NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Dolly Parton (search) does them one better on "Those Were the Days."
Not only does she put a country spin on songs such as "Turn, Turn, Turn," "Crimson and Clover" and "Me and Bobby McGee," she gets some of the artists who wrote or popularized the originals to join her.
Roger McGuinn, Kris Kristofferson, Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), Keith Urban, Alison Krauss, Norah Jones, Judy Collins and many others lend their talents.
It's easy to recruit performers like that when you're one of the world's most recognizable entertainers. For many people, the busty blonde in the gaudy getup is the embodiment of Nashville and country music.
One recent morning at her office, impeccably dressed in a yellow jacket, bright multicolored skirt and red heels, Parton spoke in her fast, pitter-patter speech. She had been up since about 2 a.m. (standard waking time for her, she says, as she only requires 3-6 hours of sleep) yet was cheerful and funny, punctuating conversation with a distinct laugh that's beyond a giggle but short of a guffaw.
"This record I didn't write any of the songs," she says. "I thought, well, I ought to just maybe make the next one all songs I'd written, and I thought what should I call that one — I'll call it 'Let Me Compose Myself.' That would be a good title."
Parton says she wasn't trying to show off by assembling an all-star cast.
"I really wanted these artists on to complement them and to complement the songs. I'm not just trying to stick somebody out there to say, `Hey, look who we got on this record.'"
A few are noticeably absent. Bob Dylan declined to do "Blowin' In the Wind," and Joni Mitchell was set to sing on her "Both Sides Now" until a family emergency kept her away (Collins, who had a hit with the song in 1968, and Rhonda Vincent join in). Parton contacted Sean and Julian Lennon about singing on their father's "Imagine," but both told her they wanted to focus on their own music — same with Jacob Dylan when asked to fill in for his dad on "Blowin' In the Wind."
Islam sang and played guitar on his "Where Do the Children Play," then decided against the vocal parts.
"He did do a vocal just for me that I'll keep for myself and that I'll always treasure," Parton says. "But he just felt that it was in the wrong key and that he wasn't really complementing it. And he said — probably to flatter me — he did love my version and said every time he came in it was more distracting than adding to it."
Parton focuses on folk and rock songs from the 1960s and '70s with a couple of exceptions: "Twelfth of Never," a tune she does with Urban, was a hit for Johnny Mathis in the 1950s; and "The Cruel War" is a ballad that dates to before the Civil War, though Peter, Paul and Mary recorded it in the 1960s.
With so many of the songs associated with the anti-war movement of the '60s, she worried people might get the wrong idea.
"I'm certainly not into any kind of political thing or protest. People who know me will know I've chosen these songs to really kind of uplift and to give hope, like they were written for at the time," she says.
Still, she says the songs speak to the times — both then and now — and she didn't want to shy away from them.
"I just felt it was good time to bring a lot of these songs back," she says. "We don't want to be at war, but of course we have to fight if we have to. We don't want to lose our children in war, but of course we do. So we write about it and sing about it, and it kind of helps us relieve our grief and express ourselves."
The '60s theme extends to her current tour, billed as the Vintage Tour.
She's performing a half-dozen songs from the new album (due out Oct. 11) as well as her own hits. She dresses in bell bottoms and headbands and pokes fun at the era, cracking, "We went from taking acid to taking antacid" and "We went from BYOB to AARP."
"It's really kind of fun for me to get to go back and relive those days again when you really can enjoy them," she says.
Parton, 59, grew up in Tennessee's Smoky Mountains, one of 12 children in a poor family. Her mother and father were both musical and taught her church hymns and mountain folk ballads.
After high school she moved to Nashville and found success as a songwriter. She had her first top 40 hit as a singer with "Dumb Blonde" in 1967, but her career took off when she teamed with singer Porter Wagoner that same year. The two recorded duets together through the 1970s.
Parton also began a hugely successful solo career in the '70s. Her hits, many of which she penned, ranged from the very country "Jolene" to ballads like "I Will Always Love You" and pop hits like "Here You Come Again."
Her fame took her to Hollywood where she starred in "9 to 5," "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" and "Steel Magnolias."
But radio programmers cooled to her new music in the 1990s, and by 1999 Parton figured she may as well do as she pleased musically. So she released "The Grass Is Blue" and won a Grammy for best bluegrass album in 2001. Its success put her on a creative roll that included the acoustic flavored "Little Sparrow" and "Halos & Horns."
With "Those Were the Days," she takes a break of sorts from her songwriting, which she calls her greatest love. While she didn't include any of her own material on the new album, she says she continues to write prolifically, including a bunch of songs for a Broadway production of "9 to 5."
"The people that really have followed me and that really do look closer and look underneath the big hair and big boobs and big mouth — the artificial look — they really know I'm a serious person about my work and am serious about my songwriting more than anything," she says. "It's the songs that brought me out of the Smokies. It's the songs that started it all."