Dolly Parton Talks a Flame Worthy Streak

She Discusses Life, God, Country and More

The irrepressible Dolly Parton is bringing her flamboyance and sense of humor to the role of hosting the CMT 2004 Flame Worthy Video Music Awards on Wednesday (April 21 at 8 p.m. ET/PT) in Nashville. talked with Parton about wardrobe malfunctions, the truth about her breakup with Porter Wagoner, her 9/11 song, Satan, her current For God and Country CD and many other things under the sun. Part two of her interview will run Wednesday (April 21).

So, you’re enjoying hosting Flame Worthy?

This is my first time to host Flame Worthy and I’m lookin’ forward to it — it’s a fun show, an upbeat show that’s live and I’m not afraid of live stuff. I am lookin’ forward to it — I have worked my ass off. This is a full-time job!

Will you have any surprises?

Well, I don’t know. I haven’t planned any. Do you mean anything like Janet Jackson? Nahh! I wouldn’t go that far. I might make jokes about it, I’m pretty sure that I will.

What was your take on that whole thing?

I didn’t see it. I just heard about it. I just thought, well, it ain’t no worse that some of the other stuff that these kids are doing. I just thought — poor old Janet, it’s all landed on her, all the stuff that everybody else has been doing. Somebody had to be the fall guy. But there is a time and a place for everything. It’s not good to do stuff like that with kids watching. I felt sorry for her, really. I know she felt worse than anybody.

Isn’t there a really fine line now between between sexy and vulgar, between glamorous and trashy?

I know that there’s a line for me, and I know not to cross it. But I can get away with a lot, especially now that I’m older. But I’m not doing it to be vulgar. I do things that are meant to be fun and make people laugh. Every once in a while, though, you’ll make a bad judgment call and do something. But no, I’m not planning any costume revelations. Unless I just pop out of my clothes. That would be the only real danger — me busting out of my clothes accidentally.

I hear you’re working on a Broadway musical about your life.

I am working on a Broadway musical. It is about time for it, I think. I’m writing all original music for it. I think I’ve got some really good stuff for it, and I think it will be really well-rounded and entertaining. I probably won’t be in it myself. My working title at the moment is “Mountain Star.” It covers everything — my early days, the religion, some great gospel production numbers along with the simplicity of songs like “Coat of Many Colors.” The happy things and the sad times. It’s kind of all the colors of my life in music. And we might make the movie of my life out of this because I’ve never felt that My Life and Other Unfinished Business[her 1994 book] was really the movie. Because you can only tell so much and I did that mostly for money. Everybody was hounding me to do it — management and everybody. That’s why I called it My Life and Other Unfinished Business. How can you tell your life story when you ain’t lived it yet? I’ve lived a lot more of it now. I’m hopin’ that with me tellin’ it that it can make a great musical for film as well.

How did you decide to do your God and Country CD project?

There were several reasons. First of all, I’ve always wanted to do a gospel album and I’ve never done a full-blown one. Years ago when I started out with Porter [Wagoner], 30 or 40 years ago, I did a gospel album, but of course it got no play. But I’ve always wanted to do one and I still hope to do another full-blown gospel or spiritual album. And I’ve always wanted to do a patriotic album. When the tribute album Just Because I’m a Woman was out, I wasn’t a part of it except as the songwriter and promoting it. But I thought I need to be doing something for myself because I don’t want to lose this momentum for myself personally. I thought I need to do an album, but I don’t want to go on top of that tribute album. So I thought, this is the time because of the war and everything that was going on and people needing spiritual uplifting, I thought this is a good time for me to combine patriotic songs and gospel songs and call it For God and Country. It’s also something I want to leave behind as part of my legacy, to say that I did a patriotic album. So when I’m dead and gone, I want to people to say, “Did you ever hear Dolly’s patriotic album?” When you get to a certain age, you start thinking ahead like that.

Are you singing something from the album on the Flame Worthy show?

I’ll be doing “Welcome Home,” which is the first single from the album, on the Flame Worthy Awards, and we’re doing a big production piece with the Christ Church choir, with lots of soldiers and videos. That’s one of my personal favorites. It reminds me of the way I used to write, like with “Coat of Many Colors.” It was a story song. It made me feel inspired. And when I was writing, it made me feel the way I did when I wrote “Coat of Many Colors,” kind of like those old Louvin Brothers songs that Ira [Louvin] used to write about the war.

What inspired you to write that?

