6 February 2023

5 Writing Lessons from Dolly Parton's Chart-Toppers: Insights on Language, Messaging and Conveying Emotion

Rhythm, 'show don't tell' and extended metaphors – learn how to apply the core creative writing techniques that Dolly Parton has used in her iconic songwriting.
Dolly Parton writing lessons

Hailed as the Queen of Country and having recorded numerous chart-topping songs in her almost 60-year career, Dolly Parton has songwriting down to a T. Somehow she manages to entice audiences of all ages and the core messages of her songs, many of which were written in the 1980s, seem to withstand the test of time.

As Dolly prepares to launch her highly anticipated new album Rock Star featuring music icons such as Stevie Nicks, Cher, Paul McCartney and Steven Tyler, it’s almost guaranteed to be a rhinestone-embellished, hair-raising success. What I’m curious about is the way Dolly uses language and emotion in her songwriting to hook her fans across the globe.

In this blog, I’ve taken five of her most iconic songs and dissected the main lessons about writing each one. These could be applied to copywriting, as well as when writing fiction, non-fiction, poetry etc. And believe it or not, I've bypassed Jolene.

#1 Feel the rhythm of your writing

9 to 5 (1980)

Is there any opening to a song more iconic than the clicks and clacks of 9 to 5? Designed to mirror the sound of a traditional typewriter, the beat of 9 to 5 creates a sense of pace while providing a structure for the whole song. 

But, did you know how Dolly created this in the first place? She wasn’t tapping on a typewriter or consulting with her music producers. She was simply running her acrylic fingernails against one another.

In between scenes on the set of 9 to 5, a comedy about women in the workplace, Dolly was trying to write the film’s theme song. She started strumming her nails together and observed the actresses around her, writing short lines and ideas about the different elements of the daily grind, the 9 to 5. At night she’d go back to her hotel and record herself on tape, playing the song on guitar. The rest was history.

Writing lesson

To me, this signals the importance when writing of sounding out your work. It doesn’t matter if you’re B2B, B2C or somewhere in between, the syllables, rhythm and pace of your writing matter. If nothing else, sounding out your writing is a great way to sense check that what you've written actually makes sense (if you've accidentally left in a double 'and' or your sentence structure misses the mark, you'll soon realise).

Whether your writing feels more formal or you have a certain amount of room to be creative, the way your writing sounds will have a massive impact on the reader. Because as Dolly shows in 9 to 5, sometimes the rhythm of your story can perfectly epitomise the story itself.

#2 Show, don’t tell

The Grass is Blue (1999)

Generally speaking, Dolly Parton’s music falls under the genre of country. However, in the late 90s she niched down into bluegrass, a genre of roots music developed in the Appalachian region of North America in the 1940s. With a strong influence of jazz and blues, bluegrass is characterised by melancholic, home-spun stories that deal with challenging themes such as change, financial hardship and death.

Dolly’s most successful bluegrass song is ‘The Grass is Blue’ and focuses on the narrator’s descent into madness following the death of a loved one. Rather than telling how heartbroken she is, she’s showing how she ‘had to think up a way to survive’ by lying to herself, using the device of opposites to convince herself she’s okay, when she clearly isn’t.

You can hear this in the chorus:

Rivers flow backwards,
valleys are high.
Mountains are level,
truth is alive.
I’m perfectly fine
and I don’t miss you.
The sky is green 
and the grass is blue.

Writing lesson

On a personal level, I only discovered this song in 2022 and was blown away by the way Dolly represents heartbreak. She’s taken the age-old truth, that we lie to ourselves as a short-term coping mechanism, showing the lengths we’ll go to as a means of avoiding reality. To me, this is far more powerful than lyrics that were to directly use adjectives about sadness or heartbreak. Anyone can say they’re heartbroken, but how many people can show heartbreak in a completely original, non-cliche way?

#3 Anchor your writing in a truth

Me and Little Andy (1977)

On the theme of how powerful truth can be, let’s look at one of Dolly Parton’s earlier hits, Me and Little Andy. While the song initially feels playful, drawing on children’s nursery rhymes (‘patty cake, a baker’s man’) and the 'giddy up' rhythm of a trotting horse, it soon has more sinister undertones.

Me and Little Andy tells the story of a little girl who is abandoned one night by her mother and neglected by her drunk father. She shows up on someone’s doorstep with her dog, Andy in tow, and they're given a warm bed for the night. However, both pass away in their sleep from the cold.

The song draws on Dolly’s childhood growing up poor in Tennessee, seeing families who were ‘just as poor as we were and as big of family as we had’, where many of the children were left to fend for themselves and faced an uncertain future.

Writing lesson

The main lesson I’ve taken from this song is that impactful writing often comes from a truth, and no matter how raw or painful it may be, it needs to be put out into the world. Despite leaving fans in tears, Me and Little Andy continues to be one of Dolly’s most requested songs in her live shows. Back when she first performed it during her debut appearance on The Tonight Show in 1977, the studio audience went wild. 

