The American icon — with a new Christmas album and book on the way — opens up exclusively to PEOPLE about the stories behind her songs, who she’d like to sing them, and her 54-year marriage

By Jason Sheeler
September 23, 2020 08:30 AM
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Dolly Parton
| Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty

There was a moment in Dolly Parton's career when she understood what her life was worth, because she understood what her words — each one inspired by or plucked from her fabled Smoky Mountain upbringing — were worth.

Parton distinctly remembers the day she comprehended the value of her words. She heard Whitney Houston's version of her song "I Will Always Love You" on the radio. "You never know when you’re writing songs, how they're going to turn out," Parton says in this week's issue of PEOPLE. "But after 'I Will Always Love You' became a worldwide thing [in 1992], it was in the movie Bodyguard, and it was No. 1. I really felt my worth. Whitney did such a fantastic job. And I thought, 'Wow. I wrote that little song.' That's when I felt my worth as a songwriter. This is my gift and I'm going to do the best I can with it."

Her fans, from Hollywood to Dollywood, have always known her value. Over Parton's six-decade career — starting at her Grand Ole Opry debut at age 13 — she has written more than 3,000 songs, recorded around 1,000, sold 100 million records, and scored 25 No. 1 country hits.

Now 74, she's feeling her worth as a mogul. With a theme park, a new kitchen line at Williams-Sonoma, a Christmas album out next month (featuring a duet with goddaughter Miley Cyrus), and in a new book, Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics (out Nov. 17 with never-before-seen photos and excerpted exclusively this week in PEOPLE), Parton reveals the story of how her biggest hit, "9 to 5," came to be.

"The thing I hate about the movies is all the waiting-around time," Parton writes. "I realized on the set of 9 to 5 in 1979 that I had to do something besides just sitting there. I couldn't play my guitar — I didn't want to disrupt everything on the set by making music. So I would just click my nails, making them sound like a typewriter. Then I used that sound as my music. I started writing '9 to 5' on the set of the movie that way. I'd go back to my hotel every night and put down what I had written that day, playing my guitar and getting it on tape. Over a long period of time, I wrote the song on my nails."

Dolly Parton

Of what is perhaps her most famous song, "Jolene," Parton tells PEOPLE that it's actually never been a hit. "Even by me!" Parton says with a laugh, "even though they recorded that song 400 times. That's the most recorded song I've ever written, but nobody's ever really had a huge hit on it. And of course, Miley sings it but, nobody's ever had it out as a single, so I would love to have somebody do that."

She says she watched Pink perform "Jolene" at the 2019 MusiCares gala. "It was spectacular," she tells PEOPLE. "And I was thinking, 'Oh God, I hope she puts that out in the singles one day.'"

Two names come up when Parton is asked who's on her wish list of singers to cover her songs. "Wouldn't you love to hear Céline Dion sing 'I Will Always Love You?' Would that not be great? Or Barbra Streisand? And I think I would love to hear either one of them sing 'Jolene.'"

While "Jolene" is a song about a woman stealing another woman's man, no one has stolen the man in Parton's life for 56 years (54 married), her husband Carl Dean, 78. Parton tells PEOPLE they still have date night.

"We do! My husband and I, we've been together 56 years," says Parton, who met the Nashville businessman when she was 18. "We still have our little times, like in the springtime when the first yellow daffodils come out. Even if there's still some snow around it, my husband always brings me a bouquet. And he'll usually write me a little poem. Which to me, that's priceless. That's like a date in itself."

One of their first dates was at McDonald's, but these days Parton does the cooking. "I'll cook the stuff that I know we love. And I pack it up in a picnic basket. And then we'll go find some riverbank somewhere with our little camper, park, have a picnic. Or we'll pull up to some little Days Inn motel, go in as long as the bed's clean and there's a bathroom. We just do our little things like that. Or I'll do a candlelight dinner. We don't make an issue of it. It's like certain days, you feel a certain way. And I'll say, ‘I'm going to surprise him. And we're going to have real cloth napkins and real crystal. I'm going to put the real china out instead of the paper plates we usually eat on because we don't want to have to wash dishes.’ ”

Dolly Parton
| Credit: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Parton says one secret to her successful marriage is that she's always been comfortable in her own skin.

"And that's sexy. You may not want to dress or look like me, you can take from that to be yourself. I'm a very passionate person in everything that I do, and I think passion has great sex appeal. I think people are drawn to that because it's a magic. It's an energy. And I've always been a great lover because I'm passionate. I just feel my sensuality, my sexuality, my passion, and I don't have to apologize for any of that," she says. "I've never been offensive in any way, never tried to be. Or I've never tried to be anything other than just what I am."

For more from Dolly Parton, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.