Dolly Parton wrote her first song in about 1951. She was five years old.
"I don't remember writing it, but my mother kept it," Parton says. "I do remember the little doll that I wrote it about. It was a little cob doll named Tasseltop. A little doll my mother had made out of corncobs, with silk hair."
But that was when she was young, when she didn't really know that much about songwriting.
"I started playing guitar when I was seven years old," she says. "So I wrote some serious songs after that."
The larger-than-life persona that Dolly has nurtured as a songwriter and performer is intrinsic to her superstardom. But if you strip away all her sparkling and delightful excesses, what you have is an extremely prolific and successful singer-songwriter who, after 60 years, is still in love with putting words and melodies together.
"I still write the same way and for the same reasons," she says. "I have to put things down. Everything's a song to me and I have the gift of rhyme, so I'm just always writing stuff. The more you live, the more you have to write about, and the more you write, the more you're skilled at it."
Some of Dolly's early songs are now solid country classics: "My Tennessee Mountain Home," "Tennessee Homesick Blues" and melancholy "Jolene," which has been covered by Bob Dylan, The White Stripes and Cake. In the 1970s, she teamed up with Porter Wagoner to record a series of duets, co-writing some of their most successful, including "Oh The Pain of Loving You," "Put It Off Until Tomorrow" and the duo's only chart topper, "Please Don't Stop Loving Me."
Her solo canon is a hit parade for Nashville's glitzy go-around of the 1970s and '80s: "Joshua," "Two Doors Down," "Love is Like a Butterfly," "Coat of Many Colors," "I Really Got the Feeling." Though she didn't write "Here You Come Again," which crossed her over from country onto the pop charts, she did write "I Will Always Love You," which was a minor hit for her but a bona fide monster for Whitney Houston.
And, of course, her song "9 to 5" launched her movie career, when she starred with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in a movie spin-off of the song, which recently became a stage musical for which, of course, she wrote new songs. Her latest movie, Joyful Noise with Queen Latifah, will open next year; Dolly wrote four songs for that, too.
Her newest album, Better Day, was released January 27. She wrote all of its 12 songs save one, the straightforward country anthem "Country Is As Country Does," which she co-wrote with her old friend Mac "Baby Don't Get Hooked on Me" Davis.
But though songwriting is a team sport in Nashville, Dolly prefers writing alone to collaboration.
"It's a very private thing for me," she says. Not that she's a hothouse orchid about it: "I prefer to be alone, but I can write anywhere, and do. I can be right in the middle of a session with music playing back and I'll come up with an idea and go into that little space, that little zone."
Songs on her new album include an update, of sorts, for "9 to 5." "The Sacrifice" is about working "twenty-four seven, three sixty-five," as the lyric goes, because "I was gonna be rich no matter how much it cost."
"It's pretty much my story and my life and the sacrifices I've made, and being willing to get where I am," she says, citing it as one of her favorite songs on the album.
She's also fond of "In the Meantime," a peppy philosophical manifesto about casting aside fears of doomsday in order to live in the moment. "Just Leaving," is a jaunty little old-school banjo-and-fiddle number. "Better Day" sings praise. "Together You and I," which she debuted on Ellen, is a poppy little ditty and the album's first single.
Point is, she's done it all. And she plans to keep doing so because that's what she does.
"You never know what's gonna be a hit," she says. "And, sometimes, it's really a committee that decides what's gonna be your single. I've often been surprised at the choices of singles when I would have thought it would have been something different. But I wouldn't know a hit if it bit me in the butt. I just love to write 'em."