With her new Christmas album, Dolly Parton is on a mission to bring joy into people’s lives. Music Week speaks to the country music icon, plus CTK Management’s Danny Nozell, 12Tone founder Doug Morris, UTA’s Neil Warnock and AEG Presents’ Steve Homer to get the story of A Holly Dolly Christmas, and her incredible journey so far…
In a year as gruelling as 2020, there’s been good cause to dread answering the phone. So often the news on the other end of the line hasn’t just been bad, it’s been horrific. But this? This ain’t one of those of those times.
“Hi!” comes the cheery Southern voice. “It’s Dolly!”
She doesn’t say her surname, but nor does she have to. Even if Music Week wasn’t expecting her call, we probably could have guessed from the rich accent and endearing charm of her delivery alone. It couldn’t be anybody else: Dolly Parton is on the phone. And she means business.
“We have a lot to talk about,” she laughs, wasting no time whatsoever in setting the agenda. “You want to tackle it?”
Most pressing today is her new record A Holly Dolly Christmas, the country superstar’s first festive album in 30 years – out now via Butterfly Records/12Tone. Not only does it exhibit Parton’s charisma operating at full force, it also boasts a sleigh-load of top collaborators. Among the names on board are her god-daughter Miley Cyrus (“She’s very special to me, I’ve known her since before she was born, and loved her,” Parton beams), Billy Ray Cyrus, Michael Bublé, Jimmy Fallon, Willie Nelson, her brother Randy Parton and more. She may be over half a century into her incredible career, but Parton says she’s never been more excited about a project.
“I’m so proud of the album,” she explains. “One of the reasons is because of all the lunacy that’s been going on. It just seems like a really good time to lift people’s spirits, and lift my own as well. I just wanted to bring a bit of joy and happiness.”
This may be underselling it somewhat. A Holly Dolly Christmas’ 12 tracks are tantamount to a blinding, nuclear-bright blast of sunshine amid 2020’s all-enshrouding darkness. If the hooks don’t get you, the numerous spoken-word intervals will (“I did a lot of talking in between the instrumentals so I could feel like I’m part of people’s households,” she says).
Yet there is something else that’s supercharging her excitement about the project, something that people rarely equate with Christmas music: quality control. Even when Xmas releases prove financially lucrative, they are often perceived as artistically bankrupt affairs – covers quickly cobbled together as a cash grab. It will surprise precisely no one to find out that an exalted songwriter and lyricist like Dolly Parton doesn’t see it like this. For her there is a real art to doing Christmas music properly. This is precisely why half of AHDC is all-new material, with five tracks penned solely by Parton, and another being a co-write with Kent Wells.
“I think every songwriter wants to write songs that can become Christmas classics,” she explains. “You always think that everything that you can write about Christmas has already been done, so it’s really different trying to write a good song, a commercial song, but also something that might stand the test of time. I really had to focus, more than I do when I just sit down to write whatever I feel, or if I’ve been commissioned to do a song for a movie or TV show. I’m hoping that I’ll have a few on this album that will play year-in, year-out, and as new recordings by other artists.”
She’s off to a good start. In terms of quality alone, Parton’s manager Danny Nozell insists that the album possesses so many ear-worms it has even affected his health.
Every songwriter wants to write a Christmas classic!
“I can’t fall asleep because the songs are in my head,” the CTK Management owner and CEO laughs from Nashville. “I had to say to Dolly, ‘I can’t even think straight because I’m singing songs from A Holly Dolly Christmas in my sleep!’”
Nozell clearly isn’t alone in this. Released digitally on October 2, and entering the US Country Chart at No.1, A Holly Dolly Christmas has been building steam with each passing week. Pre-December, it had already sold 18,852 copies in the UK according to Official Charts Company data.
For the album’s release, Parton signed with Doug Morris’ recently-established label 12Tone, and the legendary exec believes Parton has delivered on her bid for festive immortality.
“It will be around forever,” praises Morris. “Every Christmas, someone will buy it.”
While sales of Parton’s music – not to mention country as a whole – often skew heavily towards physical releases, this Christmas release could change that. Parton has 11m monthly listeners on Spotify alone – a huge amount for a country star – while her Michael Bublé duet Cuddle Up, Cozy Christmas has crossed the 2m mark.
