Dolly Parton Interview:
Miracles, Memories, and Her New Album “Blue Smoke”
Just a “little girl from the Smoky Mountains” — that’s what Dolly called herself during our wonderfully entertaining and engrossing round-robin interview that included a group of journalists and online writers and editors — including yours truly — to discuss her new album Blue Smoke, which has “all the colors of my whole career,” as she described it. Her 42nd studio album releases this Tuesday, May 13th and is currently available as an iTunes pre-order that includes two tracks, “Blue Smoke” and “Home,” for immediate download. Of the album, Dolly promises, “You will hear my old world mountain voice on songs like ‘Banks of The Ohio’ and ‘If I Had Wings,’ my tender side on songs like ‘Miss You – Miss Me’ and ‘Unlikely Angel.’ My country / bluegrass side of songs like ‘Home,’ ‘Blue Smoke’ and ‘Don’t Think Twice’ and my funny tongue-in-cheek side on ‘Lover du Jour.’” It also features guest appearances from Kenny Rogers and Willie Nelson, and it includes covers of Bob Dylan and Bon Jovi songs. Sony Masterworks Music is releasing the album, and Dolly’s Blue Smoke World Tour will feature dates in the United States, England, Ireland, Scotland, Denmark, Germany, Norway and Sweden (see tour dates at bottom of article).
Dolly is the greatest female country performer of all time — and one of the greatest icons in popular music history — with 25 RIAA certified gold, platinum and multi-platinum awards, 25 songs that have reached number 1 on the Billboard Country charts, 41 top 10 country albums (a record for any artist in the genre), 110 charted singles over 40 years, 7 Grammy Awards, 10 Country Music Association Awards, 5 Academy of Country Music Awards, 3 American Music Awards, and two Oscar® nominations: one for writing the title track to Nine to Five and the other for “Travelin’ Thru” from the soundtrack of Transamerica. She also starred in the popular films Steel Magnolias, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Rhinestone, Straight Talk, and Joyful Noise. She is one of only five female artists to win the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year Award, and in 1999, she was inducted as a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
When you survey the depth and the stunning success and longevity of Dolly’s 50-year (and counting) career, the truth becomes quickly evident: Dolly is a miracle woman. She is perhaps the most iconic living music legend that American has right now.
And, during this interview, she gave God all the glory for it — though her inspiring praise to God mid-interview came about in an unusual way.
In our round-robin format, we each had time for one question, so I had to pick mine carefully. I decided to ask her about miracles — as in supernatural God miracles that defy human explanation. While listening to Blue Smoke, I was stunned to discover that she did an upbeat, stand-on-your-feet-and-clap Gospel cover of — if you can believe it — Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands On Me.” She turned the song into a fiery, rapturous revival meeting, complete with ad lib lines like “lay Your healing hands on me” — speaking about God’s healing hands. She turned a Bon Jovi song into a praise and worship extravaganza, and the song brought to my mind a miracle that had happened in my life years ago: God had laid His healing hands on me and instantly, miraculously cured a serious problem in my lungs. It was the kind of miracle that changes a person’s life forever.
I was extremely nervous about my question because it was overtly religious, and it was going to sound like the most out-of-left-field, whacky question in journalism history. This was not an exclusively “Christian” press conference. It was a very diverse group from a wide range of publications.
But then this exchange happened between Dolly and one of the reporters:
Reporter: What was your “ah hah” moment for this album?
Dolly: Well, I guess that would probably be the Bon Jovi song, turning that into a Gospel song with their permission and with their help. I called Jon Bon Jovi and asked if he’d be opposed to me working on that and turning it into a Gospel tune, and I called Richie Sambora who was the co-writer on it. So we all three got together, and everyone threw in their thoughts and ideas, and they certainly condoned my thoughts and ideas. So that one was like, “This is gonna be a big surprise to people.” When I first heard that song years ago I thought, “Wow, that sounds so much like a Gospel tune, like asking God to lay His hands on you,” and I grew up in a Pentecostal church where we believed in healing and laying your hands on and praying for people that were sick and all that. But that was, I think, the ah hah moment. People are gonna be shocked when they hear this one.
