Dolly Parton
New Country
November 10, 1996
Here She Comes Again!
By Sue Cummings

      It's not hard to imagine Dolly Parton working a high-stakes poker game, bidding a tableful of men into bankruptcy with a sweet country smile.  That legendary ample figure would distract her opponents while she raised their bets, and when she walked away with the winnings, she might write a song about how Lady Luck favors girls, maybe as an answer to Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler."  Parton knows a lot about fortune and strategy — she's played her looks, wits and talent into a career lasting more than 30 years, making her country music's most internationally famous star and one of the richest people in Nashville.  A singer-songwriter with 65 albums to her name, she also moonlights as an actress, runs a TV production company, and lends her name to a theme park, Dollywood, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
      A round of interviews is in the cards for Parton today, a rare occasion.  Though accessible to fans, she normally avoids speaking to the press at any length.  But, with a handful of forthcoming projects to promote, Parton has ensconced herself in the Nashville office of her new record label, Rising Tide.  Her blond hair is fluffed and feathered into a glamorous 'do, her bustline poured into a low-cut lavender chamois-cloth dress decorated with fringe.  "You gotta see my little purse!  Show her my purse," she says to her assistant at the far end of the conference-room table, who holds up a matching multicolored leather patchwork bag.  "Isn't that the cutest thang you ever seen?
      "We can cover miles and miles in an hour," she says, with the bubbly enthusiasm that has become a hallmark of her persona.  But Parton's songwriting reveals another side of her character not immediately evident upon meeting her.  Some of these often melancholy compositions, such as "Jolene," "Coat Of Many Colors" and "I Will Always Love You," are now classics of the country music canon.  Ballads have always been Parton's forte, a product of her upbringing around the Appalachian oral tradition, still rich in the '50s at the dawning of the TV era.  Stories told by kinfolk for evening entertainment impressed her as a child.
      "I used to write a lot of stories when I was young, and make up all kinds of characters," she says.  "And the more I can see them, the more I enjoy writing them.  I love to write, that's my favorite thing that I do.  And I love to write story songs.  In fact, years ago I got criticized for that by Porter Wagoner and Chet Atkins, and several people that were in the business at the time.  They said, 'You're writing too many damn story songs.  You need to write something more commercial.  Just write a song that's got a verse, a chorus and a verse.'  I said, 'But I love to write those story songs.  I love to create a character, I love to take 'em on a journey.'  Then, story songs got to be a big hit.  And I had already tried to write the more commercial things.
      "But I do love the characters that I try to write.  I do write 'em all like they could be a movie.  They are, in my head."

      Parton's writing has won her fans throughout the worlds of country, rock, pop and folk.  Her greatest recent success has been Whitney Houston's cover of "I Will Always Love You," a major hit from the soundtrack of The Bodyguard.  But her newly completed album Treasures doesn't feature her own compositions.  Like 1994's Heartsongs, which showcased Parton's interpretations of traditional mountain tunes, Treasures is a collection of covers.  It is a songwriter's compendium of best-loved songs, all chosen by Parton.  As an artist, Parton has never shied away from risk, and Treasures shows her taking some of the greatest creative leaps yet.
      "I had what I thought was a wonderful idea for an album, of all these spectacular songs that had not been done to death," she recalls.  "They were such classic songs, and good songs, that they would be brand new to the listeners and artists in that new world of country.  And they would be so loved and appreciated by the older folks."  Doug Morris, chairman of the MCA Music Entertainment Group which encompasses Rising Tide, took Parton's idea to label head Ken Levitan as a prospect for the new company's first release.  Having Parton on the Rising Tide roster would attract younger artists to sign with the label, and Levitan also recognized that Parton's idea fit well with the label's goal to combine commerciality with musical integrity.  "My whole aim," he says, "is to have artists who have substance to what they do, not a flash in a pan — while we are also aiming for country radio, the country audience."
      It comes as a surprise to Levitan that Parton previously had been unable to sell this album concept to a record company.  "I had tried to pass this idea along to different labels at different times," Parton says, "and everybody said that it wasn't an album that I should do — that I should do songs that I wrote."  Rising Tide bought Treasures immediately.