“I think it’s going to do very well on streaming,” predicts Morris. “And I knew it was going to do very well on physical, but we’re very surprised at how well it’s doing. People are looking for a little joy, it just feels like a beacon of light.”
Yet Parton has more than one beacon of light to offer us this Christmas. She hasn’t so much been working 9-5 as she has 24/7.
“I’ve got something for everybody!” she laughs.
Not only is she promoting AHDC, she has a veritable avalanche of new products on the go right now. One is her newly published book – and audiobook – Songteller: My Life In Lyrics. Released via Hodder & Stoughton, it’s a gorgeous oral history of 175 of her best-loved songs, from 9 To 5, I Will Always Love You and Jolene to her unreleased song locked in a box in her Tennessee amusement park Dollywood that will not be opened until 2045. The book has been a huge undertaking.
“It’s my life in lyrics,” she says. “There’s pictures of my childhood, my early career, my early days, and 175 of my songs out of the thousands I’ve written. I tell the stories about where I was emotionally and physically when I wrote them. I’m hoping it will give people something to read if they’re stuck in the house this Christmas.”
With that in mind, Parton has also delivered her original Netflix musical film Christmas On The Square, which she both stars in and penned 14 original songs for. A Holly Dolly Christmas even includes a reimagined version of the film’s title track, the song basically operating as a film trailer.
“The movie came first,” she explains. “Christmas On The Square – the song in the film – is a big Broadway-type musical, so I wanted to pull it in for my album and do a country/bluegrass version of it and have it in so I could also talk about the album and the movie at the same time.”
All of this really should be enough action for one December, but it isn’t. Last year, Parton signed a deal with licensing company IMG to work on a new line of branded merchandise, which this Christmas includes a new line of bakeware products with Williams-Sonoma.
“I don’t know any way to say it other than this: Dolly Parton is on fire,” beams Danny Nozell. “She is absolutely smashing it.”
Her Christmas activity is, indeed, proof that Parton’s empire is in an imperial phase right now. Though it seems impossible to think of a time when this wasn’t the case, the truth is it hasn’t always been like this. It’s taken a lot of work to not only reach this level, but also to stay there…
Dolly’s bigger than she’s ever been!
Danny Nozell, CTK Management
Dolly Parton has her own definition of what constitutes a ‘superstar’. “Different people would probably have a different opinion, but to me a superstar is when you have the choice to do everything and anything that you want to,” she says. “Whereas sometimes just being a star is when you rise to the top of the charts as a singer or songwriter, or both. A superstar is all-encompassing for everything that the entertainment business has to offer a person.”
It is to state the obvious but also important to clarify here that, whether judged against her own criteria or any other, Dolly Parton is a superstar. One of the most gifted and highly-decorated songwriters in American music history, she has notched up 25 RIAA-certified gold, platinum and multi-platinum awards, 26 No.1s on the US country charts, 44 career Top 10 country albums, 110 career-charted singles and over 100 million records sold worldwide. Parton not only personifies country music, she transcends it. A theme park owner. A film/TV star. A podcaster. The proud founder of her Imagination Library literacy charity. She is a brand with a capital B.
“If I put the phone down now and go outside of my office and ask 10 people, ‘Have you heard of Dolly Parton?’ Nine out of 10 people will say yes,” says UTA global head of touring, Neil Warnock.
Strange as it is to ponder, this degree of fame has not always paid the dividends it should have. No one can tell you this better than her manager Danny Nozell, who speaks of her with such endearing, evangelical passion it’s a wonder Music Week doesn’t book a Dolly Parton face tattoo immediately after speaking to him. Almost as soon as he joined forces with Parton in 2004, having previously worked with Slipknot (“Dolly says I went from darkness to light,” he laughs), he noticed that something was odd.
“There was something wrong because the sales weren’t equalling the iconic stature of who this woman was,” he reflects of the time.
Parton’s foray into bluegrass music at the turn of the millennium had received accolades but not big sales. She was regularly glimpsed playing casinos or else 18,000 seat venues and only selling 2,000 tickets as an average across a 20-date tour.
