Dolly Parton has conquered multiple platforms as a singer, songwriter, concert performer and actress, yet her greatest talent may be her innate ability to charm people. She can do it on a one-on-one basis and, most of all, before an audience of thousands.
She certainly didn’t disappoint the thousands who attended her concert at London’s 02 Arena in 2008. The proof is in Live From London, a recently-released CD/DVD package that captures the connection she made with the audience.
The lavish production is a far cry from the stages she visited early in her career as a featured singer on Porter Wagoner’s syndicated television show. In conversation with CMT.com, Parton talked about Live From London and the dramatic changes in the concert industry in the years following her split with Wagoner in 1974.
CMT: Looking at the huge stage production featured on the DVD, I had to think back to the first time I ever saw you perform live. It was in the late ’60s, and you and Porter were singing on the back of a flatbed truck at a high school football stadium in East Texas.
Parton: Lord, we used to play everywhere! We’ve come a long way since then. (laughs)
You obviously played in upscale venues back then, but I guess a show on a flatbed truck was fairly typical for the era.
It was for country music. A lot of times, it’s sort of like how they do corporate shows now. We used to do things in the parking lots of like a Zayre’s or a Wal-Mart-type store. The company would pay you to come to bring people to the mall or the different stores, so we used to do some of that. There was big money in it, but we did play theaters and auditoriums. Porter’s TV show was the No. 1 syndicated show, but I remember doing shows like that many times.
At what point did you become aware that you could have a concert rider that outlined what you needed backstage?
I don’t think that happened — or that I really exercised it — until after I had left Porter’s show and started doing some of the bigger shows when I went with management. Usually, they’re the ones who kind of demand certain things and have riders. So that was probably in the mid ’70s to ’80s when that started happening.
What did you generally ask for at the time?
Just water and chips — potato chips — anything to do with potatoes. (laughs) And junk food like candy bars and chips and dip.
How has that progressed through the years?
Well, now we have to get fruits and vegetables with some low-cal dip. We get cold cuts and that sort of thing. But it’s usually still just water and colas. I’m not demanding. I’m not a diva. Usually at the concerts anymore, they serve dinner backstage, so they’ll put a few cookies and some fruit and vegetables backstage. Some cheese slices.
Looking at the credits for the DVD, there was a huge production crew working on the London concert. What was it like in the days when you toured with Porter?
Just Porter’s band. We traveled all in a bus together, everybody you saw onstage. Don Warden, who played the steel guitar and also sang the high harmony in Porter’s group, was also the road manager. And Don was the bus driver, and George McCormick, who also played guitar and sang, was the relief driver. Don was also the mechanic. We were like a self-contained group.
I guess there was no such thing as a roadie.
We did not have roadies. Don and the different guys unloaded their own instruments. They set their instruments up, they set up the sound, they set up the lights. We had nothing but that one bus, and everything we had, we carried underneath that bus. That whole band set up their own stuff and tore it down.
Could you ever envision the kind of production you had in London?
No. Absolutely not. You don’t think about it. I didn’t even know you needed so many people to do that. But you do to do that type of production. There’s a lot of work and a lot of money and a lot of people involved in that.
Your newer songs, such as “Only Dreamin’,” are probably as strong as anything you’ve ever written. Do you feel like your songwriting suffered during your Hollywood years, or did you just not have the chance to do much writing?
I was purposely trying to do a certain thing. When I was having to do the movies, I think I was probably more involved in that, so I didn’t have the time to really sit down as a songwriter and write the kind of songs that I would have liked to. I don’t know if it suffered or that I just really didn’t have the time to do it. I never have been through a writer’s drought. … I kind of write something down all the time.
It seemed like your bluegrass album, The Grass Is Blue, was a turning point in your career when it was released in 1999.
When you start singing those songs, you start writing for that. And that really takes you home and floats you back into who you really are. My voice is more suited for that than anything. I’ve just tried to stay on top of things where I could kind of appeal to a broader audience but always putting enough of those “Only Dreamin'”-type songs in with the other stuff I did. If I had my druthers, if I could make a good living singing those kind of songs — like “Little Sparrow” and “Only Dreamin'” — that’s all I’d probably ever do. But there’s no money in it. That’s strictly the art, and I love it. I can do it, and I can write that easier than anything.
