Country music icon Dolly Parton is celebrating another milestone in a remarkable 50-year career that has spanned the pop/country/bluegrass worlds of music, movies, and Broadway. Parton’s 42nd studio album, Blue Smoke, broke into the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 chart, her first solo album to mark that accomplishment. Her Trio collaboration with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris had been the only other time she cracked the upper echelon of the all-genre chart.
The legendary entertainer has had 25 songs reach the top spot on the Billboard country charts, a record for a female artist. With 25 gold, platinum, and multi-platinum albums on her resume, Parton’s commercial success is undisputed. Unfortunately, as an older artist, Parton, 68, has little expectations of airplay, which can free her creativity.
“I don’t really try to tailor make things just for radio anymore,” the singer/songwriter admits. “I do things that I think my fans would want to hear and something that means something to me as well.”
That meant covering a colorful spectrum of genres for her latest 12-cut project in the studio, which included several of her self-penned tunes. “I love to write songs better than anything,” she said. “Then, I love to go sing them. I love to get out on stage and perform them.”
Parton fleshed out the flirty, French-flavored song, “Lover De Jour” from an the idea she had when her boy crazy teenage nieces were visiting her several years ago. “We were riding up and down the coast,” Parton recalls. “Every time we’d stop at a restaurant they would be flirting with one boy or another. We had stopped to eat, and they asked, ‘What’s the soup de jour mean?’ I think it’s mean special of the day’. They were still flirting with the waiter, and I said, I guess he’d be the lover de jour, like the lover of the day. I thought, ‘Oh, wow! What a great name for a song’.”
The new disc includes “From Here to the Moon and Back” from the movie, Joyful Noise that starred Parton and Queen Latifah. “That song is personal to me because I actually wrote that for my husband,” Parton explained. “You always want to have some inspiration, some reason to write a song, and that particular spot [in the movie] needed to be a very emotional thing. So, I didn’t have to work too hard to draw all that love and stuff out of there.”
Parton recorded the tune with fellow Country Music Hall of Famer Willie Nelson. “He said, ‘I love your song “From Here To The Moon and Back.” I can just play the hell out of that on a guitar’. I said, ‘Well, let’s go for it’!”
Parton also rejoined her former duet partner, Kenny Rogers, on “You Can’t Make Old Friends” and included an acoustic version of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice.” She took rocker Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands On Me” in a much different direction, reworking the song with Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora.
“When I first heard that song years ago, I thought, ‘Wow, that sounds so much like a gospel tune like asking God to lay his hands on you’,” Parton said. “I grew up in a Pentecostal church. We believed in healing and laying your hands on, and praying for people who were sick. That one was like the aha moment. People are going to be shocked when they hear this one. That’s one of my favorites on the whole album because it’s different. It just sounds good, and we did all those great bluegrass harmonies in addition to the choir.”
For her latest single, “Home,” Dolly reflected on the early days when the poor 17-year-old girl left the Smokey Mountains for fame and fortune. “No matter how big you get in this world, you get lonesome, and you always want to go home,” she said. “That was just a necessary song for me to sing at this point in my life.”
Though the country icon has co-written an occasional song, like “Home” with her band leader/producer Kent Wells, and family members, she prefers to write alone. “My writing is so personal to me,” Parton said. “I have such definite thoughts, and that’s kind of like my private time with God.”
“Songwriting is just as natural as breathing to me. Life’s a song to me. That’s how I express myself.”
Parton first started penning songs after she learned a few chords on a little Martin guitar that her Uncle Lewis gave her. “I was writing some serious songs at 7 and 8 years old,” she recalls with a chuckle, “because I’d hear them talking about all the stories, and I’d hear these other songs that people would write. I was writing some heartbreaking songs at an early age. I think the fact that everything touches me as a song, and the fact I have the ability to rhyme. Momma was always amazed when I was little. I wrote songs about everything. My first little doll was a cob doll with corn silk hair that momma had put together. Her name was Tassel Top. I wrote a song about her. I don’t remember writing it, but momma kept it. She said, ‘Let me show you something. You couldn’t write, but I wrote it down, because it was fun’.”
Parton, who has penned classics like “9 to 5,” “Jolene,” “Coat of Many Colors,” and the crossover smash, “I Will Always Love You,” tries to always be prepared whenever her muse visits.
“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and write something down of something I’ve dreamed, or if I’m taking a bath, I keep a tape recorder or notepad somewhere. If I’m flying, I always carry my notepads and recorders, so I don’t miss a melody.”
“I can write anywhere, anytime, for any reason, but my favorite thing to do is to be able to plan in advance. ‘I’m taking off two weeks and doing nothing but writing. Don’t bother me. Don’t call me. I don’t want to hear from nothing or nobody’.”
“That way I can go back to my old mountain home or out to my lake house or wherever I feel whatever I want to write about. I’ll just spend a few days fasting, trying to get myself spiritually anchored for God to give me good ideas. After a few days, I’ll start writing, and I’ll continue to do that until I’m finished with that. I usually take my false fingernails off when I go to write because I want to really be able to play the real good licks. Then, when I’m done writing, I come back to town and get a new set of nails and go on about my business,” she adds with a laugh.
During her self-imposed writing retreat, Parton creates 20 to 30 songs. “They’re not all good,” she concedes. “Somebody said, you said you have 3,000 songs. I said, ‘at least’ but only 3 good ones,” she says chuckling.
While Parton mainly writes with her guitar, she uses other instruments to set the right mood. “If I’m thinking I’m going to write something real country, real mountain-y, I’ve always got different instruments around the house,” she said. “I’ll either grab my autoharp, or I’ll get a banjo. I’ve got all my dulcimers. I write with a piano a lot. I can get chords, and I don’t have to really bang it out, so I love to write with a piano.”
Parton has penned many a sad song, but she tries to have an uplifting spirit in the tunes she brings to life. “I really do have a lot of good, positive songs like ‘Light of a Clear Blue Morning,’ ‘Eagle When She Flies,’ and things that really have a lot of truth and a lot of message and inspiration,” Parton said. “To me, that’s important. I write a lot of that because that’s what I need myself, and I know that what I need is what everybody needs. We’re just people. We all have the same hurts, the same joys. It’s just important to stay in tune with your audience and do your best to give them what they need, and what they want, or what you want them to have, what you think they need.”
Although Parton could easily retire with a solid legacy as a performer and tunesmith, she still finds joy in her shows, her fans, and the challenge of experimenting with new things. “I just hope to be doing this until I kill over dead in about 30 years singing one of the songs I’ve written,” she said accompanied by her high-pitched giggle.
Bill Conger is a freelance writer for various publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, GACTV.com, Bluegrass Music Profiles and ParentLife. He can be reached at [email protected]He is also on Google+