Skip to content

Listen to the episode

On this episode of Unlocking Us

This episode is proof that dreams do come true! I get to talk to Dolly Parton about love, empathy, and the power of truth-telling. We talk about everything from her new book, Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, and songwriting to the challenges of leading organizations and Burt Reynolds. It’s amazing to me how Dolly’s songwriting and storytelling seem to be driven by a deep calling to turn toward pain and heartbreak so she can shine a light for all of us to find our way.

About the guest

Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton is the most honored and revered female country singer-songwriter of all time. Achieving 25 RIAA-certified gold, platinum, and multi-platinum awards, she has had 26 songs reach #1 on the Billboard country charts, a record for a female artist. And Dolly is the first Country artist to chart a top 20 Billboard single across seven consecutive decades (’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, ’00s, ’10s, ’20s). She has 44 career Top 10 country albums, a record for any artist, and 110 career-charted singles over the past 40 years. She’s also garnered 10 Grammy Awards and 49 nominations, including the Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1999, Parton was inducted as a member of the coveted Country Music Hall of Fame.

Parton has donated over 147 million books to children around the world with her Imagination Library. Her children’s book, Coat of Many Colors, was dedicated to the Library of Congress to honor the Imagination Library’s 100 millionth book donation. From her “Coat of Many Colors” while working “9 to 5,” no dream is too big and no mountain too high for the country girl who turned the world into her stage.

Show notes

Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics

A Holly Dolly Christmas by Dolly Parton

Christmas on the Square on Netflix

9 to 5 by Dolly Parton

Imagination Library

The Library That Dolly Built supporting Dolly’s Imagination Library

Heartstrings on Netflix

Production by Cadence13

“It makes me laugh and makes me cry, makes me spiritual, makes me feel all the colors that I am, and I am a girl of many colors.”


Brené Brown: Hi everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us.


BB: Okay, I’m losing my mind. In this conversation, I am talking to the one and only Dolly Parton, global superstar, musician, actress, performer, businesswoman, leader, superhero, icon. Wow. I’ve said this about one other person maybe, that they say you don’t meet your heroes, but whoever said that, had not met Dolly Parton because she has been so important to me in my life, and you’ll hear about why and it’s hard stuff, actually. She… Some of her music was banned by my family, actually, my great aunt, who had all of her albums when I was growing up. I couldn’t listen to several of them because she dealt with such controversial issues, and so I never thought of her as anything but a really serious person. I think I thought she was maybe a preacher when I first heard her music, but I talk with her in this episode about her new book, Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, and how her life as a songwriter and a storyteller has been really driven by empathy and a calling that she feels to connect with people and to shine a light on shame, to create more love, more belonging. It is such a beautiful book too, y’all. It’s a coffee table book, it’s huge, it weighs 500 pounds, but it’s so beautiful, amazing photographs.

BB: She tells her story behind every song, even when it’s just heart-wrenching, photos of receipts where she wrote the lyrics on the back of a receipt in a car. One of the things that I did along with my team that helps me prepare for the podcast is we read the books all in different places, of course, because we’re distanced, but we read the book and listened to the songs as we were reading about them, and it was just an amazing experience. This is just a dream come true. It’s a huge conversation. I have to tell you, it was bittersweet in a way, because, and I’m not going to get emotional here, but I could. God, I wish my grandmother, Ellen, was here to hear this. She would just die thinking and knowing that I had talked to Dolly Parton. I do ask her the question that I know my grandmother would have asked, it’s a crazy question and that elicits an answer that I’m like, “No, no, no, stop answering.” And then she says, “Shut up. I’m going to answer because you asked.” It is just the best conversation. So get ready for Dolly. I’m so glad you’re here with us today. This is such a fun conversation.

BB: So how do you introduce Dolly Parton, y’all? I mean, she is the most honored and revered female country singer-songwriter of all time, achieving 25 RIAA Certified Gold, Platinum, and Multi-Platinum awards, she has had 26 songs reach number one on the Billboard country charts, which is a record for female artists. Dolly is the first country artist to chart a top 20 billboard single across seven consecutive decades, the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, the aughts, the ’10s, the ’20s. She has 44 career top 10 country albums, a record for any artist, and a 110 career charted singles over the past 40 years. She has won 10 Grammy Awards, 49 nominations, including the Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1999, she was inducted as a member of the coveted Country Music Hall of Fame. Dolly Parton has donated over 147 million books to children around the world with her Imagination Library.

BB: Her children’s book, Coat of Many Colors, was dedicated to the Library of Congress to honor the Imagination Library’s 100 millionth book donation. Oh man, from her song, “The Coat of Many Colors,” to working “9 to 5,” no dream is too big and no mountain too high for the country girl who turned the world into her stage, and me into, I don’t know. She changed my life. She really did. Welcome, Dolly Parton.

