Dolly Parton: Why retire when work is child's play says Queen of Country (71)
Dolly Parton has been making music for over 50 years, so you'd think she's done all there is to do – but this week she fulfils a long-held dream by releasing a children's album. The 71-year-old spoke to Kerri-Ann Roper about why it made her feel young again
DOLLY Parton's work is never done. At 71 and after a glittering 50-year career that is unrivalled in country music, she could easily hang her rhinestone boots up and call it a well-earned day.
But as the Queen of Country says herself, "timing is everything", and that is exactly why she has now embarked on a new adventure in her music career. Parton will release her first ever children's music album, titled I Believe In You, a personal labour of love for the singer, who has written and performed all of the album's 14 tracks.
"I've always wanted to actually have a children's album," she explains, "but usually when you've got a record label that's paying you big bucks and got your big contracts and you've got promoters that are wanting to do a tour, this and that, usually the years go by and they say: 'Oh no, you've got to do this or do that,' so there's always some mainstream music thing they want you to do.
"So you kinda put those novelty things aside, like children's albums or gospel albums."
It's another addition to an already staggering list of achievements: Parton is a published author (several times over) of not only fiction, but also cookbooks. Then there's her theme park, Dollywood, and she's the co-founder of Sandollar Productions, which produced the Buffy The Vampire Slayer television series.
She's sold more than 100 million records, won pretty much every music award there is (including eight Grammys and 10 Country Music Association Awards) and in 1999 she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
But at the centre of all of this, there's another body of her work that she pours her heart into – her charity, the Imagination Library. Founded in 1995, it has distributed more than 100 million books to children across the globe.
"I've just been writing songs for all these years, children's songs for my nieces and nephews and friends, and I've also been writing songs through my Imagination Library," she explains.
"When I started thinking about what I was going to do next musically it was like a light bulb – it's the time to do the children's album, it's perfect timing. So, I think it's the right time, plus the holidays are coming up and it's a good little Christmas gift for kids and all the money from the album goes back to the Imagination Library to put more books into the hands of more children."
Born Dolly Rebecca Parton in Tennessee, she was the fourth of 12 children. She married her husband Carl Thomas Dean in 1966, but he has very much remained in the background and rarely steps into his wife's limelight. Despite coming from a large family herself, the couple have no children, which Parton has spoken about over the years, telling The Guardian in 1996 that "it wasn't meant to be".
Writing this children's album let her embrace her inner child, she says down the phone in her famous accent.
"Well it's more fun first of all," she says talking about writing lyrics for children. "I get to be a child, I get to think like a child. I'm very involved with children. I'm very close to my family – all of my nieces and nephews, my brothers and sisters, you know, when we were growing up too, and so I get to be playful, I get to be a child.
"I get to try and think like them, and think what they would be entertained by. Plus also, I tried to think about the lessons they need to learn, the things they need to know and try to do it in a fun, teaching kind of way, but that's fun to sing.
"When I was writing, I was trying to think of myself as their teacher in school, you know, Miss Dolly. I was trying to think: 'Now what would I teach if I was standing up there in kindergarten class or in school teaching the children?' So I had fun writing these songs."
But the album also has two very personal tracks on it titled Chemo Hero and Brave Little Soldier.
"I couldn't write these songs if they weren't somewhere deep inside me from my own life and from my own childhood," she says.
"But I tried to address other things as well. Two songs I wrote about a little niece of mine, Hannah Dennison, she's my sister Rachel's daughter and she had leukaemia when she was four years old. We thought we were going to lose her until she was like nine years old so she went through a hard time and so I wrote Chemo Hero and Brave Little Soldier for her. When she was recuperating I would write all of these songs and put them on a cassette for her to listen to while she wasn't feeling good."
Despite the album's obvious personal meaning, Parton says she hopes the songs will inspire and help other children.
"I thought they would be important to put in there because there's a lot of sick children out there. Brave Little Solider kind of covers other sick children or children going through a divorce, it's just about being brave, saying 'We're going to make it through'."
She says working on the album "rejuvenated" her and being surrounded by children and getting to interact with them while promoting it has "really made me feel young again".
Another 'youngster' not unfamiliar in her world is her goddaughter, American pop star Miley Cyrus. Parton has just collaborated with Cyrus on her new album on a song called Rainbowland.
And over the years Cyrus has belted out her godmother's famous hits, notably covering Parton's 1973 hit Jolene, both solo and last year dueting with Parton during the American version of singing show The Voice.
Surely by now Parton must tire of performing it?
"No, I do not," she says emphatically. "And a lot of people are amazed when I say this, that is the most recorded song that I've ever written worldwide since it came out in early 70s, it's just that little melody."
She breaks into a gentle version of those famous lyrics 'Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Joleeene...' and you can almost hear her smiling through the phone.
Parton will also soon follow in the footsteps of personalities like Tom Hardy, David Hasselhoff and Queens Of The Stone Age frontman Josh Homme when she reads a CBeebies Bedtime Story.
In the past, Dolly has extended her talents to the big screen, appearing in hit films such as Steel Magnolias and 1980s comedy 9 To 5.
"I have got several of my songs in production," she says, notably adding that she's working on developing her song Jolene into a possible series, and "is trying to find a wonderful Jolene somewhere out there in the world".
"I'm taking a lot of my songs and making them into movies for TV and I'm still working on my life story as a musical for stage."
And this children's album has sparked another dream she'd like to make a reality: a lullaby album called Dollabyes for younger children.
Any plans to slow down then, Dolly?
"Well, I will slow down in some ways and speed up in others. In fact, I've kind of pulled back a little now, I'm doing the production things that's a slower, easier way of life. I'm not planning to tour [anytime soon], but now that I've pulled back a bit, I've noticed I'm writing more songs than I have in years, because now there's a demand for me to write songs for movies and soundtracks, so I'll slow down in some ways and work harder in another.
"I don't have any plans to retire," she says. "I've got plenty of work to do."
:: I Believe In You is out now.