In our huge cover story, we speak to the country music icon about her new festive album A Holly Dolly Christmas, plus her Netflix film and book, artistic control, and how she has stayed at the top of her game for so long.
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. Despite this success, however, Parton’s status as a superstar hasn’t always paid the dividends it should have.
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.
Part of her incredible journey detailed in the cover story includes her career second wind after she joined forces with her manager Danny Nozell of CTK Management, who had previously worked with Slipknot (“Dolly says I went from darkness to light,” joked Nozell.)
Here Nozell takes us further inside how he and Dolly Parton worked together on a masterplan that would make her bigger than ever…
When you did start working with Dolly Parton?
“It was in 2004 that I started working for Dolly, I came in as a consultant and then, in 2005, I was a tour consultant. I was doing all sorts of different jobs, from stage manager to tour manager to tour accountant and security; I was doing it all! When I came in, there was something wrong because the sales weren't equaling the iconic stature of who this woman was. So I really had to take several steps back and take a look under the hood and see what was going on.”
In the 2019 Netflix film Dolly Parton: Here I Am, you talked about how you wanted to change the emphasis from Dolly being ‘a heritage act’ to a ‘superstar’. What the key to pulling that off?
“Well, number one, it definitely wasn't an overnight process. What I said in 2004 was, ‘Let's take two steps back – let's research, let's plan, let's strategise, let's figure out where we're at, and when we think we've got the right game plan we will execute and follow through.’ And that little bit equaled my success. That's exactly what I did. When I came in, I pulled back and I looked at all the analytics that I could find. I really dug back through her touring history and the accounting only to find out that, back in the day, Dolly wasn't really the headlining act. She was touring a lot. She was selling a lot of albums. But back early in country, in the ’60s, the ’70s and the ’80s, female artists had a tough time – as they still do today because of the bro country dominated world. It was people like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson with Dolly Parton opening the show. She didn't tour in the ’80s, because she took 10 years off of making music, and then in the ’90s she came over and did a couple of smaller shows with the Bluegrass [albums], and they just didn't do well. She came over in 2001 to the UK, she had not been on a major tour opening for anyone, and she was never a headliner in the European market or overseas anywhere. She wasn't a headliner. In America, the things she headlined was fairs, festivals, casinos, private dates, those are non-hard ticket dates. Even though she was an icon, she wasn’t a headlining act. Number two, I researched all the all the album sales history, and was able to tell where her music buying consumer was – what states in North America and Canada, and then I called all the labels she was on overseas, and I figured out where she had sold albums. So at the end of 2005, I said, ‘Dolly, why don't you give me a chance, instead of us hiring a promoter why don't I pick the promoters per town for 2006? And not only that, I'm going to put you on the bill as An Evening With Dolly Parton, and I'm not going to put you in arenas – I'm going to take my analytics, take the top 50 markets globally, but starting in the US, and I'm going to put you in what I think is your top markets. And I'm not putting you in arenas, I'm putting you in 3000 – 5000 seat venues.'”
How hard a sell was that to make to Dolly?
“Not hard at all, because she said, ‘I know you're trying to prove something to me, and I'm going to let you try and prove something, so I'll let you do this.’ I put her in 3,000 –5,000 seat venues, and whether it was Live Nation, AEG or a local promoter, I cut the deal individually, not with a company, to do the tour. I did it on my own because I came from a tour manager/tour accountant perspective. I said, ‘Give me this opportunity.’ And that's what I did. Here's what else I did that was different: I put the tickets on sale six months in advance. That way, if there was any market that wasn't performing to what I expected it to perform, I could geo target that market. And could have Dolly do more press to sell that market out. And let me tell you something, in 2006 I sold out the first ever complete tour for Dolly Parton with hard ticket dates. If you ask me, no one put the love, no one put the time, no one put the research, the planning and the strategy. Nobody did that like I did.”
And how did you get Dolly into touring globally?