Well I was up here in East Tennessee, at my country mountain home, as I am today, with Judy [her lifelong friend, Judy Ogle]. It was her birthday, last May the 24th, and I thought I was going to write a song for Judy’s birthday. I had been watching the news and seeing some of the families burying their dead, bringing those coffins home off the planes. Man, it just broke my heart. I thought, man, I just can’t imagine my kid or my brother — anyway, my heart was heavy with it. I was gonna write something fun for Judy’s birthday. I had this little bitty instrument that Buck Trent had had made for me years ago that I can carry around. It sounds like a banjo, but it looks kind of like a ukulele. I carry it around when I’m up in the mountains because it’s very light. If I want to walk around in the woods, I can just strap it on my back and have my guitar with me, some music to write with. So I started playing it, and the first lines of that song just came out and it kept rolling I thought, wow! So I flew back to the house to write it down. So just in a matter of moments … I still call it “Judy’s Birthday Song.” And Judy loves it, ’cause she claims it. I said, “Judy, you ain’t getting’ a penny of it. Just because it was your damn birthday and I said I was writin’ you a birthday song.”

“Go to Hell” is another old-fashioned Dolly song, taking Satan on in a fight.

I am so excited about that! I hate sappy religious songs — I am very spiritual but I hate old sappy, over-the-top songs that try to preach in a sappy way. I thought, if somebody sees this title they’re gonna listen to see what this song’s about. But it was just about telling the devil to go to hell, you know, to get behind me, Satan. I thought it was funny. I’m working on a stage show now with “Go to Hell” as a big stage production. I’ve got 12 dancers in my show. I’ve never had dancers in a show before. We do this with six dancers on the devil’s side and six on the Lord’s side. At the end of the song, they all merge and we all go into the light. But it is so much fun. And I’ve incorporated all these Pentecostal holy-roller moves, shoutin’ like we did when we were growin’ up and dancin’ and it is so much fun.

What about the song “Gee, Ma, I Wanna Go Home”?

I just thought that was a funny song to do for the soldiers who are away from home. And I remember from all these years a saying in the service: (sings) “Oh the sweaters in the Army/they say they’re mighty fine/But I need Dolly Parton to help me fill out mine.” People say they always do my sweater song in the Army. That will be a good song for me to do at the military bases.

One of your stealth songs here that keeps sneaking back to haunt me is “I’m Gonna Miss You.” What’s the story there?

I wrote that just for this album. There’s a guy named Chris Garland who is a martial arts expert in Nashville, and he is so great. He had trained with the martial arts masters in the Orient. He is [country fiddle legend] Vassar Clements’ grandson. He trains soldiers at Fort Campbell, and they just shipped him back last night to Afghanistan to do special training there. I got to know him because of Vassar. The first time he went over when the war first started he told me, he said, “I doubt that I’ll ever come back from this, and so I want you to write a song and sing it at my funeral.” And that really made me upset. Because I said, “Don’t talk like that. You’re gonna be comin’ back. I don’t know that I could sing a song at your funeral. You’re a good friend, and I would have trouble with that.” I can’t get up and sing at funerals, if it’s family and close friends. I can if it’s strangers. But he begged me to write a song. Just as soon as he left the first time, I thought, you know what? If he does die, I won’t be able to write it after he’s dead, so I’d better get right on this. So that very night I thought, well, I’m gonna write this song just in case. I wrote it for him. Just the other day when he told us that he was being shipped out again, he said, “Well, now that you wrote the song, if I don’t make it back this time, I want you to sing it at my funeral.” So, that’s how that came about. I think it says what a lot of families feel.

What was your inspiration for the song “Color Me America”?

That is the song I wrote the day after 9/11. You know how everybody that writes was scared and started writing. I didn’t write it for commercial reasons. I was up in my Tennessee mountain home then and my heart was so heavy, I felt I had to write something. And it made me realize just how little the world is and how small and fragile, how something could just shake you to the ground like that. So, that was my 9/11 song. It was only later that I got to thinking that it was pretty good and that maybe I should try to do something with it. We actually worked it up now in my Dixie Stampede Dinner Theater shows, we do a big production at the end of the show. A lot of people now ask for it. The eagle named Challenger from our Dollywood eagle sanctuary — we raised him and took care of him — he flies during the song in the live production.

The song “Brave Little Soldier” has long been one of your overlooked stalwarts, but it seems to have found a solid home on this album.

I am so happy that I got to do that song again. That’s the story of Hannah, my niece, who had leukemia when she was little. When she was 5, she was diagnosed with leukemia and we thought that we were going to lose her for about five years. I had written that song for her and for the family braving it out and for her being so tough. She’s now 16 years old and doing fine. When we made this album, what was so great is that she’s conducting the choir on “Brave Little Soldier.”

NEXT: Dolly talks about her professional separation from Porter Wagoner and more about her music.