Dolly Parton
Those Were The Days Press Release

Dolly Parton has always thought for herself and done things her own way. So there is more than a little precedent for her latest undertaking, Those Were the Days (Sugar Hill Records, Oct. 7), a heartfelt effort on which this single-minded artist locates renewed relevance in a dozen era-defining songs from the 1960s and ’70s. They range from Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” from Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” to the traditional “The Cruel War,” both popularized by Peter, Paul & Mary. Among the mellower moments are renditions of Johnny Mathis’ high school make-out ballad “Twelfth of Never” and Tommy James’ evocative “Crimson and Clover.”

Recorded in Nashville and produced by Dolly, Those Were the Days retains the bluegrass-inspired sound that earned her two Grammys and a new generation of fans for her previous four albums on Sugar Hill. But that’s just the jumping-off point for this ambitious work. Parton also includes several widescreen orchestrations featuring strings and choir, arranged by Tom Howard. “It was my idea to mix and match, because I don’t like to be pigeonholed,” she says. “And of course we’ve had good luck with the bluegrass stuff and the country flavors, and I wanted to keep all that. But some of these songs didn’t call for that. I tried to be true to each song and Dolly-ize them in ways that seemed to fit.”

The idea came to Parton a year and a half ago, and bringing it to life has taken a sizable chunk of her time and energy since then. “I realized I needed to produce it myself and follow it all the way through in order to get out of it everything I wanted,” she says. “Being an artist and writing my own songs, people expect me just to do my stuff. But as a singer and an admirer of other writers, I wanted to find a way to try to get to sing these songs, because of all that’s been going on—plus I’m getting a little bit sassier as I get a little older. So I just went for it.”

Like so many others who came of age in the 1960s, Parton can’t help but see certain parallels between that tumultuous decade and the one we’re now living through. “That’s one of the reasons I decided to do these songs,” she confirms. “I’d loved them all since they first came out. First of all, they’re musically great and easy to sing along with. Also, of course, during that time they spoke about what was happening, to the point that if you were singing these songs, you felt like you were doing your part, even if you didn’t have some other way of expressing yourself. That was what was great about songs like “Blowing in the Wind”; I mean, does that not exactly say what is going on now? ‘The Cruel War’ was written about the Civil War, just talking about the situation of the girls being left behind and the boys going to battle. And ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’—man, that’s so right on the money now, with lots of young men going to graveyards. It doesn’t matter what war it is or what kind of trouble’s going on in the world. These songs offer hope, and they speak to the times.”

At a time of polarization on a national scale, with all the talk of red states and blue states, one might think Parton would be hesitant to make what might be perceived by some as an album of protest songs. “It might, if I was somebody that had lived that life,” she responds. “I never was political, although I’ve always been very patriotic. I just thought this was a good time to do it, without overdoing it—speaking to the times without trying to protest or make some big statement.

“I just think these songs say it. And as you get older, you tend to go more towards messages and spiritual things. Music is the voice of the soul. It’s really a wonderful way to get a message out without having to shove something down somebody’s throat. And people know me well enough to know that’s not where I’m coming from. Back then, I just punched the buttons, and these songs were on the radio. I loved all kinds of things, so I just kind of mixed and matched songs I could sing the best, that I thought could carry the message best. ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ would probably be the only one anybody would have something to say about, right? Like ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ is from the Bible. I don’t think there’s anything in these songs that are protesting anything. But you know what? If some people want to think that, those people are going to bitch about something anyhow, so they’ll be protesting against somebody that’s not really protesting!”

Parton’s choice of contributors proves to be as inspired as the songs she’s picked. In a number of cases, she’s joined by the artist most closely associated with the song in question. Byrds founder Roger McGuinn brings his archetypal jingle-jangle to Dolly’s bluegrass-rooted take of “Turn, Turn, Turn,” a #1 single for the Byrds in late 1965. “I love that sound,” she says of McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker. “You can’t dupe that.” The tattered growl of Kris Kristofferson can be heard tossing asides into Dolly’s bittersweet take on his “Me and Bobby McGee.” “When I got the big idea to use all these guest artists, I thought, ‘We gotta have Kris,’ but I didn’t want it to be a duet. I said to him, ‘Just go in there and sing anything you want to sing, and you’ll just have to trust me to use it wherever.’ I wanted it to just be a flavor.”

