Pour myself a cup of ambition

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I examine the 50-year career of a woman who has managed to shine in multiple disciplines:  songwriting, singing, recording, films, television, entertainment businesses and philanthropic endeavors — Dolly Parton.

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“I’ve never been offended by all the dumb blonde jokes people tell about me.  You know why?  It’s because I know I’m not dumb… and I also know I’m not blonde.”

SDEEUR3US434LJWCR55D3OUGBEThis famous Dolly Parton quote succinctly captures her essence:  Keen self-awareness.  Honest humility.  Positive attitude.  A wonderful sense of humor.

If you’re looking for proof that Dolly Parton is not a “dim bulb,” as she might put it, there’s a revealing story about what happened — or what could have happened but didn’t — with one of her most famous songs.

In 1973, Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You,” which was meant as a fond tribute to her friend and singing partner, Porter Wagoner, with whom she was amicably ending a seven-year professional collaboration.  Dolly recorded it herself, and then watched as it soared to #1 on the Hot Country charts (although it didn’t even make the Pop charts).

Elvis Presley let it be known that he loved the song and wanted to do his own version.  He was all set to record it when Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, told Parton that it was customary for songwriters to give up half of the publishing rights to Presley for any song he recorded.  While others had gladly relented just to have Elvis sing their song, Parton politely declined.

Dolly recalls, “I said, ‘I’m really sorry, I just can’t do it,’ and I cried all night.  I mean, it was like the worst thing.  You know, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Elvis Presley.’  And other people were saying, ‘You’re nuts. It’s Elvis Presley.’  But I said, ‘I just can’t do that.’ Something in my heart said, ‘Don’t do that.’  And I just didn’t do it… Of course, he would MV5BOGIwZmIyOTctOWU1Mi00NzYwLWI4ZjQtNjAwZGQzZjBhZmU4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDQ5MDYzMTk@._V1_have done a killer rendition…but anyway, so he didn’t.  Then, when Whitney Houston’s version came out years later, I made so much money from it, I could’ve bought Graceland!”

Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You,” released in 1992 on the soundtrack for “The Bodyguard,” spent an incredible 14 weeks at #1 on the Pop charts, bringing the song to an exponentially wider mainstream audience than Parton’s original had achieved.  It played a large part in turning her into one of the wealthiest songwriters in music history (current estimates put her in the $500 million range).

And that’s merely the most famous of more than 3,000 (!) songs she has written since breaking into show business in 1967, earning her a much-deserved spot in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.  “Songwriting is my way of channeling my feelings and my thoughts,” Parton has said.  “Not just mine, but the things I see, the people I care about. I think my head would explode if I didn’t get some of that stuff out.”

Full confession:  I’ve never been much of a country music fan myself.  Consequently, my knowledge of and appreciation for Parton’s recorded catalog has until recently been limited to her most well-known songs, particularly 1977’s “Here You Come Again” (the engaging Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil tune that marked her first appearance in the mainstream Top Ten), her perky 1981 #1 international hit “9 to 5” from the hit film comedy, and “Islands in the Stream,” the frankly icky 1983 chart-topping duet with Kenny Rogers.

71-+fobEsRL._SX355_Now that my two daughters have become big fans of country artists, I’ve been compelled, somewhat grudgingly, to give the genre more attention.  Although I suspect I’ll always be a rock and roll guy at heart, I have broadened my horizons to examine and eventually embrace many country songs, including several of Dolly’s.

It was only last year that I first heard “Jolene,” an irresistible 1973 tune she wrote about a gorgeous woman who had been making eyes at her new husband.  “Please don’t take him just because you can,” the lyrics implore, and that sentiment rang true with millions of country fans who sent it to #1 on the country charts.  Even Rolling Stone ranked “Jolene” #214 on its list of “the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”

Beyond her voluminous recorded catalog of more than 50 solo albums and another dozen LPs with Wagoner, Parton has also impressed me with her film appearances, especially her hilarious debut in “9 to 5” and her award-winning turn as the madam in the-best-little-whorehouse-in-texas“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”  As in nearly every television performance or interview you can find on YouTube, Parton absolutely lights ups the screen with her affable, cheery disposition.

