Country music veteran Dolly Parton declares with her rich, enthusiastic Southern accent that she’s in her “second childhood.” This year marks the 50th anniversary of Parton releasing her debut solo album Hello, I’m Dolly (1967), reminding her of when she left her musical partnership with flamboyant country music singer Porter Wagoner to pursue a solo career. Even though the trailblazing chart topper’s career has transcended all areas of entertainment from million-selling records to tourist destinations, the self-proclaimed “same ‘ole gal” continues to dream big and crave more.
The down-to-earth, multiple Grammy Award winner is releasing her very first children’s album, I Believe in You in physical formats today, October 13th via her imprint Dolly Records in partnership with RCA Nashville. Released digitally a few weeks ago on September 29th, the heartwarming 14-track set—completely written and performed by Parton—touches upon themes such as bullying (“Makin’ Fun Ain’t Funny” and a re-recording of “Coat of Many Colors”) and her niece, Hannah Dennison, battling leukemia (“Chemo Hero” and “Brave Little Soldier”).
In fact, the album jacket for “I Believe in You” includes photos of Parton’s two young nieces—Dennison being one of them—kissing her on the cheek. The LP, Parton says with her charming twang and a slew of tonal inflections, is an effort to instill high self-esteem and confidence into children’s lives. “It’s never funny to the one you’re making fun of,” Parton says. “Especially now since people are trying to teach children to not be bullies. It hurts, and it don’t feel good. It’s terrible, and it needed to be spoken to. It’s for the little kids but also for the grown-ups, too.”
Addressing topics that affect young people is important to Parton. The family-oriented vocalist remembers being teased herself as a kid for wearing tattered clothing and coming from a poor family. During the recording sessions for I Believe in You, the Sevierville, Tennessee native born the fourth of twelve children invited several of her nieces, nephews and some of Dennison’s friends to join her.
Parton is contributing all proceeds from the sales of I Believe in You towards the Imagination Library, an initiative the benevolent entertainer founded two decades ago to eradicate children’s illiteracy. Believing all children should know how to read, the Imagination Library delivers personalized books to children, beginning with The Little Engine That Could. The encouraging tale, Parton shares, is how the children’s album gained its title.
“The songs on this album are inspired by the book that we give away [through the Imagination Library],” she explains, calling her creative process “fun.” “Everytime we give out the books, we get a new book, and I’ll write a song based loosely on what the book is about.”
Imagination Library is originally an homage to Parton’s father, Robert Lee Parton, and members of her immediate family who never learned to read or write. Parton is still satisfied knowing her father, who passed in November 2000, was able to witness her nonprofit organization gift over 100 million books to kids in four continents. Parton jokingly cracks up at the thought of her father being tickled to death at her fans referring to her as “The Book Lady.”
“My dad got to help me with it,” the well-endowed, anecdote-savvy performer says. “He felt very proud for me to do that and involve him in it. He got to live long enough to see it doing well. If you can learn to read, you can educate yourself about any subject.”
Parton, 71, is grateful that her multi-faceted career allows her to give back and try new things despite some pushback from country music purists. Her half-century tenure in music has yielded memorable singles that dabble in country, pop, rock and disco like “Joshua,” “Jolene,” “I Will Always Love You,” “Coat of Many Colors,” “Here You Come Again,” “9 to 5,” “Baby I’m Burning,” “Starting Over Again,” and “Islands in the Stream” (with Kenny Rogers).
Parton’s award-winning theme park, Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, is still a major tourist attraction. Selling over 100 million records worldwide, the overachieving Country Music Hall of Famer actress and producer seized the big screen in 9 to 5, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Rhinestone, Steel Magnolias, Straight Talk, and Joyful Noise. Somehow, Parton found time to team with singers Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt to form the supergroup Trio and again with Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn to form Honky Tonk Angels.
The welcoming, go-getting Southern belle synonymous with opulent, rhinestone-drenched costuming, six-inch heels and an emporium of blonde wigs credits growing up around her father, brothers and uncles—a musical family—as the foundation for her fearlessness in both country music and entertainment. Parton admits she’s never been intimidated in any male-dominated spaces throughout her six- decade-plus career.
“I had this burning love for the music, this burning desire to get into the bigger world,” Parton confides. “My desire to do it was always bigger than my fear. I believed I had something that might do good and make us all [in the music industry] some money. I never thought about it whether not I was a girl or boy. I had a gift. It was God-given, and I was supposed to be doing something with it.”
Penning “I Will Always Love You,” the record-breaking number 1 single covered by the late Whitney Houston in 1992, Parton said, is still one of her biggest accomplishments. The song was originally inspired by her decision to split from Wagoner to pursue a solo career. “That song is so deep-seated in my heart and soul,” the Songwriters Hall of Famer says with a slight tonal inflection.
“We were so much alike, we couldn’t get along, or we were so different, we couldn’t get along. But we had a great love; it was a love-hate relationship. After the fighting, love and depth we had for each other, I tried to write to express how I feel. It was a very hard song.”
By the time Houston’s cover became a megahit, Parton still had no idea the songstress had recorded it for the blockbuster 1992 film The Bodyguard. Parton remembers hearing the song on the radio on her way home, stopping the car to prevent from wrecking. “I thought my heart was going to burst outside of my body,” Parton says. “It was the most powerful feeling I guess I’d ever had. It was such a shock, and it was so great. She sang it so good, I was just overwhelmed.”
Along with Imagination Library, Parton remains proactive about leveraging her superstardom for the common good, funding countless academic scholarships and children’s hospitals to performing at numerous benefits. Reiterating her strong faith, Parton believes people with great influence should always pay their success forward.
“Once you’re in a position to help, you definitely should,” she insists. “You get a good feeling when you’re giving for somebody else. If God has been good to you, be good to other people. It makes me feel good to do it. It’s my duty to do it.”
Parton, one of five female artists to earn the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award, continues to carry a notepad anywhere she travels, also keeping one near her bed along with a tape recorder. She can’t take too many vacations or retreats to concentrate on songwriting, thanks to her ongoing busy schedule, but she still finds moments to jot down ideas.
What hasn’t changed is Parton’s quest to evolve and take her career to new heights. She further assures country music purists and her die-hard fans that the songs always come first before any other maneuver she makes.
“The music is always right there at the heart of it all,” Parton declares. “I’m not leaving country. I’ll take that with me wherever I go because that’s just who I am. I think I’ve lived up to that. If that would’ve flopped, I would’ve had egg all over my face [laughs].”