Dolly Parton
New York Times
July 21, 2002
The Other Dolly Parton, the Songwriting One
By Bill Friskics-Warren

Mention Dolly Parton's name, and images of her blond bouffant, her hourglass figure and her glitzy wardrobe leap to the minds of most people.  Some might also think of Ms. Parton's silvery soprano, her movie and television roles, even Dollywood, her theme park in the Great Smoky Mountains.  Few people, though, will give much thought to what is perhaps Ms. Parton's greatest gift her songwriting, a legacy that's long been obscured by her flashier attributes.

Ms. Parton acknowledges that she has brought some of this confusion on herself.  "I've created this and played it up the makeup, the whole persona," said Ms. Parton, dressed in a peach-colored jacket and miniskirt, at her rehearsal studio in South Nashville.  "I've over-exaggerated and made things worse.  But I've had a good time doing it, and it all came from a serious place: a country girl's idea of what glamour is."

"But this isn't all I am," Ms. Parton added.  "It's not even most of what I am.  Hopefully people can see beneath the hair to know there's a brain, beneath the boobs to know there's a heart, and behind all the other stuff to know there's some talent."

Ms. Parton just released her 72nd album, "Halos and Horns" (Sugar Hill), which she produced herself.  Like her last three records, it is steeped in bluegrass and reflects her mountain roots.  She was born, one of 12 children, to sharecropper parents in rural eastern Tennessee.  She first sang on television in Knoxville, and after appearing on the Grand Ole Opry at 13, she won over Nashville and Hollywood on her way to becoming a bona fide pop icon.

Ms. Parton has been writing about her experiences since she was a small girl.  "People know I write songs, but I doubt they know how serious I am about it," she said.

Since moving to Nashville in 1964, Ms. Parton, now 56, has published more than 3,000 of her compositions.  Dozens have become hits, not only for her but for singers ranging from Emmylou Harris to Whitney Houston.  Ms. Parton has written vivid odes to her hardscrabble childhood in Appalachia ("Coat of Many Colors"); gripping studies in Southern gothic ("Jolene"); feminist anthems ("9 to 5"); and tender ballads ("I Will Always Love You").  Her catalog of original material isn't just one of the deepest and best in country music; last year, the National Academy of Popular Music deemed it impressive enough to elect Ms. Parton to its Songwriters Hall of Fame, joining the likes of Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael and Bob Dylan.

"Writing's just as natural to me as getting up and cooking breakfast," said Ms. Parton, who lives on a farm outside Nashville with her husband of 36 years, Carl Dean, a contractor.  "I ain't never far away from a pencil and paper or a tape recorder.  I write every day, even when I'm on a plane, in the tub or on the bus.  It burns in me.  Songwriting is my way of channeling my feelings and my thoughts.  Not just mine, but the things I see, the people I care about.  My head would explode if I didn't get some of that stuff out.  Not everything I write is good, but it's all good for me like therapy."

Ms. Parton wrote 12 of the 14 songs on "Halos and Horns," all of them arranged in the latter-day mountain style, replete with the fiddle, banjo and mandolin she used on her three previous albums.  And rather than using the usual session professionals, Ms. Parton has lesser known but accomplished singers and musicians backing her this time, some of whom work at her theme park.  The outcome is music that's less varnished but more suited to the range and depth of emotion that the songs on her album convey.

"Sugar Hill," a title she says was taken from the name of her record label, is an idyllic remembrance of things past set to a melody that recalls the old fiddle tune "Cripple Creek."  "If Only" is a throbbing monument to regret, "These Old Bones" a playfully serious paean to a back-holler mystic, a character patterned after Ms. Parton's mother.  Sadness suffuses at least half the tracks on the album, notably the neo-Appalachian ballads "Not for Me" and "Dagger Through the Heart."

"That's just the way of the mountains," Ms. Parton said.  "You grow up singing those old sad songs.  You don't even think they're sad."

"I was born with a joyful heart, but I'm extremely sensitive," she went on.  "I hurt deep, and I've hurt a lot in my life.  I feel deep for everything I see."

Nowhere is this empathy, a capacity Ms. Parton attributed to her "Smoky Mountain DNA," more apparent than in the two songs she wrote in response to the terrorist attacks of last September.  The hymnlike "Raven Dove" expresses Ms. Parton's longing for a world in which peace and justice coexist.  Just as prophetic is "Hello God," an update of Mr. Dylan's "With God on Our Side."

"We fight and kill each other in your name, defending you/ Do you love some more than others?/ We're so lost and confused," sings Ms. Parton, addressing God, as a gospel quartet spurs her on to the chorus.  "Hello, God, are you out there?  Can you hear us?  Are you listening anymore?"

As powerful as "Raven Dove" and "Hello God" are, two other songs on the album, neither written by Ms. Parton, are likely to attract the most attention:  "If," the 1971 pop hit for the soft-rock group Bread, and "Stairway to Heaven," the hard-rock anthem by Led Zeppelin.

The appearance of these hoary radio staples on Ms. Parton's album will doubtless induce groans from skeptics.  ("Bread Zeppelin" was one writer's offhand review of the project.)  Nevertheless, they bear Ms. Parton's stamp, just as her re-workings of songs written by Cole Porter and the rock band Collective Soul on her previous album, "Little Sparrow," did.  By picking up the tempo and adding an ebullient banjo obbligato to "If," she turns a weeper into a stirring testament to human striving.  By adding an ad-libbed coda to her stringboard version of "Stairway to Heaven," she transforms the song's vaguely spiritual musings into an admonition against placing one's faith in earthly treasures.

"Everybody said, `Oh, you can't do that, it's a classic,'" Ms. Parton said, referring to "Stairway to Heaven."  "But I wasn't afraid to do it.  I was really proud of the way it and `If' turned out."

"Of course, I like the other 12 songs on the record better," Ms. Parton added with a smile.  "You know, the ones I wrote myself."