No essay about Parton can omit mention of the breathtaking real estate Parton displays between her neck and her navel.  Even the normally discreet Johnny Carson was once moved to say to her, “I’d give up a year’s salary for one peek under your blouse!”

True to her self-deprecating nature, she has always taken such comments in stride, and now tells jokes of her own about her “substantial bosom,” as she calls it.  “I was one of the first women to burn my bra.  It took the fire department four days to put it out!”

Just like in the rock music business, the country music industry has many dozens of examples of singers whose light shone brightly for a few years and then petered out.  Parton is one of only a handful of country artists whose careers have lasted more than half a century.

While her biggest years of commercial success came in the late ’70s and early ’80s, she has been no slouch in the years since.  Since 1990, she has released 18 albums, all of which reached the Top Twenty on the country charts, and three of those — 1993’s “Slow Dancing With the Moon,” 2008’s “Backwoods Barbie” and 2014’s “Blue Smoke” — made the Top Ten on the Pop charts as well.

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Katy Perry (left) and Kacey Musgraves with Parton at the 2019 Grammy Awards

Just last week, Parton was named the MusiCares Person of the Year, the first country artist to be so honored, and the Grammy Awards also paid tribute to her, with rousing performances by current stars Kacey Musgraves, Katy Perry and Maren Morris, and Parton’s goddaughter Miley Cyrus, and by Parton herself.

Still relevant today?  Damn right she is.

What a remarkable ride she has had — “from the back hills of Tennessee to the Hollywood Hills,” as she put it at the MusiCares ceremony.  She was one of 12 children born in a one-room cabin near the hardscrabble hamlet of Pittman Center in eastern Tennessee, where her father worked the land and her mother struggled to raise the

MV5BOTA4YjU4NGEtMDJkNS00NWQ0LThmNmQtYTZkYTc2MGRkNDA1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTEwODg2MDY@._V1_

Avie Lee, Dolly, and Robert Parton

family while instilling in Dolly her love of music and folklore.  Raised in the Church of God where her grandfather pastored, Parton first sang in church at age 6 and started playing guitar and writing songs at age 8.

Appearances on local radio and TV programs eventually caught the eye of industry folks, and upon graduation from high school, she moved to Nashville and signed with Combine Publishing.  Several of her earliest compositions (“Put It Off Until Tomorrow” and “Fuel to the Flame”) became Top Ten country hits, and still others were recorded by major country names like Kitty Wells and Hank Williams Jr.

Parton has always been reverential about these artists who so influenced her at an early age.  “Kitty Wells was the first and only Queen of Country Music, no matter what they call the rest of us now.  She was a great inspiration to me as well as every other female singer in the country music business.  In addition to being a wonderful asset to country music, she was a wonderful woman.”

When Monument Records signed Dolly as a recording artist at age 20, it was initially as a bubblegum pop singer, but when that didn’t pan out, and her country songs achieved notoriety as covered by others, she was given the chance to record “Hello, I’m Dolly,” her debut as a country singer.  It didn’t take long for Wagoner, an established country star 170px-Porter_Wagoner_and_Dolly_Parton_1969with multiple #1 hits to his credit, to offer her a regular spot on his weekly syndicated TV gig “The Porter Wagoner Show,” which at its peak was reaching three million viewers in 100 markets.

As she and Wagoner scored big with a dozen collaboration albums during this period, Dolly aimed her ambitions higher, persevering in the face of reluctant record company people to record solo albums and establish a name for herself outside of her association with Wagoner.  To his credit, Wagoner supported her efforts, both financially and as a friend.