“She didn’t have a manager, she didn’t have a website, she didn’t have socials and she didn’t have merchandising,” says Nozell, listing just some of the challenges at the time. After officially joining as her tour consultant in 2005, Nozell started on a quest to find out what wasn’t working. His job? To change the perception of Dolly Parton from ‘heritage act’ to ‘global superstar’. Embarking upon the analytic deep dive to end all analytic deep dives, his first port of call was to investigate her puzzling touring history. Nozell soon discovered that, contrary to expectation, Parton had never been a headlining act.
“She toured a lot, she sold a lot of albums, but in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, female artists had a tough time, as they still do today, because of the bro country dominated world,” he says. “Back then, it was Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson with Dolly Parton opening the show.”
You don't just start out on top, you have to earn that
Nozell proceeded to trawl through all available data to build a profile of where Dolly was popular: where she sold live tickets, where she sold albums. He then built a plan to hit those markets hard in 2006, Nozell handpicking promoters individually per show, swerving arenas in favour of 3,000-5,seat theatres and billing the show as ‘An Evening With Dolly Parton’.
“I didn’t want an opening act,” he reflects. “I wanted to know who was selling the tickets, and if it wasn’t Dolly selling the tickets, I wanted to know why.”
Turns out he didn’t need to worry...
“I sold out the first ever complete tour for Dolly Parton with hard ticket dates,” he beams. “If you ask me, no one had put in the love, time, research, planning or strategy. Nobody did that like I did.”
A fuse was lit. The next job was to take things global. Which wasn’t the easiest sell, given Parton had never been a huge draw in Europe, Australia or Asia. It was not just a gamble, but a moment of truth for the pair. Nozell remembers it like it was yesterday.
“Danny, my accountants and attorneys don’t believe in your budgets, but I’m going to trust you,” Dolly told him. “And let me tell you one thing, if you lose me millions of dollars, you’re fired. You want to take that risk with me?”
“I absolutely will take this risk,” he said. “I’ll put my job on the line.”
With Parton and Nozell working closely with UTA’s Neil Warnock, AEG Presents’ co-CEO Steve Homer
and Music Week Award-winning PR Steve Guest, they masterminded her comeback.
“At the time, she was more of a casino act in the US; in the UK she’d done Hammersmith and things like that, but never really anything of any scale or size,” says Homer. “She was an underplayed icon, and that was how we approached it. We had to forget what had gone before, it was all about positioning her in the right way.”
Taking cues from The Mail On Sunday’s success with Prince’s 2007 album Planet Earth, they teamed up with the broadsheet to offer a Parton Greatest Hits CD as a free cover-mount. It went on to sell 1.8m papers. In Nozell’s words, they “hit the lotto”. Back in 2001, Parton sold 50% of her show at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. In 2007, her 11-date UK & Ireland arena tour went on to sell out immediately. Naturally, European stadium dates soon followed.
“One thing I know is Dolly Parton, and there’s nobody else in this world that knows how to market Dolly Parton better than Danny Nozell!” laughs Nozell. Normally, such a statement would seem cocky, but in this instance? Well, it’s just demonstrably true.
The crowning glory would be Parton’s Glastonbury 2014 performance. It took Neil Warnock eight years to convince her to do it, but when she was finally onstage she held 180,000 people enraptured, and broke the BBC’s viewing figures record in the process. It was a grandstanding performance, one of the finest Warnock says he has ever seen.
“It was the ultimate show she’s done worldwide,” he says. “It proved what a superstar she was, she was absolutely riveting. When she sang, she connected with the 180,000th person standing at the back of the festival site. She was singing and talking to them, and they felt directly connected to her from all
that distance. That’s Dolly Parton. That’s the mark of a true superstar.”
Indeed, Glastonbury didn’t change Dolly; Dolly changed Glastonbury.
“There had been a number of late afternoon slots on the Sunday – which they now call the Legend slot – prior to her, but none had done as well out of it as she did,” praises Homer. “She changed what that slot has become.”
From half-sold theatres to Glastonbury... Music Week wonders if Steve Homer has ever seen such a remarkable reversal of fortunes in his time?
“I don’t think so,” he offers. “But, it’s all down to her work ethic.”
“Her work ethic is like no other,” agrees Nozell. “I’m not kidding. I’m 53 years old and I’m running to keep up with her. We’re the best of partners; she gave me an opportunity that no one else would. Dolly Parton didn’t need me, even back then – she didn’t need me financially because she was already a star, I just helped enhance it. Right now, she’s bigger than she’s ever been.”
