NASHVILLE (Billboard) - It’s only 8 a.m. at Camp Dolly, the expansive, Spanish villa-styled compound just off Music Row in Nashville, but Dolly Parton is most definitely put together.
And on the cusp of an ambitious world tour, she has established a game plan to reach the box-office heights realized by her peers in the one-name iconic diva class. At the same time, the Parton brain trust endeavors to familiarize this iconic artist to a new generation of fans, an effort vitalized by a recent appearance on “American Idol.”
Clearly invigorated by her new album, “Backwoods Barbie” on her own Dolly Records, Parton outshines even her bigger-than-life persona on this early spring morning. The back problems that delayed the start of the tour are behind her. Her voice is slightly hoarse due to exhaustive tour rehearsals, but Parton is quick with a laugh or a joke, and doesn’t hesitate to break into song to make her point.
It’s apparent that being Dolly Parton, even curled up on a sofa sipping a bottle of water, doing maybe her 10,000th career interview, is a full-time gig and one she happily embraces.
“I’m a very professional Dolly Parton,” she says without a trace of sarcasm. “I can’t tell anybody else how to run their life or their business, but I really believe I’ve got a good bead on myself. I know who I am, I know what I can and can’t do, I know what I will and won’t do, I know what I’m capable of.”
Parton, 62, whose tour begins Tuesday in Pittsburgh, is living proof that it is possible to be a “backwoods Barbie” (to use her term), as well as a respected singer/songwriter, a multimedia icon and a savvy businesswoman.
Amid these talents, her priorities are clear. “I am a songwriter first, and a singer second, and an entertainer,” she says. “I enjoy all of that and I take it all so seriously.”
That’s not to say the message can’t sometimes be overwhelmed by the presentation. “I’ve often been misunderstood, and it has taken 40 years for people to realize how serious I am about the music,” Parton says. “But this is also serious, the way I look. This is how I’m comfortable.”
The way she looks, sings and performs has made her a worldwide brand, and one that some feel has underachieved at the box office. “If I say to you, ‘Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Cher and Dolly Parton,’ who’s the odd one out?” Neil Warnock, CEO at her worldwide booking firm the Agency Group, asks rhetorically. “Dolly is, because she doesn’t do the box office that the others do. And she should. She’s as iconic as any one of those artists.”
But an icon more familiar to an older demographic, as demonstrated by her “American Idol” appearance. “One thing we found out from ‘American Idol’: Most people don’t know that Dolly Parton wrote ‘I Will Always Love You,’ most people don’t know she has sold 110 million units, that she has 25 No. 1 singles, that she has 79 albums out, published 3,000 songs,” says Danny Nozell, Parton’s manager and GM of Dolly Records.
“We’re not reinventing Dolly. We’re just reintroducing her to a younger generation.”
If Parton is the queen of being “Dolly,” that confidence and self-realization must have come in handy when she first came to Nashville at 18, fresh out of the Smoky Mountains. Already a veteran songwriter and pure-as-spring-water singer, she was untainted by popular culture.
“My style was just the way I sang. I would have been more influenced by my aunts, or my mother, who a great singer, than anybody else,” Parton says. “We didn’t have TV back in the early, early days, my most impressionable years, or even radio to a great extent. When I was little we didn’t have electricity, so we had an old battery radio that you had to pour water on the ground wire to get it to stop whistling long enough to hear the Grand Ole Opry now and then when Daddy would try to get that.”
Parton says she started writing songs at about 7 years old. “I had a gift of rhyme that ran in the family as well,” she recalls. Her first exposure to the world outside her mountain home came via Cas Walker, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based businessman who showcased the wealth of regional talent on local TV broadcasts to promote his grocery store chain.
Parton first appeared on Walker’s show at age 12, and her talent and charisma made her an immediate favorite in the region. Trouble was, nobody much outside of East Tennessee recognized the talent, so Parton headed to Nashville in 1964 the day after high school graduation.
“When I first came here I really was the backwoods Barbie: too much makeup, too much hair, the big boobs, country girl straight out of the mountains,” she recalls. “It’s hard to take somebody looking like that serious, I guess, so I had to work doubly hard to try to prove myself.”
