Since arriving in Nashville at 18 and being introduced to America on “The Porter Wagoner Show,” Dolly Parton has written some of the most enduring songs in the pop and country canons, conquered film, television and Broadway, and launched successful businesses from theme parks to record labels, and most recently had her songs “interpreted” on American Idol. Preparing to launch a world tour in support of her new Dolly Records release “Backwoods Barbie,” and fully recovered from back problems that delayed the start of the tour, Parton sat down with Billboard’s Ray Waddell to discuss the new album, performing, Porter Wagoner, her image, and the Faron Young Cannibals.
Are you feeling alright?
Yeah, I’m doin’ good. I’m a little hoarse, I’ve been playing catch-up, we’ve been rehearsing night and day since I got back. I hurt my back a few weeks ago, but I’m good now. My back’s all better, now I’ve lost my voice-temporarily, though.
So what did you want to accomplish with the new album, “Backwoods
The same thing I’ve wanted to accomplish for years: to get some play on the radio and let people know I’m dead serious about my music. As you know, people my age lost their contracts with major labels several years ago, so since then I’ve been doing whatever I could — including doing my bluegrass thing. I’m glad I got to do all those; I’m very proud of [them].
But I really felt like that even though I’m the age I am, if I ever was any good I’m as good as I ever was. I write every day. I’m as serious as I was the day I got to Nashville when I was 18 years old. So I thought, well, maybe I’ll do this approach.
I’ve tried different things through the years to get some play on mainstream. I’ll try to tailor-make it. I’ll go back and do some of the types of things I did in my early career when I did have success, like “Coat of Many Colors,” I thought “Backwoods Barbie” was similar. And real country things, like “I Will Forever Hate Roses,” and “The Lonesomes,” using people like Pig Robbins and Lloyd Green that I’d worked with years ago on my early hits.
Plus trying to do things like “Better Get To Livin’,” up-to-date like what
Keith Urban and some of them are doing. So I was just tryin’ to do my best to write some of the best songs I’ve written in a while. I wrote nine of them on here.
Then I just picked a couple of outside things that I thought fit me well and seemed to fit the theme.”
How did you end up recording the Fine Young Cannibals’ “Drive Me
I had a few people question [it], but I like doing those cover songs because as a singer and a songwriter you listen to all kinds of stuff, and I’m really a sucker for catchy hooks and melodies. My husband’s a big rock and roll fan and he’s always got these records blasting in the den. I’d heard that [song] through the years. I used to babysit one of my little nieces, my namesake, when she was just a tiny little thing, and when that record was hot she’d go around singing “drive me crazy.” And I thought if a little baby would sing it, it must be a hooky thing. So I thought why don’t I do it like I’ve done other covers, like [Collective Soul’s] “Shine,” then kind do a little hoedown at the end to Dolly-ize it, countrify it a little bit. Why not? These are songs, they’re meant to be sung.
When you do it, it’s more like the “Faron Young Cannibals.”
[Laughs] That’s good! Faron Young Cannibals! Can I use that? Can I act like I made it up myself? That is good.
Sure, go right ahead. Tell me about forming your own label, Dolly Records.
I’ve had my own label for several years, Blue Eye Records. I’ve been paying for my sessions for all these years and I would just lease to people like Welk Music, whom I’ve worked with a long time. Then, at the end of five years or seven years, all the masters go back to me.
I own all my masters, but I just wanted a fresh start, start clean, try again, invest the money. Instead of leasing, just go ahead and hire independent record people, hire somebody to run the label, and really sink some money into it, invest in myself. People are doing that now. The majors are all going down the tubes, they’re all has-beens like they all thought I was at that time. So why not just do it? If it does well, then I make all the money. And if it don’t, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I’m gonna be making records anyway, even if I had to sell ’em out of the trunk of my car. I’m that kind of musician and singer.
Are you happy with the way the album turned out?
Yes I am. I’m as proud of this as anything I’ve ever done. I purposely tried to make it good and quality and tried to do it where every song could be a single. I probably recorded 23 songs trying to come up with the right number, so we had a lot to pick from. I wanted it to have a good variety, and every song to be quality.
When you first came to Nashville did people take you seriously as a songwriter?
Well, no. I don’t think they did. When I first came here I was the backwoods Barbie; too much makeup, too much hair, the big boobs. [I was a] country girl straight outta the mountains. It’s hard to take somebody lookin’ like that serious, I guess. So I had to work doubly hard to try to prove myself.
[Producer] Fred Foster and [publisher] Buddy Killen and some of the people in the early days really gave me a shot at it after they got past the young-girl-straight-from-the-woods thing. When I’d sit there with my guitar with these songs, they thought “I believe this girl is serious.”
But half the fun in my life is that I’m comfortable looking like this, just like the “Backwoods Barbie” tune. That is me to the letter, and I’ve often been misunderstood, but it has taken me 40 years for people to realize how serious I am about the music. But this is also serious, the way I look, this is how I’m comfortable.
Do you look at yourself as the Dolly Parton brand?
