At 56, Dolly Parton remains as flashy as ”a drag queen’s Christmas tree,” as she puts it, but she’s also morphed into a true bluegrass star. Nineteen ninety-nine’s The Grass Is Blue won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, and ”Shine,” a song off of last year’s critically acclaimed Little Sparrow, nabbed a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Now the cantilevered singer is touring for the first time in 10 years, drawing heavily from her new Halos & Horns, which just entered Billboard’s new bluegrass chart at No. 2.
The biggest surprise on your new album is a spiritual cover of Led Zeppelin’s ”Stairway to Heaven,” complete with choir.
Well, to me, it had a gospel feeling. You don’t know what it’s really about, but I always felt God in it. It was a favorite song of [my husband] Carl’s. When I told him I had done [it], it was like, ”Oh, God. You did ‘Stairway’ bluegrass?” I said, ”Well, I did [Collective Soul’s] ‘Shine,’ and you liked that.” But he loved it. And then I got the word back from Robert Plant [that] he was so pleased I had used the choir.
It could have gone either way.
It could, and it still might. I just hope it don’t turn out to be ”Stairway to Hell.” I’d talked to Alison Krauss about doing it as a duet years ago. She just looked at me [like], ”Have you lost your mind? How in the hell could we…?”
You’ve stayed current by reinventing yourself — this time by going back to your original mountain sound.
Well, the tits and the hair and the personality helped build the whole Dolly deal, but it was my music that brought me out of the Smokies. I had to get rich in order to afford to sing like I was poor again. I’d be up s—‘s creek if I depended on [bluegrass] to make a livin’. I’m just glad I’ve had this second chance at a first love.
And you’re still making time for a film career. What’s the status of your ABC TV movie about Mae West?
They just put some new writers on it to make it true to Dolly Parton as well as Mae West. I’ve got her down, though. I realize just how similar we are — and not just being little and blond and bizarre and ballsy. I certainly ain’t gonna be doing the Southern accent, and that will be the first time I’ve gone outside myself.
You have surprisingly wide appeal. Can you make that last forever?
I’m going to try, because I don’t feel old. I’m just as excited as I was when I first came to Nashville, [and] as hyper. I have to stay focused. Otherwise, I would just be a damn squirrel. I take the music real serious, but I don’t take comments or criticism so serious like, ”Oh, my God, they don’t like it.” I hope you do, but if you don’t, I’ll just try harder next time.