Published On: Tue, Mar 7th, 2017

Grilled – Stella Parton: Sister Act

She’ll always be known as Dolly’s younger sibling, but Stella Parton has been blazing a trail on the country scene for over half a decade now. “I’ve always sung,” she says. “It’s what I do”…

Born in Sevierville, Tennessee, Stella Parton, the sixth of 12 children, started out singing in church aged four, then at seven, made her TV debut harmonising behind her older sister Dolly.

While Dolly grabbed the headlines, Stella forged ahead quietly with her own career as a singer, actor and political activist. In 1975, she launched her own label, Soul, Country And Blues, and issued her inaugural solo outing I Want To Hold You In My Dreams Tonight.

The title track took her into the US Country Top 10 and the album yielded her the first of three consecutive Top 30 placings. “The press liked to pit me and Dolly against one another,” she tells us today. “But you know, we never saw it like that. She was my big sister, I was her little sister. We just loved each other and got excited when either of us did well.”

When not making records, Stella took to the boards, starring in successful Broadway touring productions of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She has authored three cookbooks and runs the three-day Red Tent Women’s Conference to raise awareness of domestic abuse. Her latest album, Mountain Songbird: A Sister’s Tribute, meanwhile, is just that – Stella re-reading Dolly’s back catalogue. It includes her affectionate take on Jolene, plus More Power To Ya, a co-authored duet between the siblings.

Why is now the right time for a Dolly Parton covers album? Well, I’ve always cut a song of hers here and there, and I’ve been asked many times to record an album – and it just felt appropriate to record it now. I didn’t want to wait until I was too old to be able to do the songs justice, I wanted to be able to do the songs just the way I wanted to. I thought, what the hell! Do it now!

How did you approach Jolene, which is synonymous with your sister?
Well, just the same way I tackle anything, with as much honesty and truth from my own perspective. Once I started working on her songs, I didn’t think of them as Dolly’s songs. They were in my brain and in my heart.

What are your earliest musical memories?
There’s a misconception that I only started singing after Dolly got famous, but I was singing alongside her right from the start and my earliest memories are of that; singing on the front porch with my legs dangling over the edge and in my grandfather’s church. He was a pastor, and he loved music. He sung a bit and taught us how to sing hymnals. He could play guitar, violin and piano and he taught us how to do that, he also taught us pitch and harmony. Music was a big part of our church and I’d go not so much to hear the sermon, but to hear and be involved with the music.

Who were your main influences when you were starting out?
I just loved and still do love rockabilly: people like Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry. Also the 40s jazz and big-band sound and singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day and the beautiful pop vocals of Rosemary Clooney and Teresa Brewer in the 50s, then in the 60s, the Motown harmonies of The Supremes and Martha And The Vandellas.

Was there a pivotal musical moment?
Well, I remember uncle Lester had a turntable, I was about four and he played Billie Holiday and hearing her voice coming out of this record, that was just mesmerising.

Then, in the 80s and 90s, you starred on Broadway. Was that hard work?
It was a huge challenge. I could sing and act, but I had never had dancing lessons, but I picked it up really quickly. It’s really about interpreting the story; in that way, it’s the same as singing.

Setting up the Red Tent Women’s Conference to raise awareness of domestic violence is an amazing achievement. What motivated you?
I’m always motivated to take the work I do as an entertainer and incorporate it into doing something to help those less fortunate. I’ve suffered from an abusive relationship, I understand the ramifications on a woman’s life, I’ve worked with women and children in shelters and I abhor domestic violence and what it does to a family, how it ruins children for life and the Red Tent Women’s Conference was born out of that.

So much shame is attached to domestic abuse, it is not a popular cause, celebrities like to help nations and people in poverty but won’t help the lady across the street who is getting her brains beat out. I do what resonates with me, not what is popular and if you can help just one person, then you have done a good thing.

More Power To Ya, the duet between you and Dolly on the Mountain Songbird album, was inspired by the conference, wasn’t it?
Dolly was working at my house and she was asking how the conference was going and I said it was coming along really good, and how the theme is basically empowering women and she said, “More power to ya.” I said, “That’s a good title for a song.” We got really excited at the thought of collaborating. A few days later, she called me to say she’d got a chorus and a verse and she came round and we finished it together. I’m really proud of it

Sister Act 

The Parton siblings were two of 12, and Stella and Dolly would sing together in their grandfather’s church. Stella and her sisters Willadeene and Cassie formed a group that sang around Tennessee and did commercials



Tags: ,
Read previous post:
Country Music Magazine – Issue 3: Marty Stuart, Reba McEntire, Brad Paisley

In the new issue of Country Music magazine we have exclusive interviews with Marty Stuart, Reba McEntire and Brad Paisley...