There’s a magnitude about Dolly Parton that has absolutely nothing to do with her bust. Over the past three-plus decades, she has become a living, breathing international icon, her name easily as familiar as that of Frank Sinatra. But while achieving such an indelible slot in the public consciousness by merit of personality alone is no small feat, such fame does not always do justice to the formidable talent that launched Parton in the first place. Parton has penned some of country music’s timeless gems and performed them in one of the genre’s most distinctive voices, but thanks in part to her forays into pop and Hollywood, an entire generation has grown up with a novelty notion of her.
But Parton’s roots run deep, and over the past three years, she has fired off a loose trilogy of beautiful, rootsy albums, starting with Hungry Again, a tradition-minded lost classic that suffered a terrible, early death due to label shutdownanoma. Never the sort to back away from a challenge, Parton dusted herself off and let loose 1999’s The Grass Is Blue, a bluegrass effort of originals and old covers that even won over the finicky set of bluegrass purists (and nabbed her a pair of Grammy nominations). Now, with the release of her second foray into bluegrass, Little Sparrow, Parton again proves to be a masterful songwriter with a handful of originals of uncompromising traditional beauty and a couple of delicious covers that will send you scrambling for the credits in the liner notes. Her inimitable persona may forever attract the most attention, but Parton’s art will always be the quiet-yet-greater colossus.
“I’ve found a comfort zone,” she says of her latest output. “If the music’s real, people will always respond to it. Sometimes we get forced to go back to doing what we should do.”
Your last three albums seem to mark a sort of return to roots.
Well return to roots, I guess I never really left my roots. I think that’s the thing that’s kept me sane all these years no matter what else I’ve done. I have been fortunate that I get to do all this stuff; to do the movies, to have a fan base in a lot of different areas. I’ve always stayed true to my roots and true to myself and that music is the most natural form. Now there’s no pressure, since I’m not doing it to make a living anymore ’cause I’ve managed to do a few things like Dollywood and my production company where I can make a living doing other things.
So I had decided I was going to do some more traditional things. When I did Hungry Again, I went back to my old home place where I was born and raised and made it like a retreat. I went up there and wrote about thirty-seven songs and recorded a lot of ’em which I thought was a good springboard. Mainly I just wanted to get back to real stuff.
So what inspired you to go the bluegrass route?
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life because Hungry Again didn’t sell that well. I wasn’t really even looking for a label. And Steve Buckingham, who is my friend, and producer of many, many years, had mentioned that Sugar Hill Records had done some sort of survey and asked who the bluegrass fans thought should make a bluegrass album and I won. I said, “Well let’s do one.” And for this one, we feel we’ve captured what we had on The Grass Is Blue, we’ve just taken it a few steps further.
In the wake of Bill Monroe’s passing, there’s been a bit of a bluegrass boom — from the success of Alison Krauss over the years to Steve Earle’s recent foray.
People like bluegrass. It’s had a following amongst a lot of hip and young people. A lot of college kids like bluegrass. Everything’s so complicated these days, I think a lot of the appeal is the simplicity. It’s not a bunch of electrified instruments and drums — you just hear this beautiful clean music played so well, these perfect harmonies. You can hear what they’re singing, you can hear the quality of the voice of the singer. So I think they’re liking the simplicity of that. Bill Monroe was wonderful and his passing left a big gap there . . . a Cumberland Gap. [Laughs].
Your originals blend so well with the traditional material. Do you find it hard to make them flow together?
That’s the easiest stuff for me to do. It goes back to my childhood. My mother used to sing a lot. There was just always a bunch of singing going on around our place. And those old songs were the ones we heard the most. So it’s just embedded in me and it’s the easiest thing in the world. That’s the stuff that comes out of me the easiest. To take some new stuff and make it sound old.
You also seem to relish the opportunity to transform non-bluegrass songs into the format.
