Dolly Parton
December 27, 2002
Down home with Dolly Parton
By Jeremy Rush

      Dolly Parton is one of the most recognizable entertainers in the world, especially in country music.  While her larger-than-life image and down-home persona are immediately identifiable, Parton's real genius lies in her considerable artistic strengths as a vocalist and songwriter.
      Over the last four years, she has released two bluegrass albums with some of the best musicians in the business way before traditional music was resurrected by the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack.  On those two critically acclaimed Sugar Hill albums, The Grass Is Blue and Little Sparrow, Parton has created two durable collections of beautifully articulated roots music that showcase her amble artistic strengths.
      Our interview was held in a small house at Parton's private office complex in midtown Nashville.  Once given the OK from her assistant Theresa, I was led through a lush courtyard to a welcoming Parton standing at the screen door waving me in as if we were old friends.  Her hospitality was overwhelming, and she seemed to bounce around from room to room as she took me on a tour.  The Southwestern-styled dwelling is more of a house than an office, with a mirrored dressing and makeup room adjacent to a homey living area and a kitchen.
      At the time of the interview, her new album on Sugar Hill, Halos & Horns, had just been completed, and she was beaming with excitement.  Once settled in, Dolly played me an unmastered work CD on a small boombox as she sat cross-legged on the floor.  At times, while guiding me through the album, her enthusiasm would overtake her and she would belt out a line or even sing along to a chorus.  The new record features her new band, The Blue-Niques, and a slew of original compositions, as well as two classic covers:  Bread's "If" and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven."
      Whether they are conscious of it or not, artists who endure always offer a tangible personality that people can relate to.  Parton's ability to translate her experiences growing up in the East Tennessee mountains have connected with millions of devoted listeners over the years.  As readers will see in the following interview, Parton is a fearless person who abides by the belief that one should be connected to emotional and spiritual truth-telling instinct.  She wants her fans to laugh and cry with her.  She's also a woman who demands passion and intelligently guides her own career the only way she sees fit her own way.
      As a result, Parton has spent years contributing enormous amounts of time and capital investing in the well-being and development of those in need around her.  In a music business that's become more image and presentation over art and heart, an individual voice like Parton's is priceless.

      Goldmine:  First off, thanks for having us over to do this interview.  This is nice little set-up with your office and this house.
      I fixed this little house up when I bought the place next door.  It's worked out just great, so we could bring people like you over here to do interviews.  Do you want some breakfast?

      No, thank you.
      I can make you some toast and eggs, if you need it.

      No, I appreciate it.  I'm fine thank you.
      Did you get a chance to hear an advance of the album yet?

      No.  Not yet.
      Oh, you haven't?  Well, that's a shame.  I got just my work tape, but I'll be happy to play it for you.

      [We take time out to listen to Halos & Horns, being played out of a boombox.]

      How did the new album, Halos & Horns, evolve?
      I went to East Tennessee to try and find as many musicians back home as I could.  I had written a bunch of this stuff at my Tennessee Mountain Home, which is my old place that I bought years ago and fixed up like a retreat.  I go there and write all the time.  Gary Davis, who helped me pull all of this together, put the band together too.
      All the people on this album are part of my new band they're called The Blue-Niques.  Unique bluegrass is why I picked the name.
      Originally I thought, "What a great way for me to audition these musicians."  I was really just trying to find a band.  I thought, "I'm just going to go in and demo these songs through my publishing company and just pay for this and find a good studio up home."  Well, we got in there and they just all sounded great from the start.  It was a great studio Southern Sounds Studio in Knoxville.  Danny Brown, he's the engineer and he's one of the owners of the studio, did a whole bunch of songs 25 over the course of several weeks.
      While we were doing this, I told Steve Buckingham, who's my friend and my producer and coproducer for 12 or 13 years now, "This stuff is turning out really good.  It sounds like it could be a record."  He said, "Well just go on with it.  Just let what happens happen."  So I did.
      Steve was real proud of this and supportive.  I didn't want anybody thinking that me and Steve had any problems because he's been really behind me all the way with this.  He said, "This is great as an artist for you writing all these songs and for people to know that you can do it all.  Because you do anyway."  I missed working with him on it, but I was so excited about my new band.

