Nick Barraclough: So, Nick Barraclough, BBC Radio 2, playing you the best in country music. Speaking of which, went to New York last week, met Dolly Parton, whose new album Halos And Horns is absolutely wonderful. She was a delight, as ever. First thing I wanted to know was her reaction to the fact that the bluegrass Dolly Parton is going from strength to strength…
Dolly Parton: Well, we've been having a lot of success with the bluegrass stuff now. I don't call everything I'm doing bluegrass. We are definitely doing some bluegrass songs, but we are also doing a lot of what we call the Appalachian mountain folk music, and just the acoustic stuff that I grew up with. So we're trying to do a good blend of mix and match with the country, bluegrass, mountain, folk stuff.
Where did the title Halos And Horns come from?
I thought of that title years ago. I just thought it was a good title because it speaks so much of what we all feel. Most of us are too good to be really bad and too bad to be really good, and we're stuck somewhere in the middle. And then we have all these little guilt feelings of thinking, "Oh, I wanted to do good and I just…couldn't do all that good". So it's really about those of us who slip and slide and tumble and fall and ask God to forgive us, get up and take off our horns and wear our halos a while until we fall down again. So I think it just fits human nature - that we're all trying to be better.
As ever, a couple of fascinating covers on the album - that David Gates song [If] for example. Why did you go for that?
Well David Gates I think is one of the great writers. Bread was always a favourite group of mine, and my husband and I - Carl Dean, my husband of 36 years as a matter of fact, this past year - when that song first came out we loved it, we thought of it as one of our love songs and so I had always intended to record it. But I thought I'd keep it in keeping with the way the original record was. But then when I started doing this bluegrass stuff I thought it would be different to do it a little more up tempo, just give it a bit of flavour. And I thought it worked quite well with the song. We're getting a lot of nice comments on it.
You've got a new bunch of musicians on this album…
Yes. I call my new group The Blue-niques. I use that because it's like, unique bluegrass, because it's really not pure bluegrass, we do our own little unique flavour on the stuff that we do. I just thought it was a nice name for a group. And this is the first time I've had a group together in ten years.
All but one of the tracks on this album is a Dolly Parton song. Written for this album specifically, or were they songs you had in your notebook from years gone by?
Well there's a mix and match of everything. When I had started doing Halos And Horns I was actually just going in as a publisher and songwriter, I had written a bunch of songs through the summer. There were some other songs that I had intended to re-demo, re-record a little different. And so I just grabbed songs like Shattered Image and What A Heartache You Turned Out To Be that I wanted to give a little variation on because I believed in the songs. But actually I was just doing songs I'd written to audition these musicians. And the songs started sounding so good that I thought, "Man this sounds like a record! I'm just going to go ahead and do the record with this." So there's about three songs that I had written years ago and the rest are definitely new to the public.
You mentioned Shattered Image there. That sounds like a very heartfelt song; it could be used as a way of summing up a big part of your career, which is people taking a pop at you for things that you've done, about your own image and the way you've carried on your own life. And coming back to them saying, "Take a look at yourself first".
When I first wrote that song it was back in the very early 1970s when I started getting all these tabloid stories and people talking bad about me, and telling stuff that wasn't true…
So you played them at their own game?
Yes I did! And I'm proud of that. Because like I say some of the stuff was true but you still don't want it told! You know, it's embarrassing. I thought "Good God - I'm not doing anything you're not doing and I'm not doing it that bad, and I'm not doing it that often either!"
Even in the last two years they've been doing some really ugly things in the tabloids again and it's like, oh please, get a life of your own. Don't just poke holes in me, you know, have a look at your own life. I'm not saying I'm an angel, I'm not saying I'm not guilty of some of the stuff. But I'm not any worse than you.
Great to see you working with Beth and April Stevens. Aren't they great, those two?
They are the sweetest girls. They sing so good. And they're from up home, they're home girls. They're like born and raised in the parts where I'm from. We sing good together, we sing like sisters.
You certainly do!
Was Sugar Hill a real place? It sounds like somewhere that you remember from way back when…
Well actually there's several areas in the US called Sugar Hill. Almost every place has a Sugar Hill, there's a Sugar Hill in Georgia, there's a Sugar Hill in Tennessee. But the label that I lease my material to is called Sugar Hill. My little label is called Blue Eye Records, and it was on Sugar Hill. So I said it was just a blue-eyed way of brown-nosing Sugar Hill! I just thought it was a pretty word. I thought, Sugar Hill is going to love this! It'll make them really get out and promote that record!
Has it worked so far?
Well they liked it. But I honestly think they didn't take the song as serious as it is, because I think it's really one of my best songs. I think they thought it was kind of a gimmick. But I think it's a really clever little song.
You end the album with an old British folk song, from those old troubadours Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, to everybody's astonishment, Stairway To Heaven.
I know….everybody just about…even my husband, and he's a Led Head, he loves Led Zeppelin, he's always loved that song, so have I, but I've heard it hundreds of times in our house through the years. And I've always wished that I had a way to do it. And then after I had the success on Shine, the Collective Soul, won a Grammy off that, I thought well they're going to accept me doing stuff if I do it well. So I just got the Led out, so to speak, and thought, "Well I'm going to give this a shot and see how it works." I just think it's a great song. Everyone said, "Oh my God, you're not going to try to Stairway To Heaven, nobody messes with that, it's a classic." And I thought, well I'm a songwriter, I know how important songs are, and I thought well, why can't I try it? If it don't sound good I won't ever put it on the CD and no one will ever know the difference. And if it does then people will either love me for it or hate me for it. And I'm still waiting for the verdict. Some love it and some don't know what to make of it.
You're not afraid now of a song going over the three minute twenty second line...
Well I don't have to anymore because for years, when I was trying to be commercial, to be played on the radio you couldn't have a record over two and a half minutes, three minutes was your limit. But now they're not playing me over here anyway, I haven't had a record played on the radio over here in years. So I thought well, they can kiss my ass now! I don't have to worry about that - if they're five minutes long, six minutes long, seven minutes long…now I can tell my stories, I don't have to whack them up, chop 'em up after I've written something I love, and they say "oh, it's too long" and you have to take out this verse, take out the last verse. Now I can just let the music be all that it's supposed to be.
And when you started doing this - saying well I'm just going to enjoy myself from now on, just play the music I want to play - you might have thought that it wouldn't make any money, maybe it would sell enough to just pay for itself. But, they've sold. They've sold a lot better than I imagine you or anyone else thought they were going to sell. So are people in Nashville now going "Oooh, hang on, we'd better look to what we're doing here"?
Well actually you're right, we didn't think they were going to sell that much, and they're just getting bigger and better all the time. I thought I'd be happy enough to afford my habit if I just made enough to pay the expenses for doing it. But now they've started selling so good, and now they've even started playing me again on the radio! And I thought well this is like the best of everything - to own this stuff, and for it to start selling, and to start getting some play. But I think people are looking at it now. This music is really starting to come around, because of that O Brother, Where Art Thou? Of course we had our Grass Is Blue album before that movie came out and that soundtrack. This is a music that has always been great; it's just now getting its just dues. I'm just happy that it's so much part of my background that I can actually have a place for myself still as a musician and singer and writer, because this is the kind of stuff I do best.
As ever, it's been a joy. Dolly thank you very much indeed.
Well thank you - you're always a joy as well!
And then, like a flash, she was gone…
This programme was broadcast on Nick Barraclough, 31st July 2002.