Dolly Parton
Borders Interview
August 2002
Stairway to the Heavens:  Dolly Parton Volunteers Her Thoughts on Tennessee, God, and Led Zeppelin
By Tim Pulice

Itís 8 a.m., and Dolly Parton is already conducting her third interview of the day from inside her Nashville office.  Born in 1946, the fourth of 12 children, Parton says she got in the early-bird habit long ago, often making breakfast for her family while growing up poor in the Smoky Mountains of east Tennessee.  Despite her relatively humble upbringing, the effervescent Parton gained national fame while still in her early 20s as a featured performer on The Porter Wagoner Show.  With prominent roles in 9 to 5, (highlighted by the Parton-penned, Grammy-winning title song) and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Parton beguiled movie audiences with her sense of humor, platinum-blonde wigs, and, of course, a substantial bust line that remains a frequent subject of Partonís self-deprecating jokes.  In 1999, the singer-songwriter earned a well-deserved spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame for such masterpieces as "Coat of Many Colors," "Jolene," and "I Will Always Love You," which later became a smash for Whitney Houston.

Following up her recent, bluegrass-flavored albums The Grass Is Blue and Little Sparrow (the latter including a spirited rendition of Collective Soulís "Shine," for which she earned her seventh Grammy Award this year), Parton again showcases her one-of-a-kind voice on Halos & Horns, inviting musicians from her Dollywood theme park to join members of her regular band.  Citing the mountains surrounding her home as inspiration, Parton went on a songwriting spree and chose to cover a pair of delightfully unexpected tunes:  Breadís soft-rock favorite "If" and Led Zeppelinís hard-rock epic "Stairway to Heaven."

Some people have said that, with your recent albums, youíve returned to your roots.  Do you feel you ever left?

Dolly Parton:  You donít ever leave.  Not me, the country girl.  Back when youíre trying to make a living, youíve got to do everything you can to get a record played to make enough money, to be accepted on the charts.  And so I had to work toward a formula, which I hate.  You donít make as much money doing what Iím doing now, and thereís a reason I had to try other things in the early days.  If I couldíve made a living doing this kind of music, I probably never wouldíve ventured out.  I joke that I had to get rich in order to sing like Iím poor again.

What does this album title signify?

DP:  I think weíre all a mixture of halos and horns.  I know I am.  Itís like the first verse of that song:  "Tempted and tried with each step we take / We stumble and slide and make our mistakes, ask God to forgive us..."  Itís like weíre always backsliding.  Iíve always said, "Iím too good to be bad, too bad to be good."  Iím always trapped somewhere between halos and horns, but my heart is good and Iím hoping God judges by the intent of our heart.  If He does, then Iím fine.

Was "Hello God" inspired by September 11?

DP:  I did write a song the day after called "Color Me America," which I do in my stage show.  "Raven Dove" and "Hello God" were also inspired by where we all are at this time.  It came from realizing how fragile we are, how everything can change with the blink of an eye, how weíre like little childrenóas the scripture says.  We think we can do whatever we want until we get in big trouble.  Then we want to run to our parents.  Sort of like how we all turned to God at that time because everybody was so scared, you didnít know what to do.  You felt so fragile, so frightened.  Every morning when I get up, the first thing I do is say, "Well, hello God."  Iíve been doing that for years.  It came to me that it would make a good song.  When I started saying "Hello God, are you out there?  Are you listening?  Can you hear us?" all that stuff started coming to me about what I felt and I know so many other people were feeling.  Thatís one of my favorites on the album.

Talk about your home in Tennessee and the inspiration it provides.

DP:  It was our old home place.  I tried to buy it for years, long after weíd moved away, when I first started making enough money.  Many years back, I was able to buy it.  Iíve got it fixed up like a retreat, tried to re-create it the way it was.  Itís just wonderful.  I have a whole little village up there: the old country store, an old church on the mountain.  Itís like Iíve gathered everything from my past and my childhood and made it into a village.  But itís the same old house, same old barn.  I go up there and I feel momma and daddy, feel what I remember from childhood.  Itís amazing how it inspires me.

Thereís such genuine emotion on this album and, for that matter, on all your recordings.  Do you think that sincerity has generally been lost in todayís music?

DP:  Yes, I do.  I think thatís one of the reasons everybodyís so excited about bluegrass, the old mountain music.  People are longingóeven city people, even people that love hard rock and loud electric musicófor some sort of realism.  Progress is a great thing, but even though weíre so high-tech, we donít want to grow so fast and so far that we forget that we come from the dirt and the land.  People are connecting; it takes them back, sort of like how people long for the old cowboys and westerns.  It gives you a feeling of being outdoors, being human, part of nature.

Talk about the parallels between bluegrass and Celtic music.

DP:  All of these people here in Kentucky and in the Smoky Mountains were Irish and English.  People developed in their own way and started adding their own sounds, their lifestyle and their environment.  Itís all about telling stories.  I think all that started when there were no TVs, no radios, and no telephones.  Thatís how people carried news around.  Thatís why there are so many sad songs.  People would take all these songs around to different villages back in the old days.  Thatís kind of how we still do it in the Smokies.  I think thatís tied into what our ancestors brought over and then what we added to it just by living in this world.  But itís all so very real, and itís how people express their souls, their thoughts, their feelings.

Are you planning to continue exploring film work?  Can you compare the music and movie worlds?

DP:  Well, thereís no comparison.  Iíve always said that music is my first love.  But I do love the fact that Iíve been able to do so many things.  The only reason Iím not doing more movies is Iím not getting offered any good parts.  Itís like it was when my music died away as far as the public was concerned.  When all the new country music came, for artists over 35 years old, you might as well forget about it.  Of course Iím a little over that, but itís the same with movies unless itís like the character I played in Steel Magnolias.  But Iíd love to do more films when good roles come along.

OK, Iíll ask the Led Zeppelin question:  Why "Stairway to Heaven"?

DP:  I do songs that I just love.  My husband has such an odd taste in music, and he loves Led Zeppelin.  Heís been a "Led Head" from day one and also loves bluegrass and big-band music.  "Stairway to Heaven" was always Carlís favorite.  It was kind of like "our song" because at romantic times or sweet times, weíd just be riding around in the car and if that would come on, Lord, heíd just knock us out of the car turning it up full blast.  For years Iíve wanted to try to do it, but it made no sense with the other stuff Iíd done.  I thought, "Iím going to try it like I did ĎShineí and see if I canít blend it in."  It was personal to us, so I just took a chance on it.  Some people said I was nuts to try.  I said, "Well, I donít see why not.  Whatís the worst that could happen?  What are they going to do, not play me on the radio?  Theyíre not anyway."  [Laughing.]