The outtakes from your London rehearsals that are included on the DVD are probably more revealing than the actual concert. Your voice sounds terrific even when you’re just running through the songs. Have you experienced any voice problems through the years?
Every once in a while, especially in the old days. Back when me and Kenny [Rogers] were doing a lot of shows, I got nodes. … I’m one of those people who can sing really, really high harmony. Everybody loves you to do it. Everybody wants you to do it, but they have no idea. If you spend a whole show doing nothing but singing the high harmony, I mean, how long can you last? I’m not a trained singer. Mine just comes natural. But I went through a period of time when I had nodes on my vocal cords. They were soft nodes, but I’ve had to take a voice rest off and on through the years. I’ve been at this 40 years. In the past 40 years, I’ve probably had to take four voice rests for a period of a couple of weeks. A month was the longest. I remember when I was with Kenny, I had a problem, and it just took me a while to get past it. I didn’t want to have surgery. Thank god, they were soft nodes, and they eventually healed up.
The sound systems at concerts have improved a lot even since you were touring with Kenny.
Yeah, you’ve got better monitors where you can really hear yourself. My band is so loud. They are. I mean, they’re great, but it is so loud onstage, if I don’t have my monitors really, really up high, you can really strain your voice. But I sing all the time. My voice is as strong now, if not stronger, than it used to be. I guess practice helps.
When you perform overseas, do you tailor the concert for a foreign audience?
A little bit, only because they have a different type of music. Some of the songs from my albums have been hits there. They don’t have a country music and a pop [chart]. Theirs is just music. I’ll always ask what they’ve been playing the last two or three years, and we’ll work those songs up. Some of them didn’t really do that well here, so we wouldn’t necessarily put them in a show here. And then sometimes I just do what I think they like because I know why they like me and how they like me. I try to please them, too. They’ve all heard the main songs, like “Here You Come Again,” “I Will Always Love You,” “Jolene,” “Coat of Many Colors,” so we always do those. And songs like “Only Dreamin'” and “Little Sparrow,” they just love that kind of stuff. What really made me write those were the old songs from Scotland and Ireland and England. They [the audiences] totally have that in their DNA like I do, so I do some things that I tailor make for them.
Do you ever get to hear other people perform?
I would think it would be difficult.
It is because it’s distracting. I really would love to do it more. I would love, lots of times, if somebody like Alison Krauss was playing at the Station Inn. It’s not fair to whoever’s onstage. Especially in a club like that, people are going to be drinking anyhow, so they’re going to come over and be talking to you while somebody’s trying to perform. I know I don’t like to be distracted as a singer, myself, if I’m in the middle of a song. If somebody’s out there laughing and talking, you want to say, “Shut up!” (laughs)
Who are the best live performers you’ve ever seen?
I used to love to watch Johnny Cash. He didn’t have the greatest voice in the world, technically, but he was such an entertainer. He had such a magnetism that just watching him move or turn his head a certain way was entertaining to me. His stories were so believable. He was sort of like John Wayne. Plus, I always loved when the Carters were singing with him.
I think Tanya Tucker was a fantastic entertainer. I remember when I was younger, I saw Brenda Lee in Vegas one time. At that time, I’d never seen anything like it. It was the most entertaining show I’d ever seen. It was just amazing. … I thought Barbara Mandrell was a great entertainer, too. There are bunches of them.
You seem so comfortable in every situation. How often do you find yourself in an uncomfortable spot?
Once in a while, and I hate it. I’ll tell you a good example of that. When I was doing the Dolly show, the Hollywood variety show, I had wanted to do things that I was more familiar with, that I was more comfortable with. And really have it be done in Hollywood but still doing what I do best. Of course, the powers that be and a lot of the people that were producing and writing for it, they were still dreaming of bringing the old Hollywood things back. And they had worked on those shows before. So I was asked to do a lot of those songs like “Someone to Watch Over Me” and songs that were really not true to my gut and that I wasn’t certain of the notes. Trying to pull that off, I felt real uncomfortable.
It was like being dressed in somebody else’s clothes. I love a lot of those old songs, and the ones I choose, I know I can sing really good. But to be thrust into something … like the Carol Burnett Show I did a long time ago. I was real uneasy because I can’t dance, and they were trying to choreograph stuff. I can’t sing and dance at the same time. First of all, I can’t dance! (laughs)