      "I have them a list of songs, and I said that I had some ideas for some special guest artists on it, artists that were in the new country, although they all had a personal meaning to me."  Seven of Treasures' 11 tracks feature cameo performances from a wide variety of artists.  Hargus "Pig" Robbins, who played piano on the original recording of "Behind Closed Doors," tinkles the ivories again on Parton's version.  Alison Krauss, a veteran Parton collaborator from Heartsongs, whom Parton has called "my sister in a former life," sings on "After The Goldrush" (along with Suzanne Cox) and "Just When I Needed You Most."  John Sebastian, who played autoharp on the original issue of that song, appears again here.  David Hidalgo from Los Lobos sings backup on "Before The Next Teardrop Falls."
      "I wanted someone who had the Spanish flavor," Parton says, "because the old Freddy Fender record, he sang part of that in Spanish, which I thought was so effective and wonderful."
      John Popper of Blues Traveler sings a soulful accompaniment to "Today I Started Loving You Again."  "I just loved his voice," Parton says.  "It sounds like Joe Cocker and Otis Redding to me.  The first time I ever heard him I thought, 'Someday I'm going to sing something with him.'"
      Raul Malo from the Mavericks got word from his manager that Parton wanted him to sing on "Don't Let Me Cross Over."  "Artists don't talk to each other," he says.  "We had never met.  If she had called me and said, 'Hello, Raul, this is Dolly Parton,' I would have been, like, 'Oh sure.'  I was thrilled.  She has to be one of the few living legends; I consider her one."
      As luck would have it, Raul's session was scheduled for a time when he had agreed to watch his 8-month-old song, Dino, so Parton ended up babysitting while Raul sang.  "Bless her heart," Raul says, "she was all over him.  I thought, 'Wait a minute, when I was a kid, Dolly Parton never held me.  Man, this kid's starting out good.'  I usually had some ugly aunt come over and scare the hell out of me."
      Raul says Parton gave him few instructions about how to handle his part.  "She just said, 'Sing, honey, sing.'  I said, 'Okay.'"  Such emphasis on spontaneity and performance, he says, is "exactly the way records should be made.  We did some parts of it live.  She's such a great singer that her vocal is a scratch vocal.  To this day, I'm glad that somebody's still around that does that.  These days, most people add the vocal after the record's recorded.  They use harmonizers," he says, a device "that take your out-of-tune note and puts it in tune."
      "We tried to be true to the songs," Parton says, but that didn't preclude her from extending some unexpected invitations.  Treasures opens with its most surprising collaboration, a guest vocal by South African pop stars Ladysmith Black Mambazo, best known for their 1986 appearance on Paul Simon's Graceland album.  "When I wanted Ladysmith to sing," says Parton, "I didn't know it was them.  I was trying to figure out a sound that I wanted for this record, working with Steve Buckingham, who produced the album."  One evening, when Parton was relaxing in front of the TV, she heard Ladysmith performing their resonant a cappella vocal on a Life Savers commercial, and she recognized in their quivering tremolo a similarity to her own.  "And I thought, 'Whoever it is, wherever they are, that's who I'm having on this record.'  So I got up from the chair, and I called Steve.  I said, 'I don't know who it is, but in the morning, you call and find out who's singing the Life Saver commercial.'  So he called, and sure enough, it was Ladysmith Black Mambazo.  They've got that same vibrato, that same emotion, that sadness, that little quivery thing.  Back in the early days when I had even more vibrato — I had been taught through the years to try to control it — a little kid said to me, 'You sound like you've been eating sheep—baaaa.'"
      Ladysmith lends its voices to Parton's interpretation of Cat Stevens' "Peace Train," a statement partly inspired, she says, by the spectre of violent church burnings that have plagued the South this year.  "I just felt kinda inspired to sing it because of the spiritual need to do it.  To try to bring people together, to try to love one another, to try to find some peace and comfort.  All the war and the church burnings — people just can't get along.  And it's like, what is our problem?  Why can't we care about one another a little bit?  It drives me crazy that people hate so bad in this world and don't even know why."  Ladysmith leader Joseph Shabalala, Parton notes, is the minister of the church in his South African village.
      The meeting of Ladysmith and Parton was quite an anticipated event for both parties.  "His little wife came," Parton says, "and they had a couple of sons in the group, and he had a couple of brothers in the group.  It was so family oriented, it was so sweet."  Parton has completed a CBS television special on the making of Treasures, which features appearances by many of the guest artists, including Ladysmith.  "They're going to be there, dressed in their African outfits."  The show airs on November 30, Saturday evening after Thanksgiving.
