By Allison Kugel
A country music superstar with disarming downhome appeal; that’s my impression of Dolly Parton after getting the living legend’s humorous and candid take on her own iconic career. As Dolly reflects on the significance of her 42nd, yes 42nd, studio album titled, Blue Smoke, she has much to say about when, how and why she continues to make music. Dolly also shares some personal feelings about with whom she loves to collaborate and how she’s been able to give back to those whose humble beginnings reflect her own storied history in the mountains of rural Tennessee.
Known for southern charm, lyrically rich songs and a larger-than-life blonde bombshell appearance, many people don’t know about Dolly Parton’s longtime behind-the-scenes work with children’s literacy, how she equates rock n’ roll with gospel and… did you know she’s pop star, Miley Cyrus’s, godmother?
Now, on her Blue Smoke World Tour, Dolly Parton shows no signs of slowing down as she crisscrosses the globe with stops in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and North America. Dolly Parton, a living legend who in 2008 referred to herself as “Backwoods Barbie,” a nod to her upbringing on an impoverished farm, is nothing short of a global phenomenon.
Rather than simply give me the rundown on her latest album, Blue Smoke, Dolly was refreshingly willing to offer up thoughts on her famous friendships, her intimate quiet moments of creativity and the one quality she can’t live without.
Allison Kugel: Blue Smoke will be your 42nd studio album! That’s some mind blowing longevity for such a tough and sometimes unforgiving business. And you haven’t jumped through hoops to reinvent yourself in the media like some artists do; you’ve remained authentically just who you are. To what do you attribute your decades-long success and your loyal fan base?
Dolly Parton: I was born a creative person. We got all the creativity from my mother’s side of the family; the biggest part of it. Certainly my dad was gifted in his own way, but my mother’s people were very musical from writing and singing to playing instruments. But it’s just in me to create stuff, to think new thoughts; I just think… creative.
Allison Kugel: You took your mother’s gifts and put a good dose of ambition and business acumen behind them…
Dolly Parton: Well, I’m just always wanting to build something, to grow something and to make something more out of what I’m doing. But that’s a wonderful thought process, and I love to be able to write songs. Then you take it a step further when you get into a position to help, or you know that you should. I think as long as I live I’ll be trying to think of new and different things to do.
Allison Kugel: Your new song “Blue Smoke,” describes the billowing smoke from a train, and how it careens around the tracks, as a metaphor for moving on from heartbreak. Have you always been observant and metaphoric by nature?
Dolly Parton: I don’t require a lot of sleep and everybody kind of knows that about me. So I write in the wee hours of the morning, my best times! My favorite time to get up is when everything is quiet and I feel like I’ve kind of got a direct channel, and I say, “Give me some stuff Lord, just send it on down here.” So I just get it out and start writing. “Wee-hour wisdoms” is what I call it.
Allison Kugel: If you could only choose one sense: sight, sound, touch, taste or smell, which would you grasp onto for dear life, and why?
Dolly Parton: Of course I need all of my senses, but the one I couldn’t do without is my sense of humor!
Allison Kugel: So much of country music deals with matters of the heart. How do you process heartbreak, both as an artist and as a human being?
Dolly Parton: The first thing I do is break it down to figure out why it hurt me. Then, as a writer, I start the process of how to build it back and find out how it can help or heal, not only me, but my friends and the people who will listen to whatever song it eventually becomes. Every heartbreak I ever had has become a song. And the successful ones that made a lot of money, made me heal even better.
Allison Kugel: (Laughs).
Dolly Parton: Ain’t it funny how healing money can be!
Allison Kugel: You’re right about your sense of humor, may you never lose that sense! I love your newest duet with Kenny Rogers “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” which is on this new album. Who wrote those lyrics, and who are the people in your life you thought of while recording it?
Dolly Parton: That song is one of my favorites on the CD and Kenny [Rogers] is one of my favorite people in the whole wide world. We really are old friends. In fact, when they were putting this song together I understand that Kenny was talking to the people that were writing it, and Kenny was in on the writing of [the song]. He said, “You’ve got to write this for Dolly and for me, so we can have another good duet. Dolly knows me like a book and I know her like a book, so this is a perfect idea for a song for us.” I think it really turned out well.
Allison Kugel: And who comes to mind when you listen to the song?
Dolly Parton: I think all of us that have old friends can completely relate to the song because you don’t really always have time for new ones anymore, if you get as busy as we are. It’s nice to make a new friend now and then, but you can’t make old friends. And of course, Kenny and I have always had that love and that passion. We’ve never been lovers but we’ve always been loved by each other. And we really, I think, sing really well together. So I really am proud of this song and this CD.
Allison Kugel: How have your oldest friends impacted the course of your life?
Dolly Parton: They have totally transformed my life. I can honestly say, I would not be here today if it were not for my friends. I have had the same best friend for over sixty years. I have worked with the same people for more years than I can count. And once I have become friends with you, I remain intensely loyal to you forever.
Allison Kugel: What’s the most beautiful thing about collaborating with Kenny Rogers?
Dolly Parton: I love Kenny. I love his voice. I never ever get tired of hearing Kenny sing. And we’re very kindred spirits. But we’re very much alike. Our sense of humor is warped and we just communicate so naturally. It’s like I know what he’s thinking, I know what he’s feeling, even if he don’t say it. I’ll bust him on something that I know he’s thinking. I just love his voice and I just think we’re so compatible.
Allison Kugel: Many people have your careers intertwined in their collective memories. You’re this iconic duo!
Dolly Parton: People just think that we’ve worked together for years and that we’ve had one hit record after another, but we really didn’t. We just had The Islands and a couple of things, and then the Christmas Album. Then we got to tour a little bit, but people just tag us together like we’ve just married, somehow. That’s a wonderful problem to have; a wonderful husband to have in the business.
