hello dolly

dolly parton perform this weekend in richmond and louisville.

dolly parton perform this weekend in richmond and louisville.

Earlier this month, Dolly Parton’s publicist sent out the news that the veteran country-singer was forgoing all advance interviews with newspapers for her current tour. Instead, Parton agreed to answer questions submitted by print journalists through email.

Realizing a few comments sent through cyberspace were better than no interview at all, queries were complied and emailed in the hope that such a fractured conversation process would offer at least some insight into the workings of Parton’s remarkable 40-plus year career.

Last week, a bulk reply came – a total of 27 answers, comments and remarks to the invited questions. This was when the caution flag went up. Who was to say Parton was actually the one that took on the questions?

Surely, the Divine Miss Dolly wouldn’t pull a fast one. Not the TV songstress that sold boxes of Breeze detergent with Porter Wagoner back in the ‘60s. Not the writer who helped redefine artistic roles for women in Nashville with songs like I Will Always Love You and Jolene in 1974. Not the impromptu movie star who turned country-pop loose on Hollywood with 9 to 5 in 1980.

A look at the emailed replies soon established who was doing the actual cyber-talking. Among answers to more generalized questions – none of which, incidentally, were submitted by yours truly – were these remarks: 

Q: What’s on your TIVO?

A: What’s a TIVO?

Q: Who are you listening to?

A: Right now, I’m listening to you. The rest of the time I’m listening to me.

Q: What will audiences see?

A: Well, they’ll see me.

Q: Do you get to go out at night when it’s just you?

A: Well, why in the world would I want to go at night with just me?

Be as skeptical as you like. That sure sounds like Dolly to me. For the better part of her career, Parton’s performances on screen, stage, TV – anywhere, really – have been defined by a personality that has never been less than luminous. It’s part country candor and part unrelenting cheer. But the bulk of that personality seems to be built on a level of confidence that has given Parton the ability to poke fun at her own wildly costumed image as she furthers her business savvy into everything from theatrical projects (a Broadway bound stage musical version of 9 to 5) to amusement parks (why, Dollywood, of course).

Is it any wonder then Parton celebrates her large-than-country life persona with a new album titled Backwoods Barbie? With a cover photo of the 62 year old Parton literally dolled up in leopard skin and layers of pink as she reclines in the bed of pickup truck, Backwoods Barbie seems the ultimate snapshot of an artist in keen and complete control of her own public image.

“Well, who’s too say what will or won’t work,” Parton said of that image. “I just try to be true to myself and look the way that I’m comfortable looking. If I’m comfortable with me, then you’re going to be comfortable with me.”

Backwoods Barbie, a return to the country-pop that defined Parton’s hit-making streaks of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, follows two very intriguing chapters in her four-decade recording career.

The first began at the close of the ‘90s, when Parton retreated from glamorized pop turf, signed to the Americana label Sugar Hill and recorded a trio of predominantly bluegrass-oriented albums: 1999’s The Grass is Blue, 2001’s Little Sparrow and 2002’s Halos and Horns.

“I’m very proud of all the bluegrass oriented albums,” Parton said. “It just reminded me and my fans that I should always record acoustic music and country along with anything else that I might do.”

The other chapter leading up her current tour was a turn that spun the music of our Backwoods Barbie back in time.

In 2007, three of Parton’s finest albums – 1971’s Coat of Many Colors, 1973’s My Tennessee Mountain Home and 1974’s Jolene (which contained the career defining I Will Always Love You) – were re-issued by the Sony Legacy label. My Tennessee Mountain Home was a recollection and celebration of Parton’s rural upbringing as the fourth in a family of 12 children. Released shortly before parting ways with longtime musical mentor Porter Wagoner and his weekly TV variety show, it remains one of Parton’s strongest recordings.

My Tennessee Mountain Home is definitely one of my favorites. And my first album after I left The Porter Wagoner Show was called New Harvest First Gathering… I have a very, very special feeling toward that one as well.”

In a career that has produced some 60 studio recordings and a level of crossover popularity that few performers in pop or country camps could ever contemplate, the big question is why tour? Obviously, there is a desire to promote her new album. But why continue to hit the road when you have established yourself as one of the world’s most beloved crossover entertainers?

“Well, I am addicted to the love and the energy that I receive from the crowd. But it’s fair exchange. I love them and give them every ounce of energy that I have as well.”

Dolly Parton performs 7 p.m. tonight at Eastern Kentucky University’s Brock Auditorium in Richmond ($80-$150) and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Louisville Palace, 625 4th St. in Louisville ($85). Call (859) 281-6644.

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