Stella Parton - Dolly's sister's doing it for herself
Stella Parton thinks back to her early days in Nashville in the mid 1970s and gives the Tennessee equivalent of a “harrumph”. “They called me a maverick,” she says. “I had to go and look that up in a dictionary because I didn’t know what they meant.”
As a country girl, whose cash-strapped farming parents reputedly paid the doctor in corn meal for attending her better known older sister, Dolly’s birth, she knew, of course, that a maverick was a stray calf without an owner’s brand. And if the Nashville music business suits thought that description fitted her, they were even lower than she gave them credit for. But when she found that maverick could apply equally to someone who doesn’t conform, she decided that she liked the term and used to it to her advantage.
“People often think, because I’m Dolly’s sister, that she must have helped me to get into the business,” she says. “But when I arrived here in Nashville, they wouldn’t take me seriously because of who I was. To be honest, I never really thought about asking Dolly for help because I was just busy getting on with things and I had to do everything myself. I didn’t follow the established rule. When I couldn’t get a record deal for a song I’d written, I Want to Hold You in My Dreams, I put it out on my own label and it gave me my first Top Ten hit.”
Singing was a way of life in the Parton household and when organisers of church functions, school concerts and country fairs needed a turn, Stella and her sisters always got the call. She and Dolly, who is three years older, made their television debut when they were seven and ten respectively and then Stella formed a trio with her two other sisters, Willadeene and Cassie.
“All the family were musicians,” she says Stella, who learned to sing harmony “by touch” – meaning that she knew she’d got it right when she didn’t get a dig in the ribs. “Singing was pretty much all we knew and when it came to deciding what to do after leaving school, I just thought, well, I’m a singer, I’ll sing.”
By this time she’d become a teenage bride and was about to become a teenage mum but the independent spirit that would get her through her early experiences in Nashville was already instilled and while still in her teens she was leading the gospel-styled Stella Parton Singers and working as their manager and booking agent.
She arrived in Nashville in her mid twenties, determined to make it as a singer and songwriter.
“I’d always written songs,” she says. “That was how we entertained ourselves as kids, you know, let’s all make up a song today. I’m not sure that any of the songs we wrote back then were very good but Dolly’s done all right as a songwriter and I’ve survived this long. Besides, it was a good discipline. You had to get your song finished for the concert on the back porch after supper.”
When she started touting her songs round Nashville’s music publishers and record companies she’d noticed that truck driving songs were the vogue. Those were the days when CB radio was at the height of its popularity, with truckers warning each other in code about upcoming speed traps and such like, so she put together a demo featuring two songs ready-made for the market, she thought, and added I Want to Hold You In My Dreams in the time left over on the session. It was the “make weight” that provided her entrée into the business.
Further exacerbating her maverick reputation, she wrote and released Ode to Olivia, a song in support of Olivia Newton John’s right to be acclaimed as the Country Music Association’s Top Female Vocalist, an award that, at the time, was viewed as unsuitable for an Australian singer.
Still, if Stella had wanted to get noticed, she’d succeeded. She signed to the Elektra-Asylum wing of the mighty Warner Communications company and working with the producer Jim Malloy, who became her second husband, she followed up that first hit with a run of further successes including The Danger of a Stranger, which earned her a UK chart placing, Standard Lie Number One and Four Little Letters.
It wasn’t just music industry executives who noticed her, though, and a parallel career as an actor and dancer resulted when she agreed to audition for a part in the popular 1980s TV series The Dukes of Hazzard. Playing a fake deputy sheriff who put the real one in the boot of a car, she became, she says proudly, the first country artist to appear in a show that had a theme song by outlaw country star Waylon Jennings and the only country artist to get a speaking role throughout the show’s lengthy run.
More to the point, perhaps though, her natural sense of dramatic timing won her a leading part in a touring version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which despite never having had any acting or dancing lessons, she was able to learn in nine days. Further stage productions followed, including The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Pump Boys and Dinettes, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and it remains an ambition of hers to act in London’s West End and on Broadway – the latter currently being a possibility as she’s in negotiations with a Broadway Theatre for a part in Holy Fire.
“It’s about a televangelist and it sounds like a lot of fun,” she says. “I love the theatre, although it’s hard work. But then, I’m used to working. In forty years I’ve never really been out of work. Whether it’s singing, writing or acting on stage and television, I’ve always just accepted whatever offers have come in.”
A celebrity chef gig might well be another possibility. She’s already appeared on the Home Shopping Network with her Taste of Life all-natural food products – home-made jams, jellies and preserves that she decided to market - and she’s produced a series of cook books, which have sold well.
“I love cooking,” she says. “When I wasn’t singing on the back porch back home, I’d be dragging a chair up to the stove so that I could reach up and stir the pot. I used to love trying out new recipes on my brothers and sisters. To me, cooking is one of the most nurturing things you can do for those you love - or for those you want to impress, which has worked for me a time or two.”
Music, however, remains her first priority and the means through which she can do most good for others. A staunch believer who isn’t averse to quoting from the scriptures to make her point, she openly uses her fame to bring increased public awareness to issues such as domestic violence, something of which she herself has been a victim. A percentage of her cookbook sales goes towards domestic violence shelters across America and she regards it as her duty to speak out about it.
“It’s actually one of the most rewarding things I can do,” she says. “Because when you’re up onstage with a microphone in front of an audience, you are in a position to make people think – and that’s my aim as a singer, songwriter and performer: to let people feel a little introspection, share some love and a lot of laughter, too. There has to be laughter because we are kinda funny, us humans, when you think about it.
From The Herald, March 18, 2009.