In the 1990s, Dolly Parton found herself being shunned by country radio the very vehicle that had helped her become a country music icon over the preceding two decades.
As the decade wore on, Parton decided courting country radio had become a pointless pursuit. So she began to explore another musical influence bluegrass.
She released a trio of studio albums that emphasized her love for the style, The Grass Is Blue (1999), Little Sparrow (2001) and Halos And Horns (2002), as well as a 2004 concert set, Live And Well that focused on material from those three CDs.
Ive wanted to always have country records, hit records, but as you know country music started changing its colors many years ago, Parton said in a 2008 phone interview (she is not doing media on her current tour). They had what they called new country, and a lot of the younger people were coming on the scene. They kind of ditched some of us older artists that had a good career. I never bitched about that because country music has been great to me and radio has been great to me as well.
And even though I had recorded other country records, I couldnt get on the charts, she said. So I just started doing things like the bluegrass and the more acoustic things, specialized albums, and paying for them myself and then just leasing them to different record labels.
The three bluegrass studio albums were well received and earned Parton renewed respect as a songwriter and singer. But her love of country music didnt disappear.
And even if country radio only wanted to play songs by current, younger acts, Parton eventually decided she wanted to return to first musical love country.
Her 2008 album, Backwoods Barbie, announced her return to country. She released it on her newly launched label, Dolly Records.
I thought well, you know, my name is still so known, because Ive done the movies, Im on TV all the time and I have (her Tennessee theme park) Dollywood and Im always somewhere out (in the public eye), Parton said. I thought well, the thing I love the most is writing songs and singing, and Im never going to not do that. And I thought, well, Im just going to make a conscious effort, and Ive got enough money to pay a few people to get out and promote it.
So we just did it, and put it on my own Dolly Records, she said. But I would just love to have some chart records on the radio and still be played because thats what I love to do.
For many years, of course, Parton was familiar with the feeling of having country hits.
She arrived in Nashville in the early 1960s and in 1967, as a songwriter for Combine Music, she saw Curly Putmans version of one of her tunes, Dumb Blonde, become a hit.
That song helped bring Parton to the attention of Porter Waggoner, who was looking for a new singing partner for his television show after the departure of Norma Jean. Parton teamed with Waggoner, signed to RCA Records and soon was a star.
The stint with Waggoner helped put Parton in the spotlight, and by the time she left Waggoner in 1974, she had already scored hits such as Jolene and Coat Of Many Colors.
Her popularity soon grew even further. She won the CMA female vocalist of the year awards in 1975 and 1976, and began to shift her sound in more of a pop direction a move that paid off in a big way when her 1978 single Here You Come Again, became a blockbuster hit.
In 1980 she expanded into film, earning raves for her role in the hit movie 9 to 5. That film was being turned into a Broadway musical (it debuted in 2009), and Parton wrote much of the music for the production, which she says stays fairly faithful to the movie.
Parton continued to ride high through the 1980s, starring in the movies The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, Rhinestone and Steel Magnolias, recording the hit duet Islands In The Stream with Kenny Rogers and joining Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris to make the 1987 album Trio.
But by the early 1990s, country music was shifting toward younger stars and Parton couldnt crack the charts.
But since her foray into bluegrass, she has stayed the course with country. Her most recent CD, Better Day (her 41st studio album), continued her return to country, and a new album, Blue Smoke, is planned for release in May through a new record deal with Sony Masterworks.
No matter how her albums sell, Parton, 68, said she plans to stay active with her music.
Ill still be making my records, writing my songs, even if I have to sell them out of the trunk of my car because this is what I do, she said. Even though Ive been successful and lucky to have to my Dollywood Theme Park and other business things, my true love is my music. My No. 1 thing in all the world is writing songs.