DOLLY PARTON: Crossover icon keeps her music & life grounded in mountains of Tennessee

Pigeon Forge, Tenn. — On Sept. 11 last year, Dolly Parton was about 20 miles away from her Smoky Mountains birthplace, taping footage to be used at her theme park, Dollywood. She and her film crew were deep in the mountains. And they found it hard to get news about what was going on. Still, it was somehow fitting that on that day when the nation’s faith was shaken, she was in a place that has always brought her solace.

As she sang on an early hit, “In my Tennessee mountain home, / Life is as peaceful as a baby’s sigh.” 

“This is my heart-home, here in Tennessee,” says Parton, wearing a “yaller dress,” as she calls it, and sitting upright on a plush white sofa in a Dollywood suite. “This is like a place of anchor to me, where I come back to restore [myself]. I can be anywhere in the world, overseas or anything, and all I have to do is close my eyes and I can be right here. Emotionally, I’m always where I need to be.”

These mountains aren’t a bad place for Parton to be artistically, either. Over the past two years, the flamboyant singer-songwriter has revitalized her career with a series of albums paying tribute to the bluegrass and mountain music of her home.

First, there was 1999’s spirited “The Grass Is Blue,” which scored a Grammy Award for best bluegrass album. Then came 2000’s delicate and haunting “Little Sparrow,” which nabbed another golden gramophone. And now there’s the just-released “Halos & Horns,” a pleasingly diverse collection of fiddle-fueled swingers (“Sugar Hill”), bluesy country weepers (“Not for Me”) and ‘grassed-up covers of classic rockers (Bread’s “If” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”). Yes, you read that right, Dolly Parton does “Stairway to Heaven.”

“I’ve always loved that song,” she says of the quintessential lighter-in-the-air rock power ballad. “Now I’m able to do a lot of songs that I couldn’t before. Since ain’t nobody paying my bills, I don’t have to answer to no managers, no record labels and no heads of this and that — I am the head of it. I just pay for it myself, and if it does good, great. If it don’t, I will have expressed myself musically.”

The new album is expected to be Parton’s biggest in years. She’s touring for the first time in a decade. (The national jaunt lands in Atlanta, at EarthLink Live, on Thursday.) And with the success of last year’s rootsy “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack, which sold more than 5 million copies, bluegrass music has never been hotter.

“We did some quick polling, and it appears as though this release is even stronger than the previous two,” said Bev Paul, general manager of Sugar Hill Records, which is releasing “Halos & Horns” as a joint venture with Parton’s own Blue Eye Records. “We’re seeing this build going on.”

The only obstacle for Parton is mainstream country music radio, which has largely abandoned the genre’s core artists. The irony is that Parton was one of country’s first big crossover stars, setting the groundwork for the music’s current wide-ranging success. In many ways, she’s now trapped in the rubble of the very walls she helped knock down.

But she remains philosophical and hopeful. “I was very fortunate to have a great career long before they closed any doors on me,” Parton says. “After a while, you’ve got to close doors on some people to open some for others. But I’m not done with radio yet. They’re going to have to start playing my stuff now that we’re doing this bluegrass and there’s such a push behind it. They’ll start playing us again.”

“We judge every record on its own merits,” says Dene Hallam, operations manager and program director for Atlanta’s 101.5 (WKHX-FM), who hasn’t yet received Parton’s new single, “Dagger Through the Heart.” But he’s suspicious of Parton’s current drive to return to country radio. “She conveniently forgets that she turned her back on the country industry to go to Hollywood,” he says.

The singer has responded to such criticism before. In her 1994 autobiography, “Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business,” she wrote: “I would hear some of the old-timers [in Nashville] complain that I was ‘leaving country music.’ I would always reply, ‘I’m not leaving it, I’m taking it with me to new places.’ “

Working-class heroine

Parton was born 55 years ago in a two-room house that she has since renovated with indoor plumbing and fashioned into a getaway compound.

