Q & A
Country treasure Dolly Parton comes alive
Last Updated: Monday, November 9, 2009 | 4:36 PM ET
By Sarah Liss, CBC News
At 63, Dolly Parton is more active and ambitious than whippersnappers a third her age. In the past year alone, the country music legend launched a Broadway show (9 to 5: The Musical, based on the 1980 film), published a children’s book (I Am a Rainbow) and earned an honorary doctorate from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Parton also continues to be involved in promoting the rural Tennessee region where she grew up: she’s the official international ambassador for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Somehow, Parton also found time this fall to release two new albums. The first, simply titled Dolly, is a comprehensive overview of her 50-year career, with 99 songs (including seven previously unreleased tracks) spread over four CDs. She also just put out Live from London, a live CD/DVD package that documents two 2008 performances at London’s O2 Arena.
The country singer and songwriter was honoured Nov. 8 with a star on the Music City Walk of Fame in Nashville. Parton spoke to CBC News about turning down Elvis Presley, promoting childhood literacy and what songs are worthy of being “Dolly-ized.”
Q: Live from London documents your 2008 performances at London’s O2 Arena. What was so special about these shows?
A: First of all, we don’t get to go to London that often. It’s been a long time since we actually got to do full-blown shows and tours in that area. So we taped the show, just to document it for ourselves, and the crowds were just so absolutely wonderful that we taped the two days and thought, man, this stuff looks great! We really need to put it out. So we came back home and edited it down. We just thought it was real special and we thought the fans would like it. As you know, we’ve got the DVD and the CD, which makes it a real nice little thing — it’s especially a good little gift. It’s easy to wrap it up real pretty!
Q: That connection with the audience made for some powerful performances. The version of Little Sparrow, for instance, is haunting.
A: I do find new ways of tapping into my emotions. When I did Little Sparrow originally — that was also the name of one of my acoustic albums — we did it more up-tempo. But in my own mind, when I wrote that song, it was like those old songs of yore. [Giggles.] I’d sing it a lot of times around the house to myself, and I’d always do it real slow and a cappella, and I thought, I need to record it like that someday. So I worked it up and did it in my show a few times, early on before we did the London concerts, and people just loved it, so I left the slow version in there. People seem to really respond to that one.
Q: The stark, still version seems to illuminate the aching at the core of the song.
A: Well, that’s the way of those old songs that mama used to sing: they get to me. I love those kinds of songs and I think my voice is more suited to those than most things.
Q: It reminds me a bit of a slow-burning version of Little Sparrow by soul singer Bettye Lavette. Have you heard any covers of your songs that made you see your work in a new light?
A: I’m always touched and I’m always amazed by all the ways that people interpret the songs that I write. I think probably Whitney Houston’s version of I Will Always Love You is about the prime example of takin’ a song of mine that was so very simple and very heartfelt, and doin’ it in a beautiful, grand, pop way. I just thought that was incredible. I’m always honoured when anybody records my songs. A lot of people say, “Oh, are you ever disappointed when people do your songs and they just slay ‘em?” Not really, because they’re still my songs, and I’m just flattered that they want to record them.
A: Well, I think it’s true that music is the voice of the soul and certain songs just kinda call out to you. If a song is good, I can always picture it done in so many ways, so when I have taken those songs, it starts with me thinking, “Hey, this could be great — I can Dolly-ize these songs,” and then I make ‘em my own. I do worry, though, when I record those songs by different people … like, when I did Stairway to Heaven, and had to get permission, because I threw in a few extra words and itsy little things. You have to get permission if you change it in any way, and I was scared to death that they would hate what I’d done to the arrangement and wouldn’t give me permission [to record it]. But they did!
Q: There’s a legendary story about how you refused to let Elvis Presley cover I Will Always Love You because he and Col. Tom Parker demanded that you fork over half of the publishing rights. How did you cultivate your business acumen?
