Dolly Parton Talks 'Blue' Album, Gay Fans and Willie Nelson's 'Dork' Days

Dolly Parton

"They know I understand what it's like to be me, and to fight for being myself," Parton says of why she's always had a large following in the LGBT community

Dolly Parton doesn't really do "small," and that trait has informed her genre-spanning 42nd studio album "Blue Smoke," which is out today. The legend recently hosted a press event in Nashville to talk about the new album -- which covers about as much musical ground as any she has ever released.

She told Billboard that the diverse mix of music on the album was intentional. "I didn't know what I wanted to do as far as a record right now," she admitted. "It's so hard to know, as I don't usually get played on the radio so much anymore. So, I don't really try to tailor make things for radio. I try to do things that I think my fans would want to hear, and things that mean something to me. I thought 'Well, I've been around this long, and I've had the chance to do some of everything. I just wanted to put together a record, and I wrote in the liner notes that I felt this was a culled assortment of all of the things I had done through the years. I'm a girl of many colors, and this was an album of many colors. I think it touched on the bluegrass, the gospel, the more pop things, and the rock things. I think it just has a good variety, and that was on purpose."

Parton said the title of the album has been floating around inside her psyche for a while now. "When I first started doing my bluegrass stuff, I always thought that would make a great title for a bluegrass band. I didn't do anything with that, but I loved the title. So, I thought 'I need to write a song about 'Blue Smoke' of some kind, and wondered what that would be. I thought maybe a train, so I wrote it a long time ago. Then, when I put together a tour and an album, that song kept coming back to me. Of course, it also represented the blue smoke that rises off the Smoky Mountains. It was just one of those things where it kept coming around and coming around, plus the other part of it was there were so much bluegrass influences. It just seemed to fit all those things."

The album also contains a pair of collaborations with artists that Parton has a deep connection with -- the Grammy-nominated "You Can't Make Old Friends" with Kenny Rogers, as well as "From Here To The Moon And Back," a cut with Willie Nelson that originally appeared on last year's "To All The Girls" disc.

"I think Willie is one of the most unusual people. People don't realize how intelligent and deep he is, and what a great stylist and musician. I met him when I first came to Nashville. We came here at about the same time. He had short hair, shaved, looked just like a dork. You'd never in a million years think he would have turned out to look like he does. We both started writing for Fred Foster at Combine Music and Monument Records. Our careers kind of went hand in hand, from Monument to RCA, and we kept sitting around, singing each other songs that we had written over the years. We did an album and TV Show called 'Winning Hand' a few years ago where we sang some stuff together, He just stayed a good friend, and when he got ready to do his album with all he girls he loved before, he asked me if I would sing on it."

One performance on "Blue Smoke" that might throw some for a loop is a cover of Bon Jovi's "Lay Your Hands On Me." She says it was her idea to take the song in a Gospel approach. "I heard that song years and years ago when it first came out. I thought it would make such a perfect Gospel song. I grew up in the Pentecostal Church, where we believed in laying hands on people and praying for them. I called Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, and asked if they would be ok with us turning it in to a Gospel tune. They threw in their two cents worth, and we all kind of put it together. They're real proud if it, and so am I. That's one of my favorites of the album."

Speaking of favorites, Parton was asked about her fan base in the LGBT community, who have long admired her. "The guys all want to look like me," she admitted. "I've always said it's a good thing I was born a woman or I would have been a drag queen. I think they definitely relate to my flamboyance. I've always been so outgoing. But, I think more than anything, everybody realizes I've been through a lot myself. I've been persecuted for looking the way I looked in the early days, for saying what I think and feel. They know I understand what it's like to be me, and to fight for being myself, and overcoming a lot of things. I think they also know that I just love them. I don't judge or criticize anybody. God loves us all. I look for the God-light in everybody, and I want the God-light to shine through me. I understand them. We're just people. We just do what we do, love who we love, and can't help who we are. We should be that -- proudly."

Parton will embark on another leg of her American tour this month before heading overseas for a series of dates that will kick off June 8 in Liverpool, and will end July 14 in Locarno, Switzerland.