      "Halos & Horns" is the album's title track and also the album's opener.  It really seems to set an uplifting, spiritual tone that resonates throughout the record.
      That song is just about how we try to do good and we fall down and make our mistakes and ask God to forgive us and take off our horns and put on our halos again for a while.  Then we slip and we slide just the same old thing like we always do.  I really like it.
      I tried to expand on this album like we have the last two because I don't ever want to get pigeonholed, or "Pidgeon Forged" I should say, into people thinking I'm just going to do one thing.  I thought the whole title of Halos & Horns fit what I was doing because of the last two albums.  The first one [The Grass Is Blue] was bluegrass.  The second one [Little Sparrow] added a little more mountain music and a little bit of Irish flavor.  In this one, I wanted to add a little more gospel along with some harder country-type things like the old days of country.  But it's just solid, more bluegrass country.  And, yes, I wrote all the songs on this except "If," the David Gates song, and "Stairway To Heaven," which I did in a very unusual way.

      When I first heard that you were doing "Stairway To Heaven," I thought, "That's a bold choice."  But from just hearing your version just now, it is very clear that you made it your own song.
      Well, they'll either love my version of "Stairway" or they'll hate me for it.  I just love the song.  I just interpreted it my way.  I was trying to make my part come out of my soul too, you know to Dolly-ize it.  I always thought it sounded like a spiritual song, and that's why I wanted to put the choir on it and do it a little different.  In fact, [Led Zeppelin's] Robert Plant said that he had always thought of this as a spiritual song, and he was thrilled that I had put the choir on it 'cause he had always heard it like that.  Everybody said, "You can't do that.  That's a classic."  I said, "I know it's a classic, but nobody's ever done it.  Everybody's afraid to do it, and these people wrote this great song."  But, I really felt it.  I really got into the spirit of the song.  But, it just goes to show you, a good song can be done any way if you really mean it.

      I've always loved the group Bread, and "If" is a great song.  There's a certain element of sweetness in that song that seems to be missing in a lot of current popular music.
      I agree.  I thought they were so great.  I was just thrilled to get to do this.  I did "If" uptempo sort of like how Ray Stevens did with "Misty."  It also kind of reminds me of the [Harry] Nilsson song "Everybody's Talkin'."  It's kind of got that rolling feel.  When you get a song like "If" that has touched the lives of so many people, you have to handle it with delicate care.  You just don't go and put anything on it.  You think, "What can I do with this great song that will not be a gimmick but make it my own and still make it something a little bit different?"
      But anyhow, there are a lot of songs on the album.  There are some gospel things one is talking about swimming naked in a pond and the next one is like, "Hello, God, are you out there?"  [laughs]  It's really just life stories.  It goes from heartache to heaven, spirituality to sexuality.  [laughs]

      It's all part of creation.
      Yeah, it's true.  That's how I look at life.  See, I take this stuff so seriously.  These things are sacred to me.  When I decided I was going to do "Stairway To Heaven," I truly felt like I was walking on sacred ground.  But you still have to take a chance.  If you don't take some chances, what are you going to do that's quality?

      One thing that has always marked my perception of your career and your persona has been this certain devotion to fearlessness.
      Well, I'm not afraid to do things.  Of course, we're all full of different kinds of fear for different kinds of reasons, but I have never been afraid of myself.  My desire to do things was always greater than my fear of it.  I'm a singer.  I'm a writer.  I'm a person that's just out in this world to have as much fun as I can and put as much into the world as I can and get as much out of it.  If I make five mistakes and do one great thing, well I'm not going to worry about the five mistakes I made.  I'm going to waller in the glory of the one great thing I did in hopes that it brought some joy to somebody else.

