Around this time of year thirty years ago I was unfortunate enough to attend a record company sales convention. The intention of these gatherings (see previous blogs for the nature of said events) is to gather the sales force together, wine and dine them and send them out into the retail wilderness ready to do battle. This was in the days when people entered shops and bought records.
On this particular occasion CBS Records were unveiling the product for the following season. Different marketing staff were allocated artists to make presentations. It was less conventional for artists to sit through the events but, on this night, some pre-arranged requirement meant we’d agreed to attend. One hapless staffer came to the lectern to talk up the forthcoming release by Dolly Parton. A horrible few minutes ensued. His photoshopped slides illustrating her past success conceded nothing to her singing, playing or songwriting prowess but instead played out an extended gag about the fact her breasts were (to this callow promo guy) the only thing of notice. It was shocking on a number of levels: firstly that an artist of such legendary status could be represented in this way by the very people employed to promote her career confirmed my worst fears about the music business, but it also made us realise that they could equally be representing our career in exactly the same manner. My wife and I made a point of walking out noisily and never coming back.
Since that awful night it has continued to annoy me that the British media have only been interested in the periphery of Dolly Parton’s career. Time after time I’ve watched TV and radio interviews where presenters will ask her about anything except her music. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether Dolly has cooperated too easily and that perhaps even she didn’t want to talk about the songs. I wouldn’t have been burdened by any of this if I’d not been at the Armadillo in Glasgow in the early part of this century. On the night when Dolly Parton came to town with a bluegrass band and stood alone with just her guitar to sing, ‘I Will Always Love You,’ I knew on the way home I had just witnessed one of the best live events of my life. There have been a few of these – Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, The second half of Springsteen’sTunnel of Love Express show in Sheffield in ’88, Neil Young and Crazy Horse at The Apollo in ’76 and the year before the one and only time I saw Little Feat with Lowell George. But this Dolly Parton show…well I’m not very good at putting any of these things in order so I may as well say it was up there with all of them.
Since that night and starting to present Another Country I’ve made a concentrated effort to get some time with Dolly Parton in a room so I could ask her the questions I feel have been missing all these years. I wanted to tell her how much her music meant, how talented a writer she is, how groundbreaking her career has been (and still is) and I wanted to rid myself of any association of that ghastly record company sales conference thirty years ago. I wanted her to know that, even if she was blissfully unaware, it was wrong and I wanted her to be loved and cherished for the treasure she is. It wasn’t me Dolly…I hated them….and this, this will make up for it. Finally I wanted to disprove that nagging doubt I verbalised there..that somehow Dolly had been complicit in the sub standard ‘churnalism.’
Needless to say any lingering fear that Dolly colluded with the misreperestation was eradicated on Friday 15th February 2019 in London’s Savoy Hotel when I finally got the chance to talk to her about music and nothing but music. Allocated 20 minutes we went well over the time because we simply talked songs and songwriting.
This Tuesday on Another Country you can hear that conversation illustrated by the songs she’s written in a career spanning over fifty years. We’ll play songs written by Dolly, artists she’s collaborated with and great cuts from her brilliant back catalogue and all musical things Dolly related. Our conversation? I don’t think you’ll be disappointed . I know I wasn’t and I feel I finally made up for the night I had to walk out thirty years ago.
We’re on air from five past nine this Tuesday on BBC Radio Scotland. Join me if you can.