Transamerica sounds like an innocuous title for a movie, right? It certainly did to Dolly Parton, who was asked to write a song for the independently produced picture.
"I thought it was about a couple traveling across America in an RV," Parton says. "I thought, 'Transamerica. ... Oh yeah, traveling across.' But then when I found out what it was, I had to really think, 'Well, now this is serious. I've got to take this serious. I've got to figure out how I'm going to make this work.'"
There are no RVs in Transamerica. However, the two main characters do take a cross-country trip from New York City to Los Angeles. Bree is a socially awkward, middle-aged pre-operative man-to-woman transsexual, and Toby is a very attractive 17-year-old street hustler whose goals are to work in gay porn and to meet his real father. But Toby doesn't realize Bree is his father. Toby was conceived while Bree was living as a man.
So, how do you even start to write a song about that?
Writer-director Duncan Tucker, who also helped compile the soundtrack, remembers giving Parton this advice: "It should be a song that has to do with traveling. It should be a song that has to do with redemption. It should be a song you could sing in churches and you could sing in dancehalls."
In the midst of a tour, Parton struggled to find her muse. "I kind of put ideas down for several days," she says. "I thought, 'This is never going to work. It's not going to come.'"
However, she woke up one morning in Detroit and the song flowed out of her. She called Tucker, who also happened to be in Detroit screening an early cut of the film. After singing him the song on her bus, she recorded a demo on the spot. A longtime country fan, Tucker also happily accepted the invitation to attend the Nashville recording session.
"As much as I love Dolly, if it hadn't been a song I loved, I wouldn't have put it in the movie," Tucker says. "She sings the hell out of it. She kept the arrangement really simple, so her voice can come out front and center, which is what I wanted. I think Dolly has such soul and such guts in her voice."
The bouncy, uplifting anthem accompanies the film's closing credits and prompted Parton's second Oscar nomination -- 1980's "9 to 5" was the first -- for best original song. In addition to countless promotional appearances lately, she'll also perform the song on the Sunday (March 5) on the 78th annual Academy Awards show.
Felicity Huffman also secured a nomination as best actress for her stunning, endearing portrayal of Bree. In the movie, she wants to shed one definitive trait of her identity (as a man), yet unexpectedly acquires as a parent. She and Toby are constantly confronted with facing the world and somehow fitting into it.
Understanding an outsider's perspective is crucial to Transamerica's message, Tucker believes.
"It was really important for me to show that they're just two more Americans," he says. "I really wanted to ground them in the music of America. It was also important for me to get the range of American music -- from mountain music, roots music, bluegrass music, to Nashville pop, Western music, Texas cowboy music, to American Indian."
Over the course of their road trip together, they wind up in Kentucky, Texas and New Mexico. Listen closely and you'll hear Jim Lauderdale & Ralph Stanley, Heather Myles, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Old Crow Medicine Show, Duncan Sheik, Larry Sparks, Lucinda Williams and Wylie & the Wild West Show -- who all know something about being outsiders, musically speaking.
Jeff Hanna of the Dirt Band first heard about Transamerica when the film's producers were working on musical cues. They sought two of the band's songs, and Hanna -- a movie buff -- helped smooth some publishing wrinkles. Tucker also happened to mention that his first concert was a Dirt Band show in Kansas City in the 1970s.
"You never know who's listening out there," Hanna says. "I was pleased that he was a fan of the band's. When we started talking, I said, 'What about this album and this song?' And he said, 'I've basically got 'em all.' Man, that's cool. It's a very rootsy soundtrack, and we were flattered to be a part of it."
Hanna didn't flinch when he found out the plot of the movie, either.
"I saw a synopsis of it, and I wasn't sure how those songs were going to fit that subject," he says. "When they asked, I didn't know much about it at all. I just knew somebody wanted to use it. They started telling me who the folks were that had other songs in the film, and I said, 'Great!' ... Then I read a synopsis online of the film, and I thought, 'This is cool. This is an interesting film.'"
Hanna hasn't heard the other Oscar contenders for best original song -- Hustle & Flow's "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" and Crash's "In the Deep" -- but he thinks Parton stands a chance of taking home a statuette.
"I think Dolly's always got a shot," he says. "She's so prolific and so cool. From a fan standpoint, I'm really happy to see her everywhere, like she is now."
"I don't expect to win," Parton says, "but it will be fun getting to walk the red carpet, to be a part of that whole deal and sing a song."
Because her husband has always shunned the spotlight, she's taking Tucker as her date.
"I'm going to be the most invisible man at the Oscars," Tucker says, "and that is fine with me."