Dolly Parton
Country Music
January/February 1997
Hello Dolly, Again
By Michael Bane

      Times may have changed, but Dolly’s still the same.  Still larger than life, still self-effacing, and still a great country music singer.  No matter how many entertainment worlds she may conquer, Dolly’s singing and songwriting are her passion.  Convincing radio to play her music, however, is another matter indeed.

      You want desperation?
      We got desperation: "I swear, Michael, I am desperate..."
      You want obsession?
      We got obsession: "I can’t stop.  That’s what I mean — I’m so serious..."
      You want angst?
      We got angst: "What can I do?  Somebody tell me — I’d be happy to do it if they’d tell me what they wanted me to do..."
      You want truth?  You want passion?  You want talent?  You want controversy?  Heck, you want lust?
      Hey, we got Dolly, and Dolly is always...Dolly.
      "You know the new country artists?" Dolly is saying.  She’s wearing a miniskirt and a frighteningly low-cut top, leaning over the conference table and gesturing with her hands.  Using a Herculean act of will, I keep my eyes focused rigidly on her blue eyes.  "Well, I think they’re a pretty clean group.  They’re nice; they’re courteous.  I think they love the fans as much as us Old People..." — she pointedly includes me in the "Old People" group — "...You know how everybody used to go to Fan Fair and sit and sign autographs?  Well, the new people do, too.  So I have to honestly say they’re not an arrogant bunch.  And they’re not a bunch of dopers.  But it might be nice if one of them got drunk once in a while."
      Dolly gestures theatrically, her hands in the air.
      So there.
      "And, another thing..."
      The single greatest thing about Dolly Parton is that, no matter how far she might wander, she is incapable of being anyone but Dolly Parton.  Smart, funny, disarmingly honest, as quick and as sharp as a razor, spectacularly talented, all packaged in this incredible Barbie doll body.  She is one of the tiny handful of artists of any sort to reach single-name icon status and is, arguably, one of the most well-known American women in the world.  Say "Dolly" just about anywhere the long tendrils of the media reach, and there’s no question about who you’re referring to.  In a journey far more incredible than any television writers could have concocted, Dolly Parton has made her way from the Smoky Mountains into American Myth, with her honesty and her sense of humor intact.
      So why can’t she get her records played?
      "You want to know how frustrated I am, Michael?" says Dolly, complete with hand gestures.  "You know what I did?  I bought my hometown radio station, WFTV, and now the FM is WDLY.  It’s the smallest station in the world.  Plus, I started my own label, Blue Eye Records.  So, I said, I got my own label now, I got my own radio station.  I can damn sure guarantee I’m going to get some radio play, even if it’s on my own station and on my own label.  That’s having to stretch pretty far, but at least they’ll play me in my home town.  How desperate can you get?  I had to buy my own station and start my own label to get a record played."
      Actually, this interview was supposed to be about Dolly’s new album, Treasures, which is an eclectic collection of Dolly’s favorite songs.  Treasures is, in fact, a brilliant album that reflects Dolly’s wide-ranging musical interests, from the hard country of "Don’t Let Me Cross Over" to her fascination with pop ("Walking On Sunshine") to the whacked 1960’s mysticism of Neil Young’s classic "After The Goldrush."  And, to be fair, Dolly always tries to stay on track.  It’s just that, well, Dolly is Dolly.
      I tell her I like the record.
      "Oh, great, you like these songs because you’re an old codger, too," she begins.  "We remember.  That's one of the reasons I did this record, 'cause I knew the people like me and you remember these great songs, and they'll be brand new to them."
      That's about as close as Dolly gets to Baseline Normal.  She quickly drifts into a Dolly story (which have always seemed to me to come from a slightly alternative universe, maybe Dolly World, where everything was just a tiny bit... skewed).  We're talking about Neil Young's "After The Goldrush" for instance...
      "I loved that song from the day I heard it on Neil's record.  Then that girl a cappella group, Prelude, came out with it.  And I loved it then, and I just remember thinking all of the things I thought it meant-the song was so visual.  And I thought, 'What does that song mean?'  I just thought it meant everything..."

Well I dreamed I saw the silver spaceships flying
In the yellow haze of sun
There were children crying and colors flying
All around the chosen ones
All in a dream
All in a dream
The loading had begun
Flying Mother Nature's silver seed
To a new home in the sun...