Her hard work paid off.  Between 1971 and 1991, Dolly Parton racked up a staggering total of 40 Top Ten country singles, including an incredible 22 chart-toppers!

Beginning in the 1990s, country music evolved from its purist roots to embrace a newer, more contemporary sound, one that utilized more rock arrangements, tempos and shutterstock_6498011a-46699850-e065-4bdb-a88c-afeaec0403cbinstruments.  Artists like Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus packed the arenas and topped the charts while more traditional artists like Parton were left by the wayside, at least for a while.

Rock music fans should take note that Parton has occasionally stuck her toe into non-country music genres, with varying degrees of success.  Her well-received collaborative albums “Trio” (1987) and “Trio II” (1999) with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris included tracks like Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” and she has also recorded startling covers of The Temptations’ “My Girl,” Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” The Four Tops “I Can’t Help Myself,” Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train” and Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears.”  On the other hand, you might want to steer clear of her train-wreck renditions of Tommy James’ “Crimson and Clover,” Fine Young Cannibals’ “Drives Me Crazy” and Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands on Me,” and (shudder) a bluegrass arrangement of Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

Beginning in the late ’80s, Parton began focusing most of her attentions on establishing Dollywood, the amusement park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and the Dollywood Foundation, which supports and raises millions of dollars to help with educational and health-related charities, particularly in her home state of Tennessee.  “I always thought that if I became successful at what I had started out to do, that I wanted to come back to my part of the country and do something great, something dollyparton-bookcharity-480x270that would bring a lot of jobs into this area,” she said.

Particularly notable has been her literacy awareness program, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, sparked by her devotion to her father, who couldn’t read nor write.  The program seeks to instill a love for books and a yearn to learn how to read at a young age by donating one book every month to each enrolled child.  The Imagination Library was recently honored by the Library of Congress for donating its 100 millionth book.

“Everywhere I go these days, the kids call me ‘the book lady,'” Parton said.  “The older I get, the more appreciative I am of the ‘book lady’ title.  It makes me feel more like a legitimate person, not just a singer or an entertainer.  It makes me feel like I’ve done something really worthwhile with my life and with my success.”

Dolly-Parton-Husband-1Parton and her husband of 52 years, Carl Dean, have never had children.  “I’ve never been fortunate enough to get pregnant, so I just feel God didn’t mean for me to have kids,” said Parton.  “So I guess I just look at everybody else’s children as mine, and I reach out to help kids in every way I can.”

Meanwhile, this glitzy, big-haired, 73-year-old ball of fun and enthusiasm (“I’m just a Backwoods Barbie in a pushup bra and heels”) intends to keep at it, on stage and in the studio.  “I don’t think I’ve ever been a natural beauty, so I try to make the best of everything.”  She knows people kid her about her cosmetic surgery, but she just doesn’t care.  “If I see something sagging, bagging or dragging, I’ll get it nipped, tucked or sucked!”

636689053099642487-kns-DollywoodExpansion-BP-13People say to her, “Why don’t you retire?” Her reply:  “And do what?  What does that even mean?  I always count my blessings more than I count my money.  For me, it’s about the art.  I love the job.  I love to work.”

Her voice has always been marked by a funny little wavering quality, and that vibrato has perhaps become more pronounced with age, at least in her lower vocal register (check out the songs on the recent “Dumplin'” soundtrack).  Nevertheless, she continues to command the respect and admiration of just about everyone who comes in contact with her.  Including me, apparently.

No doubt about it.  The woman is a living legend.

 

 

 

 

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It goes on and on, watching the river run

There are so many fascinating stories from the ’60s and ’70s about how and why bands were formed and broke up, who wrote which songs, who appeared on which albums, who paired off with whom, who produced the albums, which acts became famous and which didn’t.

And it’s such a gas to be lucky enough to hear these stories from someone who was there, right in the thick of it.

