Well, let me tell you that it hurts so bad

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 woman who helped pioneer the marriage of country and rock, shone a light on the unrecognized works of struggling songwriters, proudly sang music that celebrates her Mexican roots, and was the first of the pop stars to revitalize interest in the jazz pop of the Great American Songbook:  Linda Ronstadt.

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I remember once reading a great line in the critique of a new album by some amazing singer (I think it was Annie Lennox), and the critic said this:  “Her pipes are so outstanding, I think she could sing me the New Jersey phone book and I’d still love it.”

linda-ronstadtLinda Ronstadt has recorded such a broad variety of music in her 40-year career, and done so in such convincing fashion, that I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if she had indeed attempted to sing the phone book, or a cookbook, or a history book.  Good grief, she has successfully wrapped her voice around so many genres — from country ballads to traditional Mexican rancheras, from New Wave rock to Sinatraesque torch songs, from Motown classics to Southern California folk rock — there’s no reason to think she couldn’t have found a way to make even textbooks sound melodious.

“I don’t think there’s anybody who has tried more different styles and nailed it than Linda has,” said her longtime musical collaborator Bonnie Raitt.  John David Souther, Ronstadt’s one-time paramour and cherished friend, added, “Her range is huge, and there’s not too many people who can pull it off the way she has.”  The great Dolly Parton put it this way:  “Linda can literally sing anything.”

Or, more accurately, she used to be able to sing anything.  In 2011, Ronstadt chose to retire from the business, and although she didn’t say so at first, it was because she was suffering from what was first diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease but is, in fact, a Unknown-147degenerative malady called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), which robbed her of, among other things, the ability to control her vocal cords.

She withdrew from any public appearances, but by 2018, when asked to participate in a documentary about her life and career, she relented, and the result, “Linda Ronstadt:  The Sound of My Voice,” is a thoroughly enthralling video journey, narrated largely by Linda herself.  I strongly recommend you seek it out to re-familiarize yourself with her and learn more about her remarkable life.

Ronstadt came from a Tucson, Arizona, family of music lovers.  “My father had a lovely baritone voice and loved Mexican love songs,” she recalled.  “My mother was big on Gilbert and Sullivan.  My brother was a soprano soloist in a church choir when he was a boy.  My sister was a Hank Williams fanatic.  My aunt preferred classical music and opera.  So I was fortunate to have all these different influences, and I soaked them up like a sponge.

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Linda at home, 1962

“We sang all the time.  We sang at the dinner table, we sang in the car, we sang with our hands in the dishwater.  It was kind of isolated living on a 10-acre ranch outside Tucson, so we had to make our own entertainment.  The radio was my best friend.  We picked up plenty of amazing music.  We got Louisiana Hayride. We got ’50s pop radio.  We got plenty of songs from south of the border.  I loved them all.”

At age 15, Ronstadt started a vocal group with her brother and sister they called The New Union Ramblers, performing at community get-togethers and school events.  But her sister married young and started a family, and her brother became a police officer, so Linda decided to head out on her own to pursue her musical dreams.

In the early ’60s, the place where everything seemed to be happening was Los Angeles, so she headed to the West Coast at 18, split the $80 rent with two roommates in a Santa Monica beach cottage, and started frequenting the various venues where people with similar interests hung out.  The beatnik dives.  The Ashgrove, famous for traditional folk artists.  The clubs on the Sunset Strip.  And, of course, the Troubadour.

At first she waited tables and washed dishes — “I had no problem with that, I’d been doing it my whole life” — and performed in The Stone Poneys, a trio with musician Kenny Edwards and songwriter Bobby Kimmel, just acoustic guitar, mandolin and three voices.  “We practiced every day and played out whenever we could,” she recalled, “and it was a pretty eclectic mix of songs we would try, even back then.”

In 1965, when The Byrds took Bob Dylan’s folk song “Mr. Tambourine Man,” added jangly electric guitars and a rock beat and made it the #1 song in the nation, “all the record labels scurried around looking for new acts,” Ronstadt said.  “Everyone wanted to try to define what it was going to be, this cross-pollination of country, pop and rock.”

