Dolly Parton's Impressive Manicures Are For More Than Just Looks

Tennessee-born singer-songwriter Dolly Parton has over the course of more than 60 years in the entertainment industry slowly grown to become one of the world's best-loved and most bankable stars. Her enduring appeal and the respect she has earned within the music industry is evidenced by her latest album, "Rockstar," which was released on a wave of hype in 2023 some 64 years after the release of her debut single, "Puppy Love," in 1959. Not only did the album perform outstandingly in terms of chart placing and garner plenty of warm reviews from critics, but it also saw Parton pair up with some of the biggest names in pop. From rock veterans such as The Beatles' Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr to younger voices like Miley Cyrus and Lizzo, the album was crammed with A-list guest spots that showed both Parton's range and her wide influence.

But despite writing an estimated 3,000 songs and recording scores of studio albums, Parton's success on the Billboard 200 and the Hot 100 has been fitful, with the majority of her work instead making waves on the country music chart. Those songs that have climbed the pop chart have tended to be the jewels of her discography, such as 1980's "9 to 5," her paean to working women. And somewhat bizarrely, she wrote it using her acrylic fingernails.

Impromptu instrumentation

Dolly Parton's No. 1 hit "9 to 5" was the biggest song of her long career, but nevertheless, its origins were humble. As Parton has recounted on many occasions, she wrote the song on set during the filming of the comedy movie of the same name, in which the country icon starred alongside her friends Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. While many people outside of the movie industry imagine being on a film set is incredibly glamorous, for actors the reality means a lot of hanging around between takes while the crew sets up the next shot or other actors perform their scenes. Parton claims that she had taken a role in "9 to 5" on the proviso that she would have the opportunity to write the theme song, and as such she decided to make the most of her time on set.

The songwriter is known for her distinctive look, part of which involves wearing long acrylic fingernails. She has previously discussed how the nails pose a challenge to her guitar playing, but it turns out that they were also proven to be an aid when it came to composing her most famous song. Between takes, Parton claims that she slowly built the song in her breaks by using her acrylic nails as percussion by running the nails of either hand against each other to make a sound like a washboard.

Another string to Dolly's bow

The scraping of her fingernails didn't make it onto the final studio recording of "9 to 5," but the sound did inspire the typewriter sound effect that underpins the verses of the song to create a motif of working life. Dolly Parton was so pleased with her new form of on-to-go instrumentation that she acknowledged her nails in the liner notes of "9 to 5," in which she credits herself as songwriter, vocalist, guitarist, and nail player.

But how does Dolly Parton's makeshift fingernail washboard fit into her overall repertoire? The fact is, Parton doesn't just know how to strum a six-string or clack her acrylics. The veteran songwriter is believed to have a working knowledge of around 20 instruments, according to the BBC, which claims that as well as the guitar Parton can play the fiddle, dulcimer, and more besides — though it is unclear whether acrylic fingernails factor into their total.

Parton has plenty of signatures, but it seems that she has never been intent on keeping her pioneering musical use of acrylic nails to herself. In 1987, Parton appeared on TV with another iconic vocalist, Patti LaBelle, whom she introduced to her nail-playing technique before the two performed a tune together, nails and all, which you can watch above.