The Gospel According to Dolly Parton

Aug 1, 2002 12:00 PM, BY RICK CLARK

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Dolly Parton's flamboyant, exaggerated, country girl-meets-Hollywood look is one of the most identifiable in American culture. A less-talented or savvy artist might not have been able to get away with such an audacious visual statement, but Parton is so talented as a singer and a songwriter that there's no question that her true gifts shine through.

Our interview was held in a small house at Parton's walled Southwestern-style office complex in midtown Nashville. When I was led through the courtyard and into the dwelling, the first space I entered was a well-lit, mirrored dressing and make-up room adjacent to a homey living area and kitchen.

Almost immediately, Parton entered the room looking like…Dolly! She seemed to glow, yet she was very accommodating and down-to-Earth; in fact, she offered to fix me breakfast. I didn't doubt the sincerity of her offer, but I didn't exactly want to put her to work.

At the time of the interview, Parton was excited about her newly completed album for the Sugar Hill label, Halos and Horns, which she eagerly previewed for me on a jam box. It features a new band she calls The Blue-niques (for “unique bluegrass”); members include Steve Turner, Kent Wells, Jimmy Mattingly, Richard Dennison, Gary “Biscuit” Davis, Brent Truitt, Jay Weaver and Randy Kohrs.

Fans of her last two bluegrass and roots music albums (also on Sugar Hill) will probably love this collection, too. It contains more of Parton's fine original compositions, as well as two classics, which, as Parton puts it, she “Dolly-ized”: Bread's “If” and, believe it or not, Led Zeppelin's “Stairway to Heaven.”

Hello.

Do you want some breakfast? I can make you some toast and eggs if you need it.

I appreciate it, but this is just fine (rummaging through candy in the coffee table bowl).

Are you sure? I'm happy to do it.

You don't need to do that, but thanks. Snickers and Milky Way: This is a fine starter for the day.

Like typical studio people, you're eating candy right away. [Laughs] Eat junk. You can do like we all do in the studio — just throw the wrappers on the table. Don't worry, I'll get rid of it later. Now, you can eat all the candy you want.

Unlike the last two albums, the majority of this new album features original compositions. Many of those seem to have a spiritual undercurrent. The title track is really strong.

I wrote several songs after September 11, like we all did. That event really just shook everybody's confidence: You saw how fragile life is and how small and fearful we all are. You just realize that there must be something greater than you; otherwise, you'd totally fall apart. You think you can just screw around all you want to until you get in trouble, and then the first thing you say is, “Oh God, help me now.” It's sort of like a child getting hurt.

I just felt real inspired, and this idea started rolling out and I wrote “Halos and Horns” in no time. I have very strong feelings about that song. It's a real solid country, bluegrass thing — one of those hard-singing songs. I really like it.

This album is really just life stories. It goes from heartache to heaven. There are some gospel things — like “Hello God” — to one that is talking about swimming naked in a pond. [Laughs] Spirituality to sexuality.

You could say that it's all part of the big picture.

Yeah, well, it's true. That's how I look at life.

When I first heard that you were going to do “Stairway to Heaven,” I thought that was an audacious choice. But when I sang through the melody in my head before I came here, I could hear you singing it.

I love that song, and I always thought it sounded like a spiritual song. Robert Plant said he had always thought of it as a spiritual song and was thrilled that I had put the choir on it, 'cause he had always heard it like that. I believe a good song can be done any way if you really mean it from the heart.

Everybody's been trying to get a copy of my version of this song. They've been offering everybody money to bootleg it. Rock stations have been calling us, and country stations just out of curiosity. I'm sure some of them think it's a big joke. I'm sure that some of them are going to want to crucify me, and maybe they will. But in all sincerity, I did it because I love the song.

I take this stuff so seriously. These things are sacred to me. When I decided I was going to do “Stairway to Heaven,” I truly felt like I was walking on sacred ground. It's the same with a song like “If.” When you get a great song that's a classic that's touched the lives of so many people, you have to handle it with delicate care. You just don't go in and put anything on it. You look at it like, “What can I do with this great song that is a little different and will still not be a gimmick, but to make it my own?”

I remember all the quality songs through the years that I've heard, and I just loved David Gates' stuff and the group Bread. I did “If” up-tempo — sort of like what Ray Stevens did with “Misty.” It kind of reminds me of the song “Everybody's Talkin'.” It's kind of got that rolling thing, and I think it worked.

A defining quality that seems to push your career and persona along is fearlessness.

You're right. What have I got to lose? If you don't take some chances, what are you going to do that's of any quality? I've made a lot of mistakes in the minds of some people, but I've made few, if any, in my own mind. If I make five mistakes and do one great thing, well, I'm not going to worry about the five mistakes I made. I'm going to just wallow in the glory of the one great thing I did in hopes that it brought some joy to somebody else. What some would call a mistake is just me trying. If it works, fine. If it don't, what are they going to do? Kill me? Then, if they kill me, are they going to eat me?! [Laughs] You can't really go about your life like that and be productive. That's why I think I've been at it for so long.