A: Well, in a case like I Will Always Love You, Elvis didn’t stick it to me — don’t ever let that be said. It was totally Col. Tom Parker, who was a hard ass businessman. That’s how he did it. Elvis loved the song, and I’m sure he was – or I hope he was — as disappointed as me. But I just knew with that one, a lot of emotion and love was involved in that decision, because those songs are the things I’m leaving for my family. And I thought, well, I can’t just give half of that away to strangers! This is something I’ve written and it was already a hit. That type of decision making, I just base things on my gut and on my heart.
My dad was a simple man. Didn’t get much of an education, but Daddy was smart when it came to business. So I think I get some of that kind of stuff from my dad. And I get the creativity from my mama’s side of the family, so hopefully I’m a good mix between the two of them. [Giggles.]
Q: Very early in your career, you were positioned as a bubblegum pop singer. You had that one hit, Happy, Happy Birthday Baby.
A: Boy! You’ve done your homework, girl! Well yeah, I certainly sounded different then! So you’re asking me how in the world I came from the Smoky Mountains and wound up singin’ Happy, Happy Birthday Baby? [Laughs.] Well, when I first came to town, there was this guy named Fred Foster, who owned Monument Records. Everyone was kinda talkin’ about how there was a new girl in town. I was young at the time, I was 18, and he decides that rather than me singin’ country, that he could build and shape me as a little pop star, a little rock star. [Chuckles.]
I did a little series of songs. Happy, Happy Birthday Baby was a single, and I sang that on the Dick Clark show, American Bandstand, when I was 18, 19. It didn’t do that much for me, because that was not my world at the time. I was very uncomfortable in it, too — goin’ to the cities and singin’ — because I needed to grow into myself. I did a couple others — there was Ping-Pong, which was another bubblegum-pop-type thing. It was just a start, and it was someone else’s idea. [Foster] got me a stylist, and they did my makeup and they did my hair, and I hated it, ’cause I wanted to look like me!
Nothin’ really happened, and after a little while, I guess he got wise. I sang harmony on a record that my name was not on — except as a writer of this song that I had written — and it was the No. 1 country song that year: Put It Off Until Tomorrow. So everybody was callin’ around, asking, “Who’s the girl on that record? Who’s the girl singin’?” They tracked it all down and it got a buzz goin’, and that’s how I got to go ahead and sing the country music I was born to sing.
Q: You were a mentor on an episode of American Idol. How do you think you’d fare on the show if you were just starting out now?
A: I would not have been a great contender on American Idol. I think I had to grow into my own self and grow into my own sound. I would’ve probably been real uncomfortable, just like I was singing that bubblegum stuff. Just bein’ on TV and being thrown out there, I probably would not have made it. But if you think I could have, I probably would’ve tried! [Giggles.] We’ll never know! It’s a new day and age in the music business now.
Q: What inspired a project like your Imagination Library, which brings books to young children in rural areas?
A: I think when you arrive at a place where you’re lucky enough to be successful in your work, you should give back, and then you choose your charities. Even though I do a lot of work with many other charities, the Imagination Library is very close to my heart, because so many of my relatives couldn’t read and write, and I know how crippling that was for them. So early on, I decided that I was gonna work with education, and with children, because if you teach them when they’re most impressionable and young, it’s always best. So I started that in my hometown, and it’s really grown. It’s real important — for me, especially — to feel like I’m giving back and not just taking the money and running. [Laughs.]
Q: You just got a star on the Music City Walk of Fame. What has been your proudest moment in your career so far?
A: I’ve had many proud moments. That’s really a hard question to ask an artist who’s been at it as long as I have. I’ve been grateful for every single thing. Even just getting my name on the walkway of stars down here, you never take those things for granted. I have never had that happen here, and I think it’s gonna be a wonderful thing. I’ve had some wonderful moments: coming to Nashville was a big deal, startin’ with The Porter Wagoner Show was a big deal, having my first No. 1 record, being acknowledged at the Kennedy Centre awards — God, I have so many things to be grateful for, and so many things that are so meaningful. Every time I get something, it’s like I’ve never won anything before. Like, “Oh, wow! That’s a nice thing!” I never take anything for granted.
Live from London is in stores now.
Sarah Liss writes about the arts for CBC News.
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