The Stone Poneys had cut a couple of demos, including a charming country tune written

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Linda in Malibu, 1966

by Mike Nesmith of the Monkees called “Different Drum.”  Capitol Records heard it and liked the song but not the arrangement.  “They wanted to re-cut it,” she noted, “and we were thrilled, but then we showed up at the studio and everything changed.  They had an orchestra in there!  I’m thinking, ‘This is not the way I envisioned it,’ but it’s a good thing they didn’t listen to me because it became a big hit.”

Capitol offered a record deal, but not to The Stone Poneys.  The deal was for Linda as a solo singer.  “Kenny headed off for India, and years later played bass and guitar on several of my albums.  Bobby started McCabe’s, a combination guitar store and music venue that’s still a Santa Monica landmark.  Meanwhile, I was essentially a harmony singer with no material.  People thought I was brave…but I was nervous.”

It wasn’t long before Ronstadt was making appearances on “The Johnny Cash Show” and “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” and sat with Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson, despite the fact that her early albums didn’t sell well.  On her 1969 debut, “Hand Sown…Home Grown,” she leaned away from folk and more toward country and rock, and radio stations weren’t sure what to make of her.  Same goes for “Silk Purse” (1970) and “Linda Ronstadt” (1972), which had diverse song lists that ran the gamut from Hank Williams’s “Lovesick Blues” to the Goffin-King oldie “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and from Jackson Browne’s “Rock Me on the Water” to Livingston Tylor’s “In My Reply.”

Because she wasn’t a songwriter, Linda made it her business to keep her ear to the ground in order to discover the great new songs being played on Open Mic Night at The Troubadour.  “What a treasure trove that place was,” she recalled with a sigh.  “Kris Kristofferson.  James Taylor.  Tim Hardin.  Laura Nyro.  Neil Young.  JD Souther.  Joni.  Jackson.  Elton John!”

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Ronstadt performing at The Troubadour with Jackson Browne (left) and The Eagles’ original lineup

The Troubadour was also where she met the guys who would constitute her first touring band:  A drummer from the band Shiloh named Don Henley and a guitarist from Longbranch Pennywhistle named Glenn Frey.  The two bonded on that tour and ended up amicably parting ways with Ronstadt so they could start their own group you may have heard of:  The Eagles.

Ronstadt had strong opinions about the songs she wanted to record, even if the record label didn’t always agree.  “I loved singing upbeat R&B tunes like “Rescue Me,” but I also wanted there to be room for some of the superb young songwriters I was hearing, like Randy Newman (“Sail Away”) and Henley and Frey (“Desperado”),” Ronstadt said.  “And it took me until my fifth album before I could convince anyone to let me record Anna McGarrigle’s ‘Heart Like a Wheel.'”

Speaking of which, it was her 1974 LP “Heart Like a Wheel” that really put Ronstadt on Unknown-144the map.  As I see it, it was a perfect storm — the right singer at the right time, with the right songs and the right producer.  Peter Asher became her manager and regular producer, taking tunes like Clint Ballard’s “You’re No Good,” Lowell George’s “Willin’,” Phil Everly’s “When Will I Be Loved,” James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” and McGarrigle’s title cut and turn them into polished gems that radio program directors ate up.  “Heart Like a Wheel” reached #1 on both the Pop and Country charts.

This began a five-year string of chart-topping LPs (“Prisoner in Disguise,” “Hasten Down the Wind,” “Simple Dreams,” “Living in the USA”)  that made her the undisputed queen of country rock…or was it pop rock?…in the Unknown-143’70s.  On the singles charts, the songs that performed best for her were remakes of well-known hits (Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” and “It’s So Easy,” Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA,” Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears” and “Ooh Baby Baby”), but frankly, I always found myself more drawn to the gems by up-and-coming songwriters Ronstadt championed, like Karla Bonoff (“Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” “Lose Again”) and Warren Zevon (“Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” “Hasten Down the Wind,” “Carmelita”).

She defied convention wisdom several times in her career.  The first time was in 1978 R-1473431-1338954045-8748.jpegwhen she covered newcomer Elvis Costello’s New Wave tune “Alison,” then recorded three more Costello songs on her first real departure, the rock album “Mad Love,” which featured lots of electric guitars and even a synthesizer.  Her gamble had mixed results; the album reached #3 on the pop charts but failed to chart at all on the country charts.  In fact, Ronstadt never made a dent in the country charts as a solo artist ever again.