      "... And I thought, well, I'll interpret it like the Second Coming, or an invasion of the aliens, or whatever.  And so when I took the song to the Trio project — me, Linda [Ronstadt] and Emmylou [Harris] — and it was one of the songs... we all took our own suggestions and batch of songs.  They both knew the song and had worked with Neil.  So we did cut it, although that Trio album's never going to come out because it died on the vine.  But we did cut the whole album, and then Linda put "Goldrush" in her album right after that, which didn't do anything.  But I just still felt so strong about the song.  And so, anyway, when we were doing the Trio album, I asked Linda and Emmy what it meant, and they didn't know.  So we called Neil Young, and he didn't know.  We asked him, flat out, what it meant, and he said, 'Hell, I don't know.  I just wrote it.  It just depends on what I was taking at the time.  I guess every verse has something different I'd taken.'  So when I did it, I thought, well, if Neil can't interpret it, then I'm just going to make it my own.  So in this version, I put it in the 21st century.  When I said 'something about a king' instead of 'something about a queen,' I thought that could be Jesus and the Second Coming.  And then, at the end, when I talk about the space people, I was thinking that the Mayans always said they'd be coming back in 2011, so I thought, well, the 21st century, that's when something is going to happen.  So I thought, well, I'd put it over in the 21st century.  I don't know.  What do you think the song's about?"
      I confess that as much as I loved "After The Goldrush," I'd never even thought about the Mayans.
      "Well, I do," Dolly starts right back, "because I'm a writer, and I just kept trying to think about what Neil meant.  I just loved the song.  But when I first heard it, you know, when he says, 'I was lying in a burned-out basement,' I just saw the Second World War.  I just saw buildings and burned-out cities — I saw every kind of thing, and I thought, 'What does the song mean?'  I guess it was the acid."
      In Dolly World, this is the equivalent of a "yes" answer.  But in Dolly World, this isn't unusual, either.  There's a rhythm to being around Dolly Parton, as if she has her own gravity field — no jokes here — which pulls you right out of your own orbit and into her larger-than-life world.  Part of that gravity field is Dolly's Southernness, the sense of extended family that those of us born and raised in Tennessee carry with us like the proverbial torch.  Sadly, it's a torch that's flickering badly as the South metamorphs into Everywhere Else, no longer the separate place that it has been for the last, say, 130 years.  I think the secret of that Southernness is not that Southerners are more friendly than people from other areas, but that they are more willing to simply open the door to their lives and let you step in for a few minutes.  Rather than addressing comments directly to you, it's more like you've joined a show already in progress.
      Another compartment of that Southernness is the acceptance of a landscape that's not totally based in objective reality.  The Southern landscape used to be fraught with strangeness — all of us had our "touched" aunts and uncles, graveyards with our personal "haints," strange tales and mythologies that followed us throughout our lives.  The result of this whacked-out landscape is that the South, long considered the most conservative area in the country, is amazingly accepting of eccentricities, whether they're self-destructive or not.  And our chosen way of dealing with this gothic landscape was humor.
      "Well, this is a funny story, Michael," Dolly says.  "I did 'Peace Train' on the album.  I've always loved Cat Stevens, and I always loved that song.  I always intended to record that song someday, and I thought, 'Well, this is a great time, the shape of the world's in.'  So when we were working on the album, I was trying to think of what group would I like to have on this cut.  I wanted something universal, you know.  A choir sound, but different, you know?
      "So I was watching TV, and I saw a Lifesavers commercial — I heard these voices singing, and they had that real quiver, just like my voice, with all that emotion.  That singing reminded me of Cat Stevens' kind of quivery voice, and my own quivery voice with all the vibrato.  So I got up from my chair where I was watching TV, and I called Steve Buckingham, who produced the album.  I said, 'Steve, I don't know who it is, but whoever's singing the Lifesavers commercial, find out tomorrow, because that's who I want on 'Peace Train.'  So he called me back and said, 'You're not going to believe who's singing.'  I said, 'Who?'  'Ladysmith Black Mambazo,' he said.  'You know who that is?' I said, 'Ain't that that group Paul Simon brought over from South Africa?'  Anyhow, that's who we used, and I thought that is perfect, because that's what I wanted — that universal sound.  So anyway, I just thought it fit, and then when they were singing in Zulu, it kind of reminded me of back home when I grew up in the Holy Roller church — people talking in tongues.  I started singing my little part at the end, when they were singing in Zulu...I felt like they were talking in tongues, and I was back in church.  I said, 'Bless them, Lord.  Whatever they're saying, bless them.'"
      Dolly has a story for every song on the Treasures album — "Some people might say one or two are out of character, but I tried to Dollyize 'em all...."  But then, I suspect that Dolly has a story for each and every song she's ever sung or written.  She flickers back and forth between Hollywood icon and starstruck mountain girl, tells of movie flops and breathless trips to the old Ernest Tubb Record Shop in Nashville with the same equitable humor.
      I want to make a couple points clear here.  Most celebrities, whether they're from the music business or movies or even sports, turn their pasts, their personal stories, into commodities, little pieces of eight to be bartered away at the interview table or while the cameras are rolling.  But (and I'm as shocked by this as anybody) it's been exactly 20 years since the first time I sat down at an interview table with Dolly Parton — and that's a lot of Dolly Stories.  I have always had the sense that Dolly tells her stories with such glee and such reverence both because she is a songwriter — and I suspect that songwriters see their story/songs in everything around them — and because it is the only way, the most Southern way, to hold onto pieces of a life that must fly by with numbing speed.
