Dolly Parton
The Times-Picayune
July 26, 2002
HER ROOTS ARE SHOWING
Dolly Parton's latest CD stays true to her mountain heritage, but with today's renewed interest in roots music, she's hip again NEW, AGAIN
By Keith Spera

Hurricane Dolly's impact is diminished only slightly over the phone.

Calling from her Nashville office at 8:30 a.m. recently, the effervescent Dolly Parton had already dispatched two previous interviewers and would soon head off to rehearsals for her first full-blown tour in 10 years.

Though she's been off the road for the past decade, she hasn't been idle.  Over a remarkable career, she has released 70-odd albums and published hundreds of her own compositions en route to becoming country music's most recognizable icon.  She has starred in scores of films and television specials.  Her Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., attracts more than 2 million visitors annually.  She recently closed a deal to open another of her Dixie Stampede dinner show restaurants in Orlando.

No mere figurehead, she takes an active role in all of her enterprises.  Working 9 to 5?  She's more 5 to 9, as in 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.

"I'm an early riser," said Parton, 56.  "Something just gets me up, because I find my best ideas in the morning.  I think of God as a farmer.  It's like he's up in the morning throwing out all these ideas, like a farmer throwing out corn to the chickens.  Whoever's up early is the early bird getting the worm.  I like to get up when everybody else's energy is asleep and the world is a little calmer."

Though she performed last New Year's Eve at Opryland and occasionally appears at Dollywood, several factors kept her off the road in the 1990s.  Her myriad business interests demanded her attention, and with country radio ignoring her, she figured her audience had dried up.

"If you don't have a hit record, you usually ain't gonna draw a crowd," she said.  "I wasn't in demand as an artist at that time.  I was paying a couple million dollars a year to keep a band on salary full time, and if you're not working that much, that's a lot of money.

"So I figured I'd wait and do some other stuff.  I never thought about going back on the road.  I didn't think anybody was going to be interested in ever seeing me to that extent again."

All that changed when Parton rediscovered her roots and audiences rediscovered one of the most remarkable voices in all of popular music, let alone country.  Since 1994, Parton has largely returned to the traditional instruments of the bluegrass and mountain music of her childhood — acoustic guitars, banjos, fiddles, mandolins, stand-up bass, understated drums — and to writing more traditional story-songs.  Renewed respect, a fresh audience and some of the strongest reviews of her career have followed.

"That music is well-suited to my voice, it's what I sing best because I love it best, and it's embedded in every fiber of my being," she said.  "It's exciting to me now that it's opened up all this stuff, to where I have a reason to write these kinds of songs, which I write better than I do anything else.  It's really been fun that people love this."

Her new "Halos and Horns" CD, the latest joint venture between her own Blue Eye imprint and Sugar Hill Records, continues her winning streak.  Parton even decided to support it with a string of one-nighters, including a sold-out show at the House of Blues on Monday.  She'll tour the United States through August, then head overseas for a brief European run in October.  If she's still enjoying it, she might sign on for even more dates.

"People were buggin' me to death (to tour), because these last two albums have done so well," Parton said.  "I thought, ‘Well, if they want to see me, the least I can do is put together a show and go out there.'"

Sets will draw on material from throughout her career, alternating "My Tennessee Mountain Home," "Coat of Many Colors" and other Parton standards with more recent fare.  But even the old favorites will be rendered in the stripped-down, acoustic style of her latest records.

"This isn't a big production," she said.  "I don't have videos, I don't have big, spectacular lighting.  It's going to pretty much just be me, singing and talking.  You know me — I'm too full of fun to just go out and sing.  It'll hopefully be fun and entertaining, in addition to having those great moments with great music that's really heartfelt.  Hopefully it'll be a good mixture."

Back to her roots

Dolly Rebecca Parton was born in 1946 in a Tennessee log cabin with no electricity or indoor plumbing, the fourth of 12 children.  Her striking voice developed early, as did her famous physique.  By 10, she was singing on local radio broadcasts.  At 13, she cut her first single, "Puppy Love" backed with "Girl Left Lonely," for the Lake Charles-based Goldband Records.  It didn't make much headway; neither did a 1962 single for Mercury Records.

Undeterred, Parton announced at her 1964 high school graduation that she intended to move to Nashville and become a star.  She moved the day after graduation, but stardom didn't find her right away.  It wasn't until country star Porter Wagoner tapped Parton to be the female sidekick on his syndicated TV show in 1967 that she blossomed.  The spotlight loved her, and vice versa.  The hits started coming, first as duets with Wagoner, then with her own singles.