A testament to the power of this song is when Dolly was once heckled for singing it at a Las Vegas show. In her 2020 book Songteller, she wrote of how an audience-goer shouted, ‘Don't sing that damn song in a nightclub! It's bad enough that the kid died! Did you have to kill the damn dog, too?'

Dolly thought to herself 'perhaps he’s right, or perhaps he’s the drunk father from the song.' She also acknowledged that ‘some people want to kick my ass for writing such sorrowful songs.’ But if the best writing is meant to make us feel something, then surely people’s responses of heartbreak and anger towards Me and Little Andy show Dolly’s done her job as a songwriter?

#4 Don’t be afraid to use an extended metaphor

Coat of Many Colours (1971)

Anyone else remember learning about metaphors at school? Often grouped together with similes, they were explained as ways to create a more imaginative figure of speech and description of something e.g. writing this blog has been a breeze (if only!).

Metaphors shouldn’t be underestimated in creative writing, whatever the medium may be. In Coat of Many Colours, Dolly Parton draws on her rural upbringing, writing about a coat that was patched up with different pieces of fabric, as her family couldn’t afford to buy her a new one. She wore it to school and was laughed at by the other children, saying:

‘And oh, I couldn’t understand it
for I felt I was rich.
I told them all the love
my mamma sewed in every stitch.'

Dolly’s Coat of Many Colours acts not only as a metaphor for the love of her family, but tells a story of acceptance and hope. Ultimately Dolly’s family were impoverished, with 12 children living in a one bedroom cabin in the mountains of east Tennessee. Yet she didn’t believe herself to be poor, choosing gratitude:

But they didn’t understand it, and I tried to make them see
one is only poor, only if they choose to be.
Now I know we had no money, but I was rich as I could be
in my coat of many colours my momma made for me.

Writing lesson

From a writing perspective, this demonstrates that when done well, a device in language like a metaphor can lead a story, and also take on a whole new meaning. Again, rather than telling about how she had a scruffy, patched up coat, Dolly paints her coat as something beautiful, showing how it has become a symbol of the love of her family.

#5 Champion a cause you care about

Just Because I’m a Woman (1968)

Dolly Parton was flying the feminist flag long before it was Instagrammable and girlboss was a hashtag. She emerged onto the country music scene when the industry was still male-dominated, using the song Just Because I’m a Woman to make a bold statement about equal treatment of women. She made it clear that women shouldn’t be judged more harshly because of their gender, with her own personal experience of this to draw on.

The song is based on a real-life dispute with her husband Carl Dean when shortly after they got married, he passed judgement on her for having previous sexual partners. In the song, Dolly comes back to the simple refrain:

‘My mistakes are no worse than yours,
just because I’m a woman’ 

She expands on the double standards in the following verse:

'Now a man will take a good girl
and he'll ruin her reputation.
But when he wants to marry
well, that's a different situation.'

Fifty five years since the song was written and the theme of gender equality is all too relevant. Dolly achieved moderate success with this song, but claimed she felt radio stations underplayed it and found it too ‘womens’ libby’. It got me thinking about a similarly defiant song for its time; You Don't Own Me was originally sung by Lesley Gore when she was just 17 years old, in 1963. The song was cited as being inspirational during the second wave of the 20th century feminist movement and has been rereleased countless times since.

Writing lesson

You can champion a cause and protest, but sometimes, you might to do so in a way that’s palatable to your audience and doesn’t put you in a bad light. Dolly was protesting in the 1960s and had her career to think about, as this song was only released on her second album. She spoke of judgement and sexism, without overtly using those words and isolating her growing fanbase. It wasn't a widespread term back then, but Dolly could have been 'cancelled', so had to play her cards carefully.

Next steps

The words we use matter, whether that's in a song lyric, a book, a text to a friend, or the way a business communicates. Part of what makes Dolly Parton's songwriting so successful, I believe, is its relatability. Her audiences young and old, from all countries of the globe feel seen and safe when they hear her music.

It's no different for brands; whether B2B or B2C, you need to speak the language of your audience and motivate them to engage with you. If you don't, you'll just drive them towards your competitors. Just like if Dolly Parton even now released music that didn't feel true to her personal brand, her audience would question their longstanding faith in her.

Finding the right words for your target audience doesn't have to be a dark art. You may simply require some guidance to get any future language you use in line with your customers' priorities. Alternatively, you could already have a written piece that needs refining in order to achieve its desired impact. Or, perhaps you need something written from scratch, and you'd rather have the peace of mind knowing your words are in the safe hands of an experienced copywriter?

If any of these examples ring true and you require copywriting for an upcoming project, get in touch and let's have a chat. Liked this blog and want to chat creative writing techniques (or Dolly Parton songs)? You can also find me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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