy grown-up crush. He always got a kick out of that.

I knew I wanted to always stay true to my roots. I knew I loved my family – I would never shame them, I was proud of my family. But I just had a feeling inside my gut that I was supposed to do something more. I felt it in my bones early on, it was just like a calling. I wanted to go beyond the Smoky Mountains. My family knew that as well, even though it was a little different for a low mountain girl.

I’m very proud of the fact that I’m so much both of my parents. I can see it so plain in myself. I got my spiritual side and my musical side from my mom’s people. Most of them played musical instruments and sang, and all we grew up in the church. We were the family that played at funerals and weddings and all kinds of shindigs. My dad’s people were mainly hard-working people; I got his work ethic and willingness to stick to it until I get the job done. I know what part of me is daddy and I know which part is mama and I think it’s a good combination.

It’s why I’ve lasted so long. Usually creative musicians are basically kind of physically lazy. They want to stay up all night and write and sing and sleep all day. But like my dad, I get up really early, I work hard and I go to bed fairly early. And I love the fact that I’m not a lazy head, I’m not sluggish. I think that’s been a big part of my success –  I’m up and at it before most people can get out of bed.

My mom and dad were both very proud of me. My mom was more lenient in the early days, she used to have to cover for me. My dad didn’t want me travelling – traipsing around as he called it – he didn’t like me going away to Nashville. He and my mom used to have words about that. So I’d go before he got home from work and mama had to defend me on that one. She’d say, she’s alright, and she’s gonna leave whether you like it or not. Mama understood it because she was a dreamer also. But he was pretty strict, I thought sometimes in the early days he was too strict. It’s not that he didn’t trust me, he just didn’t trust the world. But after I moved to Nashville he saw that I was serious about it and it was real work, and a dream that was actually possible. And he became my biggest fan and biggest supporter.

I always knew my ambition was going to happen, they couldn’t preach it out of me. I was going to be a star, I was going to go to Nashville, I was going to sing my songs no matter what. I was never a rebel without a cause, I was not a rebellious child. I did it with grace and style. I wasn’t out to cause any grief at all for my mom or dad. But I was willing to take whatever punishment I might have got for going against somebody’s ruling. I am strong in my beliefs. There is an old saying, to thine own self be true. That has followed me all the days of my life.

I know who I am. I know what I’m not. I know what I can and cannot do. I don’t get myself involved in things that I know are out of my realm. But if there’s something I can do and I want to do, hell or high water ain’t gonna stop me. I’m an easy person to work with, but I will not bend to your ways if they go against mine. I have my standards and my principles and if you push me to a point that does not agree with my soul, I will call you on it, and I will not compromise. I don’t feel like I have to answer to anyone but myself and to God. That’s my rule.

It’s true I would not compromise with Colonel Tom [Parker, Elvis Presley’s manager]. Elvis wanted to record I Will Always Love You. They planned the session, and told me they were recording the song. I’d been invited down to the studio to meet Elvis and be there when he sang my song. That was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. Who doesn’t love Elvis?

But then Colonel called me the afternoon before the session and said, you do know we have to have at least half the publishing on any song that Elvis records? And I said no, I did not know that. He said, well, it’s just a rule. So I said, well, it’s not my rule. I said, I hate this more than you could even imagine but I cannot give you half the publishing. I just can’t do it and I won’t do it. I Will Always Love You had been a number one song with me already, it was the most important song in my catalogue. And I cried all night long, ‘cause I was so disappointed. It wasn’t Elvis, I loved Elvis. And I’m sure he was as disappointed as I was because he had it all worked up and ready to go.

I know he loved the song. Priscilla told me later that he sang that song to her when they were coming down the steps of the courthouse after they divorced. That really touched me and I thought, oh well, I can only imagine. But it wasn’t his fault. I found out later that Colonel Tom had an even bigger demand for any brand new song Elvis recorded; in those cases 100 per cent of the publishing went to them. Yeah, Tom was a strict manager, he was a good manager and I don’t blame him for asking, but I don’t blame me for saying no.

When you write songs you don’t know what’s going to be a hit. As a songwriter you know when some songs are better than others and I knew that I Will Always Love You was probably one of the best things that I’d written, because it came from so much heart and soul.

But you never know what’s going to be a hit or everybody would be rich. I knew it was a good song but I had no idea that it could ever become what it did, after Whitney recorded it and it went into such a big hit movie [The Bodyguard]. I’ll always be grateful to Kevin Costner and obviously I’ll always be grateful to and always love Whitney Houston.

Jolene and I Will Always Love You were on the same album [1974’s Jolene]. In fact they came from the same cassette so it is possible that I wrote those two songs in the same day. Jolene is a song about… you know, I’ve got my pride and I’ve got my strength. But when I write a song, I’m vulnerable at those moments. I leave my heart out on my sleeve. I’ve always said I have to leave my heart open in order to receive those kind of songs. I have to feel everything to be a real songwriter. And yes, a lot of my songs are kind of melancholy. Some of them are sad, and some of them are pitiful. And I mean for them to be pitiful, those really sad songs like Little Sparrow or Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark. I have a big imagination and I become whoever I’m writing about. It’s like starring in a movie; I am that character in that song. So when I wrote it, I was Jolene.

Jolene has been recorded more than any other song that I have ever written. It has been recorded worldwide over 400 times in lots of different languages, by lots of different bands. The White Stripes did a wonderful job of it, and many other people. But nobody’s ever had a really big hit record on it. I’ve always hoped somebody might do someday, someone like Beyoncé.

What I would say to my young self is all those dreams, they are going to come true. It’s not going to all be fun and games, you’re going to have to pay the price and do your sacrificing, but it’s going to be worth it. I‘d have to tell her about I Will Always Love You. To me that is really a classic love song. I had a number one on it twice, once in the 1970s, then I did it in the movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and had another number one in the 1980s. And then Whitney did it and it was considered one of the greatest love songs of all time. Still to this day I take a lot of pride in that. So I’d tell my younger self, you’re going to end up being very proud of your little old self one day. So just buckle up and be ready for the ride.

If I could have one last conversation with anybody, I’d probably talk to Elvis. And I’d probably talk about I Will Always Love You and say hey, I bet you were as disappointed as I was about all that and I still dream about you singing that song. Matter of fact, I even wrote a song called I Dreamed about Elvis Last Night and I had an Elvis soundalike sing it with me and we actually sing I will always love you in it. And one day, I’m going to put that track out. So I think that I’d talk to Elvis, and just clear that up with him.

If I could live one moment of my life again, I think it’s when I became an official member of the Grand Ole Opry back in the late ’60s. When I found out it was going to happen I jumped up and down, I was tickled to bits. I had always wanted to be on the Grand Ole Opry. You would listen to it on the radio back home and hear all those singers and that was where you wanted to be if you were a country singer. I remember that night so well. I remember how proud I felt thinking of my people listening back home. That memory stands out the most because that was the very first big moment. But I’ve had many, many special nights since then.

Dolly Parton’s Christmas album A Holly Dolly Christmas is out now on 12 Tone Music; She stars in the film Christmas on the Square, on Netflix now; Her book Songteller: My Life in Lyrics is out now (Hodder & Stoughton, £35)

Interview: Jane Graham @Janeannie