Despite her blond hair and light-blue eyes, Parton has a mixed heritage. “My mother’s people have a lot of Cherokee blood,” she says. “My mother’s got those high cheekbones. She’s dark. And several of my brothers and sisters look very Cherokee.”

That type of casual race mixing among mountain folk also shaped the region’s trademark sound. A young Bill Monroe, who would come to be known as the father of bluegrass music, spent a valuable apprenticeship in the 1920s with a blues-playing black guitarist from Kentucky named Arnold Schultz.

Parton’s starry-eyed dreams began when she was 8 years old and her Uncle Bill gave her a guitar. On the morning after her high school graduation, she hopped on a Greyhound bus headed to Nashville. She made her first splash as the duet partner of Porter Wagoner on his celebrated TV show. But she soon began racking up a string of solo hits, such as the desperate plea to man-stealer “Jolene” and the self-penned “I Will Always Love You,” which Whitney Houston turned into a 4 million-selling smash in 1992.

Part of Parton’s appeal has always been her forlorn soprano, which makes her sound like a heavy-hearted angel. But a large part also comes from her heavily made-up and proudly artificial image. She quickly became a sort of patron saint for working-class women who dress as boldly as possible to assert themselves in a world that would just as soon pretend they didn’t exist.

Her big crossover move came in 1977, with the catchy “Here You Come Again.” The tune’s Top 5 ranking on the pop charts set the groundwork for Parton’s mainstream success, which would come to include television (two variety shows), movies (the hits “9 to 5” and “Steel Magnolias” and the flops “Rhinestone,” “Straight Talk” and “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”), and tabloid headlines (the most recent suggests that she’s about to divorce her reclusive husband, Carl Dean).

No celebrity kitsch

All of those career markers, good and bad, are referenced in some way at Dollywood, the 17-year-old Smoky Mountains theme park that serves as another example of the success Parton achieves when she sticks to her roots. Dollywood, about 30 minutes from Parton’s hometown of Locust Ridge, is more like a subdued national park than a kitschy, high-voltage celebrity shrine. There are no water fountains spurting from artificial bosoms, no wig-fashioned swings.

Instead, the park, which welcomes an average of 2.5 million Dolly-lovers a year, hosts a bald eagle sanctuary, craft-preservation classes (where you can learn the all-important skills of blacksmithing and lye soap making) and an annual music-filled festival of nations. This year’s worldly attractions include Lithuanian folk dancers, Trinidadian harpists and Kenyan acrobats. The only nod to Parton is that all the foreign music acts must be versed in her hit “9 to 5.”

Dollywood’s most Parton-oriented attraction is the newly opened “Chasing Rainbows,” an interactive museum of career-spanning memorabilia. As one walks through the halls, there are photographs of the singer with various other celebrities: Cher, Oprah Winfrey, Burt Reynolds, Naomi Campbell, Captain Kangaroo. One image seems especially dated. It’s a poster of Parton in an ad for country radio.

The rest of the Parton paraphernalia ranges from the must-see (fascinating personal calendars, dating from the 1960s, that chronicle award-show appearances, movie shoots, scheduled time with hubby and even dental appointments) to things you really wish you hadn’t seen (a cellulite-removing machine). There’s a fun computerized feature where you can place your mug under one of Parton’s towering artificial coifs. And an alcove shrine to “I Will Always Love You,” where Parton’s version of the tune plays on endless repeat.

But the museum’s highlight, by far, is the original multihued childhood frock that inspired Parton’s hit “Coat of Many Colors.” In the song, she sings about how her mother lovingly crafted the coat from scraps. You expect some garish, shabby-looking mess, but it’s actually rather smart, with its colorful mixture of corduroy patches in beige, red, blue and brown. Imagine something from a children’s line by designer Todd Oldham.

One bit from the song goes, “One is only poor . . . if they choose to be.” And those words ring especially true in Parton’s high-altitude environs. After all, these humble mountains have provided her with many riches. Or, as she puts it, “Home is where I hang my dreams.”


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