Dolly Parton on Writing Music With Her Nails, Rejecting Elvis Presley, and Rocking Out With Goddaughter Miley Cyrus
Tennessee icon makes her Stern Show debut ahead of new album “Rockstar”November 16, 2023
After nearly 65 years of writing, recording, and performing hits, Dolly Parton is still finding new ways to reinvent herself.
The undisputed queen of country music and bona fide American icon made her Stern Show debut on Wednesday, connecting with Howard from her Nashville studio while flanked by guitars and a smattering of Dolly-branded paraphernalia, including her new book (“Behind the Seams: My Life in Rhinestones”) and new album (“Rockstar”). Wearing a sparkling lime-green outfit while rocking long red nails along with her patented platinum-blonde hairdo, she spoke candidly about her unique Appalachian upbringing, distinctive style, unflinching work ethic, and unparalleled career as well as the legacy she hopes to leave behind with philanthropic efforts ranging from the cool million she donated toward COVID-19 vaccination research (“I thought we were gonna go down with the Black Plague”) to Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which distributes free books to children across the globe.
The Smoky Mountain Songbird also walked Howard through the inspiration behind her upcoming 49th solo album, featuring A-list collaborators ranging from Linda Perry to Sirs Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. The idea came to her last year after her controversial induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“I thought, well, I gotta earn my keep,” the 77-year-old singer and songwriter said. “If I’m going to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I’ve gotta have a rock album.”
As with other things in her career, the country legend wasn’t too worried at what people might think of the pivot. “At my age, I don’t really have to think too much about what I can and can’t do,” she explained. “But I think now I have such a fan base that I’ve built through the years with the movies and all the different things that I’ve done that I think they’re more curious about what I’m going to do next.”
When putting together her hefty lineup of guest stars, which also includes Sting, Stevie Nicks, and Ann Wilson, she also reached out to someone close to home — her goddaughter, Stern Show regular Miley Cyrus. “She’s my little sweetheart,” Dolly said of the star, who she knows thanks to her friendship with her father, Billy Ray Cyrus. “She’s very intuitive about the business and I just think Miley is a spectacular human being and an amazing talent,” Parton continued. “We’ve just stayed very, very close through the years.”
Maybe She’s Born With It, Maybe It’s Her Work Ethic
Dolly began performing for crowds at the age of seven. “I knew the second I stepped on that stage that that was what I was supposed to do for the rest of my life —and here I am, doing it still,” she said.
Music also helped Parton, who is one of 12 children, stand apart from her siblings. “If nothing else it was a good way to be noticed,” she said, explaining she’d pen songs about everything and anything back then, including death and war. “I was writing some pretty morbid songs at seven and eight years old,” she laughed.
“Do you get up every day and write?” Howard asked.
“I write something almost every day, even putting on my makeup. I might not always complete a song, but I write down ideas and put them in [a waterproof] Ziploc bag or stick them in a drawer and go back to them later,” she said.
“I always try to keep a little tape recorder somewhere near,” she continued, explaining she learned the hard way to record song ideas as quickly as possible. “You’ll think you’ll remember it, but you won’t.”
“I’ll use a Maybelline pencil … anything I can get my hands on, because I know if I don’t do it right then I’ll forget it,” Dolly concluded. “You just learn: That’s part of your trade. Don’t take anything for granted. If this is your job, you do it and you do it good.”
Staying True to Herself in Nashville
Dolly fell in love with music in East Tennessee, but the world wouldn’t fall in love with her until 1964 when she graduated high school and set off for Music City. “I was 18 when I moved to Nashville, and I met my husband the first day I got there,” she said.
Show business can be notoriously sleazy, but Parton thankfully didn’t encounter too many unsavory characters in the early days of her career. “Men flirted with me, but I was a flirt myself, and I never took it wrong,” she said before explaining how growing up around six brothers, a father, and several uncles taught her everything she needed to know about the male mindset. “I loved men, and I understood them.”
Dolly was determined to be taken seriously by everyone she encountered in show business, regardless of any preconceived notions they might’ve had about her appearance, which she admitted may have been modeled after the “town tramp” back home.
“I was pretty clever, and knowing the nature of men and understanding that, if I was gonna dress like I dressed and look like I looked, I would’ve been disappointed if no one noticed me or paid attention to me,” Dolly said, explaining how nothing anyone could say or do could stop her from being true to herself. “Daddy couldn’t whip it out of me, Mama couldn’t talk it out of me, and Grandpa couldn’t preach it out of me,” she continued. “I was gonna look the way I looked, and I still do, because that’s how I felt.”