I'm up there. I'm 56 years old, and I've been doing this since I was a little kid. I started writing serious songs when I was seven. I started singing on TV when I was 10. I was just a little backwoods country kid that had a more outgoing personality than some of the other backwoods kids. I was still nervous, but my desire to do things was always greater than my fear of it. I just always kind of drug from that God thing. My grandpa was a preacher, and I guess at an impressionable age, I believed that through God I could do everything. And I still have a lot of faith in God, as I perceive him, and that's why so many of my songs have an inspirational feeling.

Everybody thinks of God as a different thing. To me, God is that greater, higher energy — that greater, wiser wisdom. It's that thing in all of us that we all have to draw from. I've always trusted God and trusted myself, which to me are intertwined. I'm a creative person, and what gifts I have come from that divine place that I try to tap into. So who have I got to be afraid of?

How did this new album evolve?

This album all started because I was really just trying to find a band. I'd been writing songs for several months, and I went to east Tennessee to try to find as many musicians back home as I could for a band. A lot of these people work at Dollywood [Parton's successful amusement park]. Gary Davis, who helped me pull all of this together, put the band together. I thought, “I'm just going to go in and demo these songs through my publishing company and pay for this and find a good studio up home. I'll bring these musicians in to play on the demo; that way, I can feel them out.” Well, when we got in there, they just all sounded great from the start.

I was looking for a good studio in the area where I could stay up in my old Tennessee mountain home and write. Then, Gary Davis told me about a really great studio called Southern Sound Studio outside of Knoxville. Danny Brown, who was the engineer for this, is one of the partners of the studio. They do a lot of important stuff there. So, I decided to go ahead and do a whole bunch of songs there; we did 25 songs over the course of several weeks.

You self-produced this effort, and it sounds like you have another album in the can.

Yeah, if I want to do that. I don't know what I'll do next. I always just let the spirit lead me. But, definitely, there's enough stuff for another album at some point.

When we started doing this, I told Steve Buckingham, who's my friend and has worked with me as my producer and co-producer for 12 or 13 years — he also runs the label and everything — “This stuff is turning out really good. It sounds like it could be a record.” Steve said, “Well, just go on with it. Just let what happens happen.” So I did. I missed working with Steve on it, but he's been really behind me all the way with this project. I was so excited about my new band because I haven't had a band together in 10 years. We're going to be doing some concerts in July and August. We're going to go out and promote this, and if it feels good, then I'm going to do some touring.

You didn't tour behind your previous two albums?

No. We never could pull it together to where we could tour. Jerry [Douglas, dobro player] is with Alison [Krauss], and they are all committed to other projects. It was driving Steve crazy trying to pull a band together, so he is thrilled to death that I've got a band now.

Dollywood is one of the most successful theme parks in the country. What inspired that project?

Well, a business mind and the whole idea that the Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park in the United States. We got almost 3 million people last year, and we're only open six full months [a year]. It came from me just wanting to do something to make my people proud of me, and it's also really provided a lot of jobs for the area. It's helped a lot of people, and it's helped me, too. I just thought it would be great to have something to leave for my family.

I found it interesting that Dollywood's ad campaign was focused on a world music theme. You came from the mountains of east Tennessee but you've seen the world, and I was struck with a sense that you were bringing the world into the place you were raised.

That's exactly right. It's a wonderful thing, and people have responded so much to that. That's my home, I suppose, in that it's where I was born and raised, and I love the mountains and that's my foundation. But my home is everywhere. I often joke that home is anywhere I hang my hair. It's true. Whether it's Russia or here, I love people. I just feel like I am part of everything. I am part of that bigger picture.

I perform there several times a year, including benefit shows for the Dollywood Foundation. We have a huge thing that the United Way is in on now called the Imagination Library. For years now, we've given scholarships to people with medical and school needs, and we still do. We even have a hotline for kids. Every child that's born in Sevier County [where Dollywood is located] gets a book a month from the day the child is born until the day it starts kindergarten. We've given out thousands of books now all over, and it's really growing. They call me the Book Lady. It's a wonderful thing, because my dad couldn't read or write, and so many of my relatives didn't get an education, and it was important for me to do that. So, not only is Dollywood a theme park, it really does a lot of good things, and a lot of good stuff comes out of that.

Now, I'm having to speak to all these educators and teachers, and I hated school growing up. I've done more homework in the last five years just working on these projects than I did in 12 years [in school].

Somebody said, “Well, now that you're the book lady and you're involved with these kids and this education, are you going to tone down your look?” And I said, “Why should I? It was all of that that made all of this that put me in this position! Don't you get it? I might look like a phony now, but if I start changing things, then I would be a phony. This is who I really am. I see no reason to think that I have to look like a schoolteacher. I'd rather look like a whore. I'm getting the job done, it shouldn't matter.” You know, people are funny about changing.

