The Bluebird Café in Nashville is home to some of the best short-story writers around; after all, story is what makes a great country song. And every writer – especially acclaimed ones, like novelist James Patterson, knows just how hard that can be. "I actually tried to write some country-western songs," he said.
Correspondent lee Cowan asked, "Did you ever perform them?"
That's because, in part, Patterson was too busy becoming a novelist. He's written or co-written more than 200 of them, and has more bestsellers than anyone.
He's at home in Music City. He earned his masters from Vanderbilt University, and he's never forgotten the faces of wannabee country stars wandering from bar to bar: "You could not sit in one of those bars for more than 10 minutes without somebody coming in off the street, sitting down, and playing."
For his latest novel, Patterson decided to write about a nobody coming to Nashville with dreams of becoming a somebody. Even he admits that's a tale as well-worn as an old pickup, which is why he needed a co-writer who had actually lived that life to give the book a little sparkle.
"I asked him, 'Why you need me? You're doin' pretty good on your own!" said Dolly Parton.
Patterson noted, "She said, 'He's that guy that writes about serial killers, right?'"
"Yeah, I knew that."
It might seem an odd pairing at first – the girl from the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, who became one of the queens of country music, teaming up with a former Manhattan ad executive-turned-bookworm, who's barely touched a guitar in his life.
They hadn't met until 2019, when Patterson flew to Nashville to pitch Parton on the idea. She would even pick him up at the airport. "I'm always there to pick him up. I wouldn't dream of letting him come into town."
"That's so sweet," said Cowan.
"But that's what you do out of respect. But I just ain't gonna send somebody after him if I can at all be there."
"If you guys hadn't clicked and not particularly liked each other, would it have worked?"
"It wouldn't have happened, no," Patterson said.
"No, we didn't have to do it," she said. "I don't make that many friends. A lot of my old friends have gone on. And I've got some friends, you know, but trusting 'em after you get famous, you don't know who's a friend and who's not."
Their collaboration is called "Run, Rose, Run," the story of a young country singer named AnnieLee who comes to Nashville, only to find that the music industry can be just as heartbreaking as the secret she's carrying.
AnnieLee finds comfort in a retired country music icon named Ruthanna, read in the audiobook by – who else? – Parton herself.
She pointed one perfect, blood-red nail at AnnieLee's heart. "Here's my advice for you, AnnieLee Keyes," she said. "Get the hell out of Nashville while you still can."
AnnieLee swallowed. "Pardon me?" she gasped.
"It's a hard, rough business," said Ruthanna. "A tiny thing like you? You'll get chewed up and spit out like a hunk of gristle."
"I'm hoping to get to play that character when we do a movie of the book, which we hope to do at some point," Parton said.
"The book is, in a lotta ways, sort of cautionary tale about the music business," said Cowan.
"It is. It shows a lot of the dark side of it that people that have been in it, like me, you know that, 'cause you've lived it."
"Did you experience a lot of that??"
"Oh, yeah," Parton said. "You see all that. All the managers, people that will rip you off, they try to steal your songs, they'll con you, they'll do whatever. I have seen it all."
She was a reservoir of country music research for Patterson, but as it's been all her life, Parton doesn't enter into anything just to do it halfway: "If I take on a job, a partnership with somebody, I'm gonna do my part. I mean, how would I have been able to promote that book if I did not have some involvement? How would I have allowed that? Because if people ask me, I'd felt like the biggest liar in the world."
Instead of just writing dialogue or helping block out chapters, Parton added songs.
Cowan asked, "Did they come to you pretty easily?"
"Oh yeah. Songs come to me easy, especially if I know what I'm writing about."
Patterson's characters were shaped by lyrics Parton wrote herself.
To listen to Dolly Parton perform the song "Dark Night, Bright Future," from the album "Run, Rose, Run," click on the player below:
Patterson said, "A couple days after I got there, she sent me the lyrics to seven songs."
"You write seven songs in a couple days?"
"Well, he was sending me pages and I would get ideas for the songs," she replied. "And all of a sudden, it was like, ta- da! You write songs, he writes books. And so, I just started doing it, didn't not thinkin' about anything."
The album of Parton's 12 original songs will be released this week in tandem with the novel. That's a rarity.
Writing is where Parton and Patterson are a more alike than you might think; it isn't a chore for either of them. It's as much a joy as it is a necessity.
Cowan asked, "Are you still writing pretty much every day?"
"Oh, I write all the time," said Parton. "I'm always scribbling something down."
"Do you just write things down on the back of envelopes ...?"
"Oh, I write on everything. Anything. Chewing gum papers. Kleenex boxes. All writers do."
"Yeah, they do," Patterson said.
"Do you do the same thing?"
"Uh-huh. Yeah, the thing I don't do anymore is, I will not get up in the middle of the night and write stuff down," he said. "My belief is that, if it's good, I'll remember it. There's too many times I get up in the morning and I look at it and go, like, 'What?'"
Parton added, "When you dreamed it. Yeah, I've dreamed things, but I'm not lazy enough like some people to not get up."
They are both champions of literacy – Parton's own father couldn't read, which is why she cherished every book that came into her house: "I write a song about everything, so I wrote (singing) 'Books, books. I love books. The way they smell, and feel, and look. From my first glance I was hooked on books, books, books.' A little song for my kids."
Over the last 25 years-plus, her Imagination Library has gifted more than 150 million books to children under the age of five. For his part, Patterson has quietly donated millions of dollars to school libraries, as well as independent bookstores, and more.
"Only 45% of the kids in this country read at grade level," he said. "Which is a disgrace."
So, two of the biggest names in their respective fields not only share a cause (and a byline), but a lot of mutual respect.
Parton said, "Well, I learned he's better than I. And I hoped that he would be. Honestly, he's so smart. He's so cool. He listens very well. And he accepts. You know, knows who's who, he knows … "
"I know who's boss!" he laughed.
Parton gave Patterson an autographed guitar for his birthday. He says he's never learned to play it, preferring instead to let his co-writer sing us off as only a Nashville legend could:
From "Woman Up (And Take It Like a Man)":
Is it easy, no, it ain't,
Can I fix it, no, I can't.
But I sure ain't gonna take it lying down …
I'm gonna woman up and take it like a man.
Gonna buckle up, be tough enough,
but take control and make demands.
Look like a woman, think like a man,
be as good as or better than,
Gonna woman up and take it like a man
READ AN EXCERPT:
For more info:
- "Run, Rose, Run" by Dolly Parton and James Patterson (Little, Brown), in Hardcover and eBook formats, available March 7 via Amazon and Indiebound; also available in Audio format, read by Dolly Parton, Kelsea Ballerini, James Fouhey, Kevin T. Collins, Peter Ganim, Luis Moreno, Soneela Nankani, Ronald Peet, Robert Petkoff, Ella Turenne and Emily Woo Zeller
- Album: "Run, Rose, Run" by Dolly Parton (Butterfly), available via Amazon
- Dolly Parton's Imagination Library
- The Bluebird Café, Nashville
Story produced by Reid Orvedahl. Editor: Steven Tyler.
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