Dolly Parton Opens Up About The Real Jolene, Depression And Suicidal Thoughts, And Her Brand New Album

Empowering Women Series Interview With Dolly Parton
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Well, HELLO Dolly!

"I love melodies. I love to sing or whistle or hum. I'm just always doing it. So, it's easy for me to write. Whatever I am writing about at the time, because the day is new and fresh, there's always a new and fresh twist to a song, even though it's about ordinary things, you can make it a little special if you're the least bit creative, which I try to be."

And just like that, it was affirmed. Dolly Parton is exactly who you would imagine her to be. Funny, clever, intelligent, and real — a woman with absolute strength and beauty.

The most beautiful thing about her, though, is her heart. And that beautiful heart is what led to her latest project.

Dolly's new and very first children's album, I Believe In You, is a collection of fourteen tracks with proceeds benefiting her incredible charity, the Imagination Library. 

"I started the Imagination Library over twenty years ago in honor of my father, who was never able to read or write. So my dad got to help me with it and he felt very proud for me to be doing that and to involve him in it. He got to live long enough to see it doing well. He got a kick out of people calling me the book lady.” 

"If you can learn to read, you can educate yourself about any subject," Parton continued. "You don’t have to have money. If you can’t afford to go to school, there is a book on anything you want to know.”

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Included in the children's collection is an auto-biographical song sure to resonate with many, titled "Coat of Many Colors."

My coat of many colors
That my momma made for me
Made only from rags
But I wore it so proudly
Although we had no money
I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me

Dolly Parton isn't just your run-of-the-mill star or celebrity.

The woman is a true living legend who has built a multi-dimensional legacy spanning five decades.

Yet despite her success as the most honored female country performer of all time — as well as in her varied roles as songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, record producer, actress, author, businesswoman, and philanthropist — within her still exists Dolly Rebecca Parton Dean, the little girl who grew up in Appalachia, Tennessee wearing raggedy old clothes she was mocked for by her peers.

Because that is the place where music saved her.

“Music was such a part of our whole family… I took my music real serious. I was always plucking along on somebody’s instrument... I always loved the guitar and one of my uncles, he had this little Martin guitar that I loved. When he saw how serious I was about my music, he gave me his little Martin guitar and that was my treasure. When I left it home when I was eighteen years old, I put it in the loft because it was beat up, and when I got money —  when I got rich and famous [laughs]  I was going to have it fixed up. But the loft burned [down] and burned up my little guitar, so I only have the neck of that one.”  

Leaving home at the young age of 18 was something Dolly felt driven to do.

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She had an innate belief in herself that gave her the strength to leave her small town for the big city.

“I just had this burning love for the music. I had this burning desire to get out into the bigger world. I was a country girl and there was some fear there. People always say, ‘Weren’t you afraid?’ I said, ‘Well, we’re all afraid of something.’ My true line is that my desire to do it was always greater than my fear. I just believed that I had something that might do good."

Dolly wasn't just another singer trying to make it big, though.

She was a passionate and ambitious woman who wanted to write, sing and own her songs so she could control her own path.

Of course, there was no prior model to follow in order to know how exactly to do such a thing as a woman in 1964.

“I never thought about whether I was a girl or a boy. I just had a gift and I felt like it was God-given and I felt like I was supposed to be doing something with it. I always just had that attitude about it. I guess people kind of responded. I had a lot of help and didn’t have as many problems as a lot of the young girls were having at the time. I guess because I grew up in a house full of brothers and had my dad and my uncle, so I understood men and they didn’t intimidate me.”

No. Men did not intimidate her one bit. 

In fact, while walking through Manhattan one day, Parton was approached by a stranger who then grabbed her and propositioned her for sex. Dolly pulled a gun out of her purse and the man quickly scurried away.

She may be pretty and dainty, but she is not someone you want to mess with. 

Just ask Jolene.

"Jolene" was released in October of 1973, is her song most covered by other artists, and won her a Grammy Award 43 years after it's original release, but first, it was a true story.