      Another special, High and Mighty, featuring traditional gospel music, is in production for ABC, and "I'm gonna do some more movies," Parton promises.  "I still, of course, have an agent.  It's just really hard to find something that I think I could do well.  It's important to me to do a character that I can relate to.  I couldn't handle a thing like Madonna on a movie like Evita.  But there are characters I could play, that are close to my own personality.  I think that I would do great playing the Mary Kay [the cosmetics mogul] story.  I would love to do Ann Richards [the former Texas governor] if they ever do a story of her life.  But I am going heavily into the acting with Movies of the Week now, through my production company.  As a matter of fact, I'm doing a Christmas Movie of the Week this year — it's called Unlikely Angel, and it'll be on the week before Christmas."
      With so many different ventures in the works, another performer might run the risk of spreading herself too thing.  Parton fights that tendency with a clear vision of her priorities.  "The music always means the most to me, because it was my music that brought me out of the Smoky Mountains, it brought me to Nashville, and from there to Hollywood and ultimately around the world.  I think it was all born of the songs that I wrote."
      She's quite proud of the success Whitney Houston has had with "I Will Always Love You.  "When I heard that, even though it was so different, I thought, 'Ooooh, what a powerful thing.'  I never heard the song that way, and it was the biggest song in the whole wide world, ever.  What a compliment.  Who would have ever thought, that little old simple song could have done all that?  I'm very proud of her, I'm very proud of the song, and I'm very proud for me that I made all the money off of that little heartbreak.  Because I wrote that song from a real heartache.  That's when I left the Porter Wagoner Show, and he wouldn't listen to me, he wouldn't hear anything I had to say.  He was so angry at me, he was furious.  I couldn't get it out what I was doing.  And I thought, 'well, why don't you write a song?  That's what you do best anyway.'  And so I wrote a song to say to him, 'I hope life treats you kind, and I hope that you have all you ever dreamed of.  I wish you joy and happiness, and above all this, I wish you love.'
      "How many of us really can feel that way when the chips are down?  That's why I loved the song 'For The Good Times.'  I thought it was the most adult song.  You know, 'Yeah, well, boy, that's how I wish I could feel, but when I'm hurt and saying goodbye, the last thing I want you to be is happy.'  We can all feel that way once the hurt is gone.  Once you see that old lover later and he's fat and old and bald.  You think, 'How could I ever have suffered like that over you?'  But we do, don't we?"
      With so many years of experience under her belt, these days Parton sometimes finds herself playing the big sister role to country's younger women, people like Krauss and Shania Twain, who cite her as a significant influence.  "A lot of them want to know about my management; a lot of them come to me for advice.  I see my name a lot of times in articles, with some of the kids.  It makes me feel old, but it makes me feel good.  They talk about you like you're some legend that died maybe 30 years ago.  But actually, I've made really good friends with a lot of the young women."
      Many writers have called 1996 the year of the women in country, but Parton knows these trends happen in cycles.  After all, when she first came up in the '70s, country music was experiencing a similar resurgence of female performers, as the careers of Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and, of course, Parton first bloomed.  "I'm very proud of the young kids that are doing so well," Parton says, "and they have a great respect and love for the old traditional artists.  But as far as country radio, some of the deejays that used to be rock deejays — I call 'em born-again deejays — and some of these program directors, they won't play you if you're over 30.  So all these wonderful singers like George Jones, Merle Haggard, Randy Travis, Ronnie Milsap can't get a record played.  Even Willie, Waylon.  It's ridiculous."
      And so it's Parton hope that the familiar material on Treasures will earn her a break with radio programmers.  Thirty-two years ago she came to Nashville dreaming of fame, and now she finds herself with a similar ambition:  "To have an audience, yeah.  Or to keep an audience.  Or to have a new audience.  I want to be part of everything that's going on, that's mostly why I want to be played on country radio now.  I want to be part of that thing.
      "I always try to feel like I'm progressing along with life.  That's the thing that bothers me the most.  It's not about the money, I don't care about that.  I just want the artistic, creative freedom to do it, and to be in that mainstream.  I don't accept the fact that I'm getting older.  I don't feel a bit older now than I did when I first came to this town, in 1964, when I came here to live.  I feel exactly the same way.  I'm just as hungry as I was then, I still love the music as much.  I'm in a position now to even do better.  But I need that chance."