BB: Dolly Parton, oh my god. Okay, I have to just say this, I am in Houston, I woke up this morning, I had a cup of coffee out of a coffee cup that said “A cup of ambition.” I went to play tennis today on my YETI little tumbler, I have a Dolly Parton sticker. And I’m looking across my room at a framed photograph of you taken in 1982, it’s about five feet by four feet, and you are laughing and talking with former Texas Governor Ann Richards.

Dolly Parton: Oh, I loved Ann Richards. Did you know her?

BB: Yes.

DP: Yeah, she was a character.

BB: She was great, right?

DP: Yeah, I loved her.

BB: You’re a big deal in my life. Can I start with a story?

DP: Well, yeah, because you sound like you know a little bit about me. So let me hear it. [chuckle]

BB: So growing up, I had my grandmother, Ellen, and her sister Lorenia. Lorenia lived on Lake Travis, and she had a record player, it played 78s and 33s. And several of your songs were banned, I was not allowed to listen to them. I was allowed to listen to Lefty Frizzell on the 78, and then she had all of your albums, and every now and then she’d leave me alone because she go run her Avon route. And I would only have to go with her if she was going to go the dangerous places, because then I would sit shotgun in the truck and carry a BB gun in case there was like wild coyotes or something. And as soon as she left, I would put on your band songs. So I was not allowed to listen to “Daddy Come And Get Me.”

DP: Oh, I was wondering what these band songs were.

BB: I was not allowed to listen to “Down from Dover.” Or “The Bridge.”

DP: Okay, because it’s about suicide and pregnancy and all of that. And the “Daddy Come And Get Me,” I bet a lot of people never heard of that one that but you and I know. It’s about a man that put his wife in the insane asylum just to get rid of her, and so she was trying to reach out to her daddy to come and get her. It’s called “Daddy Come And Get Me.” All the morbid songs I’ve been writing those, but your mom didn’t want you to hear that because it’s so depressing. And “The Bridge” because it’s about suicide, right? And Dover… Yeah, they wouldn’t play that on the radio either for a long time.

BB: So for me, they were life savers, and I’ll tell you why. Because all of those stories that you were telling in those songs were things that were unfolding in my family, and things that I knew were whispers. They were the kind of things you heard about in the grown-up’s card room, or things that you heard about through the sheetrock walls, and you knew they were happening, but you thought something must be really wrong with you, because no one would tell the story. And then here you were singing them.


DP: Well, I can see where that would have made a difference in your life. That’s one of the things I’ve always been so proud of when people like you tell me stories of how my music and my songs have helped them over some really bad times in their lives, and I’m always fascinated with that, and so grateful that I’ve had the ability to write these things where people come to me and say, “I was going through this hard time and I was thinking about committing suicide, and then I heard your song, and this or that, and it changed my life.” So I think God works through things like that. I think that if you have a gift and you’re open to those things, you get the messages and you can get them out there. But I’m so happy that I had a good place in your life, because you seem to have turned out all right, knowing and hearing all that stuff. [laughter] Right?

BB: Yeah, because you know what it was? It was like a big, big old dose of empathy. It was like a message of, “You’re not alone.” You were not afraid to tell a hard story, were you?

DP: No, I wasn’t. And kinda going back to what you said about, you hear those things and they’re in your own family, nearly everything has happened to somebody. How many families do you know that somewhere in and around that some girl has not had a child out of wedlock, or people that have emotional and mental problems, or people go through such horrible things, where there’s break-ups or just their lives, whether they can’t be comfortable in their own skin. They might be gay and nobody accepts them, and so many people become suicidal, and the song, “The Bridge,” it’s like I would hear those stories myself, growing up. I knew all those things. I would hear things, like you said, through the walls, and I knew things that were going on in the family. I was writing some really serious, heavy duty songs when I was seven and eight years old, just from stories I’d hear my mom and my aunts and people talking about.

BB: Yes.

DP: Oh, I was nosy. I’m like you, I heard everything. I’d pretend like I was not listening. I’d be doing something. Boy, I was just honed in on everything. So I think that that’s one of the gifts about music, I think, it’s very healing, don’t you?

BB: Oh, God, yes, just to know that there were problems and there was suffering, but we weren’t alone. It was shame relief.


DP: Well, that’s a good way of putting it. Yeah, that’s great. Well, I’m so happy that I was there for you.

BB: Yeah, you were. And I’ve got to tell you this other story, and it’s funny because you have this amazing sense of humor, and you can make anybody laugh about anything. But for me, because that was my introduction to you, you were always a very serious person to me. When I hear other people kinda joking and laughing and, “Oh, she’s so fun,” I’d be like,”Oh yeah, we’re talking about two different Dolly Partons. I think of Dolly Parton as like… She’s on the truth train, she’s going to ride that sucker right into your life. There’s no kidding around.” So when I was in high school, my parents along with three other couples, went to go see 9 to 5, and two of the men walked out of the movie theater. And when my parents got home, my parents fought about that film for two weeks. My mom was like, “Yes, this is exactly what goes on in companies and the women are underestimated and mistreated.” And it was like you became an icon in my family that month.