      "We were talking about country music," Dolly says.  "Well, I love it.  I do other things, but that's my roots; it's my soul.  I never go away from country and country music, but I have tried.  But I am glad I have different things to work here and there.  Because, like I said, before I crossed over, when I was being so totally true to country music, I wasn't making a dime.  I couldn't even buy panty hose hardly.  Because I had a bus on the road, and a band, and trying to pay bills, and trying to buy a house, and trying to keep a car, and I was going broke.  People thought I was just rolling in dough, because I was having all these chart records, Number One records, 'Coat Of Many Colors,' 'I Will Always Love You' and 'Jolene.'  You know what?  'I Will Always Love You' sold 100,000 copies, and 'Jolene' sold 60,000 copies.  'Coat Of Many Colors' didn't even sell that.  I was starving.  And I thought, I know I'm better than that.  I know that I'm good enough to make a living at this.  God would want me to make some money.  I thought, what I am going to have to do?  So I thought, I'm going to broaden my appeal.  I'm going to have to cross over — try to get into bigger television, stuff like that.  I made that choice, Michael, and I got crucified — as you remember — at the time.  People thought I'd made a major mistake.  But if I hadn't of done that, I wouldn't have any money now.  Because I've done the other stuff... if I hadn't of made that move then, I wouldn't have the money now.  Because I certainly wouldn't be making enough on country radio and in country music to make a living now, would I?  'Cause I ain't had no hits."
      This single fact gnaws away at Dolly Parton, because, at her very heart, she is a singer and songwriter — remember, "I Will Always Love You," a modest country hit for Dolly, became the single best-selling pop song in history for Whitney Houston.  And Dolly acknowledges that her song catalog is amazingly lucrative.  (No doubt in the first years AW, After Whitney, most of the women singers in Los Angeles were probably mining the substantial Dolly Archives).  It's not about money; believe me, if you happen to write the best-selling pop song of all time, you're not going to have to worry about where the next bologna and cheese sandwich is coming from.  But what she wants — after the movies, after the television shows, after pop stardom, after gossip mags, plastic surgery, Beverly Hills, Dollywood, whatever — is a hit country record.
      "I can't stop writing songs.  That's what I mean — I am so serious," Dolly says.  "If people really knew how serious I was about my music...I do still write like I'm hungry; I still sing like I'm hungry; and I am hungry.  I'm hungry for that part of the business that is so totally me, which is the music.  It was my songs, and my singing, that brought me out of the Smokey Mountains, that really built the bridge into all of the other worlds that I've been in and live in.  It was all built with songs.  It was all built with the songs I write.  As long as I'm living, I will always wish that I could write and sing and have it accepted — and have it played somewhere.  But it is frustrating.  You don't know hardly what to do.  But like I said, it's not the money I need now, because I'm making a living doing other stuff.  I've made more money doing outside things than I do with my music, which is unfortunate.  Like I said, it's still the music that built the bridges, but...I'm still hungry, you know?"
      She shakes her head in disgust.
      "I swear, Michael, I've tried everything," she says.  "I even tried hanging onto the coattails of Billy Ray Cyrus, Tanya Tucker and Pam Tillis.  Hell, I've tried everything to get a record played on the radio, and I just can't hardly do it.  But I knew what I was doing.  At least I fessed up to it, and said what I was doing.  I kept thinking, maybe that'll do it.  That didn't do it either.  So I don't know what to do."
      The Treasures album?
      "Because it's something I feel like doing," she says.  "These are great songs.  It's a good time to do it, because, chances are, radio is not going to play any new and original things I'm doing.  They didn't play the last two albums.  People are excited about the new record here.  And I think it's a really good album.  I think it's done really well.  I just hope my performance is good enough to be played, but we'll just have to see."
      In the meanwhile, her new television series is grinding toward completion.  She first mentioned it to me almost three years ago.  The series, which is based on a song Dolly wrote called "Minding My Own Business," will debut in January, after a Christmas television movie titled Unlikely Angel, which follows a television special on the making of the Treasures album.  The woman does know how to work.
      "The series had to be right," she says.  "Because you've got to feel that the show is right before you go on, because I had that big ole flop with that variety show.  I didn't want to go on again without being a little better prepared.  At least, I'll be able to handle it a little better if this one goes down the tubes, because I'll know with all this preparation, if don't work...well, we gave it a shot.  It's cute; it's fun; we'll see how it goes."
      But about songwriting, Dolly begins again.  In addition to knowing how to work, she also knows how to be persistent.
      "It's like, what do I have to do?" she says.  "What can I do?  Somebody tell me — I'd be happy to do it, if they'd tell me what they wanted me to do...I mean, I write all the time.  It's like, I see it, I feel it, and it's like, oh, please, let me do what I do best, and accept it.  Maybe one of these days I'll just say to hell with trying to be commercial, to hell with trying to see whether the songs are going to get played.  Just do whatcha you do...Go do your TV shows, go do your movies, go do your stuff.  And write, and write, and write, and put it down.  And when you think it's right, put it out whatever it is.
      "But at least they'll play me in my hometown."