You Can’t Make Old Friends: An Interview with Dolly Parton

On the occasion of the release of Blue Smoke, Dolly Parton talks to PopMatters about her songwriting process, her legacy, and the stories behind her strongest collection of songs in years.
Dolly Parton
Blue Smoke
Sony Masterworks

One thing is abundantly clear after just five minutes with Dolly Parton: even though she’s been through this process of writing, recording, and performing her music thousands of times over the years, she genuinely still loves what she does. She also has a knack for bringing a listener, whether fan or critic, into the fold.

More than that, however, you’re immediately aware that Dolly the songwriter is someone who feels true communion with her words as she writes. A self-professed morning person, she sets out to write early and often, at least a song a day, and though she’s co-written a number of hit songs, she prefers the personal moments which come when alone with her thoughts.

“I do prefer to write alone,” she says when asked about her personal preferences. “I just have such definite thoughts and that’s kinda like my time with God, my little private time. My uncle Bill Owens, I write a lot of good songs with him. We’re so very much alike that it’s fun. I used to write with one of my aunts, Dorothy Jo, we wrote songs like ‘Daddy Was An Old Time Preacher Man’ and a few songs like that. But I prefer to write alone because it’s my spiritual time.”

Blue Smoke, Parton’s latest effort, showcases both those personal spiritual moments juxtaposed against covers which show her equal reverence for a great song, no matter who wrote it. Case in point would be “Lay Your Hands On Me”, the hit for Bon Jovi which Parton transitions from stadium rock to outright gospel-grass stomp, illustrating in a few moments just how deeply she hears.

“When I heard that song years and years ago when it first came out, I thought ‘Wow, that would make such a perfect gospel song!'” She elaborates further: “I grew up in the Pentecostal church where we really believed in laying your hands on people and praying for them. And you’re always asking God to lay his hands on you, you know, when you’re praying about whatever. I do, anyway.”

Rather than impose her interpretation on the song without outside input, Parton decided to go straight to the source. After a meeting with Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, where both “threw in their two cents,” the song came together as one of the album’s strongest cuts.

“We all kind of put it together and they’re really proud of it and so am I,” she says. “But I just really think it made a great gospel song. That’s one of my favorites on the whole album just because it’s different and it sounds good.”

Blue Smoke, complete with a title that suggests both the train carrying Dolly away from heartbreak and the subtle “blue smoke” which often rises from the Smoky Mountains, proves to be a bluegrass-focused album of surprising depth and range. Parton says she set out to create an album of songs which could put, on one disc, a sonic summary of where she’s been and where she hopes to go artistically. As she explains, it’s not like she gets much country radio play anymore, so instead why not focus on what the fans would want to hear?

“I wrote a little liner-note in the album where I talk about how I felt that this was just a whole assortment of all the different things that I’d done through the years,” she explains. “Like I’m a girl of many colors, and this was kind of an album of many colors. I thought it kinda had a good variety and that was on purpose.”

Along the way she managed to reunite with Kenny Rogers on “You Can’t Make Old Friends” and with Willie Nelson on the album’s most outright stunning track, “From Here to the Moon and Back”. The duet with Rogers, she says, was emotional to both songwriters because of how true it is to both their personalities.

“That song was very emotional because of our relationship and the fact that we’re both older,” she notes, “and when we were talking about when St. Peter knocks on the door and you come walking in, it makes you think. But the fact that we got to be together all this time, to have great hits like “Islands in the Stream” … [“Old Friends”] was a different kind of energy but it had more meaning.”

Working with Willie Nelson, meanwhile, brought back memories of their early songwriting days, when the two were on Monument Records together, bouncing ideas off each other and friends like Kris Kristofferson. “Different ones of us would be in different places, not necessarily writing together, but just kind of coming in and out, bringing our songs and singing them to each other,” she recalls. “So Willie and I, our careers kind of went hand in hand. From Monument, then we both got on RCA at the same time, we kept sitting around singing each others’ songs that we’d written through the years.”

Parton says Nelson fell in love with “From Here to the Moon and Back” because of its elemental melody. “He said ‘Well, I love your song “From Here to the Moon and Back”, I can just play the hell out of that on the guitar,’ and I said ‘Let’s go for it!'” Parton laughs. “So that’s how that one came to be because he loved how easy it was to play, he says ‘It’s just one of those melodies, I think I could do some really good guitar work on that.’ And he did too, and I loved it.”

Parton. of course. continues to deny she’ll ever retire, though she admits to spending more time thinking about her legacy and how the work of her last five decades continues to be viewed by current audiences. With Blue Smoke she’s taking the opportunity to tour the world, reaching audiences who haven’t seen her live in more than 30 years.

“In America they know they’ll get to see you,” she says, illustrating why the focus this go-round is on worldwide fans. “If you go somewhere [in America] they won’t have to get on a plane, get on a boat, to travel so far. And so usually when we go overseas they want us to know how much they love us and appreciate us so they’re really, really responsive. And it’s really a nice feeling. But over there they just really don’t know if they’ll ever see you again. And you don’t know if you’re going to see them again, so I give it all I’ve got and they give it all they’ve got so it really makes for a nice fun show.”

As for her legacy, she says she’s focused on moving toward the future. “I just want to continue to do more and better with the things I’ve got going. I want to write better songs, I want to record better records. I would love to do some TV things, especially some things for children … something like PeeWee’s Big Adventure. Something that would appeal to little kids and to grown-ups too. But I think it’s hopefully gonna be a whole lot of things, and one of the things I am proudest of is the Imagination Library, where we give books to children. I just hope to continue doing good at what I’m doing and come up with new stuff all the time.”

The key, she says, is to keep focusing on dreaming big and remaining open to opportunities. “Lord, I just wake up in a new world, like a goose, as they say,” she laughs. “And I wake up with new dreams every day. I mean, who knows why we’re really here and how long we’re gonna be here and what we’re supposed to be doing? So to me I’m supposed to be doing anything to try to make me happy and uplift mankind, to every day try to have a fresh attitude about it. You know, you go through your stuff, whether you’re sick or well, you still try to keep as good an attitude as you can because you know you’ve got to function, or hope you can until you have to lay it down for good. So I just always looked for good things to write about, good things to talk about, and just to try to do something to help somebody else in their lives.”

Blue Smoke, Parton’s 42nd studio album, easily accomplishes that goal, reaching toward the future while focusing our attention on just how vast her contribution has been to the worlds of country, gospel and bluegrass music over her incomparable career. Like the trains featured in the songs she loves so dearly, Dolly Parton continues to chug along, doing what she has to do because it’s in her blood. And that’s what makes meaningful music resonate, regardless of genre boundaries.

And above all, she loves what she does.

“Songwriting is just as natural as breathing to me,” Parton says, smiling. “It was a song that brought me out of the Smoky Mountains and sent me everywhere around the world. Everywhere I’ve been it’s because of the songs that I love to write. Now that I get older I get even more humble about it and I’m so grateful and thankful that I’ve had a chance to see my dreams come true unlike so many people in this world that never can say that. [This career]’s had it’s hard times for sure, and [is] not as glamorous as it looks, but I wouldn’t trade it and I wouldn’t change it and I’m grateful for it.”