DP: No kidding! All because of like just the believing that women should be paid equal pay, and all the…

BB: Yeah.

DP: So why did the men walk out? It was too much about women?

BB: I think it was too much truth about how women are underestimated.

DP: Yeah, and I grew up like that too. I grew up all around all these male chauvinist pigs who were thinking a woman’s place was at home or wherever you say they should be, and I think that’s all good if that’s where she wants to be, but that’s not the only place she can be or should be. So I wasn’t really being in that movie trying to make a political statement of any kind, but we were addressing issues and I think it did a lot of good, that movie. We’ve still got a long way to go, but I thought the movie in itself was very entertaining, and I think children even enjoyed the movie when we strung up the boss. They didn’t know why, they just…

BB: Yeah.

DP: Thought that was all funny with the boss hanging around, and the animated part that we did in our fantasies of what we would do to the boss and all that, so it really was entertaining in a lot of ways, but the base of that was really about the workplace situations and what it really meant for women to be appreciated and to be paid equal for equal work, and I really thought the movie was really wonderful. I was proud to be a part of it. It was the first movie I’d ever been in.

BB: God, it was so… I just watched it recently to prepare for this interview, and it has aged well. It is still as poignant and funny and real as it was… In what was that, 1980 or 1981?

DP: 40 years ago this year.

BB: Wow.

DP: I know. Ain’t that amazing?

BB: Yes.

DP: 40 years ago, and it’s still very relevant, and they still play it all the time.

BB: Okay. Let’s talk about vulnerability. So you may know, I don’t know that I’ve spent 20 years studying vulnerability and courage and shame. And we talk about in our research that vulnerability is the birthplace of courage, and it’s the ability to keep your heart open to both pain and joy, and let me tell you something, this book, to everyone listening right now, if you know me, you don’t need to buy it, because I’ve already bought 400 copies to give as Christmas gifts, but the book is Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. Oh God, this book. Here’s something you write in there.

BB: “As a songwriter and as a person, I have to leave myself wide open. I suffer a lot because I am open so much. I hurt a lot, and when I hurt, I hurt all over because I cannot harden my heart to protect myself. I always say that I strengthen the muscles around my heart, but I can’t harden it.”

DP: Well, that’s exactly how I feel as a human being and as a writer. I feel I have to feel for everybody, and I’m sure you’re the same way. You have to allow yourself to be open and you can’t just shut these doors because you want to and you’d prefer to, maybe, but that’s not how you’re going to become a good quality human being that’s going to be able to serve humanity in the best ways you can.

BB: Has there been a price to keeping your heart open?

DP: Oh, yeah. It’s like I said in there. When you hurt, you hurt all over. I’m just the kind of person that rather than lashing out at something that hurts me, I usually cry about it and pray about it. Not to say that I can’t tell you where to put it if I don’t like where you’ve got it. One of my favorite sayings. [chuckle] I can certainly do that, but I often say too, that I don’t often lose my temper, but I often have to use it, meaning I have to, as a business woman and being protective of my business or my family or whatever is important to me, I knew how to stand my ground. I know how to speak up. I know how to stand sturdy. That still doesn’t mean I’m hardening my heart or that I’m a bitch of any kind. Sometimes people would say that I am, and if you have to just speak what your truth, if you have to say what you need to say to get things done, especially if you’re the boss of a major operation.

DP: I prefer never to have to call anybody down for any reason. I would prefer that people do what they say they do, and they’re qualified to do it, and then when they take my kindness or my sensitivity for weakness, that’s a big mistake, because I’ll go with you a long way, but I’ll call you on it, and I’ll just say, “Hey, no, no, no, that’s not how this works here.” So I know you know you have to do that because you have to. In order to have your own show and all that, you’ve got people that work around you, you want them all to work together, because I’m no diva of any kind. I never think of myself as a star. I think of myself as a working woman, and this is just the job I love, and I’m grateful that I get to make a good living at what I love to do.

BB: That’s a real gift, isn’t it, to do what you love?

DP: Yes.

BB: Not a lot of people get to do that, right?

DP: No, they don’t, and I thank God every day for that, because I can’t imagine what my life would have been. If I hadn’t have been able to have made it through music, I’d have probably been a beautician and had to stand on my feet all day and do whatever, but I would have got good discount on the bleach and cosmetics and stuff. [chuckle]

BB: You could have gotten me some bulk hairspray. I like it.

DP: I’d have got you some good hairspray, yeah.

BB: Let me ask you something, just while we’re here, because one of the things I also do is I study leadership, and we’re just coming to the end of a 10-year study on leadership. As a leader, what’s something that really pisses you off?

DP: People not being on time, that is the thing that gets me the most. Even if I’m being picked up by somebody and they’re not on time, that ruins my whole day because they make me late, and I am such a responsible person. I believe that everybody’s time is important, and I don’t think you ever need to be so big that you believe that your time is all that matters. Now, I’ve worked through the years with a lot of artists, a lot of my friends, a lot of people in the business that really don’t take it that serious, and I just really find that that really turns me off.

