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'Dolly Parton, Songteller': The story of her life through her lyrics

Dolly Parton tells about her life through

 Dolly Parton tells about her life through her lyrics in the memoir "Dolly Parton, Songteller." Credit: Chronicle Books

DOLLY PARTON, SONGTELLER: My Life in Lyrics by Dolly Parton (Chronicle Books, 380 pp., $50)

Dolly Parton’s public persona is so over-the-top and so beloved it’s easy to forget that all her success is built upon what she considers her greatest talent: songwriting.

Her new book, "Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics," is a rich reminder. In it, Parton writes about the inspirations for more than 150 of her songs. Laced with photographs, many from Parton’s personal archives, it adds up to a musical memoir of an extraordinary life, and a treat for her fans.

The book begins with "Little Tiny Tasseltop," the first song she wrote — at age 6 — about a corncob doll she treasured. Parton describes her mother’s love of music, and notes that Mama was canny enough to save her precocious daughter’s lyrics.

Her charming account of writing "Puppy Love," her first record, also includes a pretty amazing performance of it: her first appearance on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, at age 13, introduced by Johnny Cash. "I thought he was the sexiest thing there ever was," Parton writes. "It was the first time a man had ever made me feel like a woman."

She has talked often about the origins of two of her biggest hits, "Jolene" and "I Will Always Love You." "Jolene" — which has been recorded by more than 400 other musicians (and performed by countless drag queens and bar bands) — grew out of two sources, a meeting with a young fan who had that name and a flirtation Parton’s husband had with a bank teller. Parton won a Grammy for her 2016 version with Pentatonix.

"I Will Always Love You" was written as a breakup song, not with a lover but with Porter Wagoner, the country music star who gave Parton her big break and with whom she partnered professionally for years. (She writes that he cried the first time she played it for him.)

Parton recalls her regret in turning down an offer for "I Will Always Love You" from Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s infamous manager. Presley wanted to record the song, but Parker demanded half the publishing rights.

"I cried my eyes out," she writes, "because I could just hear Elvis singing it. But sometimes you just have to stand your ground. Priscilla [Presley] told me years later that it was the song he sang to her when they were leaving the divorce courtroom. So that touched me even more."

Parton took the song to the top of the charts in 1974 and 1982. Then, in 1992, Whitney Houston recorded it. You might have heard that one.

"It’s possible that 'Jolene' and 'I Will Always Love You' were written on the same day," Parton writes. "When we were going through all my old tapes to put my songs on hard drives, we found that 'I Will Always Love You' and 'Jolene' were on the same cassette tape, back-to-back. I don’t know; I might have written Jolene later that night. When you write so much, you lose track of time, and I wrote so much back then."

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