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How Dolly Parton keeps her creative streak going after decades of hits

With a new album, new book, a holiday musical, a growing business empire and a philanthropic legacy, Dolly Parton isn’t slowing down. The iconic star talks to Judy Woodruff about feeling more creative and productive than ever before, and why she’d rather “wear out" than "rust out.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We end this week focusing on a force in American life, Dolly Parton.

    Her million-dollar contribution to Vanderbilt University's coronavirus research helped in the development of the promising Moderna vaccine. She has 44 career top 10 country albums, a record for any artist, and more than 100 chart-topping singles over the past 40 years.

    Now, with a new book and Christmas musical, she told me this week she is more productive than ever before.

    The story is part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

    She's here, here, and here, and here. Everything is coming up Dolly, all part of the Dolly empire.

    You are writing songs, you're singing, you're acting, you are doing philanthropic work, you're running your business, you're producing musicals.

    What's going on? How do you do this?

  • Dolly Parton, Musician:

    Well, I have a lot of passion. I have a lot of spiritual energy and a lot of creative energy. And that's a pretty big force, actually.

    I have to say that I'm a lot busier now than I was when I first started, because I was just trying to get things going. Now, I think energy begets energy. And I just love being creative and getting to do things for other people, and especially working during a time like this, when everybody's being kind of shut down from their normal life.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That energy may never have been more evident than it is right now, with the release of a 19-set DVD collection of her music, "A Holly Dolly Christmas," her first holiday release in 30 years, a musical out next week, "Christmas on the Square," on Netflix, and a book out this week, "Songteller: My Life in Lyrics."

    Is there more of you that's the singer, more of you that's the writer? Are they equal parts of who you are?

  • Dolly Parton:

    I have to honestly say that I think I'd take myself more serious as a songwriter than anything else.

    There are many writers greater than me, but that's just been the thing that I have seemed to enjoy the most, because it's my therapy, it's my pleasure, it's my job, it's my joy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dolly Parton grew up the fourth of 12 children in a one-room cabin on the banks of Little Pigeon River in the tiny East Tennessee town of Pittman Center.

    She began singing as a child on local radio and TV. By 13, she was recording her first records and appeared at the Grand Ole Opry, where Johnny Cash encouraged her to follow her talent.

    She lives in Nashville. Tennessee has always been home base, and she's kept family and her own life experiences central to her work.

  • Dolly Parton:

    There's also threads of me in everything that I write, almost like little secret, little secret pieces of me that even I myself don't really realize. But I have the gift of rhyme and I love to write songs.

    And I can write other people's sorrows, other people's happiness.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    She's composed an extraordinary 3,000 songs, including "Coat of Many Colors," "9 to 5," "Jolene," and "I Will Always Love You."

    Dolly became the first country artist to chart a top 20 Billboard across seven consecutive decades, beginning in the '60s.

    Another Parton passion is literacy. Her Imagination Library, now in its 25th year, will donate the 150 millionth book to children around the world next month, all the result, again, of Parton responding to something close to home.

  • Dolly Parton:

    I am as proud of the Imagination Library as I ever will be, anything I ever do for the rest of my life.

    And I have told the story many times of how it came to be, because of my own father, who couldn't read and write, grew up in a big family in the mountains.

    And so when I saw how crippled that had made my dad emotionally, I wanted to do something to help him. He just loved being part of that. And he took such pride in it. And that gave me such pride in myself that I could do that for my daddy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In this song, "When Life Is Good Again," released in May, Parton was addressing the pandemic and the crushing effect it's had across the country.

  • Dolly Parton:

    It's affected me in many ways. It's affected my businesses, everything that I stand for.

    This whole year has taken a major toll on everybody. This is the craziest year I have ever seen in my life. I didn't want to be crippled with fear about it, and that I had the freedom and the ability and the equipment to do something about it. So, I kept trying to work.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In the music video you released in the spring, you did say at the end, wear a mask.

  • Dolly Parton:

    If wearing a mask is going to keep some germs off of you or somebody else, why not? Even if some people say it's crazy, it's crazy not to.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We also know, this year, Dolly Parton, we have seen a gaping political divide in this country.

    You live in a very red state, Tennessee. How do you see it there?

  • Dolly Parton:

    I have seen what a great divide it has caused even within my own family and amongst my own friends.

    I don't know what to make of how people acting these days, how we have to take even our political views to such degree to where it's just destroying our whole families and our whole lifestyles.

    So, we need to pay a little more attention to being human beings, rather than getting so caught up in so much other stuff.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    She defines herself as nonpartisan, but Parton does speak out on some important causes, like Black Lives Matter.

  • Dolly Parton:

    When someone blatantly asks you, do you think Black lives matter, well, of course Black lives matter. We're all God's children. We all have a place in this world. We all need to be loved and respected.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In the 1980 feature film "9 to 5," Parton championed the rights of working women.

    She told me about her own approach to overcoming barriers in making music and running her estimated, including the Dollywood theme park.

  • Dolly Parton:

    I protest in my own way through my songs.

    I actually am able to speak for women and for myself. And I had it easier than most, because I just — I was confident in myself, and either too dumb to know or to think about it in any other way that I had a talent that I thought could make — make us all a bunch of money. And that's what — I would go into business meetings with men.

    Of course, I have been hit on all my life, and especially in those early days. But I knew how to manage that myself. I never sold out, never did anything that was going to take away from who I was as a human being.

    I don't care if you're, like I say, Black or white or whatever. I don't care if you're gay or lesbian or transgender. Everybody should have an equal chance.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have said a couple of times — you have been quoted as saying anyway that you didn't want to look old, which, of course, you do not.

    But is there anything good about getting older, do you think?

  • Dolly Parton:

    Some good things about getting older is that you can look back on your life and see what you have accomplished and see what you can do to help other people on their journey, which is what I'm doing right now.

    I want to live young. I want to think young. I want to do young. I want to always be important. I want to be useful. And, as I have often said, I would much rather wear out than to rust out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For someone in that rarefied group of entertainers to have received nominations for Grammy, Tony, Emmy and Academy Awards, and has projects backed up for the future, rusting out seems highly unlikely.

    She is a force of nature, one powerful woman.

    Thank you, Dolly Parton.

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