Dolly Parton: I think everybody loves to walk. You think good when you walk. I write a lot of songs when I walk, think about a lot of stories. And I’m gonna share them with you.
Sam Sanchez: It’s Time to Walk, where some of the world’s most interesting and inspiring people share stories, photos, and songs that have influenced their lives. Dolly Parton is much more than a country music superstar. She’s an actor, businessperson, and humanitarian. On this walk, Dolly shares that despite her many accolades, what she treasures most comes from her humble beginnings in rural Tennessee.
[AMBIENT NATURE SOUNDS]
Dolly Parton: I’m a country girl. So I did most of my walking back in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee when I was a young girl.
Now, I’m still able to do that because I’m lucky enough to live out on a farm.
I still have a place around Nashville in Brentwood, Tennessee, and I kind of get out and walk around, over to the barn, and walk around the house.
But I know during this time — COVID and all that — a lot of you can’t get out and walk like you do normally. And I’m sure that a lot of you feel confined.
But I know how important it is to be able to walk. So even though we can’t get out and walk all the places that we’d like to this day and time, I still can take you for a walk down memory lane. Hopefully, with us walking together, we’ll feel a little more freedom.
Mama and Daddy got married when Mama was fifteen years old and Daddy was seventeen. My grandpa was a preacher, and he married them. But my daddy was very poor. So they got married at the house, and Daddy was never able to buy mama a wedding ring. They spent their honeymoon in my grandpa’s barn.
Shortly after that, they managed to get a little cabin. That’s where they started to raise all their kids. By the time that they were thirty-five and thirty-seven years old, they already had managed to have twelve kids, six girls and six boys. In order, Willadeene, David, Denver, Dolly, Bobby, Stella, Cassie, Randy, Larry, Floyd, Freida, and Rachel. And of course, that made up our little family.
We grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, and we had no money.
So one year Daddy said, “This is what our Christmas is gonna be. This year, instead of what little dab of money we got to buy presents for each other, we kinda pool that money and buy Mama a wedding ring?”
Oh, we was all about that. We were all trying to decide what all we could do to help make money. So we sold jams and jellies. Mostly, we stole them out of Mama’s cellar to make up money. We did everything we could to try to help.
That was also the first year that we had a Christmas tree that had real electric lights on it. Because usually we made our own ornaments. But we had electricity that particular year. And so Daddy had got some little bulbs for the tree, those kind that kind of float up and down, little bubbles. They’re old-timey now, of course, but I’m kind of old-timey myself. But, anyhow, Daddy said, “We’re going to Mama’s ring, and then I’m going to hide it. And whoever finds it, well, they’ll get the big prize.”
We were looking everywhere for the ring, all over the house, under the rugs, on the windowsills, under this, under that, in the stove, anywhere you could look to where Daddy might’ve hid it.
Daddy had kind of screwed the ring behind the lights on the tree. So he put the ring, and then he screwed the bulb back in.
My brother Denver and I spotted it about the same time, and we, of course, wanted to be the one to get it. We knocked the Christmas tree over, knocked a bunch of stuff all around. I think we knocked the stovepipe over, kind of had black around our noses and in our eyes and everything else.
We fought over who found it. And Denver and I kinda held it up. We both kind of won on that one. It was kinda called a tie.
Mama was so happy. She was so proud, and we were so happy. Mama cried, and we cried. Mama got her ring.
Daddy said, “Well, I said whoever found the ring got the only present that we’re going to have this year.” But being the Daddy that Daddy is, well, he’d got a big box of candy that the one that got the ring got to open it, of course, but had to share it with everybody else.
But I always thought that was so precious that Mama had a houseful of kids and got her ring after a houseful of kids. I love that story. It’s a treasure to me.
It’s really about family. Families working together, and I think especially this past year, families have been kind of thrown together in ways that they never thought they would be, which I think is wonderful, in a way. I’m sure it’s hard in some ways, but what I took away from this whole story is just how we all work together, how we share together, and how it was not about us. It was about someone else that we loved. It is truly better to give than receive.
My daddy couldn’t read and write. He grew up as a country boy back in the mountains of Sevier County, and he was from a very large family as well. Kids back then had to go to work in the fields to try to help feed the family. That’s the way it was. So Daddy always felt kind of ashamed and embarrassed because he couldn’t read and write.
And that always hurt my heart, knowing that, because Daddy was one of the smartest people I have ever known in my whole life.
And I said, “Daddy, there are a lot of people in this world that can’t read and write. A lot of people didn’t get that opportunity. You don’t need to be ashamed of it.” You know. I said, “Why don’t we start a little program where we start children learning to read in their most impressionable years?” So we started the Imagination Library there in Sevier County, our little home area. And I thought, “Well, maybe it’ll do good here, and if we’re lucky, maybe a couple of counties over.” I had my dad help me with it. I wanted him to feel proud of that.
It did so well that the governor at the time, he got wind of the program. And he said, “This is a really good little program. Why don’t we take this all over Tennessee?” Next thing you know, we’re in different parts all over the world. And we’ve now given out like 150 million books to kids since we started.
Daddy got to live long enough to see the Imagination Library doing really good. He got such a kick out of hearing the kids call me the Book Lady. He thought that was more impressive than the fact that I was a country music star. And he really felt important that we were doing some good work.
I always feel like I got my work ethic from my dad. Daddy worked really hard, and he was just one of those people that loved to work, too, and nothing was ever too much for Daddy when it came to working for his family.
Daddy used to go down to the courthouse where they had erected a statue of me. But my dad had a great sense of humor about that statue because I remember myself being so proud of that statue, not in an arrogant way, but I was just so proud because I thought, “A statue of me in the courthouse yard? That’s usually reserved for presidents and people that have done really great things like that.”