‘I Will Always Love You’: Saying No to Elvis and Hearing Whitney’s Version for the First Time
In addition to being Parton’s most enduring ballad, “I Will Always Love You” might also best encapsulate her unwavering spirit. She penned the song in 1973 as a musical farewell to mentor and longtime collaborator Porter Wagoner, whom she’d sang alongside for years before quitting his TV show to pursue her solo career.
“I had come to Nashville to be my own star. I really felt like I needed to move on. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life being [his] ‘girl singer.’ I knew my destiny. I knew that I had to continue doing what I felt led and drawn to do,” Dolly told Howard. “The thing I can do best is to write, so I went home … [and] wrote the song ‘I Will Always Love You.’”
She entered his office the next day with a guitar in her hand and delivered the message. “I said, ‘Porter, sit down. I got something I need to sing to you,’” she recalled. “He was just sitting behind his desk and tears started rolling down. He said, ‘That’s just the best song you ever wrote, and you can go if I can produce the song.’”
The song was a big hit and soon caught the attention of Elvis Presley, who wanted to record his own rendition. “I was out of my mind with excitement … thinking about Elvis singing my song,” Dolly recalled.
Unfortunately, the plan fell through when Colonel Tom Parker — Elvis’s infamously controlling manager —tried to renegotiate their deal the day before the King was set to step inside the studio. “He said, ‘You know that we don’t record anything with Elvis unless we have the publishing,’” Parton recalled. “I said, ‘That’s not possible because that is my most important copyright … I can’t do that.’”
So, Elvis pulled out and Dolly was heartbroken. “I cried all night about that,” she lamented.
But Parton’s instincts to retain the publishing rights were vindicated nearly two decades later when Whitney Houston recorded a rearranged rendition of “I Will Always Love You” for the soundtrack to “The Bodyguard.” The song became the best-selling single of 1992.
“I was so thankful that I had made that choice because I made a lot of money off of Whitney’s,” Dolly said.
Telling Howard about the first time she heard Houston’s version, Dolly revealed she was listening to the radio in her car and taken by complete surprise. “I almost wrecked, honest to god. I had to pull over to a Walgreens … and listen to the rest of it,” Parton said. “I couldn’t believe my little country sad song could even be done like that … and it was just overwhelming. That was one of the greatest experiences I ever had in my entire life.”
Writing ‘9 to 5’ on Her Fingernails
Dolly’s dazzling fingernails aren’t just for show — they can also assist in the songwriting process. While filming her hit 1980 comedy “9 to 5,” co-starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, she didn’t have access to a guitar on set. Instead, she used her fingernails to help write the film’s now-beloved theme song.
“You gotta have acrylic nails to make that real percussive sound,” she told Howard before giving him a quick demo.
Dolly wrote “9 to 5” over a period of a week, tapping out the melody and writing verses on set before returning to her hotel room at night to record it with a guitar. While putting the song together, her producer — who would decades later help bring about “9 to 5: The Musical” — noted that Parton’s tapping sounded a lot like a typewriter, which was on brand for the film, so they put her tapping into the song.
Filming a Hollywood movie proved to be a wild experience for a small-town girl like Dolly, who memorized the entire script beforehand because she thought it would be like acting in a play.
“I had been offered movies before that, but I didn’t want to do [them],” she said before explaining how Jane and Lily’s star-power ultimately sold her on the project. “I thought, well, if it’s a hit I can bask in the glory with them, and if it’s a failure I can blame them because nobody knows me that well,” she laughed.
Doing Plastic Surgery, the Right Way
Looking youthful as ever at 77, Parton owns the fact she’s open to the occasional plastic surgery. “I always say, ‘Just find the best doctors,’” she told Howard of her philosophy.
According to Dolly, it’s also important to know when enough is enough. “You’ve just got to be very careful not to overdo it because you never know, anytime you go under the knife you could come out looking not good,” she warned before doubling down on anything facial. “You can cover things if somebody screws up things on your body but boy, if you live with your face out there you’ve got to be careful.”
To this day, the singer does everything in moderation. “I try to do just little bits at a time – I don’t do like really big stuff,” she revealed. “I do fillers, Botox … only when I have to do something a little more, and even then, I try to be careful.”
“Behind the Seams: My Life in Rhinestones” is available now. “Rockstar” hits shelves on Friday, Nov. 17. Listen to Dolly’s Rockstar Radio on SiriusXM channel 14.