Dolly Parton is one of pop culture's most preternaturally sunny figures. But when it comes time to find creative inspiration, the country star prefers a macabre setting. "I love graveyards. I like to look at the gravestones and names and try to imagine what their lives were like. I've gotten many ideas for songs there," Parton tells Bustle. "I just sit in the graveyard and feel the energies, the lives, and the memories. I know it sounds morbid to some, but I enjoy the peace of it."
Parton first began writing songs in her local graveyard as a child, seeking a reprieve from the farm she lived on in Tennessee with her parents and 11 siblings Now, 60 years into her songwriting career, Parton is reflecting on her journey in her new book, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. The collection charts the making of 175 of Parton's songs — including hits like "Jolene," "9 to 5," and "I Will Always Love You" — giving readers a behind the scenes look into each ballad's origins. "With Songteller I talked about all the stories behind [the songs]. Why I wrote them and what was going on in my life at that time. It made me visit some places I thought I'd forgotten. And some of them I wanted to [forget]," she says with a laugh. "After I finished, I realized that it was really therapy for me. It was a long process, but it was cathartic."
Beneath the treasure trove of little-known Parton stories, Songteller offers an intimate portrait of the prolific artist's writing process — and how she's had the creative stamina to craft 3,000 songs. "I write because I want to. It just comes and I just do it," she says. "There's not a day goes by that I don't think of something that I should write down, be it a title or an idea. I may not work on a whole song, but I write something almost every day."
Below, Parton muses about juice cleanses, crime shows, and her weakness for potato chips.
On scribbling lyrics on the back of a McDonald's receipt:
I keep a note pad or a Dictaphone [with me] in case something comes to me. Because sometimes I'll dream a song and in my sleepiness I think I'll remember it when I wake up, but I won't. So I learned a long time ago that if I dream a song I have to write it down right then. You have to be on the job when you're a writer, because you don't want to lose any great lines. I've wanted to smack my own face many times thinking, "I knew [that line] was good, but I didn't write it down so now I can't remember what it was."
I'll write on anything. If I come up with an idea, [I'll take] whatever is in my pocketbook, [even] if it's the last receipt I got from the drive through at McDonald's. I'll write on a Kleenex box or even on the back of my hand if I don't have something else handy.
On writing — and juice cleansing:
I used to always say, "Okay, I'm taking two weeks off just to write." Then I would go up to my lake house or somewhere else [and write]. The first few days I would go on a juice fast until I cleaned myself out. Then I would do a day or so of a water fast, just to feel closer to God.
To me, that's my personal God time. Nothing in this world is greater than when I have those times where I feel like I'm living on creative and spiritual energy. I just write, go to sleep, wake up, and write some more. Sometimes I can go for hours, and hours, and hours. I've written for 24 hours straight. That's my favorite thing ever. That's my time.
On her love of junk food:
When I'm not fasting I eat candy bars for energy. I like Snickers and Milky Ways. But when I sing all I do is eat potato chips. The salt makes you feel like you're getting something more to eat, [it's] satisfying. I like Ruffles but really any kind of potato is my weakness.
On writing in her "baby clothes":
I have a whole wardrobe of what I call my "baby clothes," which are my house clothes. They're these little dresses that are almost like little teddies. They go all the way down like a dress shirt. Then I wear some kind of a loose, flowy little jacket to go over them. I have to wear something loose and comfortable. I don't want nothing binding me around my waist so I can eat all my potato chips. I don't wear a bra or anything that will pinch me.
On unwinding with crime shows:
I don't watch a lot of television, but I love forensic [shows]. Everybody laughs at me, but I think it's just so amazing that with forensics you can solve a whole mystery with a worm, or a leaf, or some blood. I'm just fascinated by it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.