Dolly Parton embodies everything that SXSW is about: music, film, technology, and creativity.
And Friday night, the country music superstar gave a high-energy outstanding performance to everyone attending virtually in Dollyverse, and in person at the ACL Live’s Moody Theater at SXSW.
Parton has performed live at ACL Live before, recorded music, and done movies in Austin, but the opportunity never came up until Friday to perform at SXSW, she said.
“I love Austin,” Parton said. “There is a first for everything and this is the first for me and I’m excited to be here.”
Parton minted a lot of “firsts” at SXSW. She has written her first novel, Run Rose, Run with co-author James Patterson which debuted on March 7th along with a new album. She created her first NFT or Non-Fungible Token of a rose collectible given free to everyone attending the event. Parton also launched Dollyverse, an audience-centric Web 3 experience with FOX Entertainment’s Blockchain Creative Labs at SXSW.
Before she sang, Parton sat down for a fun half-hour chat with her collaborator best-selling novelist Patterson and Emmy and Golden Globe Award-nominated Actress Connie Britton to discuss Run, Rose, Run, the novel she co-wrote with Patterson and its music album. The book is also going to be made into a major motion picture by Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, Parton said.
The book, Run, Rose, Run, centers around Nashville and the country music business including ruthless, predatory agents and managers. But it also highlights good people like one of the main characters, RuthAnna Ryder. She was once a big star and is kind of retired from the business, but still writes songs, and she still has a recording studio and a band, and she mentors the rising star, a young girl, AnnieLee Keyes. RuthAnna is fashioned after Parton, and she plans to play her in the movie, she said.
“I kind of wrote myself in a part for the movie,” Parton said.
Run, Rose, Run provides insights into the inner workings of being a country star in Nashville, the good and the bad, Parton said. One of the songs she wrote is called “Snakes in the Grass,” because “you better watch your ass,” she said.
Britton told Parton she was a great businesswoman, and she does it with service. Parton is a singer, a writer, an actress, a businesswoman, and a philanthropist. Dolly’s Imagination Library has donated more than 174 million books to children in five countries. In 2020, Parton also donated $1 million toward the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.
“It feels like everything you do, you do for other people, and we appreciate that,” Britton said.
“Once you get into a position to help, you should do it,” Parton said.
Parton finds the right people to surround herself with that are going to take her purpose into the world as she does, Britton said.
“Dolly is the smartest person I’ve ever worked with,” Patterson said.
“She is a genius and also an angel,” Britton said.
Parton said she doesn’t know about that; she’s just doing her work as a professional Dolly Parton.
The collaboration with Patterson came about because Parton has always been a big fan of his books.
“He came down to Nashville and we just hit it off right away,” Parton said. “He had a good idea it was about Nashville, and I thought well that is something I know a little bit about. So, we just got to talking.”
They liked each other. Patterson and Parton made the deal right there in Parton’s office without any lawyers, agents, or anyone.
“We just did it,” he said.
Patterson got back to his house in Palm Beach and two days later Parton sent him the lyrics for seven songs.
“That’s true,” Parton said. “That’s the way I can contribute.”
Britton asked Parton if she just had the songs sitting around in a closet.
‘The story I related to the young girl, AnnieLee Keyes, and she’s new in Nashville running to something and running from something that’s the mystery of the whole book,” Parton said.
When she started writing the characters and the stories, a lightbulb went off over Parton’s head and she thought she should write an album to go along with it.
Run, Rose, Run is a book with a soundtrack, and that’s unique, Patterson said.
“If you start by listening to the songs, it’s really cool to see where they come from in the story or if you read the book,” Patterson said.
Britton said the book provides a lot of details about Nashville and captures the place. Patterson received his MA in 1970 from Vanderbilt University, which is based in Nashville. And Parton moved to Nashville the day after graduating high school when she was 18 years old.
The collaboration has been great, Patterson said.
“You never know when you’re going to work with someone whether you’re going to like them,” Parton said. “And I don’t usually write with people that much, but he just seemed like a new old friend, someone I’ve always known.”
