Long after Dolly Parton escaped the career restrictions of Music Row for the endless possibilities of Hollywood, she remained a friend to the Nashville music industry“a goodwill ambassador,” as she puts it, “traveling all over the world preaching the gospel of country music.” Whenever a country music television special needed a star of international caliber, Dolly got the call. She would make an appearance, bringing her thousand-watt smile, attention-getting dresses, and high-profile name.
One of Parton’s more ardent suitors has been Walter Miller, producer of the Country Music Association Awards. Year after year, Miller has asked her to participate in the network program: Her name on the TV schedule and in promotional ads has allowed the show to pull in viewers who might not know Martina McBride or who might think Brooks & Dunn features a guy named Garth.
Dolly figures she’s there whenever country music needs her. But these days she feels like she’s in a one-way relationship where she’s not getting much in return. Since returning to country in 1989 with her album White Limozeen, she has released a string of records aimed at country radio and country fans. All of them have been largely ignored by radio, resulting in disappointing sales.
Now with Rising Tide Records, her third record company in the last decade, Parton has just released Treasures, her latest attempt at getting through the tightly guarded gates of country radio. “If this record doesn’t do anything,” she says, “I’ll probably stop trying to be country and just do whatever I do and let it fall where it does, rather than trying to cater something to country.”
Always the optimist, Parton hopes to persuade country music’s leadership that she still has music left in her. Our interview took place amid an all-out, three-day media blitz during which she talked hour after hour about how special she thinks her new album is. We met after lunch, when she and longtime companion Judy Ogle had lined up at the drive-through window of Fat Mo’s in Melrose for a giant hamburger. She apologized profusely for being 10 minutes late, explaining that, in order to eat, she had to return to her 12th Avenue office so she could change out of her low-cut dress and into exercise sweats. “It’s Fat Mo’s fault!,” she crowed with a smile that would melt lead. Later, during our interview, she interrupted a sentence while using a long fake fingernail as a toothpick. “Hold on, I’m still finishing my lunch,” she said with a raucous laugh.
Parton spent a good part of our interview hyping Treasures, an album of cover songs featuring several duets with young country and rock singers. The first single, a sugary sweet version of “Just When I Needed You Most,” features the harmony vocals of Alison Krauss and Suzanne Cox of The Cox Family. Raul Malo of the Mavericks can be heard on the classic temptation song “Don’t Let Me Cross Over,” David Hidalgo of Los Lobos sounds stunning on the bilingual “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” and John Popper of Blues Traveler sounds uncharacteristically restrained on an enticing reworking of “Today I Started Loving You Again.” In the album’s most unusual song, Ladysmith Black Mambazo add their one-of-a-kind choir harmonies to an all-out production of Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train.”
At her best, Parton reinvents several songs on Treasures through fresh arrangements and the injection of her personality, be it the bubbly good cheer of “Peace Train” or the tender sensuality of such solo numbers as “For the Good Times” and “Behind Closed Doors.” But, as has been her habit on her ’90s albums, Parton also drowns several songs in massive choruses or in overly dramatized melodies. She rarely passes up the chance to ladle on gooey sentiment or over-the-top histrionics, but when she does forego such choices, the songs work better.
Impressive as some of Parton’s vocal collaborations are, critics may well suggest that the duets are a calculated stab at getting airplay through association. Parton vows this isn’t the case. “I tried that already,” she concedes. “I rode along on the coattails of Billy Ray Cyrus when I did ‘Romeo.’ They didn’t buy that, either. I thought, ‘Hell, that ain’t gettin’ it.’ I don’t know what they’re going to play and what they’re not going to play. So I finally just learned it was best to do what you feel in your gut instead of trying to be so commercial.”
Parton’s most outspoken comments concern country radio’s lockout of veteran performers. Although she has an enormous investment in wanting radio’s age bias to change, she also genuinely seems to think that the trend does a disservice to the country audience as well as to older performers. “Who could be greater than George Jones?,” she asks. “Who can sing better than Merle Haggard or Waylon Jennings? I’m not talking about me, but I think we can still make better records than these [young] people. But maybe we’re just too ugly,” she says, bursting into laughter. “Maybe I’m just old and ugly!”
She then corrects herself about the newer generation of country singers. “I believe in progress, and I don’t resent the new country artists. It’s not about them. They love and appreciate the older artists. They sing some of the same songs, and they have the same sound. Their heroes are the older artists. They want us to get recognition. It’s the deejays and the program directorsthey just won’t play us. It’s really hard to know why. I have no idea if anything on this album will get any play at all on country radioor pop, for that matter.”
That’s a shame, for several songs from her new album could help the struggling country format. A powerful song by a voice as well-known and identifiable as Parton’s would help balance out the endless rush of new voices now heard on mainstream country stations. Moreover, the artists she namesJones, Haggard, and Jenningsall continue to create country music deserving of an audience. If radio programmers interspersed veterans among the young hitmakers on their playlists, they’d give the tradition-based country genre stronger ties to its past and thus broaden the potential listenershipbut that’s not country radio’s reality.
At the same time, radio can’t be held singularly responsible for putting older artists out to pasture. Young record executives build their careers by establishing new actsand so they focus on developing young talent. Prolonging the career of a talented veteran, after all, doesn’t carry much cache on an A&R man’s résumé.
Parton agrees that record companies don’t show respect for their veteran performers. “That’s why I left RCA after 20-some years.... I didn’t want to leave, because it was like my home. But I felt like it was a marriage where you were being taken for granted. They weren’t paying attention to me, and I thought there was somebody out there who would think I still had it. I went then to Columbia because I thought they might be good. But that was just when they were making the transition to Sony.... They were all trying to hang on to their jobs, so they weren’t paying attention to anything but themselves, and they had some newer, younger artists they were more excited about. They thought I was over the hill too, and I don’t think so.”
Rising Tide Records, she says, showed the kind of enthusiasm for her music that she hadn’t seen from record executives in many years. “They believed what I believed, that I wasn’t done yet,” she says. “They showed true excitement. That’s why I’m signed here.”
Near the end of the interview, Parton checks a legal pad in front of her and quickly runs down all the other business interests she wants to publicize, including a couple of TV specials, her developing TV series, and Dollywood’s fall and winter schedule. As in her career, though, her thoughts eventually return to music.
“I have done a lot of things in my time. When I made the crossover to pop, I always had country things in everything I did. I’ve never really been a ‘pop’ pop singer, and never have I wanted to. But I wanted to find a place in between where I could do both. But now I haven’t had any hits in a long time, and I’m hungry for one. I love to sing. I’ll never stop wanting to sing. My writing and my singing will always be more important to me than anything else I’ll do. But thank God I do have other things.... I don’t have to depend on this for a living. But it’s still what I feel in my gut and in my heart, and it’s what I really want to do.”
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