So I went home, and I said, “Daddy, did you know they’re putting a statue of me? Do you know about the statue down at the courthouse?”
And Daddy said, “Well, yeah, I heard about that.” He said, “Now, to your fans out there, you might be some sort of an idol. But to them pigeons, you ain’t nothing but another outhouse.” So dad used to go down there with a bucket of soapy water in the back of his pickup truck with a broom after hours and scrub all the pigeon poop off of my statue. And of course, that touched me so much. I loved my daddy and wanted him to be proud of himself as I was proud of him.
You know, there’s a scripture in the Bible that says, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” A lot of people think that means to obey, and maybe it does to some degree. But I always thought it meant to bring honor to their name, do something to honor them, to show what they may have meant to you. I wanted to honor my father in that way, and I’m so proud I had an opportunity to do that.
[DOLLY PARTON SINGS A LINE FROM “9 TO 5”]
Hear that little sound? Well, that’s my acrylic fingernails. That’s actually how I wrote the song “9 to 5”. Now there’s a story for you.
I was working in country music for years and years, and I had been offered to do movies several times, and I didn’t want to do it. I just, I had never even seen a movie made. I wasn’t that interested in it. At that time, I was more involved in my music, and I figured everything, like always in my life, it would come along at the right time. If I was meant to do it.
So Jane Fonda came up with the idea to do a movie based on women in the workplace, equal pay for equal work, and she came to me. And she said, “Well, I think Dolly will get us the South,” meaning they need a country girl. And Lily Tomlin was already signed on for it. So I felt very proud. I thought, “Well, maybe I can not only get the South, I can hold my own,” because I felt like that might be something I could do.
And the timing seemed to be right because it was Jane Fonda, and she was very, very popular at the time, and so was Lily Tomlin. I thought, “Well, now these are two big stars. So if it does good, I can take my part of the credit, and if it don’t do good, I can just blame it on them. Nobody knew me in the movies, anyway.”
Anyhow, the movie was so much fun to make. Everyday I looked so forward to going to work. That’s when Jane Fonda had her workout program, and she would come in to work in her sweats and her hair all up in a knot and all sweaty and whatever. And she’d go to her dressing room and clean up. And Lily, of course, she was not a morning person at all. So she’d come in with her hair in rollers and Clearasil on her face and no makeup and all that.
Of course, me, I was always so excited to get to work, and I never leave the house without my makeup on and cleaned up, even if I go straight to the studio, take it all off and put it on again. And so I would come in all chirpy, and I just remember Lily saying, “Would you just kind of hold it down a little bit? I’m not awake yet.” And I said, “Hey, it ain’t my fault you’re slouches. You know, you need to clean up a little bit.” We had a great relationship, and we loved every minute we spent together on the movie.
Everything about that project was so special. And I really do believe that it did a lot of good to help women. Of course we’ve got miles to go. We still don’t get all the stuff that we deserve. We still are not getting equal pay for equal work, but that really started a whole movement where women were more recognized and more appreciated.
When Jane came to me to see if I would be willing to do the movie, I said, “Yeah, I think this is something I could do, providing I have the opportunity to write the theme song.” So that was our deal. So that’s what I did.
[DOLLY PARTON TAPS HER FINGERNAILS]
I thought this sounded like a typewriter. And since that movie was about women in the workplace, I’d stand on the set, I’d watch things happening, I’d come up with little lines every day. I’d go back to my hotel room at night, get my guitar, put it down on tape until, after a couple of months, I had a song. And then of course, I had all the girls on the set, I had them all come down to the recording studio to sing the backgrounds, and I played my nails. Even on the record, it says, “Nails by Dolly.” But, anyhow, everybody makes me do this all the time, play this little sound. Now, of course, you have to have acrylic nails. Your own nails won’t do that. So you got to have falses.
[MUSIC - “9 TO 5” BY DOLLY PARTON]
I always say my songs are like my children, and I expect them to support me when I’m old. But I get asked a lot, do I have a favorite song? They’re all favorites. I love them all because they’re mine. But “Coat of Many Colors” is my favorite song that I’ve ever written.
It’s about Mama. It’s about a philosophy. It’s about an attitude. It’s about family. It’s about acceptance. It’s about so many things.
My mama was the most special person on earth. One of those people that could just tell you anything, make it sound good, cook anything, make it taste good, and sew anything and make it look good.
I needed a coat for the fall, and we didn’t have enough cloth of the same color. So Mama patched it up, told me the story about Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors from the Old Testament. And I thought I looked like Joseph, but the kids at school didn’t think so. So they laughed at me. I cried.
The kids said, “That was just rags, and we were poor.” And Mama said, “We’re not poor. We’re rich in what counts. We’re rich in love and understanding and kindness.” So that’s the kind of mama my mama was.
[MUSIC FADE IN]
And that’s why this song is so precious to me.
[MUSIC - “COAT OF MANY COLORS” BY DOLLY PARTON]
“Circle of Love” is about the wedding ring that we bought for my mom after she had a houseful of kids.
And it really is a sweet and special little story about a sweet and special little mama.
[MUSIC - “CIRCLE OF LOVE” BY DOLLY PARTON]
Well, I hope you’re still walking good. I hope you’re still listening good, and I hope my little songs might’ve inspired you because even though some of them might’ve had a few little tears come in my eyes. And I didn’t mean to make you cry or nothing. They were meant to inspire you.
I’m inspired myself just by getting a chance to talk about them and what they mean to me. And to get to share them with you means a lot to me. So thank you.