Allison Kugel: What are you extremely proud of?
Dolly Parton: I’m proud of a lot of things. There are great highlights. I think I’m proud of the fact that I’ve had an opportunity, now that I’m an older person, to honestly say that I have lived to see my dreams come true. I know that a lot of people don’t. A lot of people have the same dreams that I do. A lot of them more talented, write better songs, sing better songs, better performers, and work just as hard and never actually had the success that I’ve had. So every single day I’m just grateful and thankful that I’ve been allowed to see my dreams come true. I’m thankful to the fans out there.
Allison Kugel: And any particular career highlights that stick out in your memory?
Dolly Parton: Things like when I became a member of The Grand Ole Opry back in the late ‘60s; like the Kennedy Awards, and things like that. When I started the Imagination Library, my literacy program, and saw that become such a big success… there are many, many things that I’m very proud of and hopefully there’ll be lots and lots more. But the biggest thing is… I’m like Minnie Pearl, “I’m just so proud to be here (Laughs)!” (Comedienne Minnie Pearl’s famous catch-phrase was “How-w-w-DEE-E-E-E! I’m jes’ so proud to be here!”)
Allison Kugel: You recently told Dan Rather that you liken yourself to a “show horse or a show dog.” Do you feel like you always have to be “on?” And are you in your comfort zone being the public Dolly Parton all the time?
Dolly Parton: If I’m in public, I am “on,” and you will see the Dolly Parton you expect to see. If I am in private with my family I am more relaxed, but still made up. And If I am alone, then I put on a little makeup and fix my hair just so I don’t scare myself if I walk past a mirror (Laughs). But to answer the bigger question, I am always Dolly Parton!
Allison Kugel: How is the Blue Smoke World Tour going? I’m sure each tour has its own theme and culture to it? What is the theme of this tour?
Dolly Parton: Well it’s an amazing feeling because I don’t go [out] there enough, and I’ve had fans there all the years that I’ve been in this business. I’ve been at this for so long. I’ve been in the business over 50 years but for over 40 years I have had hit records in other parts of the world; Australia, Europe. So when you go [on tour] they are so glad to see you because you don’t come that often so they want to show how much they love you and how much they appreciate you. It’s an electrifying experience between myself and the audience. We just had such success the last few times. I thought, while I still got the band together and I’m still young enough to do it, before I start thinking, “well, I’m too old to do this part, I’ll do something else,” I thought let’s just go on back and do this again because they still want to come back.
Allison Kugel: Many people aren’t aware that you are Miley Cyrus’s Godmother. What sort of advice have you given Miley regarding how to navigate the music business, and how to stay true to her own vision for her career?
Dolly Parton: Well she’s growing, I’m telling you. I love her to death. She is a talented, special, sweet girl. She is trying her best to grow up and I’m trying my best to let her. It’s not my place to tell her how to live and how to do. I understand what she is trying to do. She is trying to break away from, you know, all the things. We won’t let her grow up. We just don’t want her to do it. You still want to go, “Oooohhh, calm down just a little bit.”
Allison Kugel: Why did you choose to release this album in Australia and New Zealand first, before releasing it in the states?
Dolly Parton: It was totally logistical. My Blue Smoke World Tour started there, so it made more sense to release the album there first.
Allison Kugel: What made you decide to cover Bon Jovi’s song, “Lay Your Hands on Me”?
Dolly Parton: First time I ever heard the song, “Lay Your Hands on Me,” I thought it was a gospel song, or it should have been. And I thought, “What a wonderful idea for a gospel song.” So I kind of held that in my head for a long time and as a lot of you follow my career, you’ll know I’ll take a lot of rock songs and pop songs and kind of do what they call covers on them. I’ll maybe do bluegrass or kind of country, and I thought this one would really lend itself to a heavy duty rock beat, but with bluegrass instruments and bluegrass harmonies, in addition to having a gospel kind of choir. So I decided to put it together. And I thought it’d be a wonderful song to do on stage.
Allison Kugel: What did Jon Bon Jovi think of your re-imagining of his song?
Dolly Parton: I contacted Jon and Richie Sambora, who wrote the song for Bon Jovi. I said “Well guys, I would like to do this as a gospel song. Would you help me out on that, and would you mind if we did that?” So we kind of all got together and put it together. They’re proud of it and I’m proud of it. It’s one of my very favorite songs. I close the first half of my concert with that. And I get a chance to kind of work with the audience, with “Lay Your Hands on Me.” It’s really inspirational; it’s very uplifting.
Allison Kugel: What is your favorite way to give back to either your home community in the mountains of Tennessee, or throughout the world? Is there a particular charitable cause you would like to talk about?
Dolly Parton: Imagination Library, my literacy program that I started many, many years ago. It’s where we give children books from the time they’re born, once a month, until they actually start kindergarten so they can learn to love to read. It was a program that started in my home county. And of course, then it went all over Tennessee, then into all of the United States, Canada, and now we’re in the UK and we’re actually going all over Australia. To date, we’ve given out about 60 million books and we’re just growing and growing, working with United Way.
Allison Kugel: How do you feel about touring versus doing press when it comes to promoting an album?
Dolly Parton: You really can’t do one without the other. The media drives sales, and the concerts drive people. So as a performer you don’t look at them separately. You look at them together, like biscuits and gravy.
Dolly Parton’s 42nd studio album, “Blue Smoke,” is out now. Visit dollypartonentertainment.com for news and tour dates, and follow her @DollyParton.
Allison Kugel is an acclaimed entertainment journalist with more than one hundred and fifty widely read and syndicated newsmaker interviews to her credit. She is also Vice President of Public Relations and Social Media Firm, Full Scale Media. Follow @FullScale_Media.