When Dolly Parton launched her career on a country-music television show in the late 1960s, she says, she used to sign autographs every night after the broadcast.
"One night, I was on stage, and there was this beautiful little girl — she was probably 8 years old at the time," Parton says. "And she had this beautiful red hair, this beautiful skin, these beautiful green eyes, and she was looking up at me, holding, you know, for an autograph. I said, 'Well, you're the prettiest little thing I ever saw. So what is your name?' And she said, 'Jolene.' And I said, 'Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. Jolene.' I said, 'That is pretty. That sounds like a song. I'm going to write a song about that.'"
Parton says that she got the story for her song from another redhead in her life at the time — a bank teller who was giving Parton's new husband a little more interest than he had coming.
"She got this terrible crush on my husband," Parton says. "And he just loved going to the bank because she paid him so much attention. It was kinda like a running joke between us — when I was saying, 'Hell, you're spending a lot of time at the bank. I don't believe we've got that kind of money.' So it's really an innocent song all around, but sounds like a dreadful one."
When Parton released "Jolene" in 1973, it became one of her first hit singles. The song has only 200 words — and a lot of those are repeated. But Parton says that that very simplicity, along with the song's haunting melody, is what makes the character of "Jolene" memorable.
"It's a great chord progression — people love that 'Jolene' lick," Parton says. "It's as much a part of the song almost as the song. And because it's just the same word over and over, even a first-grader or a baby can sing, 'Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene.' It's like, how hard can that be?"
"I had this piled-up mop of blond bleached hair, and these boobs sticking out, and my clothes skin-tight. That was a country girl's idea of what glamour was," she said. "It served me well, being a woman... I know that the way I look has held me back, maybe some -- but I'm not sure I've been held back much, considering where I come from.
"I enjoy the way I look -- this is how I feel comfortable," she said. "I want to believe -- and I do believe -- that eventually people will see... that underneath this hair there is a brain, and underneath these big ol' boobs there's an even bigger heart."
What many don't realize is that Parton, away from the spotlight, is one of the most successful songwriters in country music history. Whitney Houston's cover of her song, "I Will Always Love You," was a number-one hit in 1993. It was first performed by Parton as a romantic country ballad.
Parton told Edwards she doesn't resent Houston's success with the song. "I will always appreciate her -- I made a lot of money, and I need a lot of money, because it costs a lot of money to look this cheap," she said with a laugh.
"It was my song, it was her record, and it made us both rich."
Parton remembers growing up poor in Tennessee, and said the lesson of success is that money is no substitute for family. "We barely made it, but we did make it. We had music, and that got us through a lot of hard times," she said. "If you've got a faith in God, a great sense of humor and music, how hard can it be?"
Parton's had tremendous success in the country music field, and has earned some fame as an actress. But she's not afraid to try something new. On her new CD, she even takes on a sacred cow of rock 'n' roll: Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."
"Why not? I always loved the song, and my husband has always loved the song -- he's a big Led Zepplin fan, and he's always playing all that rock 'n' roll," she told Edwards. "I figured we'll go in the studio and if it turns out great, we'll use it, and if it doesn't, well then nobody will ever know we even tried it. Everybody says 'That took a lot of nerve -- it's a classic.' Well, a song is a song."
Jolene performed by Dolly Parton the year I was born. It's not the greatest recording, but it was 1977 and Ms. Parton calls the imaginary (sort of) adversary a dirty name at the end.