I couldn’t believe my ears. She brought up the very topic I was going to ask about. We hadn’t been told about the order of the round-robin, so I had no idea when the moderator would call on me to ask my question. I shut my eyes and prayed, “God, please have him call on me next! Her last answer would be the perfect segue into my question, and it wouldn’t sound so out-of-left-field! Please, God! Help!”
And then the moderator called on me to ask the next question.
With a dazed expression of wonder and disbelief on my face, I said hi to Dolly and asked my question:
Your Gospel cover of “Lay Your Hands On Me” really blessed me because a few years ago I prayed and asked Jesus to heal a medical problem in my lungs, and suddenly out of nowhere I felt two hands pushing me back even though no one was standing in front of me, and I could breathe perfectly after that. I was healed. So my question is, did you choose that cover song because you have actually experienced miracles or things that God has done in your life like that?
Dolly: Yes, I have. I have definitely seen it, and I have felt it, and I believe it, and that’s why that song when I first heard it I thought, you know, “lay your hands on me,” and, like I say, my mother, when we were growing up we were very poor. We couldn’t get a chance to go out and, you know, get a doctor every time we were sick, and I remember my mom and my grandma and my grandpa layin’ hands on the kids and all that and, yes I have, I have seen some wonderful things happen. I have seen prayers answered, and I grew up that way and I have a lot of faith, and God has been good to me through the years; I’ve had a lot of prayers answered on my behalf as well.
It’s hard to describe how relaxed she sounded as she replied with that answer. She had a wistful tone in her voice as if we were sitting on her front porch sipping sweet tea while she stared across the Smoky Mountains with nostalgia — as if she were watching an old movie in her memory filled with familiar faces. She sounded happy; it even sounded like she was smiling as she talked, reminiscing about her family and their determined faith in the midst of rough times.
Frankly, it’s not surprising that God has done miracles in her life because her historic career has been nothing short of miraculous for its longevity and continued relevance — something that many other music legends have failed to achieve. After over 50 years of recording and touring, she’s still going strong. She’s come a long way too from when she first started out in 1964 as a young girl. When asked what she would tell a young Dolly Parton if she had the chance to meet her younger self, this was her down-t0-earth answer:
“Well, I would tell her I’m pretty proud of her. When you get older you really reflect on so many things, and one of the things is just how fortunate I have been to actually see my dreams come true because I know so many people that can’t say that and so many people that are far more talented than me that have worked just as hard — who came to town even around the same time I did and never really made it big. You wonder. And you kinda go back to that Kirstofferson song, “Why Me Lord?” More than anything I just thank that little girl who headed out from the Smoky Mountains and moved here back in ’64 to try to make those dreams come true, and now here I am at 68-years-old, and I’ve seen so many of them come true; but what’s so funny is I still feel like that same little girl: I’m still dreamin’ and dreamin’ big. I still have new dreams to dream! I hope to be doin’ this til I keel over dead in about 30 years singin’ one of the songs I’ve written. [laughs]”
That “little girl” was the same girl who boldly turned down Elvis Presley’s request to cover her legendary song “I Will Always Love You” because Colonel Tom Parker (Elvis’s manager) wanted her to sign over half her publishing rights to the song (which was an insane demand). That decision proved to be wise as she would earn huge bucks from those publishing rights, especially when Whitney Houston’s cover of it for The Bodyguard soundtrack became the second best-selling single of all time. It also won a couple GRAMMY awards.
Speaking of the Grammys, one of her most hilarious answers came when someone asked her who her dream collaborator would be for a live performance at the GRAMMY award show, to which she replied:
“In Nashville we have the famous goo goo clusters, you know the chocolate and nut clusters that we’re very famous for, and so I represent those well, and I send those out to people all the time, to Hollywood, and I was thinking, “Maybe if me and Lady Gaga got together we could be Gaga Goo Goo.” [loud laughs from everyone on the call] “Here comes Gaga Goo Goo; I’d go GooGoo over those girls!” [more laughter]
It’s not surprising that Dolly is so hip with the times. When asked about how she has stayed so relevant, she replied:
“People are always gonna be people, we’re gonna have the same thoughts, the same heartaches, you know, everybody, no matter what’s going on in the world, we have our true feelings — whether it’s our faith in God, our faith in family, our love for one another, for our children — and I just love life. I’ve kept a good attitude about it…I figured we need to make the most of everything we can while we’re here. I had just enough talent to get out there and make a living at it, and I always said, ‘I have more guts than talent’…but I just loved people, and I’ve allowed people to know me, and I think people think of me more as an aunt or a sister because they’ve grown up with me, and then they play my records to their kids…and then [I’ve connected] with the little kids [through] the Imagination Library where I give books out to children, and the fact that [I was in] Hannah Montana, in that very hit show that gave me a whole new little audience. I’ve just always managed to be on the job, to be there; I didn’t want ’em to forget me so I’ve tried to stay out front.”
