Beneath Dolly Parton’s glitz and glamour lies the heart and soul of a songwriter. We take a look at one of her most under-appreciated talents, and stack her up against some Blank on Blank master wordsmiths.
The persona of Dolly Parton – big bleached-blonde hair, ample cleavage, drowning in spangles and sparkles that we loved animating – may have at times overshadowed all else about about her as an artist and performer. The character (caricature?) looms large, but truthfully, her talent as a songwriter cannot, and should not, be denied.
Though it’s often been overlooked, her ability to put pen to paper and write simply and honestly about life and love has probably contributed as much to her success and longevity as her down-home, yet larger-than-life personality.
They didn’t understand it and I tried to make them see
One is only poor only if you choose to be
It is true we had no money but I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors momma made for me
– from “Coat of Many Colors”
Songwriting was always the priority for Dolly – she started writing songs at the age of 5 and says she still writes everyday. She draws from her own life and the lives of those around her for material. She’s pointed to sensitivity and experience as the most important assets for a songwriter, saying:
“I leave myself wide open because I’m a songwriter. I can’t ever harden my heart just because it’s been broken a few times.”
She picked up a publishing deal as a teenager after performing at the Grand Ole Opry, and moved to Nashville right out of high school to pursue music, initially having most of her success writing songs for others. Over the years, she’s published about 3,000 songs.
Dolly on starting out as a songwriter in Nashville
The importance Dolly places on writing her own songs makes her a rarity in country music, an industry where most big acts rely on tunes churned out by songwriters holed up in house on Nashville’s Music Row, as does her choice of themes – she has written songs about abortion, domestic abuse, and growing up in poverty.
The song “Down from Dover” tells the story of a young woman who is pregnant and unmarried. Like Loretta Lynn singing about “The Pill,” songs like this pushed forth topics that traditional country wasn’t eager to acknowledge.
“My body aches the time is here it’s lonely in this place where I’m lyin’
Our baby has been born but something’s wrong it’s much too still I hear no cryin’
I guess in some strange way she knew she’d never have a father’s arms to hold her
And dying was her way of telling me he wasn’t coming down from Dover
– from “Down from Dover”
Early in her career, Dolly says she was warned that her looks would keep her from being taken seriously as a songwriter, to which she, in typical Dolly fashion, simply shrugged her shoulders and kept plugging along. Thankfully, over the years the industry has caught up with her, honoring her with numerous awards and a spot in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. And of course, all those covers…
Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
I’m begging of you please don’t take my man
Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
Please don’t take him just because you can.
– from “Jolene”
The White Stripes cover Dolly’s “Jolene”
How do you think Dolly compares with some of the songwriting greats we’ve featured on Blank on Blank?
“I got a little puzzled at how savage the reaction against us was, when we got it, especially when we performed live and left New York. Like you know, “how savage and decadent”, da da da da; “look at what these songs are about; ‘Venus in Furs’ is about all of this.” They didn’t even know “Venus in Furs” was a book; I didn’t write it. I just said it would be interesting to take this book and put it in a song. I just wanted to cram everything into a record that these people had ignored, which left you everything.”
Barry Hoskins: “How much of your writing about, let’s not call them addicts, let’s call them dependents, how much of that is based on subjective experience and how much is just based on being an observer?”
Elliott Smith: “I’m definitely in them, but on the other hand it’s not like a diary or anything. But, yeah, it’s good to call them dependents, because that was the point, as opposed to them being songs strictly about drugs or… There’s lots of ways people can be dependent, on another person, or drugs, or…”
“You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects creating a kind of story ingredients-list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections; mix ’em up and reconnect them. You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this. You can use them as is or, if you have a craven need to not lose control, bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections.”
“Keep it simple. Write as clearly and plainly as you can, keep the title evident in the song, and try to convey your feelings in a simple, honest and straightforward way.”
“My lyrics are a big pile of contradictions. They’re split between very sincere opinions and feelings that I have, and sarcastic opinions and feelings that I have, and sarcastic and hopeful, humorous rebuttles towards cliche, bohemian ideals that have been exhausted for years. I meean, I like to be passionate and sincere, but I also like to have fun and act like a dork.”