C&I talks with country music legend Dolly Parton about her first-ever children’s album, I Believe in You, available October 13.
Dolly Parton’s latest album, I Believe in You, is different from her other albums, but no less impactful. Written and composed by Parton for children, the songs address a host of youthful situations — empowering kids experiencing cancer and hardships with “Chemo Hero” and “Brave Little Soldier,” offering support with “I Believe in You” and “You Can Do It,” teaching lessons with “Makin’ Fun Ain’t Funny” and “Responsibility.”
The 14-track album feels like a project 50 years in the making. Relatable for every age and full of wisdom, it draws from Parton’s inner child and follows in the footsteps of her previous child-friendly work: Imagination Library; Dollywood; her two children’s books, Coat of Many Colors and I Am a Rainbow; and her two children’s movies, Coat of Many Colors and Christmas of Many Colors.
Besides offering memorable and meaningful music, the album aims to help a great cause. All of the proceeds for I Believe in You will benefit Parton’s Imagination Library, a nonprofit organization that benefits children in her home county in East Tennessee by fostering a love of reading. Each month, Imagination Library mails age-appropriate books directly to the homes of children. Since its opening in 1995, more than 1 million children have registered in the program and more than 100 million books have been mailed.
Recently, C&I got to talk with Parton about what inspired her to make a children’s album.
Cowboy & Indians: It’s been 50 years since you released your first album. In all that time, you’ve never released a children’s album. What inspired you to do a children’s album and why now?
Dolly Parton: Well, it just seemed like the perfect time. I wasn’t sure what all I wanted to do musically yet, and I had accumulated all these wonderful songs that I’d been writing for years and years and years for the Imagination Library and for my little nieces and nephews and friends. So we had such success with the two Coat of Many Colors movies and gained a lot of new children fans from that, and I just thought that this was the perfect time to put it out. I’m happy we did. It’s the holidays and a good Christmas gift for everybody, and I think it’s good uplifting little stories, even for parents as well as the kids, but especially for the kids.
C&I: The proceeds of I Believe in You are benefiting your organization Imagination Library, which has sent more than 100 million books to kids since it began in 1995.
Parton: That was another reason. When I found out that that number was coming right up, I thought it was the perfect time for it. So that did play into my decision to do the children’s album right now.
C&I: What do you hope the kids who have received those books will take from your new album?
Parton: Well, I hope that it’ll make them be a little better people. I’ve tried to write messages and songs and themes. I use themes that I think are important to kids about responsibility, sharing, giving, not bullying, and, you know, friendship — all those things. Then there’s a couple of songs in there, one’s called “Chemo Hero,” that I wrote about one of my little nieces, Hannah, that had leukemia when she was little. She survived it, thank God. So she’s my little chemo hero. But there are a lot of little sick children out there and the song “Brave Little Soldier” is for children that are going through lots of things, whether it be illnesses or any other issues, divorce or whatever. I just thought that it would be good to just kind of touch on all the little things that children have to deal with.
C&I: What made you choose I Believe in You as the title?
Parton: Well, “I Believe in You” is just what I titled the song, but a lot of the songs, at least eight or nine of them, were loosely based on the themes of the books that we give away through the Imagination Library. The first book, The Little Engine That Could, is the first book we give out to all children, but was a favorite book of mine when I was little also. And so I used that little theme — “I believe in you” — to just say about that little engine, there’s a little engine in all of us that says “we can” if we just won’t give up and try hard enough. It’s like saying, “Believe in yourself because I believe in you.”
C&I: Is there a song on the album that you are most proud of and that you’re most connected with?
Parton: I’m very connected to all of them. I did go ahead and code them in colors on the album because we have a new illustrated version of Coat of Many Colors as a book that we are now offering through the Imagination Library. I did a reading of it as a bonus track on the children’s album and also recorded the song again a little more kid-friendly, with more acoustic, with just some little piano, kids-flavored-type piano, almost like a toy piano, and having the kids sing with me on the choruses. So that one is very, very personal. And there’s a song called “Makin’ Fun Ain’t Funny,” and it is about bullying; it was kind of based off of me feeling slighted and made fun of when I was little, but also it’s about how kids these days are just so bad about the bullying. Say, “That’s not fun. Making fun ain’t funny. That’s not good. How would you feel if they were making fun of you?” So, it’s really a teaching. I kind of look at myself like their little teacher, Miss Dolly, their kindergarten teacher or their little early school teacher, saying, “Here’s the rules and here’s some good things.” They’re sing-able little melodies with some good lessons in them.