      You didn't tour behind your previous two albums.
      No.  We couldn't.  Jerry Douglas and all them, The Blue Boys I call them, they are all such big stars that we never could pull it together where we could tour.  They were all committed to do stuff.  Jerry's with Alison [Krauss], and most of them have their own groups.  But me and The Blue-Niques are going to be doing some concerts.  We are going to go out there and promote this and see how it feels out there.  If it feels good, I'm going to do some touring.  Not a lot not like I used to.  I'm 56 years old, and I've been doing this since I was a kid.  I'm like up there.

      You would never know by the way you plunked yourself down on the floor when we were listening to the album.  I don't think I could sit down like that, and I'm in my mid-20s.
      Well that's because you got legs.  I got no legs.  [laughs]

      It was almost like a lotus position.  I was going, "I bet she's done some kind of yoga."
      No.  If there's any yoga being done around here, it's in my head.  I'm a very flexible person.  I'm small, and I'm very energetic.  My husband just gets floored sometimes.  I'll be painting my toenails and I'll be standing in the kitchen and I'll have my leg completely up on the sink and he'll say, "I can't f-ing believe that you're standing there with your leg hiked up like that.  That would break my back!"  And I say, "Well I ain't big enough it ain't that far."  But I'm just a little person.  I'm not very physical.  I'm basically lazy when it comes to that.  But my mind is always so open.  I never age because I never have time.  I don't think about the fact that I'm supposed to be getting older.  It's like, "I don't see why, your Honor."  So I guess if my mind ain't old, my body ain't either.

      That's a good way of looking at it.
      Well, the good thing is, if I live a long time and I think I might, I'll always sing.  My voice ain't going at all.  I can sing as good as I did If I ever could.  I would imagine that, people like me, what they call semi-legends or legends, will be singing from now on like Mother Maybelle.  So I'll be doing records from now on, and I'm going to do a lot of surprises through the years.  I've got some big thoughts in mind.  I'm just trying to get my foot planted solid onto something to know that people will accept it.
      Nobody plays artists like me on country radio anymore, because they assume that people my age are over.  But artists like me hopefully never are.  Because I've lived so many lifetimes and I grew up and spent most of my young life with no electricity or nothing.  To come from that, back there in the mountains to this high-tech world where now I'm doing CDs and stuff I don't even understand.  By the time I was 10 years old, I was on the radio and television, and we didn't have either one.  We didn't even have electricity.  But I've lived that life, and its just in my psyche.  That's just my Smokey Mountain DNA, and these kind of songs and these kind of feelings and this kind of own hurt as well as the hurts that you take on of your family and the people that you know and real to me.  And when I open my mouth, you know it's real if I'm singing about that kind of stuff.  Once I start to sing, it just gets in me.  That kind of music just hollers at me all the time and says, "You get back in here.  This is what you do.  This is what you do best."
      I want everything to be real from now on.  I'm not trying to be commercial.  I want everything to have heart and soul.  I have had to be commercial through the years, and I don't regret anything I've ever done because it's took all of that to make me who I am.
      You know, music is the voice of the soul, but there's just a thing that comes out of certain voices and certain people.  You don't know what it is you're feeling, but it stirs you.  People have not been stirred emotionally in so long.  We just get too comfortable, and a thing like Sept. 11 happens and jolts you back into reality.  That whole event really just shook everybody's confidence.  You just saw how little life is and how fragile and small and fearful we all are.  You just realize that there must be something greater than you, otherwise you'd totally fall apart.
      Think about all those people in other countries.  There are whole cities that are torn down, and hundreds of thousands of people die all the time.  It makes you really think about your own life and the things you take for granted and what you could do to make your own life as well as the lives of other people around you a little better.

