My life in lyrics and its writing process
Dolly Parton is one of the sunniest figures in pop culture. But when it comes to finding creative inspiration, the country star prefers a macabre setting. “I love cemeteries. I love looking at gravestones and names and trying to imagine what their life was like. I got a lot of song ideas there,” Parton told Bustle. “I just sit in the graveyard and feel the energies, the lives and the memories. I know it sounds morbid to some, but I appreciate the peace.”
Parton began writing songs at her local cemetery as a child, seeking respite on the farmhouse she lived on in Tennessee with her parents and 11 siblings. Now, 60 years into his songwriting career, Parton reflects on his journey in his new book, Songteller: My life in words. The collection traces the making of 175 Parton songs — including hits like “Jolene,” “9 to 5” and “I Will Always Love You” — giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at each ballad’s origins. “With Singer I talked about all the stories behind [the songs]. Why I wrote them and what was going on in my life at the time. It made me visit places I thought I had forgotten. And some of them I wanted [forget]”, she laughs. “After I finished, I realized that it was really therapy for me. It was a long process, but it was cathartic.”
Beneath Parton’s treasury of little-known stories, Singer offers an intimate portrait of the prolific artist’s songwriting process – and how she had the creative stamina to create 3,000 songs. “I write because I want to. It comes and I do it,” she says. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of something I should write, whether it’s a title or an idea. I may not be working on an entire song, but I write something almost every day.”
Below, Parton reflects on juice cures, cop shows and her weakness for potato chips.
From scribbling words on the back of a McDonald’s receipt:
I keep a notepad or a Dictaphone [with me] in case something comes back to me. ‘Cause sometimes I dream of a song and in my drowsiness I think I’ll remember it when I wake up, but I won’t. So I learned a long time ago that if I dream of a song, I have to write it right away. You have to be at work when you’re a writer, because you don’t want to lose any big lines. I wanted to slap myself several times thinking “I knew [that line] was good, but I didn’t write it down, so I can’t remember what it was about.”
I will write about anything. If I have an idea, [I’ll take] everything in my wallet, [even] if this is the last receipt I received from the drive thru at McDonald’s. I’ll write on a box of Kleenex or even on the back of my hand if I don’t have anything else handy.
On writing – and cleaning juice:
I used to always say, “Okay, I’m taking two weeks off just to write.” Then I’ll ride up to my lake house or wherever [and write]. The first few days I was on a juice fast until I cleansed myself. Then I would do a day or two of water fasting, just to feel closer to God.
For me, it’s my personal God time. Nothing in this world is greater than when I have those moments where I feel like I’m living on creative and spiritual energy. I just wrote, slept, woke up and wrote again. Sometimes I can go for hours and hours and hours. I wrote for 24 hours straight. It’s my favorite thing. It is my time.
On his love of junk food:
When I’m not fasting, I eat candy bars for energy. I like Snickers and Milky Ways. But when I sing, I just eat chips. Salt makes you feel like you have something more to eat, [it’s] satisfactory. I love Ruffles but really any type of potato is my weakness.
Writing in her “baby clothes”:
I have a whole wardrobe of what I call my “baby clothes”, which are my house clothes. It’s those little dresses that almost look like little stuffed animals. They go all the way down like a dress shirt. Then, I wear a kind of loose and fluid little jacket to cover them. I need to wear something loose and comfortable. I don’t want to tie anything around my waist so I can eat all my chips. I don’t wear a bra or anything that can pinch me.
Chill out with crime shows:
I don’t watch much TV, but I like forensics [shows]. Everyone laughs at me, but I think it’s so amazing that with forensics you can solve a whole mystery with a worm, or a leaf, or blood. I’m just fascinated by it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.