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Dolly Parton talks about her new kids book and why she's drawn to literature

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It's really hard to make it in the music business, but if you continue to be yourself and practice and find good friends, you'll do it. That's what a certain dog musician named Billy the Kid would tell you. You can read about his rough beginnings in the new children's book "Billy The Kid Makes It Big." His story is brought to us by someone who knows a thing or two about sticking to a music career, the one and only Dolly Parton. And she joins us now from Nashville. Ms. Parton, it's great to have you with us today.

DOLLY PARTON: Well, thank you, Melissa. It's good to be with you.

BLOCK: In the introduction to your book, you say that Billy in the story is actually modeled on your goddog (ph). Tell us about Billy. Who is he?

PARTON: Well, Billy belongs to my manager, Danny Nozell. And when Danny first brought him to the studio, I just fell in love with him. He was a tiny little thing, and I said I have to be his extra mama, or he has to be my goddog. So I just claimed him, and he just took to me right away. So we've just been little partners ever since, and I have all these wonderful little stories I even tell about Billy to my little nieces and nephews. You wouldn't believe what Billy did today. Billy did this, Billy did that. And so we got the idea that maybe I should write books with Billy from his viewpoint. So it has the music in it. It's about confidence and about standing up to bullies and that sort of thing. So it's really got a lot of meaningful things, I think, for children.

BLOCK: What kind of dog is Billy in real life?

PARTON: Billy is a French bulldog.

BLOCK: A French bulldog - and there's a picture of you with him. He's pretty cute. He's got those ears that stand straight up. In the book, he's wearing a red and white bow tie, looking very stylish.

PARTON: Well, he likes to dress up, especially when he'd audition for a show like he does in the book. He's got his little guitar, which I kind of based loosely on my first little guitar, which was a little baby Martin guitar. And then, of course, he's got to dress up and be ready for country music 'cause it's a story about him coming to Nashville, trying to make it in the business and being discouraged, feeling sad and meeting some friends that gave him confidence. And they were all kind of in it together, all there for the same reasons and just keeping on with their dreams, and they wound up winning the contest.

BLOCK: You know, that idea of standing up to bullies or, you know, overcoming people who mock you or make fun of you, I'm thinking it's a theme that runs through a whole bunch of your music. And I was listening to the first song that you recorded way back in 1959. You were 13 years old, and it's a song you wrote. It's called - and it's appropriate for this conversation. It's called "Puppy Love." Let's hear a little bit of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUPPY LOVE")

PARTON: (Singing) Puppy love...

(Singing) Puppy love, puppy love, they all call it puppy love. I'm old enough now to kiss and hug, and I like it. It's puppy love.

(LAUGHTER)

PARTON: That's the chorus.

BLOCK: You still remember it?

PARTON: Oh, of course. I sang it on stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUPPY LOVE")

PARTON: (Singing) Sometimes you won't even carry my books. The next time you see me, you'll rag on my looks. You're meaner to me than a mean ole crook. And I must confess I'm really hooked.

BLOCK: So this song, "Puppy Love," you're singing - apart from the puppy love part, you're singing about a mean boy who pulls your pigtails, and he won't carry your books, and he rags on your looks. And I wonder if you remember feeling that way as a kid - as that 13-year-old Dolly Parton.

PARTON: Oh, yeah. Well, actually, I remember even years before that, I got really bullied. And I have a song and a book called the "Coat Of Many Colors."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COAT OF MANY COLORS")

PARTON: (Singing) My coat of many colors that my mama made for me - made only from rags, but I wore it so proudly.

When she made that coat, she told me that story about Joseph in the Bible. And, boy, I thought I would just really look just like Joseph, and I was so proud of it and wore it to school. And the kids all laughed and said it was just rags, and I didn't look like Joseph and that we're poor and all that. Of course, they were poor too, but I guess we were poorer. But anyway, I remember crying so hard and hurting and was even hurt at Mama 'cause I felt like she'd kind of deceived me somehow. But kids always remember things like that - your first deep hurt.

BLOCK: When you were growing up in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, do you remember having books at home? Was reading, was writing part of your childhood?

PARTON: No, we didn't have books at home 'cause we had too many kids. If they got chewed up or peed on or whatever kids do in a house like ours - we had one kid after another - Daddy couldn't afford to pay for that. So they'd just tell us, don't bring books home. And we didn't. So I read at school. We had the Bible. Mama read that all the time. So that was my first encounters. Of course, I remember the first little book that we have in our Imagination Library is called "The Little Engine That Could." And that little book was amazing to me because it talked about same thing - confidence. I think I can. I think I can. I think I can. I did.

BLOCK: The program you started that has sent books to, I think, more than 2 million kids at this point...

PARTON: Yeah, the Imagination Library it's called. It started about 26 years ago, I think, and my dad helped me with that. But when we give books to children - all children, you don't have to be poor or whatever. It's for anybody that wants to sign up. They can get a book once a month till they start school.

BLOCK: What was the root of that for you? I think it spins off of an experience that - with your dad. Your dad was not able to read or write, I think.

PARTON: My dad was country, and the schools were far away. They lived back in the mountains. They had to work in the fields. They had to work at home. They had to do the stuff to help feed the family and keep that together. And my dad didn't get a chance to read or write, and that bothered him. And that bothered me that it bothered him. So I got this idea to start the program where we give books to children, and so it just grew so fast.

BLOCK: What did he tell you about that program - what it meant to him?

PARTON: He just told me he was very proud of me and that he felt like I was doing something special and true. Sorry, whoo (ph), got a little emotional. But anyway, I was proud that he got to be part of something great, and he could feel better about himself.

BLOCK: Yeah. Do you want to take a minute?

PARTON: I think I'm OK. Just get on something else.

BLOCK: Yeah, yeah. Are you still - as a songwriter, still finding stories inside yourself that you need to tell after all these years?

PARTON: If I do, they come out when they're ready, and I'll go after it. But I don't - there's nothing I know that I want to write about that I - but when they show up, I'll go ahead and do it. There's nothing I'm afraid - or I don't have any - I'm not holding any secrets about something I hesitate to write.

BLOCK: How do songs show up for you?

PARTON: Sometimes I get woke up in the middle of the night because I often dream about singing songs. And I used to think I'd remember them, where I'll be singing in a dream, and I know it's not a song I know. And so I just try to keep a little tape recorder or a notepad. So - but even on planes, I just write on a barf bag...

BLOCK: (Laughter).

PARTON: ...If I get an idea for a song. I dig in my purse, try to find a pencil and write on anything I can. That's how all writers do it, though - somebody that really writes all the time like I do.

BLOCK: You ever write with a lipstick?

PARTON: I've written with my lipstick, and I've written with an eyebrow pencil a lot (laughter).

BLOCK: Probably a little easier with an eyebrow pencil, I would think.

PARTON: It's a little better. It's a little easier.

BLOCK: Well, Dolly Parton, it has been a treat to talk with you today. Thank you so much.

PARTON: Oh, thank you. I appreciate you.

BLOCK: Dolly Parton's new children's book is "Billy The Kid Makes It Big."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COAT OF MANY COLORS")

PARTON: (Singing) Sewing every piece with love, she made my coat of many colors... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gus Contreras
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.