The woman, whose "beauty is beyond compare with flaming locks of auburn hair, with ivory skin and eyes of emerald green," worked as a clerk in the local bank branch in Parton's town. When Parton realized her new husband seemed to be spending a bit too much time down at the bank, she joked with him that they didn't have enough money to warrant so many visits.

The real "Jolene" was no match for Parton, of course. Fast-forward 51 years later and the songstress is still married to her one true life partner, Carl Dean. 

There was one man in her life who did warrant a breakup, though.

In 1974, Dolly made the difficult decision to leave The Porter Wagoner Show, which had helped launch her career seven years earlier when she was first invited to join the cast of regulars.

Tensions had been mounting between Porter and Dolly for a while.Their love/hate dynamic made it difficult to work together at times, and regardless, Dolly knew exactly what she wanted for herself. It was time for her to spread her wings and move along elsewhere. 

So she wrote her epic ballad "I Will Always Love You" as a way to explain those things she was feeling about it all to Porter. 

It worked. 

Porter's reaction? 

"That's the prettiest song I ever heard. You can go, providing I get to produce that record."

It was nearly two decades later when Dolly was literally stopped in her tracks by Whitney Houston's interpretation of that same song.

“I was on my way home and I turned the radio on and all of a sudden, I heard that acapella part… I knew it was something familiar. By the time it dawned on me what I was hearing, when she [Whitney] went into that chorus, I had to stop the car because I almost wrecked it. I felt like my heart was going to just bust right out of my body. It was the most powerful feeling, I guess, that I have ever had. It was such a shock and it was so great and she sang it so good that I was just overwhelmed.”

Not everything in Parton's life has been charmed, though.

At the end of the day, she is still trying to navigate her way through this crazy world just like the rest of us, and she needed every ounce of strength and courage she had at her disposal when she went through a particularly difficult time during the early 80s. At one point, Parton gained 50 pounds through binge-eating and developed health problems that were most likely due to stress.

This culminated in one of the darkest periods of her life, during which she went so far as to contemplate suicide.

In her recently released book Dolly on Dolly, which features a collection of interviews with the singer, she says:

"I was sitting upstairs in my bedroom one afternoon when I noticed in the nightstand drawer my gun that I keep for burglars. I looked at it a long time... Then, just as I picked it up, just to hold it and look at it for a moment, our little dog, Popeye, came running up the stairs. The tap-tap-tap of his paws jolted me back to reality and I suddenly froze. I put the gun down. Then I prayed. I kinda believe Popeye was a spiritual messenger from God...

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I don't think I'd have done it, killed myself, but I can't say for sure. Now that I've gone through that terrible moment, I can certainly understand the possibilities even for someone solid like me if the pain gets bad enough."

Fortunately, Dolly has her strong faith to fall back on. 

“I think you have to have a great spiritual background. I grew up in a church. My grandpa was a preacher. We were taught that Jesus loved us and we loved Jesus and that we needed to love one another, as well. Faith has played a big part in every single thing that I do... Every song that I write… I pray that God will lead me to say something that will uplift him and glorify mankind somehow.”

Lifting people up is something that seems to come naturally to Dolly.

“I really think that once you’re in a position to help, you should help... I’ve been so blessed in my life that I want to give back... If God’s been good to you, be good to other people. That’s how we spread the love around. It just makes me feel good to do it and I think it’s my duty to do it.”

While I Believe In You is a children's album, adults are sure to enjoy the many inspirational songs like "Brave Little Soldier" and "Makin' Fun Ain't Funny." 

Parton may not be listed as a mother on any official birth certificates, but she has given birth to thousands of children.

As she says, “My songs are like my children and I expect them to support me when I’m old. I may have some that are prettier than others but I love them all.”

Those children that have gone out into the world and touched people's hearts, helped them smile and created the meaningful soundtrack supporting the stories of their lives.  


This interview is part of YourTango's 'Empowering Women Series' highlighting female icons making a difference in the lives of other women through their talents, voices and strength of character. 


Melody Alderman is a writer, photographer, and single mom. She has an irrational fear of sharks and once brought home a little leprechaun from Ireland. Her work has been published globally.

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