A phone conversation with Dolly Parton is very finite thing. With a modest amount of time allotted for our interview, the decision was made to forgo pleasantries and jump right into the questioning.
"Fine," replied Parton, 68. "I'll jump higher."
She will, too.
For the better part of a five-decade career, Parton has made a habit out of leaping past most of her contemporaries. She has topped the Billboard country singles chart more than two dozen times and sent over 40 albums into the Top 10. Cumulative career sales of her records and downloads have been estimated at being in excess of 110 million copies. And that says nothing of successes in film, stage and entrepreneurship.
Parton's new tour — in support of Blue Smoke, her 42nd studio album — includes a performance Tuesday in Richmond as part of St. Mark Catholic Church's ongoing "An Evening Among Friends" series of benefit concerts
As she prepares to hit the road, one might suspect the practice of making music has become so second nature to Parton that it is now devoid of spark and surprise.
Parton will have none of that.
"Well, when you really love to write and love to sing, you never lose that. It just gets stronger through the years because you realize that is your gift. So you try to develop it and be stronger with it. But it's always exciting to me.
"It's like when I write a new song. I get so excited when I feel that certain kind of feeling. There is just something exciting about having something in the world today that wasn't there yesterday, and it's something I created, something I put there. I still get excited about the whole process."
That process covers a lot of ground on Blue Smoke. Parton duets with Willie Nelson (From Here to the Moon and Back) and Kenny Rogers (You Can't Make Old Friends), covers songs by Bob Dylan (Don't Think Twice) and Bon Jovi (Lay Your Hands on Me) but still devotes over half the recording to her own compositions.
One tune, If I Had Wings, reflects the country roots inspirations of Parton's youth by recalling the folk standard Wayfaring Stranger.
"That's the music I grew up singing, so it's kind of embedded in my Smoky Mountain DNA," said Parton, who grew up in Sevier County, Tenn. "I notice I have a tendency to write a lot of that flavor into my songs. I still love those old melodies, those old spirituals and the old mountain ballads."
With such lasting commercial success also comes the opportunity to give back. Tuesday's Evening Among Friends performance is one of two benefit concerts Parton will give before embarking on a monthlong tour of Europe. The other will be for Parton's Imagination Library and the Robert F. Thomas Foundation as part her longstanding campaign to promote childhood literacy.
"It is my belief that if you are in a position to help, you should. That's the Christian way that I grew up in. I have a giving heart. I've been so blessed with so many things in my life, it's the least I can do. So when I was asked to come to Kentucky and help St. Mark's School and various charities around there, I said, 'Well, sure. We're close.' And it makes my heart feel good. I like giving back because I've received so much."
Of course, along with Parton the artist and Parton the philanthropist, there is Parton the celebrity — a country-charmed creation that serves as the platform from which the singer presents herself to the world. The wigs, the makeup, the, well, physique — they are all a form of fun expression. Parton just hopes that her fans don't let the image overshadow her accomplishments.
"I think it's taken every bit of all that to make me who and what I am. I know I look totally artificial but I like to think I'm totally real where it counts. But my looks also come from a very serious place. I'm not a natural beauty. I didn't have the things I wish I did when I was a girl growing up. The way I dress and everything, it kind of fits my personality.
"I know there are some people who don't see any more than the boobs and the hair and the personality. But the people that have really followed me and have really cared, they know how seriously I take my work. They also know I don't take myself so seriously. I have to enjoy this myself, too. This ain't just for them — it's for me, also. I have to live in this little person day in and day out and I'm just going to have to present it the way that it is. So I'm comfortable with my image.
"Some people say, 'You've had to overcome your image.' Well, I don't know about that. I think it's kind of walked hand in hand with everything else I do."