DP: I look different on them after that when I think, “You don’t care that there’s a whole crew around here that got up early, that have things to do, and you’re going to show up late?” I don’t like it. So I would have to say that as a leader, that bothers me more than anything. And then the fact that you… Like we said before… That you don’t do what I know you’re qualified to do, what I hired you to do, and what you said you could do. And you just get lackadaisical as if, “Well, you’re the one getting the big money.” Yeah, but you’re getting paid to do this job, and if you want a better one, go somewhere else, but you’ve got to really take your work serious, no matter what that job is.

BB: On top of being all of the things that you are, songwriter, storyteller, artist, you have found yourself leading a big organization. What is the toughest part for you as a leader?

DP: I think when you do have to let someone go. It’s always been really hard for me to have to fire somebody because I really don’t like to ever be put in that spot, and as a leader though, sometimes there are certain people working in certain departments where it’s not that personal up close that you can go through someone else running that department that can do that, but to me, there have been times where I’m the only one that can go to that person and say, “I’m going to have to let you go.” I give them all the reasons that I have to do it, and how sorry I feel about it, but I don’t feel that it’s my fault, because here are the reasons. I would never fire anybody without a reason. Fire somebody, and just to put someone else in their place, I would never do that. I would never do that. But to me, that’s always been the hardest part of being a leader is when I really, personally had to let somebody go.

BB: It’s the exact same for me. We used to worry that maybe I wasn’t tough enough, but one of the toughest, most transformative leaders I’ve ever worked with told me one day, “When it stops tearing you up, no matter how justified it is, when it stops tearing you up, you’ve got to stop leading.”

DP: Well, I think that is a fair statement because it does tear me up. It hurts me. And that old saying, like when your parents whip you, “It’s going to hurt me worse than it’s going to hurt you.” Of course, they’re the one’s going to be losing, but honestly, emotionally, it hurts me so bad, that I grieve over it as much as they do, I imagine, because I take it so personal because I don’t like to have to do it, but like you said, when you stop caring or tearing, then you need to get out of the trying to be the leader, let somebody else handle it, but like I say, people work, as you know, in different departments. I own a lot of businesses. I own production companies and I own Dollywood, working with theme parks and all that, and so you have managers that do so much of that, but then I have my personal business, my Dolly Parton Enterprises, where I have these people that I’ve been with forever, but it hurts me too to even have to call somebody down.

BB: Sure.

DP: I don’t always fire them, but to have to call somebody in and scold somebody, I hate doing that. I hate to try to make anybody feel less than I know they really are. I hate having to do that, too. I don’t like to talk down to anybody, or you can’t let other people suffer because one person… It’s like the bad apple syndrome.

BB: Oh, yeah. Contagious, right?

DP: Yeah.

BB: I’ve a question for you, going back to vulnerability. When I was growing up, my mom had a very big rule that we were never allowed to turn our faces away from people in pain, because she would say, “When people are in pain, they’ve got to know that you see them because one day you’ll be in pain and you won’t want to be alone.” It does not seem to me as a culture in our country right now that we’re very good at staring pain in the eye.

DP: I think people are too scared to look at pain. I think people are too afraid to look at people suffering because you think you don’t know how to handle it, and you’re so afraid that you don’t want to face that as truth, as reality. This whole year has been so insane. It’s just been crazy. Half the people don’t even believe it that there’s a pandemic at all until it happens to somebody in your family, and we’ve been fortunate that it hasn’t happened, but it could happen. Like I’m always saying, “You can’t be too safe, but you can sure be too sorry, because dead is about as sorry as you can get.” [chuckle]

DP: But a lot of people can’t even understand their own suffering, and so much less try to look and see somebody else’s, so that’s when I as a Christian person, growing up the way I do, I try to think about when Christ talks about the people that are suffering, and going into the prisons to see people. You’ve got to because… I wrote a song once called, “Would You Know Him if You Saw Him?” He might be a barefoot newsboy, he might be a beggar in the street. God comes in all ways to see how we’re going to deal with that, which says something about us as a spiritual human being, because I really think that it’s just about some people don’t know how to care and some people just don’t care, but I think a lot of it is just fear.

BB: It’s hard though, because we know that hurt people hurt people, and how do you help people understand that it’s okay to turn toward pain? You’ve spent your whole life just looking it right in the eye and singing to us about it.

DP: Well, I don’t know how to teach anybody how to deal with pain. I just go to pain. I just go to people that are suffering, and if I can’t do anything physically, I can write about it or donate something to the cause or whatever, but I don’t ignore it. I can’t just turn my back on life and suffering and people. I try to do the best I can in all the ways that I can, and still have a business because I feel like God put me here for a reason, and I feel like that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. This is really kind of like, it’s my job, but it’s kind of like my ministry too, really.

BB: Yes.