“[Originally] she said, ‘I don't want to go back over to Europe, because [last time] they flew me commercial, put me in a camper and lost my passport.’ She didn't have a great experience back in 2001. So what I said is, ‘Hey, I've got a different idea’. I asked Beat The Street to make custom make buses for me – I had already made Dolly two buses in America, and I said, ‘I’m going to send you the blueprint over and I want two buses.’ They were the first buses in Europe to have bathtubs and showers in them for touring coaches – they are two and a half million pounds per bus, they're like a condo on wheels. And the way that I got Dolly back into touring is I said, ‘Hey, Dolly, I'm going to put you on a private jet’. Dolly was flying commercial before I got to her. We leapfroged those buses all over Europe for six weeks and Dolly never stepped foot in a hotel ever. It was the bus to the jet and the jet to the bus. And the reason being is, at the time, she was 60 years old, and now she's 74. When you have 60 bags that you have to take into a hotel, sleep the night, and then drag them out at 6am the next day to get to the venue, you are not comfortable, you are not feeling good. And what I did with these buses was give her stability. I gave her the comforts of home. And now it's no problem, she doesn't have to travel in and out of hotels. I got Dolly to do more dates because of the way that I toured her. In 2011, she was like, ‘I want to go to Australia, but the only catch is I want my buses.’ Well, that's another story!”
Dolly gave me an opportunity that no one else would give me, I would do anything for her
Danny Nozell, CTK Management
Go on then, what happened there?
“I called up and got a deal done in Australia. But I did one thing: I put it in the contract that if my buses don't get into the country then I'm pulling the plug on the tour. Just like in Europe and the UK, and we sold out 14 arenas in New Zealand and Australia. And guess what? We were getting ready to ship the buses and they came back and said, ‘Oh, our customs immigration said that you're not going to be able to bring the buses in – we'll just put Dolly in hotels’. I said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, that's not gonna happen – that's not how it goes.’ I told the promoters, ‘I love you to death, but I have to pull the plug, I don't want to, but I said I'm not bringing Dolly all the way to Australia, and not have her have the same buses.’ One, it’s for security. Two, it's the way that we travel and have been for three years. That's how I got her back into touring, because she really didn't even like to tour. They said no, so I said, ‘Go to your prime minister and tell her overturn it.’ Well, guess what? Three days later, I got a call from the Prime Minister and she said, ‘Tell me what your plan B is’ and I replied, ‘With all due respect, Plan A is Plan B – we don't have a plan B because if you don't let my buses into the country, I can't do the shows.’ Some 24 hours later, I got a call back from the minister of transportation and he said, ‘I don't know what you said, they wouldn't let the Popemobile in, but we've been instructed to let Dolly’s buses in.’ So that's exactly what happened!”
You two must be over the moon that you found each other…
“Dolly gave me an opportunity that no one else would give me – Dolly Parton didn't need me even back then. When I came in, she needed me for nothing. She didn't need me financially. She didn't need to be a star. She was already a star. I didn't make her, I just helped enhance it. I introduced her to a younger generation of people through heavy viral and TV marketing. And I tell you what, it's paid off. She's like my mother, we talk 10 times a day over business and personal [things]. When you've been with someone for 16 years, you forge a relationship, and a tight relationship at that. I would do anything for this woman, she’s just super sweet. She is very appreciative, and I'm appreciative of her for the opportunity. She did all the hard work to get here. She deserves everything she has, because she worked non-stop for the last 16 years to take it from an amazing career to being this global icon.”
You've explained how important it is that Dolly isn’t just an artist, she’s also a brand. But that also brings its own set of challenges. How do you do all of that branding and expansion with integrity?
“If you are just slapping your name onto a product, the fans will sniff that out. Your fan base know if you're not sincere. With the Dolly brand we have wigs, we have fragrance coming out next year, we have multiple different branding deals – but what Dolly ensured is we don't want to do anything that she wouldn't use herself and that she doesn’t approve of herself. She is heavily involved. When it comes to the creative, Dolly Parton has her stamp on everything. And I can tell you that we've already made deals go away because they're just not the quantity, quality and ethics. That's what we look for, those three things. The product: it's got to be quality, it's got to be quantity, and it's got to be ethics. If it doesn't meet those standards, then we're not interested. And not only that, if it's something that Dolly Parton wouldn't use, if it’s something that Dolly Parton wouldn't do, then we're not going to slap her name on it. Some other major bands will just slap their name on everything for the dollar, we don't. We have to be very sincere, very passionate. And if she is not passionate about the brand, we're not going to do it.”
Subscribers can read the full Dolly Parton cover story here.