It’s almost a given for veteran singers to dust off the American songbook and cut an album of standards. But Dolly Parton 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 also 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 blond in the gaudy get-up is the embodiment of Nashville and country music.
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,” she says. “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 “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 Jakob Dylan when asked to fill in for his dad on “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Parton focuses on folk and rock songs from the 1960s and ‘70s, with a couple of exceptions: “The 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 back to pre-Civil War times, though Peter, Paul and Mary recorded it in the 1960s.
With so many of the songs associated with the antiwar movement of the ‘60s, she worried that 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 a 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. (It arrives Sept.30 at L.A.'s Gibson Amphitheatre.)
She’s performing half a dozen songs from the new album (due Oct. 11) as well as her own hits. She dresses in bellbottoms and headbands and pokes fun at the era, cracking, “We went from taking acid to taking antacid” and, “We went from BYOB to AARP.”
Parton, 59, had her first Top 40 hit as a singer with “Dumb Blonde” in 1967 and went on to a hugely successful career that included not only music but also 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 might 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 songs for a Broadway production of “9 to 5.”