In the burgeoning Los Angeles music scene at the time, folk artists and rock musicians were combining forces to create the genre that became known as folk rock.  Soon thereafter, those who appreciated elements of country music added their talents to the mix, and the result was (what else?) country rock.

gtr_plyr_1977_smIn the middle of all of this creative mixing of styles and influences, one name kept popping up:  Jim Messina.

Most rock music aficionados recognize his name as one half of the popular ’70s duo Loggins and Messina.  Although, truth be told, most folks are probably more aware of Kenny Loggins, but are only marginally familiar with Messina and his accomplishments.  And that’s a shame.

In my opinion, and in the view of many knowledgeable observers, Messina is the greater talent.  In fact, without him, it’s likely no one would have ever heard of Loggins, as we shall see.  Messina’s contributions, meanwhile, have sometimes been behind the scenes and therefore less in the limelight.

unnamed-2As Messina and his current band came through town last week on the California leg of their concert tour, he graciously agreed to sit down with Hack’s Back Pages for a chat.  Let’s start this story at the beginning, which would be in 1965 when Messina, who grew up in the Riverside/San Bernardino area east of L.A., relocated to Hollywood at age 17 to pursue a career in music.

“It didn’t take long for me to realize I wasn’t going to find much work as a musician because everybody I came across was so damn good, so I started apprenticing as a recording engineer,” he recalled.  “I learned how to build studios, and had the chance to work on a home studio for Joe Osborn, one of the all-time great session bass players.  I loved the way he played, so I agreed to work for free if he would give me a few bass lessons.”

Messina’s ever-growing knowledge in engineering and recording soon brought him to Sunset Sound Recorders in 1967, a hotbed of rock music activity.  One of his first assignments as an engineer there was to set up mics for a simple guitar-and-voice session for a new artist.  He was awed by the gentle beauty of her voice and the delicate melodies she sang.  “What’s her name?” he asked, and was told, “Joni Mitchell.”

His next project, thanks to Atlantic Records chief Ahmet Ertegun, was as an engineer on the second album by Buffalo Springfield, the seminal rock/folk/country band that featured the formidable talents of Stephen Stills, Neil Young and Richie Furay.  “I had heard Stills’ song ‘Bluebird’ on the radio, not knowing who it was, so I was pleased to learn that was their song, and looked forward to working with them based on that,” Messina said.

In early 1968, when the band was set to record its third album, Messina was asked to be its producer, unaware of the inner turmoil that was threatening the group’s future.  “They’d seen what I was doing and trusted me, I guess, so I quickly accepted.  I had no

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Buffalo Springfield in 1968:  Dewey Martin, Jim Messina, Neil Young, Richie Furay, Stephen Stills

idea of the issues that were going on.  I soon saw I could never get these guys to come work in the studio at the same time.  Stephen would show up but Neil wouldn’t, and vice versa.  Or (drummer) Dewey (Martin) would be so stoned he couldn’t sit on his stool.

“Then (bassist) Bruce Palmer got arrested and deported back to Canada, so they were without a bass player.  I could play guitar, and I’d been practicing on bass, and I was very familiar with their sound, of course.  So I raised my hand and offered to play the bass parts.  Stephen was blown away with how it sounded, so just like that, I was in the band.  There were some live dates coming up, so I joined them for those too.”

Messina contributed his song “Carefree Country Day” and played bass on tracks like Furay’s classic “Kind Woman,” all the while serving as producer of what turned out to be the Springfield’s final product (the 1968 LP “Last Time Around”), trying to give continuity to what would have otherwise been a fragmented mess, as the group was disintegrating.  Many observers feel the album never would have been released if not for Messina’s efforts.

So as Young embarked on a solo career, and Stills headed off to collaborate with David Crosby and Graham Nash, Messina considered his options.  “Richie and I had become friends,” he said.  “He and I were both pretty straight, not really into the party lifestyle, and I loved his songs.  So we agreed we ought to team up.”

