Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics

Image of Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics
Release Date: 
November 17, 2020
Chronicle Books
Reviewed by: 

“‘I have often said that my songs are my children and that I expect them to support me when I’m old. Well, I am old, and they are!’”

While everyone not living under a rock knows Dolly Parton for her golden voice—she’s been famous for seven decades—not everyone knows that she favors songwriting to singing. “I have often said that my songs are my children and that I expect them to support me when I’m old. Well, I am old, and they are!”

Though she began writing songs at age five, Dolly got her start at age 10 singing on a radio show in Knoxville and had her first recording at age 13.

Dolly was the first family member to graduate high school (1964) and the next day she headed to Nashville by bus, with just her song folder and some clothes. Her first songwriting royalty check was for $1.02 from Tree Publishing Co. in Nashville.

Dolly married Carl Dean in 1966, a man she met the day after she arrived in Nashville. By 1969, Dolly sang on The Porter Wagoner (TV) Show from 1969–1974. She also toured with Wagoner’s group.

As would be expected of a country star of such magnitude, Dolly was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry in 1969.

Toward the end of her time with Wagoner there was conflict because he tried to control Dolly’s career. Dolly admitted she needed to control her own destiny—that ultimately led to their parting ways. The reader will note, however, that her process of departing is drawn out and continues throughout many chapters.

Throughout her songwriting career, Dolly has never shied away from controversial themes like suicide, wars, drugs, cheating partners, transgender issues, and strong women. “Whatever I write is just what comes out of me, and I refuse to be judged.”

Dolly’s movie debut was in 1980 with 9 to 5, which won numerous awards including Grammy Awards and an Oscar nomination.

Here are some trivia tidbits for fans: Concerning her megahit, “I Will Always Love You,” Dolly sang this song in 1982 to Burt Reynolds in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, in which they co-starred. Also, she refused to give up half of her rights to this song to Elvis Presley who wanted exclusivity. However, she was thrilled when Whitney Houston had a blockbuster hit with this song in 1992 from Houston’s movie, The Bodyguard.

While Dolly suffered health problems in the eighties, she opened the theme park, Dollywood, in east Tennessee, and was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1986.

Though it’s not necessary to prove how prolific she is, “Dolly Parton has written roughly three thousand songs. Approximately 450 of them have been recorded, though not always by Dolly,” writes co-author Robert K. Oermann. In 1999, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Because her father, Robert Lee, was illiterate, they started the Imagination Library before he died in 2000 and have given away over 130 million books to children.

With the new millennium, Dolly earned numerous awards, including the Kennedy Center honor in 2006 and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011.

She and hubby, Carl, have been married for nearly 55 years. Her secret: “I think if you can be friends, that’s a big, big part of it . . . Being great friends is the secret of happiness.”

In the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 hit, Dolly donated $1 million to vaccine research. 

The book’s format typically follows one page of lyrics, with the opposite page of either story or photos about those lyrics. Also, while most chapters are written in first person by Dolly, the occasional chapter is written by her co-writer, Robert K. Oermann. The reader should note that the lyrics begin in chronological order, but later jump back between the 1970s and recent songs.

Though many people are Dolly fans, readers may feel too many lyrics were tossed in. The book could have easily ended at 300 pages instead of 380.

In addition to Dolly’s compelling life story, the reader will delight in the many color, and black-and -white photos, as well as hundreds of lyrics from Dolly’s songwriting career.

Overall, Songteller is greater in both volume, beauty, and message than a typical coffee table book.