“Jolene” was inspired by a bank teller who got too flirty with Parton’s husband, Carl Dean, while “I Will Always Love You” was partly written about her platonic musical partner Porter Wagoner, which is kind of disappointing, to be honest. Wagoner was a 40-year-old country star and Parton a 21-year-old relative unknown when he hired her to be the “girl singer” in his band, notes “Songteller” collaborator Robert K. Oermann.
Wagoner was flinty and domineering, underpaying Parton long after her stardom began to eclipse his, and getting huffy when she tried to leave. They constantly feuded, and though they later reconciled, Wagoner is about the only person in “Songteller” whom Parton clearly doesn’t like.
“I Will Always Love You” was Parton’s exit letter, although when she wrote its most famous couplet (“If I should stay / I would only be in your way”), it turns out she was only being polite. “I should have said, ‘You’d only be in my way,’ ” Parton writes. “Ha-ha.”
Parton would go on to become one of country music’s best-selling female artists, a beloved cultural figure, and one of the only White ladies a divided nation can agree on. She is a pioneer and a feminist, although that’s not a word she cares for, and an LGBTQ ally. Her dominion — what the podcast “Dolly Parton’s America” likes to call the “Dollyverse” — spans genres, generations and continents. She understands exactly why we love her and doesn’t pretend otherwise.
According to “Songteller,” there is little she cannot do or hasn’t briefly considered doing. She partially funded an experimental coronavirus vaccine, and through her charity, she has delivered more than 130 million books to children. She established an eagle sanctuary at her amusement park, Dollywood, because one time she got to worrying about bald eagles. She hung out with Andy Warhol at Studio 54 and once had a club hit with a cover of Cat Stevens’s “Peace Train,” the least danceable song ever.
“Songteller” is divided into three equally invaluable and roughly chronological sections: song lyrics, archival photos and written passages featuring Parton’s folksy retelling of various events. There’s a gold mine of little-seen photos of Parton’s little-seen husband of 54 years, whom she sometimes refers to by his full name, Carl Dean. After attending exactly one music industry event early in their marriage, Dean swore he would never go to another, and he never has, writes Parton admiringly. She plainly adores him.
There’s a trove of photos from Parton’s childhood: her daddy’s worn work boots; the first record she ever recorded, at 13. There’s Dolly as a strikingly ordinary-looking child, Dolly in a ruffled prom dress, Dolly looking suspiciously brunette.
Parton grew up in East Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, one of 12 kids. They were so cold that they slept with their clothes on, so poor that the doctor who delivered Dolly was paid with a sack of cornmeal. Writing songs would be Parton’s deliverance. When she was 10, she landed on a radio show run by Cas Walker, a raccoon hunter-turned-grocery store magnate, because everyone in the Dollyverse has a colorful backstory. She struck out on her own at 18, which was terrifying, but she figured she couldn’t be any poorer than she already was.
“Songteller” hits its stride when it gets to ’70s crossover pop star Dolly. She was at the height of her powers and her charms, a figure of terrifying architectural precision, with Nashville’s most famous bosom cantilevered into a bullet bra, and that vertiginous hair. In the book’s best photo, she’s in a schoolroom, wearing a minidress and a towering wig, playing for kids who are staring at her in wonder, like she has just landed from Mars.
It’s during the ’70s that her songwriting approaches Peak Dolly: plain-spoken, but with a flair for melodrama unusual even for a country singer. In Dolly Parton songs, people are constantly cheating on their spouses or throwing themselves off bridges. Soldiers almost never return home from the war, and the car will always crash. If there’s a Dolly Parton song with a puppy or an infant in it, look out, because both will die tragically. If there’s a song with a gun, Dolly Parton, like Anton Chekhov, will deploy it by the third act.
There are Dolly songs that cut so deep they will break your heart, and there are others to be avoided because you don’t want to think about her that way, like her awkward ode to swinging. Some of her early songs were so pointedly feminist that radio stations wouldn’t play them, yet she also wrote one of history’s only known songs about PMS, a look-out-fellas-ladies-be-crazy deep cut that, unlike most of her work, has not aged well.
Tucked away among the book’s many treasures is a photo of the original lyrics to Parton’s hit “Coat of Many Colors,” about a child who is mocked for wearing a coat of rags to school, scribbled on one of Wagoner’s dry-cleaning receipts.
This really happened. Parton’s schoolmates mocked her makeshift coat, then locked her in a closet. And she was afraid of the dark. She turns this horror story into a homily about understanding others’ differences, because turning to the bright side is what Dolly Parton does. “You never know when you’re going through things what is actually going to turn out to be a blessing,” she writes. “So it’s worth the suffering.”
Allison Stewart writes about pop culture, music and politics for The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. She’s working on a book about the history of the space program.
Dolly Parton, Songteller
My Life in Lyrics
By Dolly Parton and Robert K. Oermann
Chronicle Books. 380 pp. $50.00