Her status as an icon of country music is so well-established that it’s hard to think of Dolly Parton as an indie artist. Nonetheless, despite long-time major-label recording contracts—first with RCA and more recently with Sony—the bouffant goddess of twang is in her own way a devout exponent of the DIY aesthetic. Unlike nine-tenths of country-music stars both new and old, she writes the vast majority of her own songs. For her new album, Pure & Simple, she cut her own demos on a computer in her Nashville apartment. Photos from her current tour find her not just playing acoustic guitar, piano, banjo, and dulcimer on-stage, but strapping on a bright white Stratocaster-style electric for some of the more raucous numbers.
All Parton needs to completely cement her street cred is a recording date with Jack White—and that may well be in the works.
“I’ve always wanted to do a black blues album,” she tells the Straight in a short but vivid telephone interview from a Little Rock, Arkansas, tour stop. And who better to help Parton make that album than White?
“Everybody wants to send me to Jack White,” she says, with her trademark throaty cackle. “So does Jack White himself! He’s always been very complimentary about my songwriting and my singing, and we’ve talked a lot about maybe working on something. And evidently I’m going to have to sooner or later, because I have so many people pointing me in that direction.
“I’ve met him, and I really like him,” Parton adds. “We’re both talented, so there would be mutual respect, and I think we’d have fun doing it.”
Those short on reasons for living might find hope in the mere whisper of that possibility. Others will find solace—and a certain amount of lusty entertainment—in Pure & Simple, which isn’t entirely accurately described by its title. Yes, it finds Parton working with a stripped-down band, and it has at its heart one single subject: love. Like the late Lou Reed, however, Parton isn’t about to say that some kinds of love are better than others.
“I call it my ‘love of many colours’ album,” she explains, with a sly nod to her 1971 hit “Coat of Many Colors”. “I’ve got cheating songs and friends-with-benefits songs. I do true, lasting love songs; I do anticipating-wonderful-love songs; joyful, happy, open love songs… I think I’ve covered it all in this.”
Not all of these new numbers are autobiographical, she hastens to clarify.
“I’ve always been a hopeless, passionate romantic, and what I mean is that in these songs I’ve written about things that I’ve felt,” she says. “But I also write for the people that I love. If there are certain things that they’re not able to write about, I can put myself right in their shoes, and in their hearts, too. And what I haven’t totally experienced, I can imagine.
“It’s easy for me to write, because I become whatever I write about,” she adds. “I become the main character, no matter whether it’s a story song or whether it’s a love song. I become that thing, that person.”
On Pure & Simple, Parton inhabits her various roles so well that several of its tunes could easily be turned into movies—especially “Outside Your Door”, with its big-hearted blend of innocent anticipation and not-so-innocent hope.
“It could!” the preternaturally vivacious 70-year-old agrees. “Many of those songs could. ‘I’m Sixteen’? I think that would be a fabulous video, get some older people thinking they’re still young, in their little poodle skirts, doing the jitterbug… But ‘Outside Your Door’, I love that song. To me, that was one of the most fun ones to write—and it’s kind of a friends-with-benefits idea. It’s just kind of a romantic thing: you don’t know who they’re going to see; you don’t know if they’re cheating; you don’t know if they’re just old friends; you don’t know if they’re gay or straight. You don’t know. It’s just like ‘Okay, I’m here. I’ve got a bottle of wine. You want to get drunk and make out?’ ”
We laugh, and then things get decidedly… odd.
“So, do you want to get drunk and make out?” Parton asks, laughing
We get as far as determining that we’d need at least a couple of bottles; I’ll take the white and she’ll have the red. And then sanity prevails. I’d have to run that offer by my girlfriend, I concede, and she admits that her husband of 50 years might have something to say about the matter.
But there’s a clue here to how Parton operates. She’s a strong, independent woman who’s unafraid to voice her opinions, even within the male-dominated culture of country music. She’s also made her way in this world by winning fans over one heart at a time—and she now has mine.
Dolly Parton plays Rogers Arena on Monday (September 19).