"Coat of Many Colors," a song about the patchwork jacket her mother once sewed for her, charted in 1972.  In 1974 her composition "Jolene" went to No. 1; soon after she left Wagoner's show to set out on her own.  As a farewell, she wrote "I Will Always Love You," which became a No. 1 single for Parton in 1974 and an even bigger smash for Whitney Houston 18 years later.

In 1980, Parton made the leap to the silver screen with "9 to 5," co-starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda; she also wrote the movie's theme song.  Her recordings began to veer deeper into country-pop territory, as evidenced by her hit 1983 duet with Kenny Rogers, "Islands In the Stream."

Throughout the 1980s, Parton suffered personal setbacks that included a health scare and a bout with depression and severe weight loss.  But she prevailed, and in recent years has found renewed inspiration in the music of her youth.

On 1994's "Heartsongs" — which she originally intended to title "Songs My Mama Taught Me" — and the subsequent "Hungry Again," "The Grass Is Blue," "Little Sparrow" and "Halos and Horns" CDs, she makes old-time mountain music.  Her voice, occasionally quivering with subtle trills, can be both haunted and haunting, as if it only just recently came down from the mountain.

Parton still lives in the same swath of the Smoky Mountains where she was born, and still writes about the characters who inhabit those hollers and hills.  Her 1970 hit "Joshua" told the story of a mountain hermit.  Thirty-two years later, on "Halos and Horns," Parton sings in the voice of an old clairvoyant mountain woman and her long-lost daughter on "These Old Bones."

"What I'm doing now . . . I am a simple, ordinary, country person who grew up in the mountains," she said.  "This kind of music and this style of song is embedded in my Smoky Mountains DNA.  It's so natural and so real for me that I guess people just can sense or hear or feel when something's real, even if it looks different."

Last year's "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack introduced millions of new fans to traditional Americana music.  Parton is a fan of the soundtrack and was impressed that producer T Bone Burnett unearthed several vintage mountain music recordings by the original artists.  But, she notes, she was making traditional albums well before "O Brother."

"The movie exposed an audience that we never would have gotten otherwise, but we were on that track, thinking that people were longing to hear simple music," she said.  "People long for realism and some honesty.  That's why they love cowboys and Western movies.  It ties them back to the earth.  You don't just want to be out there in space; you want to touch the ground.  I think this music lets you go back and not forget that we have to be anchored in some way."

Parton's celebrity and garish image sometimes get in the way of the songs.

"I've made it hard on myself looking the way I look and loving the music like I do," she said.  "At first glance, people look at me as just hair and tits and a big mouth.  Well, I know that, and I am that.  But I am so much more than that.

"I think that's why I've lasted.  I look artificial, but people realize that I am totally real.  I've had to overcome my image, I've had to overcome my personality, yet by the same token, those things have made me all that I've become."

And won her an unusual cross-section of fans, especially for a country singer.  Tickets for Parton's show at the House of Blues went on sale the same day as tickets for Cher's upcoming Aug. 18 concert at the New Orleans Arena.  Both Cher and Parton boast large and loyal followings among gay men; both are favorites among drag performers.

"They do love us," Parton said.  "I think that gay people know I totally accept and love everybody as they are.  Plus, I look like a drag queen.  I've been fun for a lot of gay guys that love to dress up.  And I think they love the fact that I accept who I am, even if I'm bizarre.  It's OK to be who you are and what you are, whether you're gay or straight or green or purple or bizarre, like me.  I think more than anything they relate to the fun, and that I enjoy my own self."

Heart in the right place Sometimes too much so.  The "Halos and Horns" couplet in the title of her new album gets to the root of human nature as Parton sees it — especially her own.

"Ain't we all that, though?  I've always said that I'm too good to be bad and too bad to be good.  My heart is good, but I can't keep from getting myself in trouble.  But so what?  That's who we are.  We want to be good, whether we always are or not.  We stumble and we slide and we make our mistakes and then we ask for forgiveness and then we're good for a while, then before you know it we're back to doing stuff that we don't have any business doing.  But that's because we're passionate, living people."

