In 1992, Whitney Houston belted out her iconic rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and the world was stunned. Not only were we reminded of Houston’s incredible voice, but also of the songwriting talent of Dolly Parton – who had, until then, been reasonably respected in the world of country music but not so much outside of it.
Parton was born and raised in Tennessee, and that’s also where she began her career at an early age. She sang on local radio and television programs, and recorded her first song (called “Puppy Love”) when she was only 13 years old. It was around the same time that she made an appearance at the legendary Grand Ole Opry, and met Johnny Cash. He saw her potential, and encouraged her to follow her dreams.
After Parton graduated from high school, she made the big move to Nashville – and almost immediately signed a songwriting contract with Combine Publishing. She co-wrote her first two hits (“Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” recorded by Bill Phillips in 1966, and Skeeter Davis’ 1967 single “Fuel to the Flame) with her uncle, Bill Owens. But while she continued to make a name for herself as a songwriter, writing hits for everyone from Kitty Wells to Hank Williams Jr., Parton dreamed of becoming a singer herself. She got the chance at age 19 when she signed with Monument Records, but the company insisted on pitching her as a pop star instead of a country singer and her career halted.
Parton’s first country single, “Dumb Blonde,” was released in 1967. It reached the No. 24 spot on the country chart and was followed by “Something Fishy”, which climbed to No. 17. When she appeared on Porter Wagoner’s television show and sang a duet with him (“The Last Thing on My Mind”, 1967) her reputation as an up-and-coming country star was established. She and Wagoner continued their partnership until 1974.
The early 1970’s saw a steady stream of Dolly Parton hits: “Mule Skinner Blues” (1970), “Joshua” (1971), “Coat of Many Colors” (1971), “Touch Your Woman” (1972), “My Tennessee Mountain Home” (1972), “Jolene” (1973) and, of course, the original version of “I Will Always Love You” (1974). This last one was apparently written about her professional break from Wagoner – and when Elvis Presley expressed interest in covering the song, Parton refused. This decision proved she may be as good a businessperson as she is an artist, because it led to her earning far more in royalties.
Until 1980, Parton consistently charted in the country Top 10; eight of her singles released during this time reached No. 1. She also launched her own syndicated television variety show, called “Dolly!” (1976–1977) and had her songs covered by everyone from Emmylou Harris to Linda Ronstadt (both of whom she worked with to record Trio, the critically acclaimed album the three women released in 1987.) Her fame and success reached such great heights that she was even able to help her siblings, Randy and Stella, sign recording contracts of their own. But still, Parton wanted more.
In an attempt to branch out of country music and become more mainstream, Parton began working with Sandy Gallin, who acted as her personal manager for the next 25 years. In 1977, she dropped her first entirely self-produced album, New Harvest… First Gathering (1977) to highlight her abilities to create pop music – but while the album did well on the country chart, it barely touched the pop charts. Parton pivoted to enlist high-profile pop producer Gary Klein and her next album, Here You Come Again (1977) was her first million-dollar seller. It topped the country album chart and claimed the pop chart’s No. 20 spot.
While Parton did eventually see some mainstream success, she was never able to stray far from her country music roots. In 1978, she won a Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance (for Here You Come Again, which she released as a pop album) and appeared on many country-music-themed television specials. Over the next few decades, she remained primarily a country music singer – but she did find one area of mainstream music in which she was able to excel: movie soundtracks. Nine to Five, Prisoner in Disguise and, of course, The Bodyguard – these and other films owe a lot to Ms. Parton.
Parton has worn many hats over the course of her career, and continues to do so to this day. She has been an actress, a performer, a composer, a businesswoman (she is co-owner of The Dollywood Company, which operates multiple businesses including the famous Dollywood theme park) and a philanthropist (best known for her Dollywood Foundation) but even within her songwriting alone, she has shown incredible range. While her early songs show strong elements of folk music, she has also won over 35 BMI Pop and Country Awards. In 2001, she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame – and she is showing no sign of slowing down yet.
So, what’s Dolly Parton’s secret? What makes her such a prolific songwriter? Well, she’s been quoted as saying that she has written upwards of 3,000 songs and writes every single day, whether it be a complete song or just an idea. She isn’t afraid to work hard for what she wants, and we are all reaping the rewards.
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