Dolly Parton
USA Today
August 25, 1998
Parton returns to the write place-Album takes her back again
By Michael McCall

      NASHVILLE — Dolly Parton hasn't scored a hit in years.  She hasn't visited the top of the pop or country music charts, hasn't starred in any recent movies.  As for TV, she spent years working on an idea for a series that never made it from the drawing board to the screen.
      So how does she feel?
      "I've never been more excited or felt more creative in my life," says the unflappable 52-year-old.  "I feel like I'm just starting the second part of my life, and it's going to be even better than the first half."
      The woman the world knows just as Dolly has fallen back on reliable allies:  hard work, listening to her instincts, taking risks.  And she launched this stage by going back to where it all started.  A year ago, Parton retreated to the Appalachian cabin she was raised in and settled down for an extended stay.  Holed up in what she calls "my Tennessee mountain home," she "fasted a little, prayed a little and did a whole lot of thinking."
      "I went there to figure out what I want to do now that I'm at a turning point.  That's when the songs started coming."
      She hadn't gone back home intending to write songs, but that's what happened.  Over three months, she finished 37 of them.
      "Once they started rolling, I could not stop," she says, laughing in a high-pitched burst of exuberance.  "I've always written songs, of course, but this reminded me of when I was young, when I wrote from morning to night.  I just got going, and it seemed to get more and more intense as I went.  Finally, it just built up to where I had a major climax.  It felt so good I wanted to have a cigarette afterward."
      Then, in a gutsy move, she recorded the songs with a rock band.  The Nashville-based group, which recently changed its name from Shinola to Five Bucks, includes Parton's cousin Richie Owens, a longtime figure on the alternative-rock scene in Music City.  Together, Parton and the band — whose members are all 15 to 25 years younger than she is — created Hungry Again, the Parton album out today.
      "I've followed Richie's music all the way back through his new-wave stuff," Parton says.  "I've been with him when he's had white hair, purple hair, black hair and green hair.  He's always been a great musician.  I've worked with him on my demos for years, but this was the first time we went and did a whole record together."
      The album crosses the earthy, mountain-based country music of Parton's earliest recordings with a raw, guitar-based sound that has more in common with '90s alternative country than with mainstream Nashville.
      "The last album I did that was anything like this was My Tennessee Mountain Home," Parton says, referring to a 1973 album many consider one of her best.
      "That's probably the last album I did that was all written at the old home place, just like this album."
      Hungry Again finds Parton writing songs that carry themes and musical arrangements similar to those of such early hits as "Jolene" and "Coat of Many Colors."
      It's a style that many critics and many of Parton's oldest fans believe brings out the best in her songwriting and in her chirpy, expressive twang.
      "Because of everything else she is, people sometimes overlook how many great songs Dolly has written," songwriter Matraca Berg says.  "But she's an amazing songwriter — one of the best ever in country music, in my opinion."
      Berg remembers sitting in front of the TV as a child, watching Parton.  "She's the first woman I saw who was singing songs she wrote," recalls Berg, the Country Music Association's 1997 Songwriter of the Year and author of such hits as "Strawberry Wine" and "You Can Feel Bad (If It Makes You Feel Better)."  "I remember this unbelievable woman, playing guitar and looking beautiful and singing songs about where she was from and what she was feeling.  It was very striking for a child like me."
      Berg, like many of Parton's fans, believes Parton did her best work in the '60s and '70s, when her songs were personal and her music put a modern spin on old-time mountain sounds.
      "I'm real partial to those early songs," Berg says.  "To me, she was as important to that era of country songwriting as Kris Kristofferson.  She really changed what could be said in a country song, especially for women."
      Owens, who co-produced Hungry Again with Parton, also greatly admires his famous cousin's early work.
      "I was around her a lot growing up, and, in my mind, there's something real special about those songs she did back then," Owens says.  "I wanted her to do a Dolly Parton record that had the kind of mountain soul you hear on songs like "God's Coloring Book" and "Coat of Many Colors."  I think it's a fun record, but it's also a more earthy record."
      Parton found Hungry Again refreshing to make, she says.  Through the '90s, she's struggled to put songs on the country music charts and to re-establish herself as a Nashville hitmaker, but she's been unsuccessful.
      "Radio doesn't seem interested in old folks like me," she says with a laugh.  "I think it's a shame they won't play records by people like George Jones and Merle Haggard anymore.  I feel like I'm doing the best work of my career right now.  They say wisdom comes with age.  Well, so does talent."
      This time, she says, she didn't worry about shaping her music for radio; she just made the best album she could.
      "My music is what took me everywhere I've been and everywhere I will go," she says.  "It's my greatest gift and my greatest love.  I can't abandon it.  I'll always keep making records, even if I have to sell them through the mail or the Internet."
      To that end, she recorded all 37 of the songs she wrote on that retreat with the young Nashville band.  She has enough songs reserved to fill two more albums, she says, joking that she'll follow up Hungry Again with the successive titles Second Helpings and Now I'm Full.
      Music, of course, isn't Parton's only career concern.  Asked what's happening on the acting front, she responds with a laugh, "Not much!"
      But she's convinced that will change.  Determined to star again in her own TV series, she's begun looking for a project to develop.  She recently signed with the William Morris Agency to help restart her movie career.  And she's started work on a script based on one of her new songs, "Blue Valley Songbird," which tells of a young mountain woman who escapes an abusive father for a country music career.
      And no, before anyone asks:  It's not meant to be autobiographical.  She'd be the first to say if it were — just as she's eager to debunk a recent tabloid report that she and husband Carl Dean haven't been intimate in a decade or so.  The tabloid picked up on a joke Dolly cracked at her album-release party.  It's not true, her representatives say, and Parton and Dean, who's always kept out of the public eye, are distressed about it.
      She's happier about Dollywood, her Smoky Mountains theme park; it's enjoyed its most successful summer season, despite months of stifling heat and threatening thunderstorms.
      "I've got a lot of ways to make money," the star says.  "But it's not about money for me.  I really am hungry again.  I want to do better at what I've always done.  I want to do more feature films, more TV specials, more movies of the week."
      Then, with another explosion of laughter:  "I've got big plans for the next half-century.