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Dolly Parton gets back to basics with ‘Pure & Simple’ tour and album

It’s early November, the morning after Dolly Parton accepted the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Country Music Association on an ABC live television broadcast, and Dolly Parton’s publicist has wrangled a few minutes of her time for a conference call with reporters. Parton apologizes that she can’t stay long, as she’s due at a red carpet event with fellow country star Jennifer Nettles to promote a holiday TV special airing Wednesday on NBC.

Let’s just say Dolly doesn’t have a 9-to-5 job.

Down the line she goes on the telephone, graciously answering a question each from 19 journalists. They ask her about everything from her long career to her new album to her movies to her theme park and more.

And about Willie. It’s important to her that the CMA Award she received bears his name. “I love Willie as much as I love anybody outside of my own family, and he feels like family to me,” she said. “I’ve known Willie since we both came to Nashville in the early ’60s. We used to sit out in the same building and write songs for the same publishing company, and record for the same record labels.

“Willie’s one of the sweetest, most generous people I know, in addition to being one of the greatest songwriters and greatest stylists of all time. So I was honored to get that award named for Willie, and I’m looking forward to coming to Austin just because he’s from there.”

When Parton plays the Erwin Center on Tuesday, she’ll be promoting “Pure & Simple,” which topped the Billboard country charts upon its release in August. Her seventh No. 1 country album — she’s had more than 20 reach the top-10 — “Pure & Simple” found Parton keeping things close to the down-home country sounds that launched her into the spotlight in the 1960s, before she became a crossover pop star.

The decision to go “Pure & Simple” on this album and tour grew from a spur-of-the-moment impulse after she was asked to play a couple of fundraisers at Nashville’s storied Ryman Auditorium. “My band had mostly gone off to work with other people because I wasn’t planning to tour,” she says. “So I just pulled together my guys who work with me all the time in town (in Nashville) … and I said, ‘Let’s put together a little show, and let’s do these charity shows.’

“So we did, and we just got rave reviews, because it was just so pure and so simple. And that gave me the idea to do an album called that, and to do a tour called ‘Pure & Simple.’ So it just kind of came out of an accidental, honest place.”

Parton wrote all of the album’s 10 tracks, and that’s a particular point of pride for the 70-year-old cultural icon. “First and foremost I think of myself as a songwriter,” Parton says, adding that her 2001 inclusion in the Songwriters Hall of Fame meant as much to her as when she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999.

She was, of course, a shoe-in for both. Though a few of her biggest hits came from other writers — “Here You Come Again,” “Heartbreaker,” “You’re the Only One” — Parton wrote the vast majority of her best-known singles, including such signature tunes as “Jolene,” “9 to 5” and “Coat of Many Colors.” And if she’d only written “I Will Always Love You,” which gave Whitney Houston a multimillion-seller two decades after Parton’s original country chart-topper in 1974, she’d be considered one of the great American songwriters.

With dozens of other hits peppered across a recording career that’s approaching six decades — her first single came out in 1959, when she was just 13 — Parton says creating set lists for her concert tours can be quite a challenge.

“You have to do your big hits, your ones that people would kill you if you didn’t do,” she says. “But then you try to figure out what’s going to be most entertaining, the ups and downs, and the moods that you set. That’s always the hardest part of touring.

“And I try to incorporate songs where I can use different instruments. Like, I play the banjo, and ‘Apple Jack’ is a song I wrote about an old man who played the banjo, so of course I’ve got to do that. We just add things where I can play different instruments and make it make sense.”

You could picture Parton writing “Apple Jack” about one of the many musical characters in eastern Tennessee who she says inspired her when she was growing up in the small mountain community of Pigeon Forge. Such ties to her family and her hometown remain a big part of her life, thanks largely to Dollywood, the theme park she opened in the 1980s.

READ MORE: Dolly Parton finds a better way to serve autistic children at Dollywood

“I always thought if I ever got in a position and did well enough to do something like that,” she says, “that it would be a wonderful kind of thing for me to do, to provide jobs for people in my area, and a lot of my own relatives too. I knew it was a wonderful part of the country, because Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States.

“So I knew it would be a good business venture if we could get something that worked. Now I had some apprehension with some of my lawyers and some of my business people who thought I was making a mistake. But I still went on with it, and it makes me feel good that I was right about it.”

(Dollywood so far has not been damaged by fires engulfing much of her home region this week, but Parton issued a statement expressing her concern: “I am heartbroken. I am praying for all the families affected by the fire and the firefighters who are working so hard to keep everyone safe.”)

READ MORE: Dolly Parton heartbroken by wildfires torching her hometown

Parton tries to keep out of the fray of politics — she made a point of saying she had not endorsed a presidential candidate this summer after a report suggested she favored Hillary Clinton. But she’s forthright when asked about country music and its relationship to the LGBT community.

“Well, I don’t know that you’re going to ever change the minds of people who are set in their ways, and whatever their beliefs are,” she said. “But it is my opinion that we should love and accept each other as we are. We’re all God’s children, and it is not up to us to pass judgment on anybody.

“I think everybody is who they are, and should be allowed to be who they are. I’ve always been proud of all my friends from the gay and lesbian community. I have gays and lesbians who work in my companies, and I have couple of transgenders. I just love them as people. I go right to the heart and the soul of the person and try to find the godlike. … Hopefully, through the years, people will have more tolerance and acceptance of just people in general.”

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