Well I think it’s good being a country girl that can go to the city. It’s served me well living in all the worlds I’ve lived in: from when I was young and we had no electricity, no running water, outdoor toilet and then to come all the way to this technical world that we live in now. I hear everything. I love all kinds of music, and I’ve done a lot of it.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Sinatra chestnut [“I Get a Kick Out of You”] recast as bluegrass.
My husband is a big acid rock fan. And he loves Led Zeppelin and bluegrass and in between he listens to a lot of those old time radio shows. And he just loves old time pop music like Frank Sinatra. There was a time where he played “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and I listened and I thought, that’s such a drag-ass little song. I mean I like it, it’s pretty, but it’s just so slow. It has a pretty melody structure, and I thought, “That might make a cute bluegrass song.” Same with [Collective Soul’s] “Shine.” My husband had that record in the house and it was a favorite of mine. I kept thinking that’s a great message song. I didn’t know if I could do it, because it sounded so rock. Then one day I thought that’s so pretty, if I just took that guitar off and put some mandolin on . . . add some bluegrass harmonies, it would be great. Anyway, we got in the studio with these musicians that never get to play that kind of stuff. True bluegrassers have to be very careful because they get crucified [for covering non-traditional material], but when it’s my ass on the line they say, “Well we can help you.” And they just loved it. If you have songs lying around the house, or a song that you love, well why wouldn’t you at least try? And they’ve been getting a kick out of “Kick Out of You.” [Laughs].
Any other left-field covers we can expect in the future?
Oh absolutely. But I’m not giving that away, because somebody’ll go out and do it first now that everybody’s on to these things. I have some great songs, I keep a list of ’em. But you have to do it right. You have to be true to it. It’s very important to not make it a joke or hokey.
The true bluegrass fans are a tough bunch to crack.
They are. And they still gave me [the International Bluegrass Music Awards] bluegrass album of the year. So I’m gonna bust my ass to try and do everything I can. Bluegrass has really come on strong and I’m just thrilled to death to be a part of it.
Do you think it might make any ripples in Nashville?
You know what, it wouldn’t just surprise me at all that doing an album so pure that that’d be the very thing that country music would play, but to be honest with you, I could give a shit less. I’ve been at it so long trying to get them to play things, now I’m doing this strictly for the sake of music, ’cause it’s something I love to do. I’m paying for these albums out of my own pocket and then leasing them to Sugar Hill — they’re on my little label, Blue Eye records in a joint venture. But I know I’m gonna make enough money back to pay for the expenses of making the record, and if that’s all it ever does, that’s pretty good to me because to me it’s the joy of getting to finally do something the way I wanna do it without having to listen to a bunch of record people and executives, managers and a bunch of radio saying, “We won’t play this.” This does not mean, by the way, that I’m not gonna continue to do other music, though. I have a lot of fans in a lot of areas so I may make a pop, country or dance record, but I will always do this.
Sounds like the genre has given you a comfortable degree of creative control.
It’s because these people are honest. They have to sing or they die. If you’re not being played, if you don’t have a label, you’re going to find an outlet for you, if you’re smart and it means that much to you. It’s just like with me, I was working in something else, I worked as a waitress as so many do, just to make enough money to keep singing. But thank goodness, I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to make money doing other things, but nothing I ever do could take the place of my music. That’s what brought me out of the Smokey Mountains, that’s what sent me to Nashville. That’s what got me to Hollywood. Every thing is based on a song. All the other things I had going, sometimes it’s been good, sometimes it’s worked against me, having to overcome my own image.
But I had such a good time doing it, I know what the true me is, and it shows in songs like “Little Sparrow” and “The Grass is Blue.” But by the same token, somebody asked me yesterday on a radio show, “Now that you’re doing all these bluegrass albums, are you going to start dressing down?” I said, “Hay-ell no!” I’m not wearing overalls, just because I’m singing about a farmer. And I’m not gonna wear a smock because I’m singing about a pregnant woman. And if I do it’s gonna have beads and rhinestones on it. I’m a showgirl in addition to all that other stuff. So it works for me, it works against me, but it works. I think the fact that I look totally artificial, but I am totally real, has it’s own kind of magic in it.