Illustration by Esme Blegvad.

Dolly Parton is an artist so undeniably known that she needs no introduction. Because she seems like one of those musicians who is so intuitively understood and summed up, it’s difficult to realize how little we know about Parton outside of 9 to 5, Dollywood, or “Jolene.” Since 1995, Dolly Parton has run her organization, Imagination Library, a foundation that distributes books to children from birth. Parton was inspired by her father, who was illiterate, to start the program and has expanded the program to over a million books sent monthly. This fall Parton paired her musical talent and her passion for children’s literacy with Believe In You, an album released with the intention of raising money for the foundation with each sale. Parton’s success seems to be one built on a lifetime passion for music-making, something I find endlessly inspiring.

There’s no doubt that with all of her creative work and philanthropy, Parton has little time for anything else. In anticipation of her album, myself and a handful of other journalists hopped on the phone with Parton to discuss her album as a group. Minutes into waiting for Mrs. Parton’s sonic arrival, a man’s voice hopped on the line proclaiming that, “Dolly’s ready to rock.” Read on for Dolly Parton’s answers to all of the group’s questions about the core of her love for music, giving back, and her personal style.

You’re such a prolific songwriter, can you tell us a bit about your songwriting process and what spurs your creativity?

DOLLY PARTON: I have so many ways of doing it. My favorite thing, if I have the time, is to take a couple weeks and take off and go somewhere to just write songs. That’s not as apt to happen these days as it was in the past, but I can write songs anywhere. I always keep a notepad by my bed at night and a tape recorder. I’ve always got a notepad everywhere. I do my best thinking when I’m traveling. I can write anywhere, and I never know when a song is gonna hit me. I write a little bit of something every day. Either an idea or a title, a few lines. If I’m lucky, I can write a few songs in a week.

I was listening to your album earlier today and the song “Makin’ Fun Ain’t Funny” really stood out to me. I’d like to know your inspiration for that.

All the bullies in this world, which I do not like at all. Of course, with the “Coat of Many Colors,” I remember being made fun of as a child. We always had to wear ragged clothes, so we often got made fun of. It was never funny to the one you’re making fun of. Especially now that people are trying to teach children not to be bullies, that it hurts and it doesn’t feel good. It’s the anti-bullying thing we’ve been dealing with the past few years with the suicides—the kids being bullied to the point of committing suicide. It’s terrible, so I thought it needed to be spoken to. It’s for the little kids, but it’s also for the grown-ups, too.

You also address pediatric cancer on the album. Could you tell me what the background story is on that one?

When you do actually see the CD version of the album, on the inside there’s a picture of two little girls kissing me on the cheek. They’re two of my little nieces. The one on the left is Hannah Denison, she’s my sister Rachel’s daughter. When she was four-years-old, she got leukemia and we almost lost her. When she was sick, I wrote “Chemo Hero” and “Brave Little Soldier” for her and about her. At that time I took a bunch of my little nieces and nephews and their little friends and took them into the recording studio and we recorded that and some other children’s songs for her to just have on tape to listen to while she was recuperating. I thought “Chemo Hero” was a perfect title and sometime I’d like to make more of that, maybe put it out as a single or certainly find all of the Chemo Heros who have overcome the most.

The proceeds from your album are going to the Imagination Library. Why is children’s literacy an important topic for you?

It’s very important. I think all children should be able to read, but I actually started the Imagination Library 20 years ago in honor of my father. He was never able to read or write. My dad got to help me, and he felt very proud for me to be doing that, and to involve him in it. He got to live long enough to see it doing well. He got such a kick out of people calling me the book lady. I just think it’s important because if you can read, you can educate yourself about any subject. You don’t have to have money. If you can’t afford to go to school, there’s a book on every subject. It’s not going to do you any good if you can’t read, so that was the main thing, as inspired by my dad.

How has your Christian faith made a difference in your life and in your work for children?

I think you need to have a great spiritual background. I grew up in a church, my grandpa was a preacher. We were taught that Jesus loved us, and we loved Jesus. In order to do that, you needed to love one another as well. I think my faith has played a big part in every single thing I do. I think that’s one of the reasons the Coat of Many Colors movie did so well. I think [for] people that are Christian, it really spoke to them. I think family-based, faith-based stuff is really important, especially [during] this day and time. Anytime I write a song, about a child or anything else, I always pray to God that he will lead me to say something that will glorify him and uplift mankind somehow.

Can you tell us about your first guitar?

Music was such a big part of our whole family. All of my mama’s family played some sort of musical instrument. Of course, I took my music really seriously, and I was always plucking along on someone’s instrument whenever someone would come. I always love the guitar. One of my uncles had this little Martin guitar that I loved, and when he saw how serious I was about my music, he gave me his little Martin guitar. It was my treasure, and I left it at home when I was eighteen-years-old, I put it in the loft because it was beat up. I thought when I got money when I got rich and famous, I was going to have it fixed up, but the loft burned out of our house. It burned up my little guitar, so I only have the neck of that one, but I’ve collected little Martin guitars all through the years, I have some classic little guitars. Especially the baby Martins.

How does your songwriting process for I Believe In You differ from your other albums. Was it easier, harder, or more enjoyable?

It was fun for me because a large part of the songs on this album were inspired by the book we give away through the Imagination Library. Every time we give out a book, we get a new book, and I write a song based loosely on the idea of what that book is about. The very first one, I Believe In You, I used the first book we give out, The Little Engine That Could. That’s the first book we give out through the Imagination Library. I use that line, the positive thinking, in that song. These songs were fun for me because I love children. I have so many little nieces and nephews and I practically raised five of my younger brothers and sisters. I’m very close to my family, so I like to write things for them to have to entertain my little nieces and nephews when they come to play. These were fun songs for me to write.

