NEW YORK (CNN) – Country music legend and singer/songwriter/actress Dolly Parton is back with a new album: "Halos and Horns." And some of her longtime fans may be in for a surprise: On the album she sings, of all things, the Led Zeppelin classic "Stairway to Heaven."
CNN anchor Paula Zahn had a chance to sit down with Parton on Tuesday morning to discuss her upcoming tour – her first in 10 years – new record and the whopping 3,000 songs she has written over the years.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Congratulations. You're going to hit the road for the first time in 10 years.
DOLLY PARTON: Yes. We've put together a new show. I have a group called The Blueniques. They also played on the "Halos and Horns" album, including "Stairway To Heaven." And so tomorrow night here in New York at the Irving Plaza is our first concert as a group. So we're very excited about that.
ZAHN: Now, you just brought up the issue of "Stairway To Heaven." It is though you have trampled on sacred ground recording this song.
PARTON: You're right. You're right.
ZAHN: Now, who else other than Led Zeppelin has done it? Tiny Tim, Frank Zappa, Dolly Parton.
PARTON: Well, I guess Tiny and I would be in the same category. But actually I took the song very seriously. There are 14 songs in the CD. I wrote all of the songs but two. I did David Gates' song "If" [from Gates' '70s band Bread] and "Stairway To Heaven" because those are two songs I have always loved.
My group is called the Blueniques, which kind of like bluegrass, unique bluegrass. So I flavored "Stairway To Heaven" up a bit with the bluegrass flavors like we did Collective Soul's "Shine" last year and won a Grammy for it.
I just loved the song and thought it would be something different. I'm not afraid. At my age, who am I going to be afraid of? Just Led Zeppelin? They happen to like the song. Robert [Plant] and Jimmy [Page] really liked it.
Toward the end [of the song] I added a choir. I always thought of this particular song as more of a gospel song, like somebody trying to buy their way into heaven. And I threw in a few little ad-libbed lines to make it more like it was. We used our bluegrass instruments and the choir to make that big part where Jimmy Page usually played.
So we kind of made it bigger in all our ways.
3,000 songs and counting
ZAHN: You've been on somewhat of a songwriting binge lately. How much music is dancing around in that beautiful head of yours?
PARTON: Thank you for the compliment. But I write all the time. I've been writing songs seriously since I was 7 years old. I've copyrighted 3,000 songs. I've recorded hundreds and hundreds. But I write all the time and I wrote all summer. And actually the way this CD came about, I was auditioning musicians and I just took my songs that I had written. I thought, "well, I'll just go demo these songs in the studio up in Knoxville, Tennessee" – my old stomping grounds.
It started sounding so good, we just actually turned it into the album. "Halos and Horns" is just about people that are weak, or too good to be bad and too bad to be good – [people who] were caught somewhere in the middle. It's like we sin and we ask God to forgive us, take off our horns and wear halos a while till we, you know, stumble and fall again.
The CD came out today and the single [also released today] is called "Dagger Through The Heart."
ZAHN: Now, I know some of your experiences early on in life have formed the kind of writing you do now. Are you as inspired as you were in those early days when you had so many of those tough days to talk about, the internal struggle that you faced? ... You were dirt poor.
PARTON: I was. But I draw from that, too. Everybody back home was dirt poor. It's not like we were old poor, pitiful us – the only poor people. Everybody had a hard time then.
But we were also very close as a family, always had a great faith in God. That gave us strength. I still draw from that because I stayed close to my family and my home. I didn't leave home to get away from them. I just went to do some better things so I could go back and do more stuff at home like the Dollywood Theme Park that we have that's been open 17 years. It's a wonderful thing for the area.
But I still close my eyes and go home – I can always draw from that. It's a great time in my life right now because I am being able to go back and write that music that I understand so well – the mountain roots music. I've enjoyed all the parts of my career.
The book lady
ZAHN: I respect the fact that you write all of this music. But I think what people in the audience may not know is the number of kids across America you're getting to read. You've been very involved in literacy efforts and through a program you're involved with, kids who can't afford books are being given, what, a book a – is it a month?
PARTON: Yes. Well, actually it started in my county, Sevier County. And we were giving children born in the county a book – from the day they are born they will get a book a month until they start kindergarten so they can learn to love books. They get their little bookcase. It's called the Dollywood Foundation Imagination Library. They love to run to the mailbox. They think I put the books in like Peter Rabbit. They call me the "book lady."
But actually now the United Way has gotten involved and it's all over the country now. [The program does not] have to be just for poor children. That's the thing about it. This is for rich children as well. It's simply about children getting books. We just want children to learn to love the books and feel close to it.
It's really a wonderful thing because many of my people weren't able to read and write and have the opportunity to get an education. So this gives me something to do. When you get in a position to be able to help, you should do whatever you can. This is a wonderful thing. And thanks for bringing that up.
ZAHN: Yes. Congratulations. It's great.
'Are they real?'
ZAHN: Now, Leon Harris mentioned earlier this morning that you were the first famous person he interviewed. Do you remember the first question he asked you?
PARTON: Yes, I do.
LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Oh, no.
PARTON: I remember. He won't like this because he would be embarrassed. He was so nervous that morning and I had on a low-neck shirt and he looked at me and the first thing out of his mouth was "Are they real?" And I said, "What, my fingernails? My eyelashes? My hairdos?" And he said, "Well, I'm talking about your beautiful green eyes. Are they real?"
HARRIS: There you go. See, I cleaned it up.
PARTON: He cleaned it up for me. But he was so embarrassed and they laughed at him so hard at the station. But I've always loved Leon.
ZAHN: Well, you have never been shy, too, talking about what you've enhanced along the way. Do you want to go public with any of that today?
PARTON: Oh, I – well, they're pretty public as they are.
PARTON: I don't know if I'm supporting them or if they're supporting me. But it doesn't matter. It's like I'm never offended by the jokes. I'm flashing 'em out there. So, I mean it's all part of the whole package. But I had plenty before I enhanced 'em, too.
PARTON: I just have to pick 'em up now and then.
ZAHN: Well, we are so delighted that you're back on the road again and that you shared some of this newest music you've written with us this morning.
PARTON: Well, thank you for having me. Yes, so "Halos and Horns" out today on Sugar Hill Records.
ZAHN: Continued good luck to you.
PARTON: Yes, thank you, Paula. ... Bye, Leon. Where's old Jack? I miss seeing him.
ZAHN: He's right there in the corner.
PARTON: Well, in the corner? I remember him, too. Oh, we've had some pretty good interviews, as well. He's part of that "Halos and Horns" crowd of mine.