Dolly Parton
The Tennessean
July 19, 2002
Mother to the music
By Craig Havighurst

The Country Music Hall of Fame's medallion ceremony for 12 new members was humming along smoothly and elegantly until the climax.

It was time for a stage full of new and existing Hall of Famers to sing the institution's signature song, Will the Circle Be Unbroken.

There was a galaxy of vocal star power onstage in the Hall's rotunda, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was ably playing the music.  But as one person looked at another, it became clear that nobody had rehearsed who would step forward and actually lead the sing-a-long.

Suddenly a dazzling voice and personage materialized in front of the group and dug into the first verse with lusty passion:  "I was standing by my window on a cold and cloudy day "

Go figure.  It was Dolly Parton, saving the moment.

"It was in the wrong key for all of us.  I thought 'Oh my Lord!'  I meant to sing a different verse.  But no one was going to sing!"  Dolly said later, as she laughed and explained her impulse to keep social situations running smoothly.

"Steel Magnolias Southern women are used to taking care of people.  If we see something that ain't working, you've got to make it work.  It's just that motherly instinct I think."

Motherly?  Is that what we think of when we think of Dolly, the queen of country glam?  The uptown hillbilly with a voice that can cut through to your soul?  The countrypolitan diva/movie star turned new bluegrass icon?

Well, face it.  While Dolly never had children of her own, at 56, she's old enough to have kids with kids.  And the warm embrace she's offered in recent years to traditional acoustic country music the music on which she was reared has placed her comfortably in the role of protector and wise woman.

With only a few isolated exceptions, the music pouring out of Dolly during this phase of her career (among the best she's ever made) has been on record: the acclaimed The Grass Is Blue followed by Little Sparrow and now the new Halos and Horns.

This month, she launched her first tour in about 10 years with a well-received show in New York City.  The Parton caravan, which comes to Ryman Auditorium Sunday night, is a mostly acoustic romp through her recent bluegrass and folk revivalism, as well as a healthy dose of all-time hits, including her blockbusters such as I Will Always Love You and 9 to 5.

But don't assume that because her music has been more down-home on her recent albums that she's going to be any less glamorous.

"You ain't never going to see no down-home looking Dolly.  Never!" she declares.  "Not unless you come to my house at 2 o'clock in the morning and get me up.  That's half the magic.  Besides, I don't think I could sing a lick if I didn't have on rhinestones."

Halos and Horns, as both a tour and an album, had sort of an unusual birth.

"This album came out of the fact that I was auditioning people for a road show," she says.

Back in her East Tennessee home, she called on some of the musicians who had been staples at her Dollywood amusement park, including banjoist and band leader Gary Davis, for extensive band auditions.  At the same time, she thought she'd accomplish another goal by using those sessions to make new demo recordings of her own songs, some new and some decades old.  Though she'd planned to go into the studio with Steve Buckingham, her regular producer, later in the year, the audition/demo sessions came to life and convinced Dolly that they were making a fine album.

"To me, when a thing like this happens, it's a meant-to-be thing."

The album has only a couple of pure bluegrass tunes but several interesting experiments.  She consciously takes on the role of mountain matron on Old Bones, in which Dolly, channeling the wizened voice of her own mother, sings a dialogue with a girl who is figuring out that the mysterious town clairvoyant is actually her own mother.

Several songs use a full gospel chorus.  She calls John Daniel a hippie-style folk romp.  And then there's the most famous and daring tune on the album, a version of the Led Zeppelin epic/warhorse Stairway to Heaven.  It's a pretty interesting and entertaining cut that proves Dolly isn't kidding when she says she didn't mean for it to be a gimmick.

"I thought a lot about it," she says.  "That song has meant a lot to me for a lot of years.  And it's my husband's favorite song.  That was another personal reason I did it."

She treated it like a spiritual tune, set in sequence to complement the Hello God and Raven Dove.

"What this album turned out to be and what I had hoped is some of everything that I have ever been and what I am," Parton says.  "Because not only did I take some songs of old and rework them, I did some new songs that sounded like they were old.  I love that solid hard-country sound, but it took me all the way back to my early days in Nashville.  The gospel influence has always been a part of me, and I wanted to bring that in."

That very much describes the show you'll see Sunday night not a retrospective, but a portrait of a singer who seems comfortable wearing many hats all of them country.