DP: I feel like this is my ministry that I was put here to try to help people, if nothing else, but through my words, either talking to people, or if I put them in a song. I ask God to direct me and lead me and help me to do that, but I can’t turn my back on people. I can’t turn my back on the situations, but I may have to handle it in my own way, but I will not just ignore it.

BB: Were you born with this? Was this an ethic in your family? What gave you the strength to walk toward suffering?

DP: Well, I grew up in a very spiritual church. My grandpa was a preacher, and my mom was very, very spiritual, very religious, and we believed in healing, we believed in caring for the sick, we believed in going to sick neighbors’ houses to see the sick, we believed in taking something to eat, we believed in all that, when somebody died, you go comfort them in whatever way you can, whether you take food or whatever. Same with all of that. So I grew up thinking that that’s the Christian way to be, and that we’re supposed to love one another, you’re supposed to love your neighbor as yourself, whether we do or not. That’s a big hard thing to do, but at least you can love them some. You can love them enough to go bring them something or tell them something or have a few kind words to say, “Oh, I hope you feel better.”

BB: Yes.

DP: It’s like in our little radio station back home, they had this section on the Farm and Home Hour, whatever, it’s like where they’d do songs and dedicate to the sick and shut-ins. That’s how they said it, “This one goes out to the sick and shut-in,” and I’m sure the sick and shut-ins at home listening to that, maybe nobody had come by to see them or maybe they’re just lying there sick with something, but just knowing that somebody kinda called out, and yes, I think that’s what I learned in that little house of prayer where my grandpa was a preacher is caring for one another.

BB: God, that’s so beautiful. And if we could just do some more of that. No one rides for free. We’ll all be the ones in pain one day.

DP: That’s true. We’ll all be in pain one day, and you want to treat people like the way you want to be treated. I don’t mean to wax religious or anything, but you don’t even have to believe in anything to be good to people. You should just know you should be a good human being. There’s a golden rule. I’m not preaching to anybody to say, “Be this, be that.” This is where I grew up, how I grew up, and this is who I am, but it doesn’t matter. Whatever your religion is, whatever you are, you should be a good, caring person. I really think that it has nothing to do with religion, but if you are a religious person, you should know better anyway. That’s why we’re religious. We’re supposed to be religious because we can do bigger, better things for more and more people, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t have any faith at all. Have some faith in yourself as a human being and believe in a higher wisdom, something bigger than you. If you don’t believe in something bigger than you, then you become your own god and then you’re really in just a big mess.

BB: Yeah, it’s really hard to come back from that, isn’t?

DP: Yes.

BB: And it sounds to me that you are talking about faith and religion, but it sounds to me that you’re also talking about love.

DP: I think love is the answer to all of it, and that is the big word. But the only two descriptions we have in the Bible of God, it says, God is good, and God is love. And what more do you need? Two simple things. Like I say, you don’t have to believe in God, but you can believe in good, and you can believe in love, and it all stems from love.

BB: Okay, so speaking of love, I want to ask you if this is true about you. This is an assumption I have about you, is that you give people the benefit of the doubt, that you assume good things about people until proven otherwise. Is that true?

DP: I absolutely give people the benefit of the doubt. I would rather know all this good about you than to dwell on something I heard that was bad. And if I hear something bad or hear people talking about people, I know that we’re all good, and we all have the tendency to be bad at times, but I know, I know that people are basically good, and I try to play to the good in that. I try to find that little God light in everybody, and I know that it is in there, some people let it shine more than others. A lot of people don’t even know they have it, unless somebody can, with enough love or reaching out, kinda help shine it up a little bit. And even if your pilot light is going out, that can be ignited too. You can kinda get that back, and if you got enough of somebody caring. But you’re right, I really give people the benefit of the doubt. I just love people. I just love people.

BB: You can tell that. You can see that from far away, even. I need you to prove or disprove a research hypothesis for me. So in our research, we found that the people who assume the best about other people only shared one thing in common, and that was they have very good boundaries in their lives. Tell me about the relationship you have with boundaries. Are you comfortable about saying no, or telling people what’s okay and what’s not okay?

DP: Well, I don’t like to have to say no, but I’ve had to learn to. It’s harder for me to say no to my family than anybody else, but there comes a time when you have to just say, “This is going to kill me, but I can’t do that.” So I can say no, if my conviction tells me that that’s the best thing to do. It’s like whether it’s your family or not, if you’re offended by it, or it’s affecting you and your life and your lifestyle and your flow, it’s just like that Scripture, that if the right hand offend you, cut it off, if your right eye offend you, pluck it out. That just means if you’re not seeing straight, because of something or somebody that’s offending you, that just means get rid of that. It’s not literally jerk your eye out or cut your arm off.

BB: Right.

DP: It just means even at that right hand is someone you love the most, the one you depend on the most, if they’re offending your spirit somehow, and your higher good, you’re going to need to say no. I don’t like to say no, but I can say no. I would rather say yes, but I can say no.

