Dolly Parton
Dallas Morning News
July 27, 2002
Dolly reigns from bluegrass to Led Zeppelin
By Mario Tarradell

Country music legend Dolly Parton is a fearless artist.  For more than 35 years, she has tackled everything from old-timey country to its contemporary counterpart.  She's gone pop, done movies, tried disco and even veered into bluegrass for a pair of critically acclaimed albums.  But the queen of big hair, high heels and shiny sequins does have her limit.  When asked whether she will perform her gospel-tinged cover of Led Zeppelin's rock classic "Stairway to Heaven" during her current tour, you can hear the reluctant quiver in her mountain voice.

"Oh, no, not now," she says from Nashville.  "I want to know what they think about it first.  If they don't like it, I don't want people to throw tomatoes at me.  I don't want to ruin my stage clothes."

Fat chance that'll happen.  The pride of Sevier County, Tenn., remains one of the most loved and respected country artists.  Which makes her artistic and commercial comeback extra sweet.  She's on a roll:  The just-released Halos & Horns is her third stunning album in three years.  It follows 1999's Grammy-winning The Grass Is Blue and its 2001 follow-up, Little Sparrow.

With each album, Ms. Parton has upped the ante.  Each successive record is better than the last.  And each new one has sold better than its predecessor.  Halos & Horns recently entered Billboard's country albums chart at No. 4 and the pop list at No. 58, positions that reflect her best sales numbers in seven years.

So earlier this month Ms. Parton embarked on her first full-fledged tour in a decade.  She's headlining a mere 13 shows in intimate auditoriums, clubs and theaters in cities such as Nashville, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Boston and Dallas.  Her performance Saturday night at the Granada Theater, which is sold out, is her sole Texas date.

But in her typically casual manner, she downplays the long break from the concert circuit.

"We just get thousands of calls a day, 'When are you going on tour?'  And I thought, 'You know what?  If people really want to see me, I think I will see if I like it again.'  I wasn't really doing much, because I'm not getting any big offers for movies and I've got my business things all in order.  I will be curious to see if people like it."

If the critical response to Halos & Horns is any indication, her tour will be an artful triumph.  The album, her first self-produced effort, is a country masterpiece.  In the space of 14 songs, Ms. Parton comes home again to the mountain music that shaped her.  The record is bluegrass-tinged, but it's not a complete bluegrass opus like The Grass Is Blue and Little Sparrow.

"I thought it was meant for me to capture everything that I've ever been," says the 56-year-old singer-songwriter.

"Some of those songs really sound like old-time real country.  I didn't want to get pigeonholed into bluegrass.  As long as I kept it real I felt people would accept it.  I'm really not a bluegrass singer.  I love bluegrass and I grew up surrounded with it, but my music was more country and more mountain.  I was going for a true bluegrass album with The Grass Is Blue.  But I didn't want to mislead people into thinking I was going totally into bluegrass music."

And yet, Ms. Parton credits the bluegrass genre with re-energizing her career.  That would make her part of the bluegrass resurgence that began with Alison Krauss' 2-million-selling 1995 album, Now That I've Found You: A Collection and continues strong thanks to the 6-million-selling success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

"This is my Smoky Mountain DNA," she exclaims.  "It's just opened me up as a writer.  I've been at this so long, and I felt my recording career was over until I did the bluegrass albums.  I just did them for fun.  But I saw the reaction to singing those real songs.  It's about the realism."

It's also about staying viable in a youth-driven market that no longer appreciates its aging trailblazers.  Ms. Parton isn't about to make disposable pop-country for the masses to compete with model-perfect hit-makers of the day such as Faith Hill, Cyndi Thomson, Jo Dee Messina and Kellie Coffey.  But she along with fellow country queens Emmylou Harris and Reba McEntire is looking and sounding better today than during her mainstream reign.

"It's given me great hope for the future as an older artist," she says.  "Because I still feel like I'm just starting.  I don't ever want to retire."

Few country artists few pop artists, for that matter have had as illustrious and varied a career as Dolly Rebecca Parton.  Soon after graduating from Sevier County High School in 1964, the ambitious and vivacious blonde trekked to Nashville in search of country music stardom.  She signed her first recording contract with Monument Records in 1966; her debut album, Hello, I'm Dolly, was released in 1967.

That same year, she scored her first two hit country singles, "Dumb Blonde" and "Something Fishy."  But it was with RCA Records, where early duet partner Porter Wagoner was making music, that Ms. Parton wrote and recorded her timeless tunes.  Songs such as "Coat of Many Colors," "Jolene," "I Will Always Love You" and "The Bargain Store" quickly established her as a country artist with an honest, almost poetic style for painting pictures about the hardships and joys of being raised poor in the heartland.

Through the years, Ms. Parton's career would take as many twists and turns as the curls in her trademark wigs.  She enjoyed pop crossover renown with staples such as "Here You Come Again," "Two Doors Down," "9 to 5" and "Islands in the Stream," a duet with Kenny Rogers.  Ms. Parton made her movie debut with 1980's 9 to 5, which also starred Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.

Five years later, Ms. Parton, also a shrewd businesswoman, opened the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

In the late '80s and early '90s, with contemporary country albums such as White Limozeen, Eagle When She Flies and Slow Dancing With the Moon, Ms. Parton's recording career rebounded commercially after a few dry years.

But it wasn't until the release of The Grass Is Blue in 1999 that she re-emerged artistically refreshed.  Halos & Horns is quintessential Dolly Parton, an album of songs that showcase the passionate singer, the consummate storyteller and the thoughtful interpreter.  Horns includes two covers, a bluegrass revamping of Bread's '70s pop ballad "If" and the talked-about rendition of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."

Ms. Parton turned it into a powerful, six-minute Southern gospel tune, going so far as to write extra lyrics for Jimmy Page and Robert Plant's rock standard.

"I love the song, and my husband [Carl Dean] loves Led Zeppelin," she says.  "I wondered if there was some way I could do it.  I wrote a few little ad lib lines to make it more like it was about working to get to heaven, to make it lend itself more to gospel.  I put a lot of heart and thought and soul and my own feeling in it.  It's so Led Zeppelin, such a classic.

"It's such a wonderful song and everybody said, 'You can't be serious about doing that.'

"I said, 'Why not?'"