Furay and Messina were impressed with the pedal steel playing of Rusty Young, who was brought in on the final Springfield sessions, and he was pleased to join the new band.  They held auditions for a bass player, taking a look at both Gram Parsons (??) and a young Gregg Allman (??!!) before eventually bringing Randy Meisner into the fold.  With drummer George Grantham completing the quintet, they chose to call themselves Pogo, named after the Walt Kelly cartoon character.  “Kelly didn’t like that and threatened to sue,” Messina recalled.  “We were doing our first set of shows at The Troubadour, so our road manager had the idea of just changing the G to a C on the marquis, and we became Poco that night.”

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Poco in 1970:  Rusty Young, George Grantham, Timothy B. Schmidt, Richie Furay, Jim Messina

Their 1969 debut LP, entitled “Pickin’ Up the Pieces” (the pieces of Buffalo Springfield — get it?), is now widely regarded as one of the first important country rock albums.  Messina again produced, and played guitar and sang, and most of the songs were written by Furay.  Meisner recorded his parts but then had a falling out with Furay and soon left, eventually joining The Eagles and riding that rocket to stardom.  Poco replaced him with bassist/singer Timothy B. Schmidt, and this lineup released the fine “Poco” album in 1970,   included Messina’s minor hit “You Better Think Twice” and the fabulous 18-minute jam, “Nobody’s Fool/El Tonto de Nadie, Regresa.”  It should’ve been a huge hit, in most critics’ opinion, but the general public was still apparently not enthused, and even the FM album-oriented rock radio stations weren’t playing it.

Poco had a loyal following, and the band toured relentlessly, but the albums just didn’t sell, which Messina said was a source of great frustration to Furay, who watched with envy while his former bandmates Stills and Young became superstars.  “He was angry,” Messina noted, “in ways that started affecting our friendship, and it reached the point when I decided I needed to leave.”  He agreed to help groom his successor, guitarist Paul Cotton (who remained with the group for decades), and finished producing the Poco live album “Deliverin'” in early 1971 before signing a six-record deal with Columbia as an independent producer.

Curiously, the first artist Columbia paired him with was easy listening crooner Andy Williams.  “I turned them down,” Messina said.  “He was a very sophisticated singer who typically worked with orchestras, and I told them there were other people better suited to the job.”

The next attempted pairing was with newcomer Dan Fogelberg.  “I loved his voice, and he had some pretty good songs, but when I asked him why he came to me out of all the choices he had, he said, ‘I’m a big Poco fan, and I want to make a Poco record.’  I had to tell him, ‘Well, I just spent two years making Poco records, and we were told by radio programmers that we were too country for rock stations, and too rock for country stations.’  I didn’t want any more of that frustration, so I passed.”

Then along came Kenny Loggins.  Said Messina, “I liked him, and I liked his songs, especially ‘Danny’s Song” and “House at Pooh Corner.’  I agreed to produce him, but I knew we had a lot of work to do.  He was basically a folk singer, and some of the stuff he brought wasn’t really what we needed.  We had to make the kind of album that a solo artist would need to be successful in that arena.  People like Dave Mason, Delaney and Bonnie, and Crosby, Stills & Nash were out already, doing sophisticated types of songs, and I needed to bring Kenny up to that level.  He’d never had a band, didn’t even own a guitar, had no manager, no agent.”

51NVG15ASRLMessina worked with him to assemble a talented band of players — drummer Merle Bregante, bassist Larry Sims, multi-instrumentalists Al Garth and Jon Clarke, and keyboardist Michael Omartian — with whom they rehearsed and recorded Loggins’ songs, plus several more Messina contributed (“Peace of Mind,” “Listen to a Country Song,” “Rock and Roll Mood” and “Trilogy”).  “My mindset was we needed to get Kenny out on the road quickly, right after the album was released, to help promote the album and get his name out there, and it needed to be with this same group of musicians.”