BB: True or false, Elvis Presley wanted the rights to “I Will Always Love You,” you said no.

DP: I said no, because my boundary said…


DP: The boundaries that I have for myself, I knew that that was not right for me. I knew it was fine for them because that’s how they work. It had nothing to do with Elvis Presley, he loved the song, he wanted to do it, but his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who did well with him through the years… No complaing there, but that’s just the rule that they had. Well, this is a rule that I had. And my rule was more important than their rule because it was my song. And it broke my heart to have to say no to Elvis Presley singing “I Will Always Love You,” but they wanted publishing on it, and it was my most important copyright and one that I was going to be leaving to my family, my estate, and so I couldn’t do it, and it broke my heart. That’s another thing, it broke my heart to say no, but I was willing to suffer that temporary disappointment and heartache than to live with something that I knew was wrong because, now, just think about that.

DP: If I had done that and then if Whitney had had that big record, all those millions of dollars that I made for my family, my estate, because of that song, I would have had to share that with people I don’t even know. So anyway, that was really a hard decision, but I was just starting my potion company, getting all my eggs back in my own basket, and I had to think about that as a business-minded woman, because when they say you’re in show business… I love the show and I can do that all day. But I knew I had to focus on the business in the show business, and that was one of those business ends of show business.

BB: God, I just thought when I read that, I was like, “She is such a badass.” You just are the whole thing on the business part. Alright. Last thing I want to talk about before we go to our rapid-fire questions, shame. Shame, oh, hard. We have found in our work that shame cannot survive being spoken, or in your case, sung. And I experienced you as a very shame resilient person, very skilled at not internalizing the messages that tear people down, because I love the way you talk about your dad in the book and how he was the inspiration behind Imagination Library.

BB: So this is your organization that you started in 1995 to provide free books for children. 150 million books to more than 1.6 million children across the globe. Your dad never learned to read or write. I just read this over and over. You told him, your dad, that there was no shame in not knowing how to read or write. And you said, “Daddy, there are probably millions of people in the world who don’t know how to read or write, who didn’t get the opportunity. Don’t be ashamed of that, instead, let’s go do something special.”

DP: Yeah, there’s no shame in a lot of things that people are ashamed of, like that with my dad. He was so embarrassed that he couldn’t read and write, and to him, he felt ashamed. But that’s not the feeling he should have had. He didn’t know. But he thought because he couldn’t read that that was something to be ashamed of. But after we got the Imagination Library going, and I built it because he helped me with it, he felt like he’d done something really special. He never did learn to read. I wanted him to kinda hopefully maybe read the little books and stuff, but he felt that was just too late for him. But, he felt so proud to be part of that. That we were getting books in the hand of kids that could read in their most impressionable years learn how to do that. But anyhow, I will always be so proud of my dad, and that I got to share something great with him, something that has grown to where it is now. And daddy passed away several years ago, but he did live long enough to see the Imagination Library doing good. But I often think if there is such a thing as people looking down and I often want to feel like they are. And I just know my daddy’s so proud of me, and I want to think he’s proud of himself.

BB: Were you surprised how many people reached out to you about not being able to read and write, and how hard that was for them, and how you gave them permission?

DP: Yes. Daddy lived long enough to hear that too, because when I started that program…

BB: Oh, he did.

DP: That’s 25 years ago, we were getting all this mail, and people were so touched by me telling that story about daddy. And I would read letters to daddy that I would get saying that this has touched them so much and that, “I couldn’t read or my mother couldn’t read, or this couldn’t read,” and this has just been an amazing thing. Of course the kids got the benefit of the books, but there were so many grown people that couldn’t read and write, that it just healed and touched on a whole ‘nother level. And so good things work together for good to those that love the Lord, and I truly believe that.

BB: Yeah, and just another example of you speaking truth to shame, just saying that we’re not defined by these things. It’s just so powerful.

DP: Well, we’re not. And so I know I have so many people, speaking of the shame thing, people that tell me horrible things that happened to them in their childhood, maybe by an abusive parent or some horrible sex crimes committed against them. And they think it’s their fault and they’re living in shame. It’s not their fault. But also they don’t have to be defined by that, if they can find a light and a way to actually brighten up their own little light and to try to forgive, if you can, the darkness that was in that person that did that to them. It’s not their shame. They’re ashamed that it happened, but they can’t distinguish the great shame was from the person, the people that were doing it to them. But they can be brought into the light with enough love, and if you throw enough light on that situation to say, “Honey, it’s not your fault, you didn’t do anything wrong. Let us try to make it right with you.” And try to have them love themselves enough to come out of that and to see that they still have a life ahead. And it’s just horrible. Who knows what kind of a life the people doing that to them have had before?

DP: But you can’t think about that now. You’ve got to think about what we’ve got to deal with right now, of what these people are going through that live their whole lives not knowing they can have a life out of it and to be able to forgive. Of course you’d never forget a thing like that, but you can forgive to the point of being able to move on and define your own beautiful self.

