One of the more intriguing festival bookings this summer is the appearance of Lionel Richie at next month's Bonnaroo. His last No. 1 hit was 1985's Say You, Say Me, a poignant ballad with Martin Luther King-like aspirations. Who among us can ever forget the spine-tingling line, "I had a dream, I had an awesome dream."
Okay, so it's easy to have a little fun at the expense of the Sail On singer. Richie was never mod, and he presented his brand of pop earnestness straight up and all night long, especially the outrageously sincere soft soul with the Commodores. So, if 2014 is the summer of Richie, his new coolness wreaks of hip irony. On the other hand, the fandom of another veteran, Dolly Parton, is heartfelt. She's always had a hokey persona, from her cartoonish bosom to her unnatural cheerfulness and gaudy resplendence. But underneath all that was a genuine songwriter and artist; for her debut Hello, I'm Dolly in 1967 she recorded Dumb Blonde, but she was never one of those. As she has said, "I may look fake, but I'm real where it counts."
Indeed she is, and a new wave of female country songwriters are just more in a long line of believers. The talented upstart Kacey Musgraves – a double winner at this year's Grammy Awards and the head of a whip-smart class that includes Brandy Clark, Ashley Monroe, Caitlin Rose and Canada's Whitney Rose (see sidebar) – has gone on record in regard to her admiration of Parton. "I think she's a great storyteller with her lyrics," the Texas native Musgraves, whose own writing is fresh and frank, recently said. "She's a pretty face, but she's also intelligent and witty. She's definitely someone I look up to."
So Parton is short in height, but long in stature – by way of her indomitable singing and songwriting, certainly, but also in her strength and individualism. It all comes together in something like 1968's Just Because I'm a Woman, a defiant proto-feminist manifesto and sharp rebuke to the double standards of men.
This week, Parton released her 42nd studio album, Blue Smoke, and kicked off a second North American leg of a world tour. (No Canadian dates yet announced.) On the phone from Nashville, her high drawl is in delightful perk and full howdy mode. The conversation is brief, but enough ground is covered.
Reflecting on the album's duet with Kenny Rogers (You Can't Make Old Friends), and the durability and musical compatibility the two share, she said: "Our voices and personalities blend. We're still a force. We might not be having hit records on the radio, but we're still around. With Kenny and I, and Willie Nelson, maybe we're just a little stronger somehow, or a little more willing to work a little harder or a little longer."
On Banks of the Ohio, a murder ballad: "I grew up on mountain songs," says the Tennessean whose 1970 version of Jimmie Rodgers's Blue Yodel No. 8 earned her one of her 46 Grammy nominations. "That's just embedded in my DNA and my psyche. I call it my Smoky Mountain DNA."
To the casual fan, though, it isn't Parton's high and lonesome genetics that are identified with, but the pop-crossover instincts that resulted in something like the endearing duet cover of the Bee Gees' Islands in the Stream in 1983, with Kenny Rogers. But Parton has always shown a capacity to go deeper and darker. Down from Dover, for example, was her reaction to the wave of unwanted teenage pregnancies in the late 1960s, while 1973's harrowing Jolene (covered by the White Stripes and many others) is a desperate plea from a wife to another woman to stay away from her man.
"It's easy to write a peppy little song, but I have many emotions," Parton explains. "As a writer, I have to live with my feelings on my sleeve, so I harden my heart. I strengthen the muscles around it. People always tell me I look happy, and I just say, 'Well, that's the Botox.'"
She's a pistol, then. We also touch on the respect she receives from the young generation of lady songsters. But "I don't know them," Parton admits when asked about Musgraves and the others. "I've never met them, but I see their videos on TV and I admire them."
At this point in her career – she is 68 years old and signed her first deal, with Monument Records, in 1965 at age 19 – does another cover version of her Jolene register with her any more? "It's an honour, especially as a songwriter," she says. "I take that more seriously than anything I do. If I had to quit everything else and just do one thing, I would choose to be a songwriter. That's where my heart is."
When it comes to the praise she receives from other artists, it's hard to believe any more validation would be required. But she brushes off nothing. "It makes me feel good," she says after a pause. "Like maybe I did something right."
The first song that Toronto-based, PEI-raised country singer Whitney Rose learned was a Dolly Parton tune, and she's currently at work on a second album with a backing band that includes Parton's bass player Jay Weaver. She explains why she will always love Dolly.
"One of the first songs I ever learned was Dolly's Coat of Many Colors. I was a toddler basically, and I would sing it at East Coast kitchen parties, at my grandparents' place. I still sing it.
"What I like about Dolly is the simplicity of her songwriting. She's honest, and she's brave lyrically. When you look at her song I Will Always Love You, it was about her leaving The Porter Wagoner Show in 1974. She rose to fame on that show, and she chose the perfect moment to leave. She capitalized on it further by writing this poignant, relevant song.
"Dolly is a brilliant songwriter, but she's also a brilliant businesswoman. She turned down Elvis when he wanted to sing I Will Always Love You. She was open to the idea originally, but declined when she learned that she would be expected to sign over half the publishing royalties to Elvis. She stood her ground, even though it would have made her rich.
"If you're only familiar with Dolly Parton on a surface level, she's a ditzy blonde. And there's no denying she used her sex appeal. I mean look at her – she's almost 70 years old and she's still sexy. But she owns that as well. That's the thing: She owns everything about herself."