Dolly Parton
Country Music Today
July 2002
Old Treasures, New Voices, Borrowed Hearts and Blue Memories
By Stephen L. Betts

For Dolly Parton, putting together her latest album seems to have been a little like keeping the wedding tradition of presenting "something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue."  The resplendent Halos And Horns has all of these things and much more, and will, no doubt, stand as one of the best albums she's ever made in her nearly 40-year career.  But this marvelous musical marriage of classic country, bluegrass, and yes, even rock 'n' roll, didn't come without some typical pre-wedding jitters.
      "I've been so nervous about what people were gonna think.  We didn't use the [musicians] we've used on the last two," Dolly says.  In the process of auditioning musicians for her upcoming tour and preparing demos to record, she soon realized that the results were sounding CD-ready.  The collection—like Dolly's fabled "coat of many colors" that inspired one of her most-beloved hits—is a tapestry reflective of the many sides Dolly has shown in her various musical incarnations through the years.
      For "something old," Dolly fans need look no further than the album's title track, and the mournful "Dagger through the Heart."
      "To me that went all the way back to my very early country days and those great solid country hits that we were having back then," she says.  Dolly also dusted off a tune she wrote before she ever left her home in the Smoky Mountains.  "Not for Me" could be the saddest song you'll hear all year.
      "When I found 'Not for Me,' I was actually looking through a tape to find something they wanted to use at the new addition to the museum at Dollywood.  I was just flipping around on a cassette, and I thought, 'What is that?'  I was playing guitar on it, and it was real serious and good, before I had all these nails.  That was some good guitar work on that little tape!  I didn't change a word, and didn't change the melody at all."
      Another "old" tune she resurrected is "Shattered Image," a song she recorded on the 1976 album, All I Can Do, as a result of the gossip she endured when she first came to town.
      "When I first wrote it many years ago, I was new in town.  I was the girl with the big t—s, and the big hair and the big makeup.  People weren't taking me seriously and just thought I was Porter [Wagoner]'s whore or something.  And that really hurt me, because these people don't know me.  They don't know who I am and they're accusing me of s—.  They don't have any idea what they're saying.  That's when I wrote the song.  I can joke and laugh, and get some of my best jokes from the tabloids, but no matter what it always hurts you.  If you're a sensitive person and you read stuff, you think, my goodness, why would they...should I sue them?  No, that's just a waste of time and energy.  But some stuff that's been out recently that was embarrassing to me and my family that was all junk, made me think of that song."
      It's a subject that obviously still stings to this day, but one she rises above with typical humor, grace and dignity.
      "I felt like that then, and I feel like that now.  'If you live in a glass house, don't throw stones.'  'Stay out of my closet if your own's full of trash'...or 'come out of your closet and kiss my ass.'"
      Among the "new" things Dolly offers is a tune that calls upon the spirit of her very-much-still-alive mother to give voice to what has already become one of the album's most talked-about tracks.  "These Old Bones," a song that came to Dolly in a dream, is the story of an old mountain woman with psychic abilities, reunited with a daughter taken from her as a child.  And though most listeners will not have a hard time recognizing the old woman's craggy voice as Dolly's own, she says her family has heard her put on the voice for years, imitating her mother.
      "That's exactly the way my mother sounds," Dolly says.  "I do it for fun, for my brothers and sisters and my nieces and nephews, and they just roll!  The song just came to me, this story, and I was in the middle of it, and I wasn't thinking about doing it with the old woman's voice, I was just sitting there writing, and I just started doing it, [sings in the old woman's voice], 'These old bones will tell you...'  I thought, 'Oh my god, this is great!  I can do the old woman and I can sing with her as the daughter, and it'll be like me and Mama!'"
      Although she had no problem "channeling Mama" Dolly recalls that recreating the voice in the studio was a bit more of a challenge.
      "I got really into it.  I took it really seriously in the studio.  I said to the engineer, 'Just think of it as I'm playing a part.  Just turn the lights down and let me do it, and it's not to be laughed at.  I'm dead serious about this.'  But it was tricky for me to record, I said, 'Turn the lights down.  I don't want you looking at me, because I've got to become the old woman.'  I did her part [separately], then I did mine, because I wanted to really get into her.  That was some fine acting!"  Dolly does admit that the experiment, thought successful was "really pretty bizarre.  If my mother had been dead, it would have bothered me.  But now that I've already introduced it while Mama's still alive and healthy, I can always do it."  She's already written new songs with the character in mind, and may include one song incorporating her on each of her albums from now on.
      Setting the pattern with her last two records of refashioning rock 'n' roll songs in true Dolly style, she "borrows" what is quite possibly the most famous rock song of all time, Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven," and turns it into a sweeping gospel anthem.
      "I love that song, and that melody's so beautiful for my voice," she says.  "It lends itself to those three-part harmonies I love to do with myself."
      Although she agrees that even the song's writers probably don't exactly know the song's true meaning, Dolly offers her take on it.
      "I always thought it had something to do with God.  But I had heard, a long time ago when they wrote it, that it was about the Queen of England.  'There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold...'  [It reflects] the attitude the English had about the Queen.  "If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed/It's just a spring clean for the May Queen.'  Well, all those fences are made out of hedges, and they trim and clean all that stuff up for the big May Day stuff that's sponsored by the Queen.  But, I also thought 'If there's a bustle in your hedgerow' means if there's a problem in your head, don't be alarmed.  God's just trying to clean some stuff up.  So to me it had two or three meanings.  I didn't know what it really was about, except that I felt a spiritual thing about someone that believed in something more than money, something greater than we are."
      Although she wasn't aware of the satanic reference that's supposedly revealed when the song is played on a turntable in reverse, when pointed out to her, Dolly quips, "I certainly fixed that!  I exorcised that song, I put God all over it!"  The song's writers, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, after hearing her version, gave Dolly their seal of approval.
      "We didn't hear back fora long time and I was real scared they were not gonna let me do it!'" she recalls.  "Then later we got the message back that they liked it.  They'd been out of town, and they just hadn't heard it.  Robert Plant was really thrilled that I used the choir because he said when he wrote it he always thought of it as a gospel...a spiritual song.  So he was thrilled that I'd used the choir.  I was really nervous.  You would be—that's the classic of all time.  It came from a spiritual place in my heart and in my head, and I performed it in a great spirit when I recorded it.  I was in a 'God' place."
      Dolly was also in that "God place" when she resurrected another song she's "carried around" for more than three decades.  "John Daniel" is a clap-your-hands-and-raise-the-roof gospel number featuring Dollywood's resident gospel quartet, the Kingdom Heirs.
      Though she didn't venture far from home to put this album together, Dolly is headed out on her first full-fledged concert tour in years.  While mid- to late-summer shows will focus on songs from her three most recent albums, shows later in the year and thereafter will likely incorporate more of the songs that fans would expect at a career-spanning Dolly show.  And even though she's covered Led Zeppelin, don't expect an elaborate spectacle of lights and lasers.  Befitting the acoustic nature of these songs, Dolly vows to "keep it simple."
      She's also keeping a body count.  Aware that she's written and recorded her fair share of songs, that end in the death of one or more main characters, Dolly's been debating which downbeat songs to include, and which to leave out.
      "If I do 'Mountain Angel,' she says, "I've got one dead baby.  How many babies can I kill in one show?  I was thinking about doing 'Me and Little Andy,' but then [I'd have] two dead babies and a dead dog!"
      No matter what she decides, the shows no doubt will reflect Dolly's long-held personal philosophy, which she also used to reassure herself upon the release of Halos and Horns.
      "I tell myself I did my best, it is what it is and I hope they like it.  And then I go on to the next one."