BB: You do an incredible job. I love the way you frame that, of shining a light in dark places so that people can find love. That’s so much about what your work is for so many of us. I’m grateful for that.

DP: Well, that’s what you do too. You help people try to shine a light on the darkness out there and in the dark spots of their own lives. It’s hard to shine a light into those dark places. You don’t want to relive it. You don’t want to remember. You think you’re going to forget it, but you never are. So it’s best just to get it out, tell somebody with a good heart and a good mind and enough love to say, “Hey, let’s just work this out. I’ll help you with that.”

BB: Are you ready for some rapid-fire questions?

DP: Oh, I guess. Is this going to be scary?

BB: No. It’ll be fun but I will have to ask you this first. So my memaw, my grandmother who was a beauty operator in San Antonio, married to a brewery forklift driver, [chuckle] she thought you were the best thing since sliced bread. And every time we would talk about you when we were growing up, she’s long since gone, but she would always say one day… She didn’t know about Carl, apparently, because she’d say, “One day, Dolly Parton’s going to marry Burt Reynolds. [chuckle] It’s going to be the best day of my life.”

DP: Oh, she loved Burt Reynolds. She didn’t love me. She loved Burt Reynolds.

BB: Well, she did. I didn’t know what this meant when I was little, until I asked my mom one time, and boy, she was not happy, because she used to always tell me… Oh, they called me Sissy because I was the oldest of four, “Oh Sissy, Burt Reynolds could leave his boots under my bed any time.” And I never knew what that meant [chuckle] until I asked my mom one time and oh boy. So tell me, can you just for my grandmother, can just tell me what was your relationship with Burt Reynolds? Were you all good friends?

DP: Yes, we were very good friends. We were very much alike. And I used to make jokes about Burt because he was short and he kinda wore the lifts in his shoes and stuff when he was…

BB: No, no, no, no.

DP: Well you’re asking me so shut up. Anyway, he was [laughter].. No, I just mean where he was like, I wasn’t short. In order to be a little taller than me, he had to put the lifts in his shoes, and I’d say, “Okay Burt, we’re too much alike to have a romance. We both wear wigs, we both have a roll around the middle and we both wear high heel shoes. [laughter] And he hated when I would say that, I would say, “Because you’re going to kill the magic,” I would say, “No, I’m just being funny,” sort of.

BB: I thought he was like 6’5.

DP: No, no, he was only about, I would say about 5’8, 5’9. Maybe 5’9.

BB: We both wear high heel shoes. [chuckle]

DP: Well, he has his little toupee and stuff he wore. He was like, “And so, we both wear wigs.” I said “We both have a roll around the middle.” But anyway.

BB: That is so funny. You just killed it.

DP: Well, anyway, he got a kick out of it. But no, we were just good friends, we laughed a lot, and we were very similar…

BB: Wow, okay.

DP: In our personalities, yeah.

BB: Alright, ready for the rapid-fire?

DP: I guess.

BB: Okay, fill in the blank for me. Vulnerability is?

DP: Well, allowing yourself to be smart but open to whatever you need to be dealing with at the time, but let your head go first.

BB: Beautiful. Okay, you Dolly are called to be very brave, but your fear is real, you can feel it in your throat. What’s the very first thing you do when you have to be brave?

DP: I always just think my desire to do it is greater than my fear of it, and I just pray about it and go.

BB: Love it. Okay. What is something that people often get wrong about you?

DP: I don’t know, I think probably people don’t really know what a quiet person I am. I’m so centered within myself, and when I don’t have to talk… I feel like I’m always having to be on because somebody wants me to be on or they’re wanting something from me… But I’m basically like, when I go home, I’m very quiet. I’m very still within myself. So, I think people would be surprised to know what a calm person I really am.

BB: I can see the centeredness though, to be honest with you. Okay, number four, the last television show that you binged and loved?

DP: Oh, I guess that would be my Heartstrings. [chuckle]

BB: Yes.

DP: Well, actually, because I did enjoy watching it only because I loved all the people that were in it and I wanted to see what they turned out because we were working so hard, we were just doing one right after another. But I only didn’t get a chance to actually watch them, like on TV, because we were so involved in the producing it and editing, and it’s just sort of like when you cut a record, you’re so involved in it, you don’t even know what you’ve got. So, I did watch all those just to see how they looked on television.

BB: Those are on Netflix and they’re great.

DP: Yeah, well, they were just fun things to do. I’d always wanted to do a bunch of songs with that. Honestly, I don’t get a chance to watch much TV. I don’t get a chance to listen to much music. I’m so involved in doing things for TV, I’m so involved in writing songs that I don’t really have a lot of outside interests.

BB: Favorite movie?

DP: Oh, favorite movie around Christmas time, I think It’s A Wonderful Life, but I think Doctor Zhivago is my personal favorite.

BB: God, that’s a tough movie. Geez Louise.

DP: I know, but I love it, don’t you?

