There are myriad options today for the mature country star no longer welcomed by the major labels of Music Row. Johnny Cash found new fans by retrofitting Danzig and Depeche Mode songs. Loretta Lynn teamed up with Jack White. A slew of Nashville veterans — Merle Haggard, Rodney Crowell, the late Porter Wagoner — has moved on to smaller, cool independent labels like ANTI- and Yep Roc.
According to Dolly Parton, at 62, many big labels thought she was over. So she decided to gamble. Not with the music, but with her business model.
Parton is no stranger to risk-taking, especially artistically. In 1999, a year before the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? turned bluegrass into the newest old-fashioned fad, she made her first Grammy Award–winning foray into the genre with The Grass Is Blue. Two years into the Iraq war, she issued Those Were the Days, a nostalgic duets album packed with left-leaning folk fare. Heck, one of her biggest hits of the '90s was a Junior Vasquez club remix of her version of Cat Stevens' "Peace Train" featuring backing vocals by Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
But Parton has a lot more riding on her latest effort, Backwoods Barbie. For the first time in her career, she is doing it all herself, issuing the music via her own Dolly Records. Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, and Prince have proven they can operate successfully without major label support, but this is still a bold move by conservative Nashville standards.
The irony is that, despite its promotional buzz, Backwoods Barbie isn't so much Parton's first mainstream country album in more than 17 years as it is simply a classic Dolly record in the best sense: a down-home disc with broad appeal. There are originals about her Tennessee childhood and forging through hard times, plus a couple of crossover-friendly covers ("The Tracks of My Tears" and a spirited overhaul of Fine Young Cannibals' "She Drives Me Crazy"). Nor is Barbie a roots album in the sense of her bluegrass outings, yet the arrangements spotlight mandolin and fiddle, plus legendary session players like pianist Pig Robbins.
Parton is renowned for her business savvy. She once turned down an opportunity to have Elvis Presley record "I Will Always Love You" because she refused to sign away part of her publishing. She knows that if she wants to re-establish herself right now, she needs to be the biggest, brightest version of Dolly she can be. On a musical level, Backwoods Barbie accomplishes just that.
Did it pay off? Judging from the tepid radio response, absolutely not. Neither of the first two singles from Barbie cracked the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot Country singles chart. Parton may have more #1 country hits than any other female artist, but her last one was in 1991 — and that was a duet.
So what? Like her aforementioned alt-rock free agent peers, she no longer needs to rely on radio either. Tapping comedian Amy Sedaris to star in the album's first video, "Better Get to Livin'," showed Parton knows how to harness the power of YouTube. The clip for "Jesus and Gravity" opens with a shot of a woman listening to Dolly on her mp3 player, a hint that the digital age is not passing Parton by. In April, Parton did the rounds on season seven of American Idol, serving as guest mentor to the final nine contestants.
As an upshot of these tactics, Backwoods Barbie entered the Billboard Country Album and Indie Album charts at #2 and the Top 200 Albums at #17 — Parton's highest debut pop placement ever. She didn't need to reinvent herself or recruit a cool young co-pilot: She simply excised the middleman. And it worked. There are plenty of outdated institutions in country music, but Dolly Parton isn't one of them.