A lot comes to mind when you think of Dolly Parton, the larger-than-life legend of country music. Aside, of course, from her famous figure and hair, is her voice, which can be bright and brassy or soft and sweet, but which, with its sharp Tennessee twang, is instantly recognizable. There are all those songs–from 9 to 5 and Why’d You Come in Here Looking Like That to I Will Always Love You, Put it Off Until Tomorrow and Jolene—and movies, including 9 to 5, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Rhinestone Cowboy, and Steel Magnolias (she has also appeared as Aunt Dolly on Hannah Montana). And then there’s Dollywood, the theme park that also happens to be Tennessee’s largest employer.
At 63, Parton remains one of the busiest people in show business. The Imagination Library, the charitable organization that sends free books to preschoolers in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. that she set up in 1996, is still going strong. And in early June, she published her first children’s book, I Am a Rainbow (Putnam/Penguin). All the money made through sales of the book, which is full of rhyming couplets linking kids’ moods to colours, goes to her Imagination Library.
Parton has also joined the screen-to-stage trend by turning 9 to 5 into a full-fledged Broadway musical, which debuted earlier this year to mix reviews. Variety said it “qualifies as what folks call ‘a fun show’: rarely any less, but at this point rarely more” but that didn’t stop the production from earning four Tony nominations. Parton herself performed in the award gala’s opening medley. And she just released the show’s soundtrack on her own music label. “It’s such a wonderful sound hearing that huge orchestra and all those wonderful singers,” she says. “It’s a thrill to hear your music done like that.”
So, with everything else going on, does she still try to write a song a day, as she has claimed to do in the past? “I don’t necessarily try to write one, it just seems that I do,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll write two or three songs in a day, sometimes I’ll just come up with an idea. It’s very seldom that I don’t have something to do with either a piece of a song or a great title.” She claims to have boxes and boxes of scrap paper with song lyrics scribbled on them, waiting for her to finish them up. “My life is just in rhyme,” she says. “I’ll look at anything or I’ll say something or I’ll hear somebody say something, and my mind just starts spinning in rhyme. There’s always creative thoughts every day for me.”
Since her flamboyant image tends to overshadow her genuine artistry, Parton’s songwriting hasn’t always been given the attention it deserves. Not that Parton cares. “People always say ‘oh, if you took yourself more seriously and don’t look this way or don’t look that way, people will take you more seriously as a writer,’ but you know what? I ain’t in this just for them,” she says. “When I’m dead and gone, they’ll look back and see what I’ve done. In the meantime, I’m just busy doing what I feel I need to do.”