Indeed, Dolly Parton is not just an artist, she is a business empire – with 2020 even seeing her become the first female country artist to have featured playlists on Peloton’s interactive platforms. This is all by design.
“You have to have branding if you want longevity,” reasons Nozell. “If you don’t keep expanding, then you’re down to where, if you don’t have a hit record, you can go right down. Whereas if, for some reason, you have a low point in your career, you still have a brand going. Few and far between are the people in this industry that have a long career, and if you look at the ones that do they have branded themselves.”
In 2020, Nozell says the power of artist branding is more important than it ever has been before.
“You have the music and you’re streaming it, [it] is paying nickels, whereas if you have a brand, you have a completely separate stream of revenue that could be getting you through these hard times,” he continues. “Covid should teach artists that you have to be diversified. If you just stick to the artistry, I respect that. But if you want longevity? You diversify.”
But how has Parton adjusted to life not just as an artist, but a brand? Her answer tells you everything you need to know about her character.
“Well, actually, I don’t think of myself as a star,” she tells Music Week. “I’m really a working girl. This is really a way of life for me and I just pray every day that I’ll be guided in my life, and in my career. When I did get to see my dreams come true, I always joked and said, ‘I have dreamed myself into a corner’ – meaning that I have seen my dreams come true and now I have to be responsible for them. I feel blessed; what a wonderful problem to have, so to speak. I just [make sure I] know what’s coming next, brace myself for it and take care of business.”
About that business. To support the release of A Holly Dolly Christmas, Nozell and Parton put seven figures of investment into two film/TV studios in Nashville, plus $2m in production, to record 18 different performances for specials by the likes of Amazon, Apple, and Facebook. She also has two Beeb events lined up, with Dolly Parton’s Christmas Concert on BBC 1 and Dolly’s Christmas Good List on BBC Radio 2.
Parton has also been tending to her legacy of late. As the business savvy songwriter who once famously refused to let Elvis Presley cover I Will Always Love You (because The King required 50% publishing, which was rightfully hers) Parton has always been fiercely protective of her life’s work. She owns her own catalogue – licensed to Sony/ATV – but of late she’s been contemplating selling it.
“We haven’t sold it yet,” says Nozell. “There’s only a couple of people that would have the financials to even be able to put an offer together that we would consider. Her catalogue is definitely one of the biggest out there and, in order for her to make a decision to let her life’s work go, you can imagine that it’s going to be an iconic price for an iconic catalogue [laughs].”
Parton has also spent recent years getting her affairs in order, having been troubled by reports of stars passing away and leaving their estates in disarray for mourning families.
“That’s taken several years to do, and it is really a hard thing to do and put it all in order,” she says. “But you have to do it, you don’t want to be simply leaving a mess behind.”
But don’t let this give you the impression Parton will be slowing down. Nozell points to another major book release, more feature films, a Broadway musical and the possibility of Dolly Fest – a global live event to celebrate her 75th birthday – next year. “Expect Dolly Fest to go global in 15 stadiums, which we have on hold right now,” he teases.
“All we can tell you is that whatever we do, it will be big picture,” adds Neil Warnock. “And it will be very Dolly.”
Naturally, more new music is on the way. Nozell says that while they only signed a one-album deal with 12Tone, there is much more to be done.
“Dolly’s got several other albums written and I’m sure we’re going to continue with Doug, just because we have such a great relationship,” he says.
All of this, it should be stressed, is on top of her new Christmas album, Netflix film, book and range of kitchenware. Just a few days after our interview, Parton proceeds to donate $1m of her own money towards finding a Covid vaccine. She is doing everything she can to spread a little joy.
“It’s been crazy being Dolly Parton, but I think it’s crazy being anybody [in 2020],” she says. “I’m hoping we’ll come out on the other end a little better than we were before, that we strengthen in some ways that we probably needed to, and that we learn some good lessons.”
Without further ado, it’s time to learn some more lessons from Dolly Parton…
Would you be as happy if you were just an artist, without all your extra business ventures – would that be enough?
