Don’t get Dolly Parton started about end-of-the-world prognosticators. The Country Music Hall of Fame member was raised and remains devoutly religious, as she demonstrated so artfully in her biblically rooted classic song “Coat of Many Colors.” But the firebrand singer, songwriter and businesswoman isn’t remotely interested in giving an ounce of credence to doomsday scenarios espoused by mere mortals like California radio preacher Harold Camping.
On her new album, “Better Day,” Parton sounds in the first song, “In the Meantime,” like she’s been writing straight off the headlines Camping generated with his widely disseminated prediction that Judgment Day would come on May 21.
Yet she wrote the bouncy song, which urges listeners to make the most of whatever time the human race has left rather than fretting about its obliteration, long before Camping’s name was rolling off the tips of newscasters’ tongues.
“I started writing it years ago,” Parton said from her desk in the Nashville office where she conducts her many business affairs. It’s also close to the rehearsal space where she’s been readying her “Better Day” U.S. tour that starts Sunday night in Knoxville, Tenn. “I wrote it when some other crazy looney-tune was saying the world was coming to an end.”
In one verse, she sings:
“Well, nobody knows when the end is coming
“But some people tell you they do
“It might be today, it might be tomorrow
“Or in a million years or two
“In the meantime, in the between time
“Let us take time to make it right
“And let us not fear what is not clear
“Faith should be your guide”
Faith — in God, and in her own instincts — is what keeps Parton, who turned 65 in January, a fount of creative energy and what leaves her unafraid of skewering anyone she thinks is full of hot air. Her barbs, however, are usually delivered with a twinkle in her eye and that wry half smile that’s one of the many signature facets of her effervescent public persona.
“God knows when the end of time will come,” she said, “not some fanatic. ... The world will end someday, but the end of the world and the end of time are two different things. Anyway, we’re more apt to blow the world up than something else happening.”
Parton clearly would rather people “pay a little more attention to what we do in the meantime. ... I believe in that old saying, ‘If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant an apple tree today.’ I’m going to write my songs today, and if the world ends tomorrow, well, we have hope and there’s a lot of good stuff going on now.”
The good stuff includes the new album, which extends her return to the country-pop mainstream sound she resurrected with her 2008 album, “Backwoods Barbie.” That came after a string of rootsy recordings that mined the bluegrass influences she grew up with in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
“Better Day” for the most part successfully bridges her more pop-flavored but sometimes fluffy ‘80s albums with her more consistently inspired recent bluegrass collections.
It has been favorably received by many critics, scoring an aggregate critical response of 80 out of a possible 100 points at Metacritic.com. It includes vintage material she’s revisited for a new generation, including the first single, “Together You and I,” which she had recorded in the ‘70s as a duet with the man who launched her career in the mid-‘60s, the late country traditionalist Porter Wagoner. It was her professional split with Wagoner that led her to write her best-known song, “I Will Always Love You,” which Whitney Houston transformed into a pop-R&B anthem with her 1992 recording.
It’s certain Parton will give “I Will Always Love You” a central role in shows she’s doing on tour, for which she’ll be backed by much the same versatile country-rock band that’s accompanied her in recent years.
Parton is one of a relatively few country acts to have played at the Hollywood Bowl over its 90-year history, a record that’s a bit of a mystery given that so many rock, pop, R&B and jazz acts that normally play much smaller venues while on tour often find themselves facing capacity crowds at the 19,000-seat music and picnicking institution.
Patti Page, a country-pop darling in the 1950s, appeared at the Bowl in 1988, and superstar Garth Brooks made his only U.S. concert appearance of 1994 there, as a benefit for a Southland organization helping the needy. Country-pop crossover divas Shania Twain and Faith Hill have landed Bowl performances, in 1999 and 2009, respectively.
“I’m proud to be there,” Parton said, but noted it’s not an unprecedented event for her. “I’ve walked out and sung a few songs with different people there, and I’ve been to shows there myself, which is why I know how fun it is to be there. I’ll be doing four or five songs from the new CD and added some bluegrass things I didn’t do on the last tour.”
She has launched her own record label, Dolly Records, for the new album as much out of necessity as desire in the face of a country music business that has focused largely on performers 40 and younger.
It’s a luxury many of her contemporaries and several still-active country veterans who are her seniors don’t have.
“I know that times do have to roll on,” she said. “But if I was ever any good, I’m as good now as I ever was. It’s the same with Merle (Haggard) and so many others. A lot of people don’t realize how good they still are — they just look at you as old people. It does hurt.
“But we’re still serious about our music and we’ve got to have an outlet for it. So I started my own label. I can make my music, and if I have to sell it out of the trunk of my car, I will,” she said without a hint of braggadocio or self-pity. “That’s what true artists have always done.”
She’s afforded it with a combination of publishing and other royalties from a deep catalog of country hits that started in 1967 with “Dumb Blonde,” the solo single that established a public image she’s exploited and fought in different arenas for almost half a century. As recently as 2005, she returned to the No. 1 slot on the Billboard Country Singles chart with her featured appearance on Brad Paisley’s “When I Get Where I’m Going” single.
She’s been directly involved in the expansion of her 1980 hit song “9 to 5” into both a hit film (which co-starred Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin) and stage musical. She’s also expanded her Dollywood country music-themed park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., outside Knoxville, into a raft of sibling parks and restaurants. She’s also the impetus behind Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, her program that provides free books to preschool children in an expanding group of communities across North America and England.
Early next year she’ll be back on the big screen with another of country music’s most respected songwriters, Kris Kristofferson, and Queen Latifah in “Joyful Noise,” a comedy about two women jockeying for control of their church choir after Kristofferson’s character, the church’s pastor and Parton’s character’s husband, dies. In real life, she’s been married for 45 years to Carl Dean, who never gives interviews.
She makes her career choices largely by intuition. “I just go by my feelings,” Parton says with the Tennessee drawl that’s always been as central to her character as the big hair, bigger bust and even bigger personality. “I’m in this for my own enjoyment, and I hope by being myself I can convey to my fans what I’m feeling.
“I try not to just do things just because everybody else is doing it. I write songs for one reason only: I have to, they come out of me. I am a skilled writer, and I can to do that too, when I have commissioned projects like ‘9 to 5,’” she said, referring to the songs she composed to flesh out the stage musical. “I can work well, and work fast, but I prefer to let the spirit lead me, wherever I am in my life, or whatever I decide I’m willing to handle.
“I don’t wear myself out trying to find a certain producer just because everybody else is using him or because that’s what’s hot on country radio. Sure, I’d love to be able to get my songs played on the radio. But it’s more important to be true to me.”