It's like a version of “Harper Valley PTA.”

That's true. A lot of my look came out of a little country girl's idea of what glamour should be. But then it got to be really comfortable, and I liked it — just like how people like to dress up. I've always said that if I hadn't have been a woman, then I'd have damn sure been a drag queen. That might be a funny line and people get a kick out of it, but I mean that in all sincerity. I just love it.

People say, “Do you wear those shoes around all the time? Do you wear that makeup all the time?” I say, “Yeah, I do most of this even when I'm by myself.” I can't stand to walk around slouchy all day. When I'm alone writing songs, sometimes I'll go for a couple of days and I won't put on makeup and stuff, but I don't look at myself. Sometimes, I look in the mirror and I'll say, “Oh good Lord, go clean up!” Everybody's comfort level is their own.

Thank God that early on I understood who I was. I understood that being from a family of 12, I was in a spot where nobody was going to pay that much attention to me, so I had to get to know myself through God and through the birds and the bees and the stuff outside and my imagination. Thank God I had talent. But most of my family had talent. I took it and channeled it, and the better I got, the more I wanted to do good, and the more I realized that this is important stuff.

When I get one of those songs that's got all that heart and guts and soul and tears — whether it's a happy song or not — that a certain kind of song and my soul just dance. It's in that real place, and as long as it comes from my gut and from my heart in a very real place, I think people will accept it.

I'm proud of Dollywood and all the business stuff that I've been at least smart enough to be wise to, where I could make my money doing other things. But, to me, all that other stuff just affords my habit, which is music. First and foremost, above everything else, I'm a singer, a musician and a writer. I never got so busy I didn't write songs. I write all the time, and I love it. I pay for my own sessions, then I lease them to whatever label, and then my masters go back to me. After a certain amount of time, I'll want my masters throughout the years to go to my family. That's the way I'm doing it. But I'd be singing if I had to sell it out of the trunk of my car. I will be doing my singing and my writing no matter what.


Mix's Nashville editor Rick Clark is also the producer of the award-winning Oxford American music CD collections.


ENGINEERING “HALOS AND HORNS”

When Dolly Parton began looking for a place to record Halos and Horns, her production assistant, Gary “Biscuit” Davis, brought her to Southern Sound Studio, a multiroom recording and mastering facility located in Knoxville, Tenn. The Stephen Durr-designed studio, which is near Parton's east Tennessee retreat and less than an hour away from the Smoky Mountains, has been at its current location since 1994. That year, it was recognized by Mix as one of the best-designed new facilities in the country. It is owned by Danny Brown (who engineered and mixed the project) and Paul Jones.

When Brown began working with Parton's voice, he initially worked with a Neumann M149, and his mic pre of choice was a Drawmer 1969. “The Drawmer 1969 seemed to sound the best with Dolly's vocal and the M149,” says Brown. “Though the M149 is very EQ-friendly, we found we had to add quite a bit of 5k to 12k to get the presence Dolly was looking for. We then brought in a Sony C-800G, and the results were fantastic. Her voice translated so well through this mic with no EQ at all.” The Avalon VT-737 became the mic pre of choice for the Sony mic and Parton's voice.

“One of the great aspects of the Sony is that it has little to no off-axis coloration, even in the cardioid position. Every time Dolly stepped up to the mic, she delivered a vocal performance; every song, every vocal track,” Brown adds. “She is a very emotional singer. Her mouth never stayed right in front of the mic. The Sony was very forgiving and seemed to capture every detail of her voice, no matter where her head was turned. We were all very pleased with the end result.”

A new Universal Audio LA-2A was used on her vocals during the mix. Parton's vocals were tracked without EQ and just about 1 to 2 dB of compression from the Avalon VT-737. During the mix, the LA-2A was used with a bit of EQ from the VT-737, mostly just to add a little more air to her sound.

“We did some vocal comping, but that became difficult at times. What I mean is, which line do you pick? Which verse do you go for when they all sound so incredible?” Brown says with a laugh, who did the comps with Richard Dennison and Davis. “We found ourselves basically comping for what we thought would best suit Dolly, because every take was excellent.”

Everything was recorded on the iZ Technology RADAR 24. Brown mixed on a DDA Profile 56-input console with Uptown moving fader automation. The mix was monitored on Dynaudio M-1 near-fields.

“We ran the mix bus through a Waves L2 into an Alesis Masterlink at 24-bit, 44.1,” Brown says. “It then went to Soundcurrent Mastering, which is based at our facility, to be mastered by Seva. Nuendo was used to do some editing. The main monitors for tracking were custom TADs, powered by Crown Macro reference amps.
Rick Clark






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