When Janelle Arthur, a former Top 5 contestant on “American Idol” in 2013, thinks about the start of her singing career, another East Tennessean comes to mind – the one and only Dolly Parton.
“The fact that Dolly is who she is, that she exists in the world, that she chased her dream and has become this megastar – if she hadn’t done that, I may not have even gotten my first job singing,” Arthur said.
At the age of 8, the Oliver Springs native portrayed Parton in “Paradise Road,” a show at Dollywood about Parton’s humble beginnings in the hills of East Tennessee. Following her first role, Arthur landed jobs in Pigeon Forge and, eventually, became a contestant on season 12 of “American Idol,” where she finished in 5th place.
She’s been making her own path in the music industry since, performing on the Grand Ole Opry stage, releasing new music and starring in a film. But Arthur’s newest single, “Hand Me Downs,” which features Parton and comes out April 21, brings it all “full circle,” she told Knox News.
“It’s almost like I’ve been given another life-changing opportunity, yet again from Dolly, and it’s just crazy because it’s so many years later,” Arthur said.
Dreaming like Dolly
Before Arthur was cast on “American Idol,” she moved to Nashville to pursue her music career as countless other aspiring country singers do. But Arthur only had one musician in mind.
“I didn’t even fully appreciate or realize how much Dolly had influenced me probably until I was in my early 20s, when I first moved to Nashville,” Arthur said.
“Then, it hit me. I really believed that I could be an East Tennessee girl that loved to sing and write songs, and I believed that I could move to Nashville and make something of myself, really because that’s exactly what she did.”
From ‘Idol’ to independence
Parton’s precedent inspired Arthur to audition for “American Idol,” work her way to the Top 5 and continue doing what she loved despite opposition along the way.
“Since (“American Idol”), I’ve learned a lot of hard things about the business,” Arthur said. “I learned that there are some pretty mean people out there, but I’m so thankful for every experience I’ve had.”
Arthur is not signed to a record label, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. To her, having the freedom to make the music she likes and when to release it is worth so much more.
“For so long, I listened to everyone else, and it got really confusing. But now, I’m in a good place,” Arthur said. “I’m just trusting my creative instincts and putting out great music into the world. It’s going to do what it’s going to do, but I can look back and be proud that I did what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it.”
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When Arthur and Emily Lynch, a fellow songwriter, sat down to write “Hand Me Downs” they had no idea that it would resonate with so many others, including Parton.
The nostalgic anthem is about being proud of the things people inherit from their families, whether it’s a physical characteristic, a personality trait or an heirloom.
“We had no intention of really doing anything with the song when we wrote it,” Arthur said. “We were just writing something from the heart.”
A few months after the lyrics were finished, Arthur said an idea “hit her like a ton of bricks.” She needed Parton to hear her song. Arthur reached out to Steve Summers, creative director at Dolly Parton Enterprises and her friend from the set of “Paradise Road.”
“I said, ‘I know this is a shot in the dark, but it would just mean the world to me if I knew that this song went through Dolly Parton’s ears,’ Arthur said. “Before I could even think anything about it, he responded to me and said, ‘Dolly wants you to send her the song and tell her what you want her to do on it.’ She remembered me, and she still believed in me.”
While working on the song, Arthur and Parton reconnected over their East Tennessee roots. They wrapped recording in 2019 and scheduled the song’s release in spring 2020, but then the COVID-19 pandemic put their plans on pause.
Since then, Arthur said she’s been keeping the collaboration a secret, but amid rising vaccination rates and the return of live music, Arthur feels assured that this spring is the right time to release the song.
“We feel like this is what people are needing after everything we’ve gone through in the last year,” Arthur said. “We could have held on to this to late this year or next year because we know that it’s not fully back to normal yet, but we feel like people are needing this message.”
“Hand Me Downs” is available everywhere on April 21. A portion of proceeds from the song will benefit
Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.