Book Review

Songteller: My Life in Lyrics by Dolly Parton


Genre: Nonfiction

When I was seven or eight years old, one of the highlights of my week was laying on the floor in my living room and watching Dolly Parton’s variety show, Dolly. I was absolutely rapt and thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world, with the very best, biggest hair ever.

So you can understand why the hair was such a big deal to me, here’s a promo shot of Dolly from the show vs baby Tara, with long, straight brown hair and whatever blouse mom picked out for photo day.

Show Spoiler

Promotional shot of Dolly Parton from her 1987 variety show  A much younger Tara who loved watching Dolly Parton's variety show

The end of the show was my favourite part, because she’d close it by singing “I Will Always Love You.” Although I never got deep into her music, that season of television cemented my love for Dolly. So, when I saw my library had an audiobook copy of her recent book Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, I immediately checked it out.

I went into Songteller knowing nothing but the title. I was hoping for a memoir, which turned out to be close, but not quite right. It’s more like a trip down memory lane, with Dolly sharing the stories and/or contexts behind more than 100 of her songs. She talks in her own words, rather than reading a manuscript, and song clips are included throughout. Each story is delivered in a snackable chunk, making Songteller perfect for listening while cleaning, cooking, or doing stretches at the end of the day.

While I enjoyed the stories, I kept wondering what it could possibly look like in printed form, since Songteller doesn’t have a coherent narrative. Everything made WAY more sense once I learned that the printed version is actually a coffee table book, pairing lyrics with Dolly’s commentary and photos.

Sample layout from the Songteller coffee table book

While I understand the appeal of a collectible like a coffee table book, I highly recommend listening if you want the full experience. It starts with Dolly sharing how her first song was called “Little Tiny Tasseltop,” which she wrote at five years old as a tribute to a doll. And from there it just goes, story after story, song after song. She shares facts like where Jolene came from and why she turned down Elvis Presley’s request to record “I Will Always Love You.” We even learn where the word “songteller” comes from, which she made up because she tells stories through songs. (I know, we already have words for that, but we’re talking about Dolly Parton, who is a living saint and can do whatever she wants.)

As she talks about the origins of her most popular songs, Dolly bounces between sharing personal information and professional. For example, after talking about growing up poor, she might share about who she collaborated with on a song. Or she’ll talk about how deeply she holds her faith in God in almost the same breath as sharing what it was like going to Hollywood. And while I found all those things interesting, what stuck out most to me is how much empathy and compassion she has, especially as she describes the urge to express all elements of humanity—good and bad—through her songs. This comes out when she discusses why she writes about difficult subjects like substance use, family violence, loneliness, and poverty.

Dolly also drops pearls of wisdom every so often and a couple stuck out so much that I stopped everything so I could write them down. The first is:

“I always say, ‘I just strengthen the muscles around my heart, but I can’t harden it.’”

How often do women get told to toughen up and stop being so soft? I love the idea of working on your heart and getting stronger, instead of hardening it. She also shared,

“You should always put your money where your heart is, not just your mouth.”

I know this particular piece of wisdom comes with tremendous privilege. Not everyone can afford to financially support the things they’re passionate about. But I admire the way she does it, which is so obvious in her philanthropy.

Speaking of which, I already knew about her Imagination Library program, which sends free books out to kids all over the world. I was also blown away last year when I heard she donated $1 million towards Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine research. But did you know that, 30 years ago, she opened the largest eagle sanctuary in the United States and it’s at Dollywood? I didn’t until I heard her talk about it in Songteller. Truly she is too good for this world.

You still might be wondering which format would be best to choose. In my opinion, that depends on how you’d like to take in these kinds of stories. I can see how it would be perfect as a coffee table book, because you can flick through, read a few bits, and then do it again another day. On the other hand, the audiobook has the advantage of Dolly talking in her own words, which are always full of personality.

If you do choose the audiobook, I recommend buying it instead of borrowing it from the library, if you can afford to do so, so that you can take your time with it. Because I had it on loan, I felt like I had to rush so I could finish before my three weeks were up (pandemic life at home with work and family isn’t the best for audiobooks). Songteller is not meant to be rushed and listening to it quickly meant some elements felt repetitive, like hearing over and over that a song is one of her favourites. If I’d been able to pick away at it for a few months, I would never have been aware of that and would have been delighted all the way through. Instead, I kind of dragged myself through the last hour, feeling like I was hearing more of what I’d already listened to.

If you’re a Dolly Parton fan, whether for her music or just who she is as a person, do yourself a favour and get Songteller. Just be sure to take your time so you can enjoy it thoroughly.

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Dolly Parton, Songteller by Dolly Parton

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  1. tammy cat says:

    There is not a week I don’t find out something about Dolly that makes me love her more. Did not know about the eagle sanctuary. She is a national treasure

  2. Escapeologist says:

    Dang, my library only has the coffee table book, not the audiobook.
    This reminded me there’s a podcast series, Dolly Parton’s America, I had started listening to in 2019. Might be time for a re-listen. Dolly’s speaking voice is so soothing.

  3. Susan says:

    Dolly’s production company also backed the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, which then spawned the (much better) TV series. ‘Nuff said.

  4. Emily C says:

    @Escapeologist- the podcast is fantastic! The segments on the intersectionality of Dolly and feminism and Dolly and rural nostalgia were particularly fascinating. I can’t recommend the whole thing highly enough though.
    I also just read an essay by Tressie McMillan Cottom called “The Dolly Moment” that dives into why Dolly has become nearly above reproach from anyone, which is downright impossible in today’s social political world.

  5. Emily C says:

    Eeek… sorry about that crazy link! It will take you to the essay by Ms Cottom. I pasted from the share link in her newsletter and, well yikes!

  6. Lisa F says:

    Dolly Parton’s a patron saint in my household, so I can’t approach this one with anything approaching objectivity. I couldn’t get my hands on this one for Christmas, so it’s helpful to know that the audiobook’s an interesting experience in of itself, thank you Tara!

  7. Laurel says:

    I have loved Dolly ever since we took a family vacation to Dollywood about 15 years ago. She started the park so that people in the area would have jobs. There are the usual rides, and some really nice arts & crafts demonstrations. There is also a museum with costumes, etc. on display. I have never listened to a lot of country music, so I am not familiar with a lotof her songs, but I admire her goodness. She just seems like a wonderful person.

  8. Jane says:

    I got this book as a gift last year and it is just so good to go through and read it and see all the pictures. I loved the part where Dolly shared that she wrote a song with her mother in law who was very religious. It is lovely to think her mother in law lives on through a song.

  9. Laurie says:

    I bought Song Teller for my husband – it is absolutely wonderful. Dolly Parton is a national treasure and the highlight of yesterday was seeing HER get the vaccination that she made possible.

  10. Stefanie Magura says:

    @Escapeologist @Emily C:

    I blew through all of the Dolly Parton’s America Podcast around Christmas and New Years of 2019 to 2020. It is so fascinating, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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