Parton recalled that she wrote a song with Kenny Rogers called “You can’t make old friends.”
“But sometimes you meet people, and you feel like you’ve always known them,” Parton said. “So, I’m calling him now my new old friend.”
Britton asked Parton whether songwriting was very different from book writing.
“Well, it’s about the same as far as the creative process,” Parton said. But it’s easier to write a book, because when you write a song you must think about it playing on the radio, how long it has to be and it has to rhyme, she said. Writing a book gives the writer more freedom, she said.
Parton said she had always hoped to write a novel when she was older. She’s glad it happened when it did because it’s been a really great experience. Parton is 76.
“Isn’t it great that at whatever age, you can do something new and have a new experience” Britton said.
Most people that are creative, it shouldn’t matter what age you are, Parton said.
“I always say that I’m as old as yesterday and as new as tomorrow,” Parton said.
People often ask Parton how she looks so young, she said. She attributes it to good lighting, good makeup, and good doctors.
And she always looks like a million dollars on stage. At the book talk, Parton sparkled like a rock star but still had that underlying country girl persona in a red checkered button-up blouse accented with red lace around the collar and cuffs and blue denim shorts stitched together with red lace leggings with five-inch red stiletto heels. And Patterson wore a jacket adorned with rhinestones. Steve Summers, Parton’s stylist, and branding expert creates her outfits and helped Patterson as well, Parton said.
After a brief intermission, Parton took to the stage in a new outfit – denim capris with bright red fringe and form-fitting denim jacket top with red fringe and sparkling roses around the neck and red plaid sleeves and her signature five-inch red stiletto heels.
Parton sang three songs from her new album: “Woman Up and Take it Like a Man,” “Run,” and “Big Dreams and Faded Jeans.” And she sang several of her past hits while dancing across the stage like a teenager. She also told stories about her life. Parton has been married to her husband, Carl Dean, for 56 years. She met him a few weeks after arriving in Nashville at the laundromat. They married two years later. One story involved her husband going to the bank to see a beautiful young woman about a loan for his construction paving business. That woman became the inspiration for the song, “Jolene,” which is Parton’s most covered song and has brought in a lot of royalties over the years.
“She made me a lot of money,” Parton said.
Other stories centered around her childhood growing up dirt poor in the Appalachian region of Eastern Tennessee as one of 12 kids. Her mother sewed a coat from rags that became the inspiration for the song “Coat of Many Colors.” She gave her mother all the royalties from the song. Her father, a tobacco farmer, never learned to read or write and struggled to keep his growing family fed. But while the family may have lacked financial resources, it was never short on love, Parton said.
With her powerful voice, Parton sang an acapella version of “Precious Memories,” a traditional gospel song that she used to sing in church growing up.
But the song that brought the house down was “Working 9 to 5.” Parton sang the iconic song, which was the title soundtrack to her first movie role in the 1980 movie Working 9 to 5. The lyrics about female empowerment must have struck a chord with the audience, which sang along. After Parton finished her performance, she asked the audience to sing the song. The audience sang several verses much to Parton’s delight.
At SXSW, Parton is also featured in the documentary about the Working 9 to 5 movie, called Still Working 9 to 5, which debuted at SXSW and examines the 40-year evolution of gender inequality and discrimination in the workplace.
Parton also touches on the theme of discrimination in the music industry in her book, Run, Rose, Run. She mentions Tomato Gate, which was a real-life controversy in 2015 sparked by a radio industry consultant who advised radio stations not to play consecutive songs by female artists. He said the male country singers were the lettuce in the salad and the female singers were more like the garnish, like tomatoes. It is clear in her body of work; Parton has fought discrimination throughout her entire career.
At the event, Working 9 to 5 was supposed to be her last song, Parton said. But she decided to sing “I Will Always Love You,” as her farewell tune. Parton wrote the song in 1974 and it went to number one on the country chart.