Dolly Parton
August 16, 2002
Parton revels in writing
The singer's latest disc shows off a new side

A few decades ago, somewhere between her countrypolitan hit "9 to 5" and the opening of her Dollywood theme park, Dolly Parton became a cartoon.  She was the little mountain gal with the bombshell figure, the mountains of hair, the talon-like nails and a twang thicker than molasses.  She was never the "Dumb Blonde," the title of her first hit, but she became a pretty good self-parody.

Her hillbilly-diva shtick obscured her more substantive talents:  She's a mountain-soul singer and songwriter of astonishing depth and enduring legend.  Her tunes have been widely covered by two generations of performers, including non-country artists as diverse as the White Stripes, who frequently perform her "Jolene," and Whitney Houston, who made Parton $6 million richer by covering her "I Will Always Love You" on "The Bodyguard" soundtrack.

"I take more pride in my songwriting than anything else," says Parton, whose first tour in a decade brings her to the House of Blues for a sold-out show Saturday.  "If I could do but one thing in show business, it would be to write songs.  I love to sing and perform, but I get more personal satisfaction by leaving something in the world that wasn't there the day before."

After a couple of decades of catering to the whims of mainstream country radio, she got back on track in 1999 with the bluegrass album "The Grass is Green."  It was the work of a woman with nothing to lose, and a return to the sound that produced such classics as "Coat of Many Colors'—in which Parton skirted self-pity and nostalgia with deep feeling and a dogged sense of self-determination.  She followed it with two more acclaimed acoustic releases, "Little Sparrow" (2000) and the recent "Halos and Horns" (Sugar Hill); she both presaged and benefited from the mountain-soul revival stirred by the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack last year.

"It was one of those funny cult films like 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show,' " Parton says.  "But it got people to pay attention to the soundtrack, which is phenomenal."

Parton knows a thing or three about attracting attention.  On "Halos and Horns," she takes on one of the most widely known rock songs of the last 30 years, Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," and turns it into a bluegrass ballad, even adding a verse of her own.

"I always loved the song, but everybody said I shouldn't do it," she says.  "Even my husband, Carl, who is a big Led Zeppelin fan, looked at me like I was crazy.  Then he listened and said, 'You're probably the only person who could have gotten away with that.'  He still hasn't told me whether he likes it or not.  But I always thought that 'Stairway to Heaven' would fit my voice well, with those long chords and that old-world, Celtic sound."

She was validated when Zep's Robert Plant and Jimmy Page messaged her with congratulations.  "Robert said he liked that I used a choir on the song, because he always heard it as kind of a spiritual thing," Parton says.

Even more provocative is her "Hello God," a post-Sept. 11 song that digs far deeper lyrically than recent country anthems such as Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" and Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue."

"I actually wrote some patriotic songs myself during that time, but I figured everyone else would too," Parton says.  "My song was more directed to God, and not Sept. 11 specifically, and how we've been given free will and free choice, and how some of our choices bring some of this stuff on us.  It also talks about how we don't turn to God until we need him.  We take him for granted.  And, sometimes he takes us for granted.  How could God let this happen?  It was the day after, and all these feelings of being unsafe and uneasy were stirred up, and I wanted to write a song that expressed how small we are in comparison to the greatness of all things."

Too bad the song tries too hard to sell itself; in contrast to the mostly stripped-down arrangements of her recent albums, "Hello God" drowns in the epic sentimentality of a backing chorus that belongs on one of her overbaked '80s singles.  For Parton, once the queen of Nashville excess, some habits apparently die hard.  Yet even her schmaltz comes with a dose of bravado.

"I've had people say to me that some of us are cashing in by expressing themselves about Sept. 11," she says.  "But if we don't express ourselves, who will?  I think it's the duty of artists, writers and poets to express themselves about events like this.  This is still America, ain't it?  Even though we are a little weak and wobbly right now in an emotional sense, we still have our freedom of speech.  The terrorists haven't taken that away from us yet."