Can you please tell me how you wrote your classic song “I Will Always Love You”? When Whitney Houston recorded it, what did it mean to you that it became one of the biggest songs of all time?

That song is so deep-seated in my heart and my soul. Years ago, in my early days, I worked with a man named Porter Wagoner and we had one of those relationships where we were so much alike that we couldn’t get along, or we were so different we couldn’t get along. We had a great love, and I always wanted my own band, which I told him at the start. I always wanted to go out on my own, but it was very, very hard and he had a #1 television show at the time. For me to leave was going to take a big chunk of his show. Anyhow, after much fighting and all the love and depth we had for each other, I wrote that song to try to say how I feel. I have to go, but I’ll always love you, but I have to leave. When I sang it for him he said I could go, but said let me produce that record. It was personal to us. Then, years later when Whitney did it, I didn’t know she had done it. I had sent it out to LA when they had asked for some of my music. Kevin Costner and his secretary had loved that song. I sent it out, but I hadn’t heard anything about whether they did it. I was on my way home, I turned the radio on, and heard that Acappella part. All of a sudden I knew it was something familiar. By the time it had dawned on me what I was hearing, when she went into that chorus, I had to stop the car. I was almost wrecked, I thought my heart was going to bust right out of my body. It was the most powerful feeling I’ve ever had. It was such a shock. It was so great. She sang it so good. I was just overwhelmed.

When you began your career what was it inside of you that felt like you could enter this unknown world and write your own songs, and control your own path, especially as a woman?

I had this burning love for the music, this burning love to get out into the big world. I was a country girl and there was some fear there. People always ask if I was afraid, but we’re all afraid of something. My true line is that my desire to do it was always greater than my fear. I just believed that I had something that might do good. I never thought about whether I was a girl or a boy. I just had a gift and I thought it was God-given. I felt like I was supposed to be doing something. I just always had that attitude about it, and I guess people kind of responded. I had a lot of help and didn’t have as many problems as a lot of the young girls were having at the time.

What’s your favorite song on the album?

Well, I like them all for different reasons. “The Coat of Many Colors” has been done in so many ways, and now we have a children’s book also, so I did do the reading of that. On the more personal level, the little song “Chemo Hero” because it was about family, and “Brave Little Soldier” which is about children that are facing a lot of fears and doubts, whether it be illness or going through a divorce with their parents. So that one meant a lot to me. The little song “Making Fun Ain’t Funny” I think has such a good message for this time. But they’re all like my kids, I always say my songs are like my children and I expect them to support me when I’m old. I have songs that are prettier than others, but I enjoy them all.

Giving back seems to be a big part of your career. I’m wondering what your inspiration is for giving back in general?

I think that was that Christian background–it’s better to give than to receive and all of those sayings. I really think that once you’re in a position to help, you definitely should help. I really like that there is a good feeling when you do something for somebody else. I’ve been so blessed in my life that I want to give back. If God’s been good to you, you should be good to other people. That’s how we spread the love around. It makes me feel good to do it, and I think it’s my duty to do it.

Fifty years ago, you released your debut project Hello, I’m Dolly, now fast forward 50 years later and you’re doing a children’s album. You’ve done so much in your career since then, what would the I Believe in You Dolly say to the Hello, I’m Dolly version?

I would probably say, “I think she’s in her second childhood.” [Laughs] I didn’t realize it was 50 years ago! I was a young girl and now I’m doing a children’s album, I think I’m in my second childhood. That just hit me funny when you said that. I’ve learned a lot, but in some ways, you’re always stupid. I think I’ve learned a lot about life, and hopefully, I’ve learned a lot about songwriting, too. But I’m really the same old girl I was back then, but back then I was just dreaming about being a star. I’ve been so fortunate and lucky that I’ve got to do so many things: movies, records, write songs for movies, do some business things, and have Dollywood, but still, music is right in the heart of it. All these years later for me to even be in a position to have wonderful programs because of my success, things like The Imagination Library where you can give back, it’s a good feeling. I just think, Well, I’m happy the way it turned out.

Why’s it so important to you to be such a strong advocate?

I think there’s an old Whitney Houston song called, “Greatest Love Of All.” I love that song, and I think that is such a true statement [children are the future]. We have to teach our children, like that old song, teach your children well. If you can teach your children to read, even if they don’t ever have the money, and they can’t get an education, they can read up on anything they want to know and at least learn it. It’s really a handicap if you can’t read. I really think that’s important because I know how children need to have self-esteem, and that gives them confidence if they can do those little things. Putting books in the hands of children, that’s one of the reasons we put their name in it personally, they get these books in the mailbox with their name, and they get home to check the mailbox, and have this sense of pride. It’s important for children to have self-esteem, and to know how to read, and to feel important, like they can do something. I know my father couldn’t read or write, and many of my relatives because they were poor, country people, who had to work at home. It means a lot to me to be able to do something in that area.

You’ve been making music for years and years, I was wondering how you keep it fresh for yourself all these years?

You think you’d run out of stuff to write about, the same melodies, the same storylines, but there’s always a little twist in everything. You can always change it around just enough. Everything’s a melody to me–I love to sing, or whistle, or hum. It’s just easy for me to write. Whatever I’m writing at the time just seems to have, because the day is new and fresh, there’s always a new and fresh twist to some song. Even though it’s just about ordinary things, you can make it a little special if you at least get creative, which I try to be. ♦

As told to Rachel Davies.