Messina had made such a significant contribution to the finished product (and because Messina had more name recognition than Loggins at that point) that Columbia chose to title the album “Kenny Loggins with Jim Messina Sittin’ In.”  The marketing strategy seemed to work; while it peaked at only #70 on the Top 200 album charts, “Sittin’ In” spent 113 weeks there (more than two years), and they sold a lot of concert tickets because of it.

660af44b8b8ad4110597e12963625557Loggins the solo artist had now morphed into Loggins and Messina the duo, and the eponymous follow-up LP, which reached #16, included the tour-de-force “Angry Eyes,” Messina’s catchy “Thinkin’ of You” and the Top Five single “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” which became their signature song (although neither Loggins nor Messina thought much of it).

They remained a formidable recording and live act for another five years and six albums.  “Full Sail” (1973), “On Stage” (1974) and “Mother Lode” (1974) all reached the Top 10, followed by “So Fine” (1975), “Native Sons” (1976) and another live album, “Finale” (1977).   Loggins then finally began the solo career he’d been seeking, while Messina, meanwhile, continued producing, also recording a few solo albums of quality material.

When asked about the craft of songwriting, he said, “Remember, I’d been engineering and producing for some damn good songwriters from early on.  Intuitively, even then I knew what I needed to do, which was to grow and become a better musician, and a better singer.  I saw what was necessary for a song to be successful, and learned a lot from that period.”

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“Mother Lode” (1974)

Indeed.  If you aren’t familiar with specific songs in Messina’s composing portfolio, let me introduce you to his best.  In addition to the tunes already mentioned, check out these:  “Watching the River Run,” “Traveling Blues” and “Pathway to Glory” from “Full Sail”;  “Be Free,” “Changes,” “Lately My Love,” “Move On” and “Keep Me in Mind” from the superb “Mother Lode”;  “Sweet Marie,” “Pretty Princess” and “When I Was a Child” from “Native Sons”;  “A New and Different Way” and “Seeing You For the First Time” from his first solo LP, “Oasis” (1979); and “Whispering Waters” and “Child of My Dreams” from 1981’s “Messina.”

Poco, meanwhile, had soldiered on with and without Furay, with nothing resembling a hit single or album until 1979, when “Legend” became a Top 20 LP on the strength of Rusty Young’s “Crazy Love” and Cotton’s “Heart of the Night,” both Top 20 singles.  Ten years later, in 1989, Poco’s original lineup of Furay-Messina-Young-Meisner-Grantham reunited for the “Legacy” LP, which included two Messina-penned tracks, “Follow Your Dreams” and “Lovin’ You Every Minute,” and a Top 20 single, “Call It Love,” co-written by Messina.  The fivesome toured behind labelmate rocker Richard Marx before disbanding again.

LogginsMessinaNewPubcA much-discussed Loggins and Messina reunion finally occurred in 2005 with a lucrative tour and a live CD, “Live:  Sittin’ In Again at the Santa Barbara Bowl,” and then another tour in 2009.  On his own, Messina released “Under a Mojito Moon,” which features Cuban and Spanish-inflected melodies and Messina’s flamenco guitar work.  More recently, he and his band released “Jim Messina Live at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts,” a venue near San Luis Obispo, in 2012.

At 70, Messina is still plenty busy.  He runs The Songwriters’ Performance Workshop, a six-day program for aspiring artists he conducts at resorts and hotels around the country, and he stays active producing and engineering as a recording studio owner.

a1274309676_10He is currently on the road promoting “In the Groove,” recorded live in 2015 with Rusty Young making a guest appearance.  This release is available on vinyl and, in a new innovation, as a USB card, which includes not only mp3 files of the songs but also files of lyrics, video footage and more.

IMG_2489“It’s pretty cool,” Messina said,  “You can pop it into your laptop and play or download whatever you want.  I’m told this is the wave of the future as far as physical music delivery systems are concerned.”