Dolly Parton might just be the hardest-working woman in show business. At 68 years old, she’s in the middle of a world tour and just about to release her 42nd album, Blue Smoke, on May 13.
First Play: Preview Dolly Parton's new album, Blue Smoke
I had the chance to chat with Parton about her new album, optimism and the changes she’s’ seen after being in the country music scene for decades. Listen to the full interview by clicking on the play button, and read the interview highlights below.
Listen to the full Dolly Parton interview.
On the new record you duet with both Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers. When you write duets, do you write with their voices in mind?
"You Can’t Make Old Friends," that was Kenny and some other folks that wrote that, but I love that song and I love Kenny Rogers, love singing with him.
I did write "From Here to the Moon and Back." Willie loved the song, he thought he could play guitar really good on that, and he really did, too. He said, "I like that melody because I can really play good on my old guitar on this." But I don’t write with other people that often. Very seldom I’ll write with anybody.
There’s a traditional song on the album, “Banks of the Ohio,” it’s such a heavy murder ballad. Of all the traditional tunes you’ve heard in your life, why is this one so special?
Well I just always loved that old song 'cause my mother used to sing songs like that and "Knoxville Girl" ... "Down in the Willow Garden," all those old songs where people used to murder each other. If they couldn’t have 'em they’d just kill 'em. I write a lot of old sad songs myself, but I always loved that particular song. And it always was just such a man’s song though, and I’ve heard it through the years and that’s why I thought, well, I’m gonna write a whole new little front to that and kinda present myself as a reporter, a journalist, and that I’m going to go into the prison to talk to this young man that committed this great murder.
So I kind of made us a way for the girls that maybe through the years that want to sing that song, it’ll be a little easier for them to choose it because I’ve written us a way in.
With such experience in the country music world, how is it different being a female in country music today than when you began?
Well, I don’t know that it’s ever been that easy, I don’t know that it’s ever been that hard. In the early days ... women, country women, usually just stayed home with their husbands and their children and a lot of them didn’t get out there unless somebody like Mooney Lynn, Loretta’s husband, took them out to be whatever they thought they could be. But I never had a problem, I always had my confidence as a woman, and more than anything I had confidence as a singer and a songwriter.
And I grew up in a family of brothers — I have six brothers and I was very close to my dad, all my uncles and my grandpas — so I understood the nature of men so I never felt like it held me back. I really thought that being a woman was a strength for me.... There were all not that many women in the early days but I think women have done just fantastic. We’ve got a lot of wonderful women in country music now and have had for many, many years.
When did you know you were more optimistic than most people?
All my life I’ve been optimistic. I guess I was too stupid to know that I couldn’t do it until I had it done, as they say. I just believed that I could do it. My grandpa was a preacher and I remember there was so much scary stuff — the hellfires and the damnations in that Pentecostal church — so I would grasp on to things that were less scary that seemed to ring truer to me, like "through God all things are possible" and lines like that ... the mustard seed story. I would gather all those things and I applied them to my life. But I just didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t do it.
I just didn’t even think about it in those terms, that was just what I was gonna do. And I knew that I couldn’t be any poorer than we had been, so I thought, well I ain’t gonna starve to death, somebody will feed me. I used to date boys when I first got to Nashville just to go out and eat! Then I would order an extra burger just to take home! But seriously, I always had the confidence, it was more faith than anything, and that was from my spiritual upbringing."
The last song on the record is an uplifting gem of a song called "Try." Why did you put that one at the end?
I wrote that probably 15, 16 years ago, it is the theme song for my Imagination Library, my literacy program where we give books to children and encourage them to dream more, be more, care more and do more, that’s kind of our little slogan. And so I thought I needed a song for that, so I would just perform that at different speeches when we were speaking at the Imagination Library, little things we would do through the years in different towns when we were rolling out the program. But then I just thought, well it’s time that I recorded that song. And I thought, of course, it was such a big song, such a good-attitude song I thought that it was a good way to end the album, and on a positive note.
Dolly Parton’s new album, Blue Smoke, is out May 13. Stream the new album in advance.