WASHINGTON — Some musicians have angelic voices. Others have commanding stage presences. Others yet weave poetry through the art of songwriting. But throughout the course of music history, few have combined all three gifts like the golden vocals, bubbly persona and visual storytelling of the great Dolly Parton.
Now, the country music legend is launching her first major tour in more than 25 years with 60-plus concert dates across the U.S. and Canada, including Wolf Trap on Wednesday, June 8 at 8 p.m.
“I can’t wait to come to Wolf Trap,” Parton told WTOP. “I’ve always loved that. I haven’t been there in a long time! … We’ll be doing all the favorites, ‘Jolene,’ ‘I Will Always Love You,’ ‘9 to 5,’ ‘Islands in the Stream,’ all of that stuff, and then we’ll do our little gospel things and we’ll have our corny jokes.”
The tour is timed with the release of Parton’s “Pure & Simple with Dolly’s Biggest Hits,” a two-disc set featuring her career’s biggest hits, as well as fresh new material, slated for release this summer.
“It’s all love songs, so I’ll be doing maybe three or four songs from that,” Parton said. “Then of course, I think people expect me to do that home segment … songs about home and talk about that.”
Indeed, her most powerful songs come from her roots. Born in eastern Tennessee, she began singing on local radio and TV until age 13, when she performed at the Grand Ole Opry in 1959. Guess who introduced her to the audience? The one and only Johnny Cash, who encouraged her to keep at it.
“We’ve got a little girl here from up in east Tennessee,” Cash told the crowd. “Her Daddy’s listening to the radio at home and she’s gonna be in real trouble if she doesn’t sing tonight, so let’s bring her out.”
In 1964, Parton graduated high school and moved to Nashville, forming a songwriting team with her uncle Bill Owens. The pair wrote for the likes of Hank Williams Jr. and Kitty Wells, landing two Top 10 hits with “Put It Off Until Tomorrow” for Bill Phillips and “Fuel to the Flame” for Skeeter Davis.
But her talents were destined for more than behind-the-scenes. So in 1965, she signed a contract with Monument Records, sidestepped an initial pop-star push and recorded the debut country album, “Hello, I’m Dolly.” Soon after, she performed on the nationally-syndicated “The Porter Wagoner Show” with the duet “The Last Thing On My Mind,” which cracked the Top 10 on the country charts.
By 1970, Dolly began charting hit country singles of her own, reaching No. 1 with “Joshua” and receiving her first Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Vocal, losing to Lynn Anderson.
A star was born and the world of country music wanted to know where she came from. Turning inward, Dolly began singing about her rural roots, landing a pair of homegrown country hits with “My Tennessee Mountain Home” and “Coat of Many Colors,” reaching No. 15 and No. 4, respectively.
The latter told the autobiographical tale of how her mother once stitched a patchwork coat out of old family rags, while reciting the Biblical story of Joseph’s coat of many colors. As the story goes, young Dolly excitedly wore the coat to school, only for her classmates to laugh at her. But it was Dolly who got the last laugh, as “Coat of Many Colors” was voted the No. 54 Country Song of All Time by CMT.
Still, nothing could have prepared her for the success of her next album, “Jolene,” which reached No. 6 with two No. 1 hits. The first was the title track “Jolene,” where she pleaded with a romantic rival to stop her auburn-haired, green-eyed flirtations: “Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene! I’m begging you, please don’t take my man. Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene! Please don’t take him just because you can.”
The album’s second No. 1 hit, “I Will Always Love You,” became Dolly’s signature song, voted by CMT as the No. 14 Greatest Country Song of All Time, ahead of classics like Conway Twitty’s “Hello Darlin'” and Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’.” The song reached a new generation when Whitney Houston covered it in 1992, spending a then-record 14 straight weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100.
While Parton humbly acknowledged that Houston belted the song into the stratosphere, turning it into a pop-culture phenomenon, there is still something haunting about Dolly’s quivering original.
After “I Will Always Love You,” Parton’s country music success rolled on like a steamroller with six more No. 1 hits by the end of the decade: “Love is Like a Butterfly,” “The Bargain Store,” “Here You Come Again,” “It’s All Wrong, But It’s All Right,” “Heartbreaker” and “You’re the Only One.”
By the 1980s, she found No. 1 hits with “Starting Over Again,” “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You,” “But You Know I Love You,” “Think About Love,” “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That,” “Yellow Roses” and twice with Kenny Rogers duets: “Real Love” and “Islands in the Stream.”
But her biggest ’80s hit was hands down “9 to 5,” which not only topped the country charts, but also the pop charts reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, while winning Grammys for Best Country Song and Best Female Country Vocal. The song coincided with the movie “9 to 5” (1980), where Dolly made her acting debut alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as three employees of a sexist boss.
The title track earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song, while the American Film Institute voted it the No. 78 Greatest Movie Song. It became a Broadway musical in 2009.
But of all the movie and music hits, some of Dolly’s favorite lyrics come from her lesser known songs.
“Usually my favorite things are songs that never really become singles,” she said. “One of my favorites that I love the way it’s written … is ‘Down from Dover.’ I love telling stories and painting pictures. And the new CD is all love songs … but there’s a lot of good lines. I had a good time writing it. I think I came up with some really nice lines in some of those songs. I seemed to be in a very inspired mood.”
If anyone knows the art of visual storytelling, it’s Dolly Parton.
“I just love to paint pictures with songs,” Parton said. “Mike Davis, who is one of the great writers, the name of his publishing company is called Song Painter, and I always thought, wow, I wish that was the name of my publishing company! I wish I’d a gotten that first! I feel like we are song painters.”
This painterly approach has earned a whopping 46 Grammy nominations — the most ever by a female artist, second only to Beyoncé — and winning eight, including a 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award.
But while she possesses the skill of an artist, her lively demeanor remains admirably approachable, laughing with down-to-earth quips and remembering where she came from as she racks up endless accolades. Perhaps that’s why — in addition to the Country Music Hall of Fame, Songwriters Hall of Fame and Grammy Hall of Fame — she’s also been inducted into the Happiness Hall of Fame.
What’s the secret to her bubbly personality and timeless beauty?
“Good doctors, good lighting and good makeup!” Dolly joked. “And a good attitude.”
Click here for more info. Ticket availability is limited. Listen to the full conference call with Dolly below:
WTOP joins media conference call with Dolly Parton