And regarding her impressive presence and success on social media, she said:
“It’s a new day and age…you can cover more ground in 10 minutes this day and age than you used to be able to [cover] in 10 years time…I try to surround myself with younger, talented people that are into that medium [of social media]. I’m an old timer, but I’m not old in my thinking. Like I say, I’m as old as yesterday but as new as tomorrow. So I try to get myself in a good position where I can still get my message out; I’m thrilled that I’m still hangin’ in there.”
I was especially fascinated by her detailed explanations of how she writes music and goes about recording. When someone asked her how the recording process has changed over the last five decades, she replied:
“In 1964 [when she began] it was so different. You’d go in the studio and most of the stuff was live, you’d do like a three hour session, you’d maybe have five songs and hope you got ’em in, and you’d go from one song to the next. And people didn’t do all the stuff they do now. [Now] you don’t even have to be in the studio to record. They can do the music on ProTools, and all the technology, you can sing from your livin’ room. It’s completely different. But I still — when I record my albums — I still love to go in the recording studio with my band, which is mostly the same people that I travel with, or I bring in some of the great musicians from around the country, especially out of Nashville. So I still like doin’ it like we used to years ago just so I can keep that feel cause I’m just an old timer. I think it’s wonderful, all the technology…but I’m still an old timer in that way and still love to really feel the music and work with the musicians and get in there and sing…But even just the way people market the music [in today’s industry], I don’t know if I’d have ever made it in this day and age if I was startin’ right now. So I’m just thankful I got in it early, and I’m still hangin’ around.”
About her songwriting method:
“I write in all kinds of ways. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and write somethin’ down, somethin’ I’ve dreamed. Or if I’m takin’ a bath I always keep a little tape recorder or a note pad somewhere. If I’m flyin’ I always carry my note pad and recorder so I don’t miss a melody. And I can write anywhere anytime for any reason. But my favorite thing to do is to be able to plan in advance like a couple of weeks where I say, “I’m takin’ off two weeks, I’m doing nothing but writin’, don’t bother me, don’t call me, I don’t wanna hear from nothin’ or nobody.” And so then I love to go up to my old mountain home or out to my lake house or somewhere and really kinda get in the spirit for a couple of days, and then really just let it flow and just write write write write write until I get tired of it, and then I come back home — because usually I will have taken off my big set of long acrylic nails so I can really pick the guitar [laughter] then when I’m all done I come back to town and get a new set of phony nails put on and get back at it.” [more laughter]
Dolly is one of the funniest musicians I’ve heard in an interview. She was working the teleconference crowd like a seasoned stand-up comedian. She even sang for us — over the phone! When someone said he was from Kansas City, she immediately replied with a rendition of a Fats Domino song, singing the line, “I’m going to Kansas City,” and then she laughed with child-like delight and said, “I love that song, and I love that city!”
Several minutes after my exchange with her about miracles, there was a long, awkward pause where — oddly enough — no one was saying anything as the moderator tried calling on people (as if the talk about miracles had brought about a stunned silence), and Dolly immediately brought levity to the moment in her disarming Southern accent — “Was it that layin’ on hands thing that ran everybody off?” — followed by laughter all around. She made everyone on the call feel as if we were old friends of hers, and she punctuated that warmth with comments like, “I look for the God light in everybody, and I don’t think it’s anybody’s place to judge another. We are who we are and God loves us all.”
