Dolly Parton
CDNOW Interview
July 2002
Dolly Parton: Is That a Bustle in Your Hedgerow, or Are You Just Happy to See Me?
By Brian Mansfield

Yep, Dolly Parton sings "Stairway to Heaven" on her new disc, Halos & Horns.  What was she thinking?

Unlike her past couple discs, Dolly Parton's Halos & Horns isn't a bluegrass record.  Fans who've enjoyed the mountain-inspired acoustic music of in the recent Little Sparrow and The Grass Is Blue should find plenty to like in the 56-year-old country singer's new disc.  "Not for Me" is one of Parton's oldest songs, written when she was just a teenager.  "These Old Bones" is much newer, a tale about a reclusive mountain clairvoyant.  And though she's not using the Nashville session giants that played on her past couple records, she's got a bunch of top-rate pickers on Halos & Horns.  In fact, they'll accompany her on a summer tour.

Despite its mostly acoustic arrangements, Halos & Horns represents a turn back toward Parton's country-pop sound.  She revives "What a Heartache," a tune from the soundtrack of Rhinestone, her 1984 film flop with Sylvester Stallone.  She also remakes Bread's '70s pop hit "If."  Then there's that other cover, of a much more famous tune…

CDNOW:  Why did you cover "Stairway to Heaven"?

Dolly Parton:  I had always been going to do "Stairway to Heaven."  In fact, I talked to Alison Krauss.  I was wanting to do a duet album with her.  We never did get around to it, because both of us were working so hard.  But I remember saying to Alison, "One song I'd like us to try is Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway to Heaven.'"  And she just looked at me.  I don't know if that meant, "You've got to be kidding," or "That's a very interesting idea," or "There's no way I'm singing on that," or "Have you lost your mind?"  I never did know exactly what her look was.

What did Led Zeppelin think of it?

They liked it.  [Robert Plant] loved that I had treated it in the spiritual way, because he always thought that it was more spiritual in his own mind.  So I was thrilled that they accepted it.  I just added a few little things, just to make it fit the choir, the fact that I was using it more like a "Stairway to Heaven."

"Stairway to Heaven" makes a lot more sense when you listen to it in the context of the rest of the album.  It fits with the supernatural tone set by many of your original songs.

Well, it was very spiritual to me.  It was very personal.

Actually, I didn't head out to just produce this album.  I was doing demos of songs I had written.  I went up home; I was auditioning to put a group together for the first time in 10 years.  I thought a good way to audition some of these musicians [would be] to demo some of these songs I've written anyway.  That's how we got in.

We did "Stairway" and "If" last.  I had done about 25 of my songs I had written since last April.  We just went in, and it started sounding so good that we've got enough stuff for another album or two, if we go this route again.

Is there any song that you would be afraid to do, that you just couldn't touch?

Not if it was a song I liked.  There would be nothing I'd be afraid to do if I had ever thought about doing it.  But there are certainly some songs I couldn't sing.

Talk about the new song "These Old Bones."

Everybody loves that – because people love a story.  They love a ghost story.  And I had the "Mountain Angel" in the other one [Little Sparrow].  People love old stories, and I love to write them.

I want to try to have some sort of a ghostly, weird, mountain story on each album – from now on, on this type of an album.  I'm already thinking about what I might do for the next one.

People are so responding to me doing this voice.  It's almost like I could do a series off of this, like where I'll go back up to get the billy goat and the cat and the bones and find all the stuff my mother's written down and all these stories and all these people that she's encountered through the years.  I can actually create all these different stories that I found in mother's stuff, in an old trunk.  Then you go back into that voice.  Even though she's dead when I tell the story or read the thing, I can create a whole new story every time.

In fact, I've already got a title called "Beulah's Bastard."  I want to maybe do it with this old woman's voice, about this girl that had an unwed baby, and everybody called it Beulah's Bastard, but he grew up to be like a great healer.  I keep coming up with all these thoughts, so I thought, well, this could be a new voice, the old lady, if I wanted to.

"Not for Me" comes from very early in your career.

I don't even remember writing it.  I just know that I did.

That was so long ago.  The reason that it's on this record, I was looking for some old stuff for the museum.  That's our new addition to Dollywood this year – that and a simulator ride.  I was looking for a particular song that they could use up there.

Which one?

I don't remember now what they wound up using.  I think it was something about my grandpa.  There was a whole bunch of songs on this tape, and when we came across that one – actually, I was just looking for the song, and that one started playing.  I thought, "What is that?  That's a really good guitar lick."  'Cause I was picking the guitar.  I thought, "Wow, that's really a beautiful melody."

I have tons and tons of stuff like that.  I need to go through a lot of that old stuff.  Because I didn't change one word in that, nor one note from the way that I found it on the tape.  We just did the chord chart and did it.  I'm just saying it was the exact words and the exact melody.  I was proud of that.  I thought, "Wow. This is as up to date as then."

Another old song that sounds current is "Shattered Image," since you're back in the tabloids these days.

I know, I'm always in the tabloids.  It wasn't just for me, but it's the way other people feel.  I thought it was a very commercial idea.  But it's not just about stars and the tabloids; it's about your next-door neighbor.  It's like everybody's always throwing rocks at you, living in their own glass houses.  So I thought it was commercial.  I just always loved the song.  When I first wrote it, I had a feeling about that song, years and years ago, because I loved that little Cajun feel.  It was just in an album years ago when I first recorded it.  But I just always liked it, and it just seemed to jump out, too.

"If Only" was one of the songs you wrote for the Mae West project.

Yeah.  We're using Mae West's music, but there was a place for three original pieces of music.  And I had written some other things for it – which I'm still doing by the way.  It's being rewritten, and we're still planning to do it.