“I don’t think so. I could be happy, because I am content – I have a peaceful, loving heart as long as I can be productive. But I can’t sit on my ass, I have to feel like I’m being productive. I’ve been asked so many times if I had to choose one thing what would I be and I always said I’d be a songwriter. But I feel very blessed that I can do so many things. I like being busy, I’m one of those people who have a lot of energy and I like having somewhere to focus it, otherwise I would turn that in on myself, which would not be good. I like I tend to have more to do than less.”
Did you learn anything about yourself in the process of putting your Songteller book together?
“Honestly, because it’s also out on audiobook, I sat for hours and hours and talked about the songs and it took me back to places I didn’t particularly want to go again, those emotions that had healed up. It opened up certain wounds so, in a way, it was draining. It was very cathartic. I felt like I had been to a therapist – or needed to go to one! – afterwards. Sincerely, it was emotional. In fact, there were times at the end of the day where I would feel kind of odd. Some days, depending on what I was talking about, I would feel sad, and then sometimes I would laugh about certain things that I had never been asked about. I never even thought about the how, where, why and when [of some songs]. It was very draining. Put it this way, I’m happy that I have it, I’m glad it’s out there, but I’m glad it’s done now so I can move on and smooth over that again.”
It was very interesting reading about your secret song that may not even come out in your lifetime…
“That’s one of the things I’m talking about that’s emotional to me about my songs. I take my songwriting so personally, and I often say in jest that my songs are like my children, and I expect them to support me when I’m old. But this one is going to have to support me when I’m gone, you know? I won’t even be around when people hear it; it’s almost like I buried a child alive. It’s odd to me to know that I have a song that nobody can hear, that I can’t sing. And I probably won’t be around when they bring it out of that little chest. If I live to be 100, I might be around to hear it. That’s an odd sensation. People don’t realise what you go through as an artist, a writer, a person, or a singer, and all the things that people expect of you, or demand. But you’re just a person too, and you’ve got to take all that. I take everything to heart.”
In Songteller you write that, above all else, you want to be remembered as a songwriter. Do you feel you’ve got the respect you deserve in that field?
“In the early days, I felt that a lot of people thought I was just hair and boobs – a kind of character. I was comfortable in my own skin and in my own image, but I feared that people didn’t know [about my songwriting]. But I assumed they would in time. In the last several years, I really feel I’ve had great respect as a songwriter. When Whitney [Houston] did I Will Always Love You and that became such a big hit, a lot of new, younger people got very involved in my catalogue and started singing my songs all the time. I take a lot of pride in that and I’m humbled by it. I think I’m getting the credit that I deserve, and hopefully I’ll be able to do greater things, have more people record my songs and become an even more important songwriter.”
You’ve hinted that you might finally sell your catalogue. What kind of home for your life’s work will you be looking for?
“I’ve owned my own publishing company for years and years and, as an active songwriter, I still write all the time. It’s very possible that, for business reasons, estate planning, and family things, I might sell the catalogue I have now. I’ve often thought about it, and I’m sure that I could get a lot of money for it. But then I would just start a brand new one, continue writing songs and, when I build that up again, sell it. I would imagine I’d have quite a bit of money if I wanted to sell, but I would still have some control, no matter who I sold to, and my credit for the songs. There’s a lot to be said about that. As a songwriter, I never cared about the money. I did make money, but I always just wanted my name on my songs.”
We’ve seen a lot of artists being unhappy with their record contracts in 2020. Just how important has taking control been to your artistic career?
“Well, it’s always good to be in control of as much as you can be – in control of the things that you are. If you’re the writer, publisher, producer, you just need to own yourself, when and if you can. You have to compromise, you don’t just start out on top, you have to earn that, you have to live long enough to be the kind of successful artist where you can make demands, and can claim your own things. You’ve got to thank and be appreciative of all the people that have helped you along the way, too. But the minute you can own yourself, your brand, your everything? If you can do that, that’s a wonderful feeling. It’s great when you become your own boss, and you can call the shots. But as a business-minded person, you have a lot of things to consider. So control is one thing, but being smart and being in control? That’s the real thing. You have to use your head and your heart with all that stuff.”
Finally, what do you want for Christmas this year?
“I want my album to sell! I want my book to sell! I want my Netflix movie to be a hit! [Laughs] Oh, and a cure for Covid, for sure!”
COVER/PHOTOS: Stacie Huckeba, Courtesy of Butterfly Records, LLC