Dolly Parton
Orlando Sentinel
June 26, 2003
Dolly Parton enjoys a musical comeback, expands business empire
By Jim Abbott

ORLANDO, Fla. One of Dolly Parton's early hits, way back in 1967, was called "Dumb Blonde."

Like much of her image, the title was a comical exaggeration for effect.

So it makes sense that Parton, 57, likes Mae West, the bawdy actress whom she is considering playing in an upcoming TV movie.

"I really relate to her," Parton says in a quick interview in an upstairs conference room at her new Dixie Stampede dinner theater in Orlando, Fla.  A form-fitting fire-engine-red dress emphasizes the singer's hourglass figure.

"We have very similar attitudes toward life and business.  It turns out she wrote a lot of her own material and so do I.  She also had a healthy attitude about sex and men, and so do I."

Parton lets go with the girlish laugh that often punctuates her sentences.  She has spent the day delivering songs and one-liners, first to visiting weatherman Al Roker on NBC's "Today Show," then to a hall full of journalists, tour operators and hoteliers.

Earlier, Parton told reporters in the attraction's Carriage Room that she's not "skeered" of competition from Mickey Mouse.  A guy in the balcony hollered: "Dolly, you're the diva!"

Parton didn't miss a beat: "I told you to wait in the truck!"

It's corn-pone humor, but it's not dumb.  As Parton herself is fond of saying, "It costs a lot to look this cheap!"

Lost behind the image is the fact that Parton, in town to open the $28 million attraction, has executed a musical comeback that might be envied by other veteran country stars.

While pioneers such as George Jones languished in the obscurity of the county-fair concert circuit, Parton astutely remade her musical career with "The Grass Is Blue" (1999), "Little Sparrow" (2001) and "Halos and Horns" (2002), a trio of critically acclaimed bluegrass albums.

"The Grass Is Blue" garnered a Grammy Award for best bluegrass recording, and "Little Sparrow" arrived in time to capitalize on the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" phenomenon.  "Sparrow" earned Parton a Grammy for best female country vocal performance for her interpretation of Collective Soul's rock hit "Shine."

While others embraced bluegrass as an intellectual curiosity, Parton, now a tremendously wealthy woman, delivers her music with the purity of a singer raised in poverty as one of 12 children in rural Locust Ridge, Tenn.

"She has a great sense of the music from way back," says David Dees, host of a long-running Sunday-night bluegrass show on the University of Central Florida's WUCF-FM.  "She has a genuine familiarity with the bluegrass sensibility.  Other country musicians have done bluegrass albums, but she wasn't following a fad.  She was in the vanguard of that change."

In the studio, Parton has enhanced her innate knowledge with an esteemed cast of celebrated bluegrass stars, including fiddler Stuart Duncan, banjoist Jim Mills and guitarist Bryan Sutton, the latter two known for work with Ricky Skaggs.

She also brings a delicate songwriting touch, which Dees compares favorably to material by the legendary Bill Monroe.

"Her lyrics are more picturesque and detailed than Monroe's.  She paints a more detailed picture.  She gets some of that cold mountain harmony in there, and she's good at telling stories."

Still, Dees admits that he was uncertain what to expect when he watched the gregarious Parton co-host the International Bluegrass Awards in Kentucky a few years back.  It didn't take long, however, for Parton's stage presence to win him over.

"I wasn't sure what to think because of the level of silliness she plays at on stage, but she doesn't exhibit any vanity," he says.  "She's readily willing to make fun of herself.  She's very relaxed about it and it's pretty amazing, really.  Because she's a huge superstar."

Even if she doesn't act like one, Parton gets superstar treatment in Orlando from the small, tight-knit group of friends and business associates in town to open the Stampede.

As she strolls through the attraction, Parton is surrounded by a ring of security that might accompany a political candidate.

Sit down to watch a rehearsal in the same empty section of the arena as the singer, and a man in a dark suit with a two-way radio approaches to check you out.

He nods grimly at press credentials, then follows the singer closely as she goes downstairs for a dress rehearsal for "Color Me America," her post-Sept. 11 song that she will sing the next morning on "Today."

When a press photographer starts shooting pictures from the stands as Parton rides around the arena in a horse-drawn white carriage, Parton notices the shutter click.  Another man in a business shirt and khaki slacks shuffles urgently across the thick sand.

"Who are you?" he asks nervously.  "What are you doing?"

Parton is charming again.  "Steve, are you quarrelin' with someone?" she asks, flashing a sweet smile.

With the opening only hours away, the brusque attitude is a stark contrast to the playful "Aw, shucks!" image of a show that features racing chickens and pigs.

"If you work for her, you have this great, great respect for her," says Ted Miller, former general manager of Silver Dollar City theme park in Branson, Mo., who has helped Parton oversee her tourist attractions since 1986.

"All of the people who work for her truly love her and she loves the people around her.  You can call it protective, but it's really just caring."

Parton's personal assistant, Judy Ogle, has been associated with the singer since they were both in high school.  Another adviser has been around since Parton's days as a duet partner with Porter Wagoner.

They are a tight family unit and few talk to strangers about their boss.  Miller says there are reasons that Parton inspires such loyalty.

"She's very astute, but she has that sense of what's right and what's wrong, both in a moral sense and in a business sense.  Her judgment is unquestionable and her standards are high, but her greatest strength is her openness and honesty."

Miller says Parton's bluegrass revival is a result of all those factors.

"Part of it is good business sense, but part of it is that she's just at a stage in her career when she can be creative and do things that she wants.  She doesn't have to do a certain kind of album just to be in the mainstream.  She has fun doing what she's doing."

It does look like she's having fun when a procession of reporters are escorted into an upstairs office for 10-minute interviews that are strictly timed, like everything on opening day.

"Did you like the sweet tea?" Parton chirps.

Uh, there was only unsweetened tea at a show that, incidentally, also serves no alcohol.

Turns out Parton is recalling a meal she ordered out from a nearby Cracker Barrel restaurant.  It's the kind of place you would expect a country gal to go.

Nor is it surprising that Parton spent down time in Orlando inside the cozy confines of her tour bus, parked in a corner of the attraction's parking lot, rather than in a high-end hotel room reserved for her.

She plans to do more bluegrass music, though her current priority is "For God and Country," an album of patriotic and gospel music set for mid-September release.

"I've always wanted to do one," she says, adding that it's not a Sept. 11 statement.  "It wasn't just that.  It's the war; it's the times.  There's a lot of fear, a lot of doubt.  Everybody's looking to God."

Though a new Parton tribute album features contemporary stars such as Melissa Etheridge and Norah Jones, there's no certainty that radio will embrace Parton's new work.  She isn't critical.

"I have no complaints because it's been so good to me over the years.  I've lived so long that my past has caught up with me."

A few minutes later, Parton is chauffeured in a golf cart to her bus, where two fans clutching albums are waiting.  The singer is quickly escorted up the stairs and the door closes.