      I would imagine that "Hello God," which is off your new album, is meant to be a rather poignant reflection of the current times.
      Yes, it is, as a matter of fact.  I wrote several songs after Sept. 11, like we all did.  Everybody just lives their own life and then, when you get in trouble, you think, "Oh, God, help me now."  This idea just came to me and it just started rolling out and I just wrote that song in no time.  But it was very inspired.  I have very strong feelings about that song.
      I do have a lot of faith in God, as I perceive him.  Everybody thinks of God as a different thing.  To me, God is that greater, higher energy that greater, wiser wisdom.  It's that thing in all of us that we have to draw from.  I've always trusted God and trusted myself.  It's like, if I got those two things, faith in God and faith in myself, which to me are intertwined, I'm fine.
      I just always kind of drug from that God thing.  My grandpa was a preacher, and I believed that through God I could do everything.  That's still where I get my strength, and that's why so many of my songs have an inspirational feeling.  It's not just me giving it back to God, it's me trying to give it to other people.  To give from God, through me, to somebody else that might not have that kind of confidence.  So, it works, and it's fun for me.  It enriches my life.  Hopefully, I can enlighten and enrich somebody else in whatever way I might.  If nothing else, just for somebody to say, "Well, she had the balls to do that?  Well, I got the balls to listen!"  And at least not crucify me.  And so what?  What are they going to do kick my ass?

      Well you've managed, somehow or another, to protect yourself enough to be able to stay in touch with what you really feel.
      Yeah, that's because money don't mean anything to me.  I love having money and what money can do, but money has never been the thing that motivated me.  It was always the art.  I always figured, if I did well with my music, that the money would always come.  It always has.  The fact that I never wanted money meant that it was always there.  I just always assumed I'd have money.  When I was poor, I figured I couldn't get no poorer.
      If somebody said, "You're going to have to do one or the other.  You're going to have to give up your music or you're going to go back to being poor," I would go poor, totally broke, and start over again and do my music.  That's how much I love it.  They say a rich man can't sing the blues, but I don't think that's true.  I think if you stay true to your roots and home is always in your heart and in your head, you'll succeed.  Don't dwell on just the material things.  I know this sounds like a joke because I look like the phoniest person in the world when you look at me.  But a lot of my look came out of a little country girl's idea of what glamour should be.  Then it got to be comfortable, and I liked it, just like how people like to dress up.  I always wanted to be pretty and look good, but just poor ragged-ass-looking kids you look the way you look.  You do with what you have and you always think, "Well, when I get money I'll have this and I'll have that."  And it didn't buy me any class.  [laughs]
      But I like looking the way I look, and I'm comfortable with who I am.  I like looking like trash, but I know in my heart that I'm not.  I am so much inside to just have a plain surface.  I feel so many things and my heart and soul is so real.  Just to be a plain old person on the outside just don't get it for me.  Like Minnie Pearl used to say, "Any old barn looks better with a little red paint on it."  That's sort of how I feel.  People always say, "Less is more," but I say, "Oh, that's bullshit!  More is more and I can't get enough of more."  Everybody's different, and I understand what they're saying, but I just love stuff.  I love playing in paints and crayons and I love the way things feel on my body.  I dress up even when I'm by myself.  I can't stand to walk around slouchy all day.  Everybody's comfort is their own, and that all depends.  But to me I'm more comfortable when I got on makeup and look the way I want to look.  I've always said that if I hadn't have been a woman then I damn sure would've been a drag queen.  That may be a funny thing to say, but I mean that in all sincerity.  Yeah.  I love it.

      It is amazing how hard it is for many of us to express our uniqueness.
      It's awful how some people have crippled so many wonderful people who would have been so many things, but they had to spend all their time worrying about how to get by because of somebody else's perception of them.  I just think that's terrible.  Those crippling people are truly unhappy, because they live in a real shaded world.  People that aren't willing to open their heart or minds to anything other than what they understand and know...I think those people are missing out on everything, really.  That's why it's a great thing to be able to write songs too.  I like to write for everybody else, and I write a lot of songs about being somebody or being yourself.  Be who you are, have confidence.  It's about your attitude.  I write a lot of stuff like that.  I've often said, "People don't come to see me be me, they come to see me be them."  I have written something that they relate to.  I'm going to sing something and make them feel something.  I'm up there doing something that they might have wanted to do, and whether they wanted to do that or not, they can sense that freedom.  People appreciate it.  Especially those closed people that don't get to have that self-expression from either a husband, a parent or a wife.

