On Tuesday, October 20, the “Jolene” songstress, 74, opened up about some of her favorite songs from her childhood while discussing her new book, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. “Mama was a good singer too and she would just sing a cappella all the time,” Parton said of her mother, who passed away in December 2003. “So many of those songs were sad … There was a song she used to sing called ‘Bury Me Beneath the Willow,’ it was about a girl that was going to get married and her boyfriend left her at the altar.”
The Grammy winner then burst into song, giving the 56-year-old talk show host “goosebumps” as she recalled the old folk tune. Colbert wiped his eyes with a tissue and laughed while Parton teased between verses, “I better hush before you cry yourself to death and we can’t finish the show.”
When she finally finished, Colbert adjusted his glasses and held his head in his hands. “Like a lot of Americans, I’m under a lot of stress right now, Dolly. You got my tripwire right there, I’ll tell you. That was pretty beautiful,” he gushed. “Isn’t it funny that sometimes there’s nothing happier than a cry?”
The Country Music Hall of Fame inductee related to Colbert’s emotional moment. “We used to cry when Mama would sing. Mama would cry, we’d cry. Those old songs were just amazing,” she said. “I think it cleanses your soul. Water is good to wash it out. That’s what tears are for, I think.”
Before her heartfelt song, Parton revealed that writing music, which she hailed as her “personal time with God,” can be like a form of therapy.
“I don’t need anything other than just me and whatever instrument I’m using at the time,” she explained. “It’s my quiet time, I just go into that little zone. I just feel like I can express myself in ways that I don’t need a doctor for, I don’t need therapy, I just sing it all out, write it all out. … I see things happen to other people and I think, ‘They don’t know how to express how they feel.’ They’re depressed or they’re sad, so I write songs for them as well.”
Colbert, for his part, lost his mother in June 2013 and has spoken candidly about his own struggles with his mental health. In 2018, he told Rolling Stone magazine that comedy helped him through a particularly rough period in his life.
“I went, ‘Oh, my God, I can never stop performing,'” he remembered. “Creating something is what helped me from just spinning apart like an unweighted flywheel. And I haven’t stopped since.”