Dolly finds new success in old sound
|Appalachian born-and-reared Dolly Parton went back to her Bluegrass roots to craft three recent critically acclaimed albums.
Gannett News Service
There was 1994's "Heartsongs," an overlooked (and underpromoted) gem in which Parton teamed with the likes of Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent and Jerry Douglas to revisit Carter Family staples; and folk standards and classic originals such as "Coat of Many Colors" and "My Tennessee Mountain Home." Parton even resurrected the theme song from the Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour, the Knoxville radio show where she made her debut at age 7.
More important was 1998's "Hungry Again," in which she noted, "Sometimes to know how far you've traveled, you've got to go back to where you began." Which Parton did through an extended stay at the two-room log cabin where she'd grown up in the Smoky Mountains. She'd long ago bought the cabin and surrounding land for a private retreat, and it was there Parton was inspired to write more than three dozen songs in a very short period. Twelve of them appeared on "Hungry Again," the first all-new Parton collection in many years.
"I had just gone back to my roots, gone back to the Smoky Mountains, trying to figure out what I wanted to do musically with the rest of my life," Parton explains. "The business end was in pretty good shape I wasn't doing it for money anymore. I often make the joke that I had to get rich to sing like I'm poor. It's not really as much of a joke as it is the truth, because I could never have made a living doing this kind of music.
"But you have to look at the business end of it as well. I wasn't getting no kind of play on the radio anyhow, so it made no difference what kind of stuff I was recording at my age at that time," says the singer, who recently turned 56. "That's why the album was called 'Hungry Again' 'cause I'm still hungry and I still love the music. The reason that I can sing this stuff is that it's in every fiber of my body, what I call my Smoky Mountain DNA.
"And people really seemed to accept it."
So much so that Parton is going on tour for the first time in 10 years.
"I was very involved in a lot of other things and I wasn't really involved in a record career that would merit people coming out to see me, and I didn't know what kind of music to do," she says.
"And I just didn't want to keep singing over a big band. But when I got a lot of attention from the last two albums and hundreds of calls to go on the road, I didn't have a band together."
Now she does, a Tennessee-bred bluegrass band called the Blue-niques.
"I'm doing it strictly for the music. I hadn't intended to ever go back on the road, and I'm not going to really kill myself like the old days. A few shows a month I'll see if people really want to see me."
If not, Parton's got a few fall-back positions, including, of course, Dollywood, the 17-year-old Pigeon Forge theme park whose 2.5 million visitors a year make it Tennessee's top attraction.
At Dollywood, thrill rides combine with the story of Parton's life. New this year: Smoky Mountain Wilderness Adventure, a simulation ride through the Great Smoky Mountains; and Chasing Rainbows, an exhibit of fan-generated gifts and knickknacks accumulated over 30 years.
"The story of my life in junk and stuff," says Parton, admitting she never throws anything away, a trait left over from her hardscrabble upbringing. It's also why she still gets up every day at 5:30 a.m.
That will serve her well in the fall when she starts shooting a Mae West biofilm for television.
"I'll be doing a very New York accent, which is the first time I'll ever have done a character outside someone with a Southern accent," Parton says. "I can do it, it's just that I've never found nothing that merited going that far."
After Reba McEntire's success in "Annie, Get Your Gun," there's talk under way about what would seem a golden marketing opportunity a Broadway revival of "Hello, Dolly!" rewritten so matchmaker Dolly Levi's from the South.
The more credible Southern connection that began with "Hungry Again" came to fruition on the Sugar Hill albums, 1999's "The Grass Is Blue" and last year's "Little Sparrow." Like the new "Halos & Horns," they feature a delightful mix of Parton originals and revivals, traditional favorites and some surprising pop songs given mountain makeovers. The new album included Bread's "If" and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."
"One of the reasons it's working is I am picking these songs myself," Parton says. "Otherwise I couldn't pull it off. If it doesn't feel right in my gut, or don't feel right in my mouth ... if it's anything I chose, then I know already that there's a soul feeling for it and I have reason to do them and am brave enough to attempt them.
"I'd always wanted to record that song and I didn't know a way to do it," she says of the Led Zeppelin classic. "People said, oh surely you're not going to do 'Stairway to Heaven!' And I said why not? I got all these albums out so I figured I might as well get the Led out.
"With this new style even though it's my old style, my original style I can make it work. I can tweak those songs and do it in a way that they feel right coming out of me, not inventing something that's hokey or false or plastic.
"Now, people have always accepted that I look artificial but they know that I'm real. And it's the same thing with these songs."
Even better are the songs that Parton is writing, or in some cases, rewriting, or dusting off for reinvention, like "What a Heartache" (from 1984's ill-fated Sylvester Stallone-goes-country movie, "Rhinestone") or "Not for Me," a gorgeous '60s love song Parton had never recorded, rediscovered in her Dollywood archives.
"I don't even know myself all the stuff that's back there," she says. "Years ago, I'd write 10, 15 songs a week. I used to say I'll never have to write another song as long as I live if I don't want to 'cause I've got thousands of songs piled up and I can just go back and revisit them. But I still love to write. That's my therapy and that's my gift."
The move back to tradition also has inspired Parton's best singing in years, as if this particular music is the genre best suited to her emotions as well as her soaring soprano.
"The reason I'm singing better than ever now is because this comes from the gut of me, from the very depth of my soul. I feel this stuff, I see it, I've lived it, my people have lived it. It's what I grew up knowing, it's like it's embedded in my psyche. When I start singing this kind of stuff, I open up in every part of my being, not just my mouth. I open my heart, my head and my soul."