      Or themselves.
      Or themselves.  You're right.  But they love it when somebody can just not have fear about who they are.  Sometimes things pop out of my mouth that almost scare me, and I think, "Oh my, you ought to keep your big mouth shut!"  I'm like an innocent child in that respect.  I think, "Why can't I say what's on my mind?  Why can't I say that, if that's what I think?"  Of course, they say it's better to choose what you say than to say what you choose.  But, I still think that there's a certain honesty in saying what you choose.

      The movie Nine To Five is a good example of standing up and saying what you choose.
      That little movie has become like a classic, but at that time, that's when women were speaking out for their rights.  But I just did it because Jane Fonda called me and told me what it was about and asked me if I was interested in doing it.  I thought, "Well I'm going to be in a movie with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.  If it's a hit, I can take credit, and if it's a flop then it's their fault.  [laughs]  It's not like they're going to go punish me.  They don't even know who I am."  I thought it was a good subject matter.  I wouldn't have done it had I not believed in what I was doing.  I'd been asked to do stuff before, but that was the first movie I did.  Now Jane had heard that I was a pretty big country artist at the time and people seemed to like me, and she heard different people talking about me.  Her statement to somebody was, "Dolly will get us the South."  I thought, "Well, Dolly might just get you some North and East too!"  [laughs]  I was like, "What the hell does that mean?"  Really, I knew what she meant.  She meant the country people, country music the "South" I guess.  But boy, I never let her forget that.  I said, "Little did you know that I was going to get some of the others too."  Of course that was her business way of thinking and that's what she meant, and that was fine.  She was right.  She was right in picking a country person.

      It's like picking a candidate.
      Exactly.  Get her, she's got a good personality and she's got big tits and big hair and people like her she's a "character."  I just always thought if something comes to me that feels right, I'll do it.  The worst that can happen is it won't be successful.  I've tried lots of things that didn't work out.  But If I felt really strong about something, I'll take the idea and put it on the back burner.  That way I can pull from it later on.  A good idea is like a good song It's always good.  It's just the timing may not be right.  Either the people that you're with at the time may not see what you see or there are too many egos involved.  Some of my best stuff is things I've done years and years ago.  A good example is "I Will Always Love You."  Look at what that song has done, and I wrote that song in '71 or '72.

      What inspired that?
      I wrote that song about my relationship with Porter Wagoner, the guy I used to sing with.  We had been together for seven years, and we were really big as a duet.  When I started with Porter I said that I would stay five years, because I wasn't looking to be part of anyone else's show.  I wanted to have my own band and I wanted to be my own show.  But he didn't want me to go.  Porter was very stubborn and very set in his ways, and rightfully so it was his show.  We fought all the time anyway especially about my songs, because I'd write them and he'd produce them.  I had to try so hard to get my ideas in there.  It was kind of like one of those love/hate relationships.  I was afraid of Porter.  He was very powerful, and he used that too.  He scared the shit out of me all the time.