Her devilment includes flirtatious banter with David Letterman and other talk show hosts, and making young country star Brad Paisley squirm when she presented an award with him at the 2001 Grammys.  Her saucy, unscripted comments, including "I'm old enough to be your. . . . lover," made Paisley blush visibly.

Parton whoops when reminded of the encounter.

"Yeah, I'm just full of the devil," she said.  "But not evil, just fun.  I just have this joyful devil, I call it.  Love to do things for the reaction, just to shock people.  And it's fun for me.  I never know what's going to come out of me.  Sometimes I want to smack my own mouth: ‘Oh my God, did you say that?'

"My daddy always used to tell me, ‘It's better to choose what you say than to say what you choose.'  I know that's good advice, but I just never could seem to follow it.  Sometimes it'll just jump right out, and that's bad."

Her husband, Carl Dean, is accustomed to it.

"My husband thinks I'm hysterical.  He don't find much fault with me, bless his heart, and I don't with him.  We've been together 38 years, we've been married for 36, his first marriage and mine.  He thinks I'm fine just like I am.  He doesn't try to change me.  Wouldn't do him any good anyway."

Songs still hold true

Fun aside, Parton often addresses somber subjects.  "Raven Dove," like "Hello God" and "Color Me America," a song that didn't make the final version of "Halos and Horns," were inspired by post-Sept. 11 emotional fallout.

"I was more frightened at how frightened people were, and how fragile we all seemed to be.  I realized that anything can change in the blink of an eye, and I thought, ‘Man, we just want to run right to God.'  It's like you don't pay much attention to Him until something really bad happens, like a kid getting in trouble.  Your parents keep telling you not to do it, and then the first thing you do once you're in big trouble is you go right to your parents.  It's like we didn't realize something bad could happen to us.

"(The songs) were from the heaviness of my heart and of knowing all these things from growing up in the Bible.  But I was surprised by (‘Raven Dove').  It's an unusual melody for me.  But it just came.  That's the good thing about being a writer — you write what you're given."

While auditioning musicians "from up home" for her band, she asked them to play some of her older songs.  Hearing them again, she realized that some warranted a second chance, such as "What a Heartache," which was lost on the "Rhinestone" album, the soundtrack to the failed 1984 movie of the same name.

"Some of the best songs I ever wrote was in that soundtrack album, and people never even heard ‘em," Parton said.  "I thought that song deserved a better shot.  Same with ‘Shattered Image.'  That was on one of my very first albums in the late ‘60s.  I thought it deserved another shot.  That's the good thing about being a writer and trusting your own instincts.  I just do what feels right in my gut in hopes that people will accept it."

Even her earliest compositions still hold up.

"Well, I've got a lot of stuff that sucks," Parton said.  "Any time you write that much . . . I've got stuff that's junk.  But then I've got stuff that you know when you're doing that it's going to be OK."

Though she is an incredibly prolific writer, she still enjoys recording other artists' songs.  She and her husband were fans of "Shine" by the modern rock band Collective Soul long before she recorded it on "Little Sparrow."  On "Halos and Horns," she remakes the soft-rock group Bread's hit "If" and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."

"A lot of the off-the-wall things are stuff that I've heard my husband play or that we've loved together, based on his taste in music," she said.  "He loves hard rock, hard bluegrass and big band music.  ‘If' was one of our love songs through the years.  And he's a Led-head from Day 1.  ‘Stairway' was always classic in his mind.  I thought it would be a wonderful thing to do."

Parton interpreted "Stairway To Heaven" to be about a woman who believes she can buy her way into the promised land.  To emphasize that interpretation, she added an extra verse with lines such as, "the great almighty dollar leaves you lonely, lost and hollow."

"I loved that song, so I wanted to make it more what I thought it was about," she said.  "You never really know what those abstract songs are about.  They mean to me what they do.

"I thought ‘Shine' was a spiritual song, a gospel song, and that's how I thought I would handle it.  To me, that's what it says:  ‘Heaven let your light shine down.'  Like God, just look down on me and help me and teach me how to share.  I think that song pretty much says what it is."

So, too, does Dolly.

"I'm a very ordinary, simple person, a country, down-home person," she said.  "I wouldn't want to look as simple as I am.  That would be God-awful.  People say to me, ‘Now that you are doing this kind of (traditional) music, are you going to tone down your look?'  I say, ‘Hell, no.'

"I can look like a whore, but I can sing like an angel.  That's where the ‘Halos and Horns' comes from."