Dolly Parton has spent more than 50 years with the things she loves, whether it's a career in country music that has spanned over 40 albums and numerous awards or her husband, with whom she recently celebrated 50 years of matrimony by renewing their vows. Parton is famous for her supreme ability to tell stories through her music, her movies, and her life—the ultimate rags-to-riches story about growing up in a small East Tennessee town (and modeling her style after "the town trollop"). She has since become a star as celebrated for her songwriting as for her business acumen (her nonprofit, Dolly's Imagination Library, has donated more than 40 million books to children across the U.S.)
Parton took some time out from her busy life to speak with Fast Company about her success, creative habits, and new record, Pure & Simple, which was released on August 19.
Pure & Simple is your 43rd album, which is incredible. Your first solo album was just over 50 years ago. What has changed for you since then about how you approach putting together an album?
Well, actually, nothing much has changed in how you do it. Every year or so, I know I need to put together something and I try to figure out what it’s going to be. And then I get devoted to that project and I follow it all the way through once I decide if it’s going to be story songs, or a mixture of gospel or love songs. This particular time, I kind of went along with what was going in my career and life at the time. For this one, as you know I was married 50 years on May 30 on Memorial Day and it seemed a good year to do an album of love songs. And I didn’t have a lot of time to do an album and it can take quite a bit of time. And so I thought the best thing I know how to do right now in my life is write love songs. So I wrote some and pulled together a few other outside ones that I’d had in the past and polished ‘em up a bit. And then I just went next door here to my recording studio and put it together in short order and stripped down the band on the stage. We didn’t overproduce the album, it’s simply produced and the stage show is simply done, just four of us on stage, flopping different instruments around. The whole basic tour and the album this year, the feelings, the emotions, it’s pretty pure and simple. It just fell right into place.
Your television movie Coat of Many Colors received a tremendous response from viewers, 13 million people tuned in when it first aired in December 2015, making it the largest audience for an original movie on television since 2011. Why do you think that story resonated with so many people?
I really think several reasons. First of all, I think people have missed those family-type shows like Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons. I know I have. With everything so high-tech and so extreme in action-packed stuff and craziness of The Walking Dead. That's all very entertaining, but I think people didn’t realize how much they’d been missing something basic and family-oriented. And another reason is that people love that rags-to-riches story and I think I’ve represented that through the years and people relate to it. People knew me by that little story for so long.
We’re doing a sequel since it did so well, Christmas of Many Colors , premiering on November 30. And I have an illustrated Coat of Many Colors children’s book where all the proceeds will go my Imagination Library, so Coat of Many Colors is the gift that keeps on giving.
Looking back on your extensive career, all your accolades, projects like Dollywood and your production company — what are you most proud of career-wise?
I’m just proud that I got to see my dreams come true. I wanted to be known as a singer and songwriter, I wanted a hit record, I wanted to travel and do TV and movies. So I’ve gotten to do everything. Some of the highlights are when I became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in the late ‘60s and the Kennedy Center awards, being put in the Country Music Hall of Fame—all those things are great, but I’m so proud I’ve gotten to do many things in my life and my career.
I read that you write something every day, whether part of a song or an idea. What did you write yesterday?
Instead of writing songs yesterday I was working on a couple series I’m working on putting on television. I’m actually going to produce some stuff, I’ll be in a series, might even do my life story as a series. I have some other things I’m going to put on different networks that I’m just producing and creating and developing for TV. So I was writing on a couple ideas for some shows for other people. And that’s what I’m doing today as well, as soon as I finish with you. And then at some point I’ll get working on some new stuff, onto a new phase. I’ll wear this one out and then get onto the new one.
I was watching your University of Tennessee commencement speech, where you said you never wanted to retire, that you wanted to be onstage until the final moment. How do you make each performance new for yourself? How do you keep challenging yourself creatively after all this time?
It’s funny, you don’t think about those things until people ask you that question. So I’m like wow, I never thought about that. Every audience is different, it’s like every person you meet is different, each person stirs something different in you. Audiences are like that, there’s a certain type of energy to each one that creates a certain energy and spark in you. I just play off the audience and it feels like it’s all new to me each time. Even though I tell the same stories, I’ll reword and feel different each time and maybe add something new. I play off the moment. I’m very comfortable with my audiences, I look out there and it’s like a family reunion and see faces I love and know. Everybody reminds me of somebody—my brother, sister, aunt, uncle or cousin, my best friend. I see people I love out there. Life and love are always new to me, that’s why I can write about it so often. Because you’re like "how many words can you write about love?" But there are millions of ways, trillions of ways—I’ve done it through the years. With Pure & Simple it’s reminiscent of old stuff I’ve done, but you always come up with a new idea, like I’m 16, I’ll never not love you. There’s always some new way to think about it.
You’ve said that your theme park in East Tennessee, Dollywood, was this crazy idea you had, and it turned out to be so successful. How did you learn to trust your crazy ideas?
Well I don’t always think they’re crazy, I think they’re workable. People think I’m crazy for thinking something is going to work. It’s that old gut feeling, my daddy always said, "You go with your gut and you’ll always be alright." And I know that’s true, even when you go against certain things because you love somebody too much or there’s someone you want to give a chance. When you bend too far you’ll mess up, so you have to be tough [and stay true to your ideas] or else you’ll have to pay the price. But nothing is ever lost, even when certain things don’t work out the way you wanted. You take that and apply it to something else and then you tell yourself, "Well, I’m not doing that again. I won’t make that mistake again." So you just have to learn as you go. And you don’t ever need to, what they say, put all your eggs in one basket. You need to always keep something just for yourself. Always keep something for you, in a romance or a love affair or a business, always keep a card close to your vest. And if something doesn’t work you have a little left to start over with.
Dolly Parton's new album Pure & Simple includes 10 new tracks and two exclusive versions of "Jolene" and "9 to 5" recorded live from Glastonbury Festival. Cracker Barrel is also releasing a special deluxe package of Pure & Simple on August 26th that you can purchase here.