Dolly Parton’s Connection to Her Song, ‘The Bridge’: ‘I’ve Had Suicide in My Own Family’

In her extensive repertoire, Dolly Parton has some poignantly heartbreaking songs, many of which are from early on in her career. A good portion of those songs never made it on the radio because they were considered controversial for their time. But that didn’t stop Parton from writing them.

Dolly Parton photographed playing the piano on stage in black and white.
Dolly Parton | Rich Fury/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Why Dolly Parton loves to write ‘mournful’ songs

When Parton was growing up, she was heavily influenced by the songs she heard as a child, which, oftentimes, had very dark themes.

“As a songwriter, I love to write those mournful things and put myself in those situations,” she wrote in her 2020 book, Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. “It comes from those early days with all of the old songs I grew up with. I loved feeling all the sorrow in a song. In my early days, I just wrote about everything. I just wanted to write great stories, or write about situations that I could imagine myself in.”

Many of the songs Parton wrote that were inspired by the songs of her childhood, never made it on the radio. But that didn’t stop her from writing more.

“I wrote a lot of songs that people wouldn’t play on the radio, but I didn’t care,” she wrote. “It bothered me at the time, but I never thought, ‘I shouldn’t have done that.’ Whatever I write is just what comes out of me, and I refuse to be judged.”

‘The Bridge’

“The Bridge” is an incredibly sad song that Parton wrote about a woman who, feeling hopeless, steps off of a bridge. The Queen of Country wrote the song when she was in high school, before her career took off.

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“‘The Bridge’ is a song I wrote before I ever left school,” wrote Parton. “I didn’t put it out until much later. But I wrote it way before [Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 hit] ‘Ode to Billie Joe.’ I had my own bridge, back home.”

She goes on to explain what the character in the song is thinking: “There’s no way out of this, so I’m just going to take that plunge and go.”

The theme is one that Parton relates to — “A lot of people go through that,” she wrote. “I’ve had suicides in my own family. It’s a horrible thing to have to deal with.”

Dolly Parton’s personal experience with suicide

In an interview with Jad Abumrad on the podcast, Dolly Parton’s America, Parton said she’s had suicidal thoughts herself, in the early 1980s.

“I was having some serious conversations with God during that time,” she said.

“I just said things like, ‘Look, this is ridiculous. I am not happy,’ [and] arguing about why when they say you shouldn’t commit suicide because that’s a sin you can’t get forgiven for,” she continued. “Everything was just confusing to me and I was just angry and I was hurt, and I was unhappy and so I just said, ‘You’re going to have to get me some answers or I’m getting out of here. And then we’ll both deal with it.’”

At one particularly low point, Parton thinks God sent her a sign.

“My little dog, Popeye, at the time, he jumped up on the bed about the time I was writing my — you know,” she said. “God is dog spelled backwards, and I always thought that might have been the very thing.”

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Parton classifies herself as “a very sensitive person.” It’s why her songs are so full of heart.

“I’m a songwriter, so I have to live with my feelings on my sleeve,” she told Southern Living in 2014. “I have to not harden my heart, because I want to stay open to feel things. So when I hurt, I hurt all over. And when I cry, I cry real hard. And when I’m mad, I’m mad all over. I’m just a person; I like to experience whatever the feeling is and whatever I’m going through. But I have a good attitude. And I was born with a happy heart. I’m always looking for things to be better.”

How to get help: In the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Or text HOME to 741-741 to speak with a trained crisis counselor at the free Crisis Text Line.