C&I: I love that. It’s inspiring. What was the writing process like for these songs? Did you have to make a few adjustments to make songs that were more family-friendly?
Parton: Well, no. It’s easy for me to write for children because I’m from a very large family. I’m very close to all of my family — my nieces and nephews, and all my band, and all the people I work with that have children. I’m just the perfect little aunt to play with because I’m very childlike myself. I’ve got a lot of energy, and I keep treehouses and playhouses and playgrounds at all of my houses, whether it’s at the lake or on the farm. So when the kids go, I watch them when they play. I see what they’re into and what they like and don’t like. Then when I do write these children’s songs, I often go to the playground or to the treehouse or to one of the little fairy houses that I have in the woods and just put myself in their place. It’s really fun for me. It’s much more fun to write the children’s songs than anything else.
C&I: Are you going to get to play your songs from I Believe in You at Dollywood?
Parton: Maybe. We talked about if the album does well, we might do a follow-up album, and I might actually, at some point, put together a little tour of children’s songs with puppets and overexaggerated things for stage and great lighting and all, but that’s something down the road. We’ll have to see how this does, but that would be fun, and I’m sure that anytime I do anything at Dollywood, I’ll be incorporating some of these songs. I do sing these songs with my voice for the little playhouse that we do up there. People hear and see me that come there. we just had never, never put it out as a mainstream record.
C&I: What records were you drawn to as a child and what are some of your earliest music memories?
Parton: Well, actually, we were just poor country kids, and when I was a little kid, we didn’t even have electricity in some of the areas where we lived, so we weren’t really exposed to a lot of the stuff that a lot of kids were back then. So most of my music came from my family. My mother’s people were all very musical. My momma used to make up songs, kids’ songs, or sing nursery rhymes and sing some of the old fun folk songs like “The Little Red Hen” and those kinds of things. So we just were more influenced by family singing and church singing when I was a little kid.
C&I: Who inspired you to make music? What artist?
Parton: I used to love all the people singing on the Grand Ole Opry. My daddy used to love to listen to that. But as I mentioned, my greatest influences were within my family. My aunts and uncles would all play musical instruments. My mother played and sang. But when I would listen to Kitty Wells or to Patsy Cline or to Rose Maddox and some of those older people back then, they were the influences. Because, you got to remember, I’m not kid anymore. I was listening to the old-timers back then. I started singing on radio and television when I was 10 years old, even before we even owned a television.
C&I: In what ways do you feel like the music scene has changed from when you were a kid to when you’re releasing this children’s album now?
Parton: Oh, I think everything has changed musically since I was a kid and even when I was just a teenager when I first went to Nashville. The music business is completely different now. You know, everything is so high-tech. Back then it was just really simple. You’d go in, spend three hours, and do a whole album. And now it takes some people months or years to do an album. But I still work in my mind like I’m in the old days. I’m not very high-tech, but I surround myself with all my people that are. So they’ve taken my music from the dark age to the new age.
C&I: Lastly, there’s a movie coming out called Dumpling, where you did some soundtrack songs. What’s the difference between doing soundtrack work and doing a stand-alone album?
Parton: Well, I’ve done a lot of that, but just to kind of put that more in the place, most of the songs on that soundtrack are old songs of mine, all the songs. The whole story is about a little girl, Dumpling. They call her Dumpling because she’s overweight. Her mother, her beautiful mother, is Jennifer Aniston, who’s also acting and producing the movie. They’re probably using about 18 songs that are from my old catalog from growing up, and I’ve written maybe three new pieces for that.
You had asked me about what it was like writing for soundtracks. I have done that before with other things when I wrote the Broadway musical and other things that I’ve done. But it doesn’t really matter to me how I write them, just as long as I do and can. It’s always fun just doing different projects. So I’m happy to be part of that whole thing. I’m real excited about the I Believe in You children’s album.
For more information on Dolly Parton, visit her website.