Dolly Parton’s Big Songwriting Day

At some point, if we’re lucky, Hrishikesh Hirway will devote an episode of his new Netflix series Song Exploder to getting to the heart of what really happened that day in 1973 when Dolly Parton caught lightning in a bottle twice. He’ll get her sitting alone — she always writes alone – in a chair by the window in her home in Nashville, noodling on a Taylor guitar, trying to remember exactly where her head was as she was composing material for her new album. The studio had been booked, the musicians hired. The clock ticked. Whatever happened in that room, it produced what’s surely one of the most fertile days in the history of musicianship.

Others have written a blockbuster song in a single day. But very likely nobody has written two.

Parton casually let the fact slip, in a 2017 interview, that she’d knocked out both “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” while working on her album Jolene that spring. It was, she allowed, “a good songwriting day.”

Now, to be fair, this isn’t like some amateur angler who happens to land a couple of prize fish on a lucky afternoon. Parton is a songwriting machine. She’s practically written more songs than the rest of us have had hot dinners.

A lot of those songs are pretty forgettable. Nothing explains how she found the mojo to write two great ones – or how she was able to keep two pots on the same stove and bring their contents to boil at the same time. Because what’s really crazy about the two hits is that they’re so different. One’s about jealousy. The other is a “departure” song – an I-love-you-but-I’m-outta-here salute.

In interviews about her process, Parton has described what sounds like a kind of Method Actor’s m.o.: every song needs a kind of lightning rod. To generate the emotion, she imagines an individual. In the case of “Jolene” (which Rolling Stone called number 217 in its list of 500 greatest songs of all time), there were actually two people. One was a leggy young bank employee who habitually flirted with her husband, Carl. The other was a sweet little flame-haired girl who trundled up onstage after a concert, decades ago, and asked for an autograph. (Possibly this little Canadian girl.)

With “I Will Always Love You” (which Whitney Houston turned into something so sublime that Parton nearly drove off the road when she first heard Houston’s soaring version on the car radio), the inspiration was pretty clearly Porter Wagoner. He’d been a valued mentor in her early career, but who was now becoming a sea anchor on her talent and ambition. That latter song was the “hotter” of the two. The guy was fresh on her mind. Parton had been trying to figure out a way to resign from the show they were doing together. She would sing it to Wagoner in his office just days later – a kiss-off in the only key he could apparently hear.

Parton has somehow sneakily become one of the great unifying forces in an otherwise bipolar America — a bringer-together of Right and Left, conservative country types and progressive hipsters. She has found common ground, and a kind of universal resonance, by cutting through the superficial things that divide us. Her creative process comes off as simplicity itself. She writes songs the way Warren Buffett invests: it’s gotta be something you understand. Some physical thing for which there’s a clear and obvious need. Like Heinz Ketchup. Or love.

It’s interesting to view Dolly Parton’s Big Songwriting Day in light of the “idea storm” theory of creative output. This says that when you’re really locked in, with energy to burn and on a run of luck — “a heater,” as the poker players say — then good ideas seem to quickly generate their own compound interest, which buys new ideas, in a whole big happy cascade of fecundity ensues. But idea storms aren’t always easy to handle. Dr. Seuss explained the problem in his late-in-life book Hunches in Bunches. The boy in the story has a lot of ideas, but the more ideas he has, the more confused he becomes. The ideas start fighting among themselves, which serves to spread FUD and chaos, and to sow paralysis. In the end all that imaginative tumult shakes down to a single idea that lodges in the little boy’s head: go get a bite to eat.

Most of us can’t handle too much creative chaos. Somehow, on that day in 1973, Dolly Parton hung in there amid the catastrophe of inspiration, like a police Clydesdale in a riot, steady as she goes.

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