The stage would seem to be the one place where the roads of commerce and country music meet for Dolly Parton.
The singer has traveled those avenues for over half a century, creating music that has taken her from an East Tennessee upbringing to Hollywood and around the world. One of country’s most enduring songwriters, she is also one of its most endearing ambassadors, not to mention a businesswoman schooled enough to count an entire amusement park among her most successful investments
So the question posed to Parton during a telephone news conference promoting her current Pure & Simple Tour, a 60-city swing that constitutes her most extensive North American concert trek in 25 years: How different is Dolly the songwriter from Dolly the (literal) country music big wig and Dolly the entertainment entrepreneur?
“I’m the same behind the scenes as I am out onstage,” she replied. “I just wear my heart on my sleeve and say what’s in my heart and what’s on my mind. People have come to know me for the last 50-some years like that. I don’t believe I have too many big secrets or people would know them by now. I do love people. I think that comes from being brought up in a big family. So, no, I don’t think there’s a lot of difference. I work harder at some things more than others, but my personality is the same.”
The year marks two milestones for Parton. In January, she turned 70. Then in May, she celebrated her 50th wedding anniversary with husband Carl Dean. While she has often kept her personal life out of the spotlight, the singer remarked the latter celebration inspired the album that gave her current tour its title, “Pure & Simple.”
“I thought this would be a good time to do an album of love songs. They are pure in nature and pretty simple. A lot of them sound like some of the old songs I used to record long ago that some of my true fans, I think, will really appreciate. So I tell those stories. Of course, in the show, always, after some of the traditional things, I do some gospel stuff, do some talking and try to have some fun. Hopefully, we’ve got a little something for everyone.”
“Pure & Simple” also speaks to the makeup of Parton’s tour. Unlike past performances, which were more revue-style in design, the singer’s shows this summer whittle her entire onstage entourage down to a drummer-less trio.
“It’s basically kind of stripped down, but I thought that would be a good way to do this particular tour. Through the years, people have seen me do all sorts of shows. This is the simplest one I’ve ever done. We have a really small band. We broke it down, more than I’ve ever done since the early days.”
For many fans, the notion of a simpler Dolly Parton seems modest given her role as not only a vanguard country artist but as a pioneering woman within the entertainment industry. The secret to maintaining a career that continues after five decades has centered on a public image that fans identify with.
“I think a lot of people relate to me because of my rural background. A lot of people were brought up kind of hard. Everybody has got their own history, their own kind of background. But I think people have related to me because they know I came from very humble beginnings with a lot of faith and a lot of love and guts.
“Being a girl on top of that, you kind of have to be strong. But then I grew up in a family of six brothers and my uncles and my dad, so I always had a great respect and understanding of men. But I had a lot of power because of my five sisters and my mother and my grandmother. I feel like I’m a pretty rounded out person, so I think people relate to me almost as a family member.”
The songs may define Parton’s artistry — from traditional country classics like “Jolene” and “Coat of Many Colors” to contemporary crossover favorites like “9 to 5” and “Here You Come Again” — but it’s her inviting performance attitude that underscores the longevity of her career and the continued diversity within her fan base.
“I’ve been at this so long that people just kind of grew up with me. I feel more like a family member, like an aunt or an older sister or a friend, and I think people just relate to that. They know that I’m kind of different myself and I’ve fought for the right to be allowed to be myself.
“I think that’s one of the reasons the gays and the lesbians relate to me. They know I appreciate everybody for who they are. I think we should all accept each other for who and what we are. We are just who we are, so why can’t we be allowed to be that? I ain’t out to preach no sermons. I’m just out to do my work, sing my songs, write them, share them and love people.”
Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com