Also contributing are Judy Collins, who joins Rhonda Vincent backing up Dolly on Collins’ Joni Mitchell-written 1968 hit “Both Sides Now”; Tommy James, who sings and plays guitar on 1969’s “Crimson and Clover”; and Mary Hopkin, who joins the Opry gang and the Moscow Circus (!) on her 1968 standard “Those Were the Days.” Yusuf Islam plays acoustic guitar on “Where Do the Children Play,” the 1970 classic he recorded as Cat Stevens. “Yusuf—Cat—he’s involved in children’s charities and so am I, so I thought it would be a nice piece for that reason,” Dolly explains. “We have to look out for the children. If we take their playgrounds away, feed them bad food and give them bad air, what can they do about it? So that one I really handpicked.”

Just as ingenious are her pairings of younger artists and enduring songs. Nickel Creek’s intoxicating vocal blend makes Dolly’s performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind” that much more stirring. On “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” the voices of Norah Jones and Lee Ann Womack subtly and seamlessly enrich Parton’s lead vocal. Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski and Mindy Smith deftly enhance the sense of timelessness of “The Cruel War.”

The lone selection not from the ’60s or ’70s is 1957’s “Twelfth of Never,” the inspiration for one of the album’s pair of duets. “I just love that song, and I wanted to sing something with Keith Urban, so I called him up,” Dolly recalls. “He’s so sweet to work with—and so talented. But he didn’t hesitate, because he told me he used to be a huge fan of mine when he was a little boy back in Australia. He won all these contests singing my songs, like ‘Coat of Many Colors.’”

A number of singers have cut the Tim Hardin folk-pop gem “If I Were a Carpenter,” but it was Johnny Cash & June Carter’s rendition that provided Dolly with the blueprint for the other duet. “Joe Nichols has that beautiful low voice,” she says, “so I thought, ‘Well, we’ll just be Johnnie and June.’ That’s why that one made sense as a duet.”

Dolly’s had plenty of hits over the years, and these days she’s more interested in making music honestly and artfully than compromising her music with presumptions about what contemporary country programmers might deem acceptable. “I just decided to make the best record I know how,” she says. “Maybe some of them will be radio-worthy, and if not, maybe people who are fans of these songs and these artists will love it, and word of mouth will kinda get it around.”

Dolly’s doing her part. On Aug. 16, she kicked off what she calls the Vintage Tour, incorporating a number of songs from the new album, along with some related stage patter. “We’re not only from the ’60s, we’re in our 60s,” quips the artist, who will celebrate her sixtieth birthday next January 19. “On the Vintage Tour, I have a lot of humor from those days that I think people my age are going to get a kick out of. I’ve been staying up late lots of nights writing this crazy stuff from the hippie days and had a ball doing that. Like going from bellbottoms to big bottoms; from letting it all hang out to trying to suck it all back in; from taking acid to taking antacid. It used to be about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll; now we can’t even have sex unless we have drugs. It used to be free love; have you checked out the cost of Viagra lately? Stuff like that. So I’m really having fun with this whole thing, because it’s allowed me to do a type of stage show because of these songs that I would’ve never done before.”

Parton acknowledges that she’s reached a time in her life where she’s becoming ever-more conscious of her legacy. “Whether or not this album gets airplay and rave reviews or not, it doesn’t matter in the long run,” she says. “This is part of what I’m hoping to leave behind when I’m gone. It’s like I joked when I made the bluegrass records, ‘At least I’ve worked long enough to be able to sing like I’m poor again.’ I feel the same way with this one. I worked real hard trying to make it right, and it turned out the way I hoped it would. I’m proud of it, and I just hope it’ll be accepted and appreciated.

“It’s definitely going to get attention, one way or the other,” she adds, punctuating her words with that familiar, infectious laugh.