The first female "indie" artist out of Nashville, Stella Parton has been paving her own way in the industry for decades. When she was twenty-four, she founded her own record label and since then has had thirty-one hit singles, thirty studio albums and has written numerous cookbooks as well as an inspirational memoir. In addition, she has starred in several Broadway touring musicals and on television with her latest appearance in 2015's Coat of Many Colors. Her latest album, Mountain Songbird, which is a tribute to her sister Dolly, was released this past January. Stella graciously took the time to call and talk about the album, doing things her way and much more.
How did you decide which songs you would record for the project?
Well you know, it was quite a daunting task. I worked on the album for about ten years just trying to figure out, out of my sister's catalog of over 3000 songs, which ones resonated with me the most and what type of concept I wanted to present. My sister has written so many different types of songs over the past forty years, so I honed in on the ones that resonated in my heart and the album formulated itself in the last couple of months of working on it.
I often visit Tom T. Hall and his wife, Miss Dixie, they’re like an aunt and uncle to me. I was talking with Miss Dixie, telling her how much trouble I had trying to get this album made. I went to different studios that wanted to make it their project instead of it being my project. In Nashville, a lot of males still think they know everything and a female should cow tow to their decisions whether you agree with them or not. Miss Dixie told me to come to the house and work with them, which I agreed to do. They nurtured my idea from a place of respect as family members would instead of making it about them.
She also had this idea for “Mountain Songbird” and asked me if I would be able to write something with her. We started working on the song, Tom came in on it, and then we finished it up. That song set the tone for the concept of the record because it was what I was going for the whole time, which is that my sister left home a songwriter with a pocketful of dreams and notebook full of songs. Dolly has an incredible gift for writing an epic novel in two and a half minutes, which most people don’t have. The album is me paying tribute to my sister’s awesome gift.
Is that why you placed “Mountain Songbird” as the opening track?
Yes, and it also set up the [live] show that I put together. I wanted to set the stage that this is my story of my journey with my sister.
Did you have any nervousness or apprehension about recording your sister’s songs?
I never ask anyone's permission, be it the industry or the public, what I should or shouldn’t do as an artist. I don’t believe you have to ask permission when you have an idea that comes from the heart and a sincere place; why should I have to be worried about that? It doesn’t matter if the public or the industry accepts me or my artistic output. What matters is that I am inspired to do something sincere.
I didn’t give a damn what people thought and I still don’t really. I had to overcome that a long time ago; you can imagine my position of being in the same industry as someone who is more successful and more well-known. Sure, you want to be accepted and you want your work to be respected, that’s the desire of every artist, but I don’t think you should stop because someone doesn’t like or approve of what you do. Women of all people should know better than that. We’re not here to ask permission, we’re here to work by our own rules and as my mother taught us “As long as it’s not gonna hurt anybody, go ahead and try it.’
You really have, quite independently, forged a successful career over the past several decades.
I have done my professional career - all forty-seven years - my own way. My sister and I, in a way we’ve been in a parallel universe. A lot of people wonder why I didn’t sing more of her songs at my shows, but you know what? I would have been criticized if I had, so I had to do what was right for me and it’s right for me to have done this tribute to her. And she was so touched by it; she got very emotional when she heard it. She loved the way I approached the songs and was surprised at how I had done them. Like with “I Will Always Love You,” she loved what I did with the harmonies on it and said she would have never thought to have done them that way. I didn’t bring anyone in to sing anything, I sang them myself as I have always done on my own records. I also didn’t go shopping it to a major label, I just put it out on my own label like I always do and promoted it that way.
That’s how I started out in this business, I was forced to start my own label at twenty-four because nobody in Nashville would take me seriously or give me respect. Once I had a Top 10 Billboard hit, then I got a record deal, but my efforts were what caused that to happen not anyone doing anything for me. If God gives you a good idea or inspiration, then you should follow through on it, otherwise you’re waiting for someone to approve of the inspiration God gave you and there in is the sin. If He gives, move forward because He’ll bring the people in that need to help you on the way.
“More Power To Ya,” the closing track, is one that you and Dolly co-wrote together.
That song was just an afterthought. She knew I was working on the album when I asked her to come over and spend the night, which is what we do - it’s like having a sister pajama party. We had this big notion for the song that night and we finished it up in a couple hours when she came over a couple of weeks later. I thought that it was the perfect closing for the album. The opening was a tribute to her and the closing was a song she and I wrote together about the empowerment of women and how we go through the struggles we go through. You know, here we are in America where we claim women have all the rights in the world, but women give their rights up very quickly and I have more trouble with that than I do the men that take it. If you hand it to them, of course they’ll take the power away, but that’s women’s fault. It’s the not men’s fault we let them have our power.
That’s a very valid point.
Well, in addition to music, you write and act, most recently as Corla Bass in the television movie Coat of Many Colors.
You know, when I got on set there was an email from Dolly saying she wasn’t going to be able to make it, so she asked me to stand in for her as a consultant. The movie turned out really well and I was thankful I could be there on her behalf because what people didn’t know at the time was that Dolly was quite ill in the hospital with kidney stones and sepsis, which is what we just lost Patty Duke from. We almost lost Dolly and no one knew it at the time, which was quite stressful. I think she knew how stressful that was for me because I had to hold that to myself at the time and try to fill in the gap for her as a consultant. She wasn’t able to be there to see this happen so I had to do my best for her. I was more concerned about her and the integrity of our family and faith being presented properly than I was about my role as Corla.
It meant a great deal to me that she trusted me to do that; it was a tender exchange between us emotionally, spiritually and in a family way as after all it is my legacy and these are my loved ones as well.
Switching gears from acting to touring. You recently returned from the UK and will be going back to Scandanavia in the summer. How was the reception to the record?
It was actually my first ever headline tour over there. I took the tribute show over there and it was so well received. European audiences are a lot more respectful to the artist. I’ve had more success over there than I ever had over here. American audiences are quite fickle and can turn on a dime, but in Europe if they ever liked you and bought your records they know everything about you and are always very respectful and loyal. I’m very grateful to have success over there in the 70’s such that I can still go and work and have the same respect.
I went to Scandinavia for three weeks last year on a rockabilly tour which was fabulous and fun. This time, I will go back for a month and sing some rockabilly, some gospel, and some country music. I’ll also do a couple of churches because I love to do that as well. Then, we’ll be doing a sequel to Coat of Many Colors, which will be a Christmas film. I will be on that as again as Corla, but I get vindicated this tie gets redeemed, thank God.
Things are going really great for me; I feel it is a very fertile time right now and I cannot complain at all. I’ve been very blessed. We don’t have a career without a fan base and I’m eternally grateful to the fans on behalf of my sister, myself and the family.
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