Dolly Parton is a national treasure.
When she’s not helping books get into the hands of children with her Imagination Library project, she’s reading bedtime stories on YouTube to offer families a brief respite from the COVID-19 pandemic with “Goodnight With Dolly.”
For 53 years, the singer, songwriter, performer, actress, philanthropist, and amusement park maven has made us laugh with her cheeky onstage banter and memorable turns onscreen, and made us cry with her bittersweet lyrics of love lost and hard won. Her immense catalogue of hits is only outmatched by her generosity both in front of an audience and behind the scenes.
Biography: Dolly, A&E’s latest installment of its popular series, takes an in-depth look at the superstar’s fruitful career through the prism of her most significant releases.
Interviews with Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Chris Stapleton, Kyle Minogue and Parton herself chart the course of her life, from growing up in a one-room cabin in Tennessee to becoming a Grammy-winning, Oscar-nominated icon.
Here are eight things we learned during the two-hour Biography installment:
Take away the hair, the glam, the sharp sense of humor and even that heavenly voice and Parton’s indelible melodies paired with simple stories of heartbreak and resilience stand the test of time. “It’s my way of expressing myself. It’s my therapy. There are pieces of me, of course, in everything I write,” she says.
Parton wrote the 1968 hit in response to her husband questioning her sexual dalliances before the two wed. The double standard is clear in the lyrics: “My mistakes are no worse than yours/Just because I’m a woman.” “Now, you look back at it, it was kind of one of the first MeToo movement songs,” Parton says, “It’s really about women taking responsibility for themselves and not wanting to be blamed for everything that happens or to think that we don’t have some power and that we can’t stand up and speak out for ourselves.”
Written about her mother sewing together a coat from discarded rags and being teased at school for wearing the patchwork garment, Parton’s 1971 hit touched on themes of bullying and acceptance – two things close to the 74-year-old’s heart. “That is my philosophy, that little song,” she says. “It’s OK to be different. It’s wonderful that you are who you are.”
Parton reveals Priscilla Presley told her that upon leaving the courthouse after her divorce from Elvis was finalized, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll serenaded her with what Parton calls her “most special song.” Elvis wanted to record his own version, but his manager demanded Parton give up the copyright, which she refused.
Elvis not singing “I Will Always Love You” might have broken Parton’s heart, but her determination to keep the copyright proved to be a smart, prescient move. In 1992 Houston released the seminal version of the song for The Bodyguard soundtrack. People say Houston claimed it was her record, which Parton agrees. “It’s my song, but it’s most definitely her record. It didn’t sound like that when I had it,” she says. “She made me rich.”
Parton would walk around the set of 9 to 5 to stave off boredom and play beats on her long acrylic nails like a washboard, which she soon realized sounded coincidentally like the clacking of a typewriter. When co-stars Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda first heard the theme, the reaction was unanimous: “This is not just a movie song – this is an anthem,” Fonda says.
Despite not being classically trained – Parton claims she writes by heart and plays instruments by ear – she’s amassed an overflowing catalogue by composing a song a day.
Most people assume Parton wrote “Here You Come Again,” her first crossover success into the world of mainstream pop, but they would be wrong. Husband and wife duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Well (“Somewhere Out There,” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”) penned the 1977 Grammy winner. With 3,000 songs (see above) under her belt, why would Parton sing someone else’s material? Remember, this “dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool,” and she’s smart enough to know a hit song when it crosses her ears.
Biography: Dolly premieres on A&E Sunday, April 12, at 8 pm ET.