Dolly Parton
The Boston Globe
September 2, 2002
Parton has made her own stairway to heaven
By Steve Morse

Dolly Parton is at home with Tennessee mountain music.  She was singing it long before "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" became the breakout record of the past two years.

So what gives on her new album, "Halos and Horns"?  There's plenty of sweet mountain bluegrass, and then comes the album's last song, which has the acoustic world perking up its ears in disbelief.

It's Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."

Rather than an embarrassment, it's the highlight of the album.  It's done brilliantly, in a haunting, banjo-flecked version with a climax featuring a gospel choir that has won praise from the song's original singer, Robert Plant.

Covers of "Stairway to Heaven" have been done through the years (hey, Tiny Tim did one), but as Parton says, "Mine is a lot more serious."

"I thought of it more as a gospel song," Parton says from her home near Nashville.  "I took it very seriously."

Moreover, it's proof positive that acoustic mountain music and rock-and-roll need not be incompatible.  "Stairway to Heaven" was a song that Parton had listened to for years, so it wasn't just a whimsical, spur-of-the-moment move.

"I've always loved the song," she says.  "And my husband, Carl, is a huge Led Zeppelin freak.  He plays their albums full blast at home.  He especially loves to play 'Stairway to Heaven.'  I'll hear it from one end of the house to the other.  But the melody fits my voice, and I've been thinking of doing it for a long time."

Yet the new album almost appeared without "Stairway to Heaven."  Parton recorded it but needed approval from Zep songsmiths Plant and Jimmy Page to release it.  "I sent it to them, but they had been out of town and hadn't heard it," Parton says.  "Then just two weeks before approval was due, I heard that they really liked it.  And Robert was thrilled that I put the choir on it, because he also thought of it as a gospel song.

"Really, people shouldn't be too surprised that I recorded it.  I've done rock songs before.  I also did Collective Soul's 'Shine' not long ago.  A good song will fit anywhere if you do it justice."

These days, Parton, 56, is doing pretty much what she pleases.  But like many artists, she's doing it apart from the major record labels.  She is aligned with the respected indie Sugar Hill Records, which is known for acoustic music and is giving her free rein in making it.  And it's perfect timing, in the wake of the "O Brother" breakthrough.

"We're all swirling around in the success of that," she says.  "Who could have predicted a success like that?  Anyone who says he could is lying."

Not that anything is going to stop Parton.  She has made 72 albums and copyrighted 3,000 songs.  And the tunes keep coming.  "I'm always walking around the house and coming up with a melody and a chorus," she says.  "I write something every day, even when I'm sick."

She is so upbeat that she fairly bubbles during the interview.  "I'm as excited now as when I left for Nashville in 1964," says Parton, a native of Sevier, Tenn., who once lived in a log cabin with no running water or electricity.  "I don't have time to get old.  I don't have time to dwell on it.  I still have a childlike nature.  Everything is exciting to me.  I'm a very positive person.  I get up every day and expect good things to happen."

The good things are continuing.  Parton has become fabulously wealthy ("I had to become rich so I could sing like I was poor," she says), and she notes that 2.5 million visitors come annually to visit her Dollywood theme park.  "We've been open for 17 years now, and every year things seem to get better," she says.  "We have arts and crafts and music and great food spread over an amusement park with 120 acres.  I've been very lucky, and I count my blessings every day.  Life has been good to me."