Parton did crack the top 25 with “Dumb Blonde” in 1967. Her biggest break came when she was booked on “The Porter Wagoner Show” in the fall of that year (the first performance on which has found its way to YouTube), beginning a relationship that would forever link the pair. More hits followed, often collaborations with Wagoner, and by the mid-‘70s, Parton had transcended the show and was a star in her own right.
“Porter and I were always like family, or a husband and wife in a way,” Parton says of Wagoner, who died last year. “We fought all the time but we loved each other deeply and truly. We were both so stubborn and so much alike that we couldn’t get along. We had our differences, but there was always that bond, and the last several years we had become really close again.”
Parton admits she felt threatened and afraid when she branched out on her own, hovering on the brink of crossover success. “A lot of people thought I was making a big mistake and that I was being a fool, that I would not be accepted outside of (country), that I was ruining my career,” she says.
“‘Here You Come Again’ (in 1977), that was my first single after I went out on my own, and it was my first million-selling record. I’d never even been anywhere close to selling that kind of records before.”
Parton’s multimedia career took flight in the ‘80s, with crossover hits, a TV show and starring roles in major motion pictures, beginning with “9 to 5” in 1980.
“I didn’t leave home thinking, ‘I’m going to be in the movies,’ I left home thinking, ‘I want to be a singer and a songwriter,”‘ she says. “I just knew that if my career went the way I hoped it would that all things were possible and it would all fall into place.”
Even with her numerous successful business concerns, including the popular Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., that she opened in 1986 (which will host a Wagoner tribute this year), Parton has also been prolific in the studio. She has released seven albums in the past decade, including a trilogy of bluegrass CDs on Rounder that has sold a combined 653,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Parton says she had one major goal in mind in recording the new project, released in February. “The same thing I’ve wanted to accomplish for years: to get some play on the radio and let people know I’m dead serious about my music,” she says.
She knows what she’s up against. “People my age lost their contracts with major labels several years ago, so since then I’ve been doing whatever I could, including doing my bluegrass thing, which I’m very proud of,” she says. “But I really felt like that even though I’m the age I am, if I ever was any good I’m as good as I ever was.”
“Backwoods Barbie” debuted at No. 3 on the Top Country Albums chart, her highest-charting set since “Eagle When She Flies” reached No. 1 in 1991. It has moved 83,000 copies to date, according to SoundScan.
Parton has for several years enjoyed her own imprint with Blue Eye Records, but launched Dolly Records and the current project with renewed vigor. “I own all my masters, but I just wanted a fresh, clean start — just go ahead and hire independent record people, hire somebody to run the label and really sink some money into it, invest in myself,” she says.
“The majors are all going down the tubes. They’re all has-beens like they all thought I was. So why not just do it? If it does well, then I make all the money, and if it don’t, nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Her North American tour will be followed in June by an overseas trek. Some 90% of North American seats have been sold and 85% for Europe.
She says the overwhelmingly positive response she received from last year’s European tour surprised even her.
“I knew that I had a lot of fans in Europe, especially of the old stuff,” she says. “It was funny when we were doing the shows over there, people would hold up signs for ‘Joshua’ (from 1971) or ‘Mule Skinner Blues’ (1970), ‘Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark’ (1968). I knew I had fans but I didn’t realize I had that many there that had lasted this long.”
Parton’s 2007 European tour took her to 12,000-capacity venues all over the United Kingdom; substantial venues in Scandinavia and the Netherlands; “and of course Ireland, where she is an absolute goddess,” Warnock says.
The 2008 European tour will take Parton to large outdoor venues in the same markets, including two shows at London’s O2 Arena.
Those in the Dolly business know they have to compete for Parton’s time, and it’s obvious she has plenty more that she wants to accomplish. “I wake up with new dreams every day,” she says. She penned the score for a Broadway musical version of “9 to 5,” and says an autobiographical musical is in the works.
She’s also developing a weekly children’s TV show, as well as children’s music and books. She owns publishing, film and TV production assets. Her entertainment businesses, including Dollywood, Splash Country and Dixie Stampede, employ some 3,000 people. The Dollywood Foundation funds the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.
“I’m grateful, thankful that I have made some good investments and decisions. But my heart is in my music. I write every day. I will do that till the day I die, whether anybody buys them or hears those songs till after I’m dead.”