She also gave us a glimpse into her private life — which has much more in common with the average American than you might think (including lots of fast food!) — when someone asked her what she does in her down time:
“I’m very close to my family, and I’ll babysit for my nephews — my grandnieces and nephews — because I live out on a farm, and they love to come out and play with me, and we get our golf carts and go all over the place and pack a little picnic lunch and go to the back field and have a little picnic. I love to read, I love to cook, and my husband and I have an RV, and we go out every weekend and either pack a picnic or stop and get food at some of the drive-thru fast food restaurants and go down on a river bank. So I look like a party doll, but I don’t do much partyin’. I really enjoy my time with family.”
She finished the interview with some sagely advice for young artists just starting out — and it was refreshingly candid and thoughtful compared to the common “follow your dreams and everything will always work out” drivel that gets echoed in our culture:
“I try not to give advice, I just try to pass on some information…those old sayings, ‘to thine own self be true,’ I think there’s so much to that: people really need to know who they are, what they really want, and know the strength of whatever talent [they have]; and I think you need to be willin’ to sacrifice for that if you have to — you’ve gotta protect it, you’ve gotta fight for it, and if you really are that good and you really have that much faith in it, if you really stay at it long enough chances are it’ll happen; and if it doesn’t, I’ve always said, if you’re dreamin’ an impossible dream it’s okay to change dreams mid-stream if it’s something that you see is not going to happen. It’s still good to re-work it and re-think it and apply what you’ve learned to a new dream.”
Dolly’s new album Blue Smoke is a crown of beauty on a miraculous career, and my little chat with her about miracles was itself a miracle — something I will treasure as much as Dolly treasures the blue smoke of those Tennessee Smoky Mountains.
For more information about Dolly Parton, please visit the following links (and be sure to check the tour dates further below):
BLUE SMOKE WORLD TOUR DATES:
Feb 11 Australia, Melbourne – Rod Laver Arena
Feb 12 Australia, Melbourne – Rod Laver Arena
Feb 13 Australia, Adelaide – Entertainment Centre
Feb 15 Australia, NSW, Hunter Valley – Hope Estate
Feb 16 Australia, Tamworth – TRECC
Feb 18 Australia, Sydney – Entertainment Centre
Feb 19 Australia, Sydney – Entertainment Centre
Feb 21 Australia, Brisbane – Entertainment Centre
Feb 22 Australia, Brisbane – Entertainment Centre
Feb 24 Australia, Cairns – Cairns Convention Center
Feb 27 Australia, Perth – Perth Arena
May 22 Tulsa, OK – Hard Rock Casino
May 23 Tulsa, OK – Hard Rock Casino
May 25 Cherokee, NC – Harrah’s Cherokee Casino
May 27 Richmond, KY – EKU Center For The Arts – (St. Mark’s Evening Among Friends)
May 28 Knoxville, TN – University of Tennessee – (Benefiting Dolly’s Imagination Library)
May 30 Thackerville, OK – Winstar Casino
May 31 Thackerville, OK – Winstar Casino
UK & EUROPE
Jun 8 England, Liverpool – Echo Arena
Jun 10 Northern Ireland, Belfast – Odyssey Arena
Jun 11 Ireland, Dublin – O2 Arena
Jun 12 Ireland, Cork – Live At The Marquee
Jun 14 England, Newcastle – Metro Radio Arena
Jun 15 Scotland, Aberdeen – GE Arena
Jun 17 Scotland, Glasgow – SSE Hydro Arena
Jun 18 Scotland, Glasgow – SSE Hydro Arena
Jun 20 England, Leeds – First Direct Arena
Jun 21 England, Manchester – Phones 4U Arena
Jun 22 England, Birmingham – LG Arena
Jun 24 Wales, Cardiff – Motorpoint Arena
Jun 25 Wales, Cardiff – Motorpoint Arena
Jun 27 England, London – O2 Arena
Jun 28 England, London – O2 Arena
July 2 England, Nottingham – Capital FM Arena
July 5 Germany, Cologne – LANXESS Arena
July 6 Germany, Berlin – o2 World
July 8 Denmark, Copenhagen – Forum
July 9 Norway, Oslo – Spektrum
July 11 Sweden, Stockholm – THE GLOBE