But no matter, as she had other fish to fry.  First she turned heads by starring in the Broadway production and film version of “The Pirates of Penzance,” of all things, winning great reviews and a few award nominations.

Then came her boldest move.  Ronstadt had always admired the works of George and Ira Gershwin and Hoagy Carmichael (cynically disrespected by young hipsters as “elevator Linda-Ronstadt-Whats-New-1983-music”) and wanted to do a whole album of that kind of material.  “She decided this was what she wanted to do, and more important, was authentic at doing,” said Souther.  “She was told, ‘No, don’t do this, it’ll ruin your career.’  But she did it anyway.”

To my ears, the trio of albums she recorded with Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra in the 1980s was possibly the finest singing Ronstadt ever committed to vinyl.  The way she curls her voice around “Someone to Watch Over Me” or belts out “What’s New” is simply magnificent, better, even, than her pop rock chart-toppers.  Millions of music lovers agreed with me; “What’s New” reached #3 in a year dominated by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Men at Work’s “Business as Usual.”  Time magazine calling it “one of the gutsiest, most unorthodox and unexpected albums of the year.”

Said Linda in 2005, “I was so focused on folk, rock and country that I got a bit bored and felt the need to branch out, and this would be the first of many hikes down roads not typically taken.  I now realize I was taking a tremendous risk, and that (label honcho) Joe Smith’s opposition was a matter of him looking out for the company, and for me.  But when it became apparent I wouldn’t change my mind, he gave in, adding, ‘I love Nelson images-86so much!  Can I please come to the sessions?’  When the albums became successful, Joe congratulated me.  I resisted the urge to tease him and say ‘I told you so.'”

Her handlers also attempted to dissuade her from her equally radical left turn toward the Latin music of her childhood in 1987.  It proved less popular, at least on the mainstream charts, but “Cancions de mi Padre” broke records in the Spanish-speaking markets and brought Ronstadt much inner happiness.  “That music is anchored in my blood, in my soul,” she said.

Next came “Trio,” a hit-and-miss collection of country tunes with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris that had been in the works since they first attempted recording together in the late ’70s.  As you might expect, it topped the country charts but also PartonRonstadtHarris,jpgreached #7 on the pop charts (which sparked “Trio II” seven years later).

In 1988, while attending a New Orleans concert by the great Aaron Neville, Ronstadt was singled out and invited to the stage to sing with him, and they both felt it went so well that they agreed to record four songs together, which proved to be the highlights of her next hit LP, “Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind.”  Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s Grammy-winning “Don’t Know Much” rightly snared most of the attention but, as usual, Linda wisely saved space for several fine new songs by Jimmy Webb and Karla Bonoff.

Her popularity began to wane a bit in the 1990s.  She failed to match the chart success she’d achieved thus far (“Feels Like Home” fared best, stalling at #75), but the LPs featured a wide range of beautiful interpretations of forgotten or ignored gems such as Burt Bacharach’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” Goffin-King’s “Oh No Not My Baby,” Tom Petty’s “The Waiting,” Brian Wilson’s “In My Room,” Bruce Springsteen’s “If I Should Fall Behind” and Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”  Her final release, “Hummin’ to Myself” (2004), revisited the American Songbook catalog with subtle beauties like “Cry Me a River” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

images-88As she gradually lost her ability to sing, Souther said, “To have this marvelous instrument that could hold the notes, hit the notes, shape the notes, and then to no longer have it…it must have been quite a reckoning.”

But as Asher put it, “I know of no one who could handle that kind of difficult adjustment in a more logical and thoughtful and intelligent way than Linda.”

At first Ronstadt was despondent about it, but soon grew philosophical.  “I lost a lot of different colors in my voice  There’s a lot of things you do in singing, you turn your voice to different planes to make different sounds, and gradually I couldn’t do any of that anymore.  Singing is really complex, and I was made most aware of that by having it vanish.  I still sing in my mind, but I can’t do it physically.”

“You know, I’m grateful for the time I had.  I got to live a lot of my dreams, and I feel lucky about that.”

 

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.