The day Dolly Parton called in for a phone interview, Oct. 29, happened to be the 30th anniversary of Islands in the Stream, her duet with Kenny Rogers, hitting No. 1 on the Billboard pop singles chart. In a way, it’s still the 30th anniversary, because the record held the position for two weeks.
If that gives you a sense of time flying, imagine what it’s like for the people who sang the song.
“It does fly,” Parton says, adding with a small laugh, “It flies more when you get older, trust me. I hear you say ‘30 years’ now and go, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ And 30 years from now, I’ll be way over the hill.” That’s followed by a bigger laugh.
But at 67, Miss Dolly isn’t slowing down. She appears as herself in a TV movie, A Country Christmas Story, airing at 7 p.m. Saturday on Lifetime. She’s finished an album, due for release in early 2014, titled Blue Smoke. That will tie in to the “ Blue Smoke World Tour,” which also launches in early 2014. Most North American dates haven’t been announced yet, but dates in New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom have — including a June 15 show in Aberdeen, Scotland, that sold out in 10 minutes.
“I’ve been at this for way up into 40 years now, and I’ve always had a real good following overseas,” Parton says. “I think people relate to my upbringing. A lot of folks kind of relate to songs like Tennessee Mountain Home or Coat of Many Colors, just kinda the rags-to-riches story.”
But in places like England, Ireland and Scotland, there’s an even more emotional, historical connection, because people from those countries were among the early settlers in the eastern Tennessee area where she grew up.
“That Appalachian sound is kind of in my Smoky Mountain DNA,” Parton says. “[Fans in the U.K.] swear that I sound just like them. So I think that’s one of the keys to my success is that they just kind of claim me as a homegirl. ... [There’s] just kind of a sadness and a longing in the voice that they have and in the voice that I have and grew up with.”
A Country Christmas Story addresses another piece of the heritage of Parton’s music. The movie is about a young biracial Appalachian girl (Desiree Ross) who, against the wishes of her single mother (Rules of Engagement’s Megyn Price), pursues a dream of becoming a country star. She heads to a singing competition hosted by Parton at Dollywood, Parton’s Tennessee theme park, and reunites with her father (R&B singer Brian McKnight). The movie promises to examine African-Americans’ contributions to the history of country music.
“They talk about that in the movie a lot, about how many blacks [are linked] to the roots of country music,” Parton says. “A lot people don’t realize that even at the Grand Ole Opry, some of our finer, bigger acts were black. [It’s also] a story about bringing this family together, a sweet story that does address a lot of things.”
The title of Parton’s upcoming album, Blue Smoke, comes from the title cut, which is about a train that winds around a mountain and a passenger leaving heartaches behind. But the title also refers to the “blue smoke” that rises off the Smoky Mountains. The album does include some bluegrass numbers, but it also features a couple of cover versions with Parton-esque twists.
“We do some pretty rockin’ stuff as well,” she says. “Some Keith Urban-type, with rolling banjos. But we did a cover of Bon Jovi’s Lay Your Hands on Me as a gospel song, and it’s absolutely great. We did a cover of Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, which has always been a favorite of mine. We did it the Americana way, with plucking guitars and finger-picking and bluegrass harmonies.”
The album also includes You Can’t Make Old Friends, a reunion duet she recorded with Rogers this year (it already appears as the title cut of a recently released Rogers album), and From Here to the Moon and Back, which she recorded with Willie Nelson for Nelson’s To All the Girls ... duets album.
Although Parton’s offical website doesn’t list them, the exhaustive Dollymania.net fan site reports that she will play a handful of U.S. dates in January in Arizona, California and Nevada. Most of the U.S. dates will take place in May, and Parton says that she’ll be playing May 30 and 31 at WinStar World Casino in Thackerville, Okla., roughly 75 miles from downtown Fort Worth. She adds that it’s possible that there will be more Texas shows.
“The crowds are always so responsive and so right into it, but they’re always so respectful,” Parton says. “We can rock and have a party when we’re doing Two Doors Down or something like that, but when I bring it on down and get to that home section where I talk about home and do songs like Coat of Many Colors, Tennessee Mountain Home, Appalachian Memories, they’re so quiet and so respectful. And when we’re ready to go again, they’re right there with me.”