Absolutely. I’m a very professional Dolly Parton. I can’t tell anybody else how to run their life or their business, but I really believe I’ve got a good bead on myself. I know who I am, I know what I can and can’t do. I know what I will and won’t do. I know what I’m capable of and I don’t agree to do things that I don’t think I can pull off. Sometimes I bite off nearly more than I can chew. Sometimes I take a big, big bite hopin’ I can swallow it. I take some chances.
There are times I have my big dreams and they don’t all work out. As I have
a line in one of my songs, ‘wishes come true, they come false, as well.’ I always think there’s never as mistake, maybe God meant for me to do something else, to take all that and apply it to something else. I try to never get too down on myself over situations that don’t work out. I think, well, maybe there was something better.
You did a tour of Europe last year that was extremely successful. In general, your tickets are selling very well everywhere.
You’ve got to remember, I’ve been at this 40 years, so I’ve had a long time to build a fan base, and my fans are pretty loyal. They stick with me. If you ever get a fan, usually they’ll hang with you.
There was one time in my life when I was making my crossover, I was either threatened or I was afraid of it, when I was leaving Porter’s show and wanted to hire L.A. management, wanted to get in movies and do songs that covered a broader span. A lot of people thought I was makin’ a big mistake and that I was being a fool, that I would not be accepted outside of this, that I was ruining my career. And that was when I did “Here You Come Again.” That was my first single after I went out on my own, and it was my first million-selling record. I’d never even been anywhere close to selling that kind of records before. It made me feel good to be right about that.
When you start putting your touring set list together, it must be tough because there are certain songs that your fans just have to hear.
You got that right. In fact, we’re only doing five of the songs from the new CD. But I have to do songs like “Jolene,” “I Will Always Love You,'” “Coat of Many Colors,” “Nine to Five,” all those songs people expect to hear. And now I’m doing songs like “Joshua,” “White Limousine,” because you also want your show to be entertaining. I’ve added a few fun things, like a 50s-’60s-’70s’ medley, featuring the band, so I have everybody onstage involved, instead of just me out there hoggin’ the show.
Cas Walker gave you a break on his television show when you were very young. He was kind of the “American Idol” of East Tennessee, wasn’t he?
I never thought of that, he was the hillbilly American Idol, wasn’t he? Oh, he was a codger, a strange guy, but I loved him. He and Lowell Blanchard at the Tennessee Barn Dance, they introduced Chet Atkins, Don Gibson, me, Carl Butler, the Everly Brothers. All these stars.
“The Porter Wagoner Show” was a huge break for you back when there weren’t many ways to get exposure. Porter’s death really closed the door on an era.
It did. Porter and I were always like family, or a husband and wife in a way. We fought all the time but we loved each other deeply and truly. We were both so stubborn and so much alike that we couldn’t get along. But there was always that bond, and the last several years we had become really close again and I did a lot of singing for Porter on different stuff he was producing.
When I did the 50th [Opry] anniversary with Porter, it was the strangest thing. They asked me to sing “I Will Always Love You,” I’d never sung it to Porter. I guess Marty Stuart’s the one who instigated that and thought it would be a great thing for me to sing it for him. When I saw Porter sitting there on that stool and I got ready to sing that song, it was all I could do to get through it. You know how they say your whole life flashes before you just before you die? Well, my whole life flashed before me just before Porter died. I saw all of our fights, all of our joys, all of those early shows. I looked at Porter and I thought in my mind, “he doesn’t look well, he doesn’t look healthy to me.” And in my mind I was thinking I wouldn’t be surprised to hear something happened to Porter after this. He was already dying, we just didn’t know it at that time.
I was with Porter the day he died. I spent the afternoon with him and he died that night at eight. I was real glad I could be there with him and with the family. It did close a place in time, but I’m doing a big tribute to Porter at Dollywood this year. That’ll be there from now on, but certainly we’ll make a big deal out of it this year.
Do you have any regrets?
I don’t think so, and I do think about that from time to time. I don’t regret anything I’ve done; I regret that I got caught doing some of it. If it hadn’t seemed like the thing to be doing at the time, I wouldn’t have done it. You know how that goes, hindsight is 20/20. To go back and say I wish I wouldn’t have done that, I don’t live my life like that. If it was something that turned out bad, if it turned out to hurt somebody else, I hate that it’s caused some kind of sorrow and you’d only like to change that part. But to change one thing might change the whole picture and then the whole thing might fall apart.
What goals do you still have in music and in life?
I wake up with new dreams every day. One of my big dreams is, again, to be able to have some hit records back on the charts, pop and country. And I’ve just written a Broadway musical, “9 To 5,” where I’ve written all the music for it. “Backwoods Barbie” is included in it.
And I’m going to write my life story as a musical. So I’m going to get more involved in Broadway-type things, more musicals. I’m doing a lot of children’s things. I want to have my own weekly children’s show, like “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” that will also appeal to grownups, and I want to do my children’s books and CDs with children’s music. I want my own cosmetic line, and I want to still produce myself and a few other artists I believe in. TV things, specials, possibly a few more movies if the right things come along. I’m up for grabs, but I’ve got plenty to do and I never intend to retire.