BB: Yeah, I do love it but it’s hard.

DP: Well, I loved it all. It’s just crazy, heavy duty.

BB: A concert that you’ll never forget?

DP: Oh, probably the show that we did with Kenny Rogers when all those great artists were performing songs and I was part of it, but I was watching that concert with all those people, and of course, I’ll never forget that concert with Kenny and being the last on the show to finish that off, but watching all those other wonderful people pay tribute to him with all those incredible songs.

BB: Favorite meal?

DP: Favorite meal would have to do something with potatoes in it. [chuckle] I love potatoes. I love like chicken and dumplings and bowls of… Just a bowl of mashed potatoes on the side, I’d be in Heaven.

BB: Butter and gravy, or just straight up?

DP: Butter and gravy, well I’ve got butter on my biscuits and a bowl of gravy.

BB: Okay. What’s on your nightstand?

DP: Well, my little Bible and my little book of meditation, my little tape recorder, if I dream a song. I have a notepad and a bottle of water. [chuckle]

BB: Give me a snapshot of a very ordinary moment in your life that brings you true joy.

DP: Oh, I don’t know, almost any pleasant thing. Just sitting around with my husband on the swing. At our big old house, there’s just one swing we love to sit in and watch the sunset. So, that’s just a peaceful time and I love that.

BB: Tell me one thing you’re grateful for right now.

DP: I am grateful for every good thing that’s ever happened to me. I am grateful for the gift that I have to be able to do and say things to help somebody else. I’m just grateful for my life. It’s been a good one.

BB: That’s beautiful. Okay, we asked you for five songs that you couldn’t live without. You gave us “Amazing Grace” by Elvis Presley, “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” by Mahalia Jackson, “He’s Alive” by Dolly Parton, “I Will Always Love You,” Whitney Houston, and “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” George Jones. In one sentence, what does this playlist say about Dolly Parton?

DP: It captures every emotion that I have and it makes me laugh and makes me cry, makes me spiritual, makes me feel all the colors that I am, and I am a girl of many colors.

BB: Oh my God, thank you for this time with us on Unlocking Us. They always say, be careful about meeting your heroes. Definitely, they had not met you because you have meant so much in my life and so much to so many people. And the only thing that I wish is that my grandmother was alive to hear the duet between you and Willie Nelson on your Christmas album.

DP: Is she the one that loved Burt Reynolds?

BB: She is.

DP: So, we wouldn’t tell her that part about Burt, right? [chuckle] He was handsome. He was handsome, he was great, and I did love him. But thank you so much for having me. You have a lot of fans, and hopefully your fans will enjoy our conversation, and I thank you so much.

BB: I know they will. Thank you.

DP: Okay, bye-bye. Happy holidays.

BB: Happy holidays.


BB: Just pinch me, like pinch me, wake me up from this dream, or don’t pinch me and let me stay in it actually. It’s just… You know, it was a more serious conversation than maybe a lot of you’ve heard with Dolly, but for me, as you know from listening, she was a serious person in my life for real reasons. If you are a Dolly fan, and who isn’t, the Dolly Parton, Songtellerbook, the coffee table book, is just… What an incredible book and what an incredible gift to give to someone who loves Dolly. She also has an album out right now, A Holly Dolly Christmas, which debuted at number one on Billboard’s Country Albums and Holiday Charts. That’s where she has a duet with Willie Nelson. “Pretty Papers,” my grandmother would have died. She has a Christmas on the Square musical special, directed by Debbie Allen, the choreographer and dancer, incredible, coming to Netflix on November 22nd. She has a hundred other things going on at all times and we will put links to everything on her episode page on You can find Dolly online, and she’s just Dolly Parton on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, and her website’s

BB: She’s given us such a gift, the gift of song, of empathy, of truth, of connection. The Imagination Library just has changed so many people’s lives and, if that’s not enough, one thing that was just announced is she gave a million dollars to Vanderbilt who is studying one of the new vaccines that’s showing a ton of hope for COVID. I picked the right hero, right? And just so grateful that we all got to spend some time with her today. I feel like I’m learning something every week from these conversations and that they’re truly unlocking stories that show us how connected we are, and I’m grateful that we get to be together and learn and laugh and meet some incredible people.

BB: This week on the Dare to Lead podcast, I talk with Guy Raz, the creator and host of the popular podcast, How I Built This. And he’s got a book out by the same title, which I think is just… Should be required reading in business schools. The Dare to Lead podcast is available exclusively on Spotify, and I think that’s it. Stay awkward, brave and kind. And I will see you guys next week, or I will be in your ears next week. Grateful for you, thank you. Unlocking Usis a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, by Weird Lucy Productions and by Cadence 13. Sound design is by Kristen Acevedo, and that music is by Carrie Rodriguez and Gina Chavez.


© 2020 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Brown, B. (Host). (2020, November 18). Brené with Dolly Parton on Songtelling, Empathy, and Shining Our Lights. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Cadence13.

Back to Top