      It's codependent after a while.
      Yeah, I couldn't handle it anymore.  Both my personal life and my emotional and creative self I just wasn't being everything I knew I should be.  But anyway, Porter would just not listen to me.  I said, "Let me get some other producers and some outside management and I'll work within the show."  That wouldn't do it.  He wasn't going to allow nobody to do nothing but him.  After so much time, I was like, "I got to go."  He was terrible upset about it, so he sued me for a million dollars and took every dime I had.  Luckily, my husband was smart with money, so we had saved up enough to get by.  Later he said he was sorry about it, and that's OK.  It was worth it to me if that's what I had to do.  But anyhow, I was really heartbroken and sick of just trying to figure out how to make the move easy because I wasn't out to hurt anybody.  It wasn't that I didn't appreciate him, it's just that I had to go on.  He was never going to listen to a word I have to say.  He wouldn't even talk without screaming at me or jumping down my throat every time I open my mouth.  So, one night, I wrote this song:  "If I should stay, truly I'd just be in your way"...and he definitely was in mine at that time.  "So I'll go but I know I'll think of you each step of the way/and I'll always appreciate you/and I'll always love you/and I hope life treats you kind.  I hope you have all you ever dreamed of/Bittersweet memories, that's all I'm taking with me/Goodbye, don't cry because we both know I'm not what you need."
      It was one of those relationships that had just got so twisted around your heart and soul and your creativity and work.  It was a big mess to where you couldn't move one way without it affecting something else.  It was hard.  So that song came from a very very real and sincere place of trying to be kind.  I just took it in to him one day and said, "If you ain't going to listen to me talk, will you listen to this song?"  And I sang him the song.  And he loved the song of course he wanted to produce it.  So I let him.  But it was still my leaving song.  That song is like 30-something years ago.  I had a hit on it in '72 I think.  Every 10 years since I wrote it, it's been #1.  I'm the first artist that's ever had a #1 song on the same song twice.  I had one in '72 with it when it first came out and in '82 when I did The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas.

      Was it re-recorded for that?
      Yeah, I re-recorded it and it became #1 again.  Then me and Vince [Gill] had a Top 10 record.  And then Whitney [Houston].  Now I've got to do it bluegrass.  We do a bluegrass, up-tempo version of it as a playoff at the end of my show.  It works really good.

      Dollywood is one of the most successful theme parks in the country.  What inspired that project?
      It came from me just wanting to do something to make my people proud of me.  I just thought it would be great to have something to leave for my family.  You know, you always want your people to be proud of you.  I need to have something up home.  People don't know it, but the Smokey Mountains is the most visited national park in the United States.  We get 10 million people through there a year.  We got almost three million people through Dollywood last year, and we're only open six full months.  But it's really provided a lot of jobs for the area.  It's not only helped me, but it's also helped a lot of people.

      Dollywood has also done a considerable amount of charity work, too.
      Yeah.  We have a huge thing that the United Way is in on now.  It's all over the country we're actually going to be worldwide later but it's the Imagination library.  For years now, we've given scholarships to people and helped kids with their medical needs and their school needs and still do.  We even have a hotline for kids.  We also decided we should help the little kids when they are most susceptible.  So every kid in Sevier County [Tenn.] gets a book a month from the day it's born until the day it starts kindergarten.  We give out thousands and thousands of books all over the country now.  They call me The Book Lady.  It's important to me because my dad couldn't read or write, and many of my relatives didn't get an education.  So not only is Dollywood a theme park, but it also does a lot of good things and a lot of stuff comes out of that.
      These days, I'm having to speak to all these educators and all these teachers and I hated school.  I've done more homework in the last five years than I did in 12 years, just working on these projects.  But anyways, somebody said, "Well, now that you're The Book Lady and you're involved with these kids and this education, are you going to tone down your look?"  And I said, "Why should I?  It was all of that that made all of this that put me in this position.  Don't you get it?"  I might look like a phony to you now, but if I start changing things, then I would really be a phony.  This is who I am.  I see no reason to think that I have to look like a school teacher.  I'd rather look like a whore.  I'm getting the same job done.  It doesn't matter.  But people are funny about changing.  Like I say, no matter how phony I look or how much shit I've done that people would criticize, I know that when I get into that God place and I start to sing a certain kind of song, whether it's a gospel or a mountain song, there are just certain things that I mean to tell just does everything inside of me.  That's why it comes out like that.  I ain't making no money doing this kind of stuff.  Bluegrass and mountain music ain't never made no money.  It's like I said before, I had to get rich in able to sing like I was poor again.  I just open my mouth and thank God I can deliver.