Stella Parton has had a long and successful career in the music industry and I was keen to chat to her after she released her 40th studio album back in September. Though her music may not be as well known as her sister Dolly's, it is full of truth and humour and has secured her a large and devoted fanbase. Her longevity in the industry is not just thanks to the quality of her songwriting but also her bubbly personality and engagement with her fans. An avid cook, Parton recently appeared on BBC's Celebrity Masterchef but prior to this she has written three cook books where she shares her favourite recipes. I was keen to talk to her about all the things that were important to her, everything from music to cooking, christmas to politics and I must say, it's one of my favourite interviews I've had the pleasure of doing!
So first of all I’d like to go right back to the start, to your childhood, and can you remember the moment when you first decided you wanted to make music for a living?
Well first of all I never thought of myself as making my living as a songwriter, I started working when I was in my early twenties at a club and I’d always written songs but I didn’t think of it as a career until I was offered a job in a nightclub in Washington DC and I started to make my living and I thought well maybe I can do this.
You’re not the only Parton to write music a number your brothers and sisters are also musicians so was this something your parents encouraged?
Well they always gave us the freedom to live our dreams, we just naturally just did this more as a hobby than anything because as children we didn’t know we could really make a living out of it until we started earning a living out of it!
Can you remember what you listened to growing up, what did your parents play to you and what are you listening to now?
Well as a child I remember listening to a lot of the pop ballads, people like Perry Como, Bing Crosby and women like Rosemarie Clooney, a lot of Jazz and Folk like Billy Holiday and that kind of music was very popular on the radio but it was also very popular to listen to the Grand Ole Opry and to listen to the traditional Country singers like Roy Acuff and Kitty Wells, Jean Shephard and those people. So across the board I listened to all of that music, Elvis Presley was very popular when I was a little girl so I listened to that a lot. A lot of the rockabilly music I really loved too so I had a broad spectrum of people who influenced me and the way I like to approach my music.
You’ve just released a new album and I believe this is your 40th studio album is that right?
It is yes!
Thank you, people are probably wondering why I continue to put out music but a lot of my die hard fans ask for it so I try to accommodate but I continue to write because I want to and because I love to write and I love collaboration with other people. So it’s kind of like being on an endless treasure hunt, you never know when you’re going to write that perfect song or when you’re going to come up with the perfect idea so I think that’s part of the excitement for me to live a creative life.
And you wrote 8 out of 10 of those songs on that record so I’m keen to know where does your inspiration come from lyrically, is it mostly personal experience?
A lot of it does and then from the experiences of others, just hearing someone turn a phrase in conversation can inspire me to write a song around it. I don’t concern myself too much with trying to impress other songwriters or people in the industry, I just try to write stuff that entertains me and the people that have always bought my music. I don’t concern myself at all with what people in the industry think or my peers think, I just do what feels natural and the natural flow for me.
Does your writing process change or do you like to start with a hook or a melody and does this change depending on who you’re working with?
I think it changes with who you’re working with but also for me I’ve never really had a formula because to have a formula is the start of being redundant, so I don’t like to do that I like to find different ways of doing things just like I do in the kitchen!
Do you have favourite people to collaborate with?
Well I’ve written with people like Wayne Carson who was one of the greater songwriters, he’s now passed away. And just recently I’ve collaborated with Don Mescall who has a new album out called Light House Keeper and he’s one of the finer, younger writers that I’ve written with, every song he writes is just phenomenal. He’s an Irish artist who makes his home in England, I must give you his information, you might want to talk to him!
Yes definitely! Do you have a favourite song off this record and can you tell me a bit about the story behind it?
Well actually, probably the sweetest song and most personal song would be The last Rose of Summer which I had written as a poem for my parents when my mother passed away, a make believe that Dad came to get her at Twilight and took her to be with him and then I put a melody to it and I think it’s one of the sweeter pieces on my album. Then Dirty Rotten Dog is a fun song, it shows my sense of humour, a lot of people think of me as being quite serious but actually I have a very rivalled sense of humour so that’s what that songs about, just being silly because people are always talking about their relationships and their pets and I thought well yeah they’re about the same, relationships and pets you either love em or you just wanna get rid of em haha! I thought it would be a funny edition.
A couple of silly questions for you now, what’s the strangest thing you’ve ever written a song about?
Hmm I don’t know, probably trucks, writing a song about trucks. When I first started my career truck driving songs were in and it was fun to find silly ways to write about trucks and the people that drive them, that sort of thing.
When you’re on stage, are you completely focused or do you let your mind wander, we call it your mid-gig thoughts?
Well my mind does wander sometimes thinking did I say this already or what am I going to sing next, do I remember what the line up of the show is? And sometimes I forget a line of a song, what the next lyric is. I try to stay focussed though because after all people sacrificed to come and see the show and I try to give them the best I have to offer.
Do you have a favourite aspect of the industry, writing, recording or performing?
Well I think it all has it’s virtues, I like it all, I love being in the studio but then I love the process of writing but the instant feedback is when you’re on stage and people can react to what you’ve created and what you’re performing.
I’m an aspiring songwriter as are many of my readers and listeners, what one piece of advice do you have to people trying to make it in the industry?
I think stay true to yourself whether you’re a songwriter or a singer. I think too many people, that I’ve noticed in my genre over the years, are too busy trying to come up with a clever line instead of trying to tell the listener the story. You can be as simple or as clever as you want but if you miss the point with the listener then what was the point in telling the story?
Now for my dissertation at University I looked into Controversy in Country Music and looked at what happened with the Dixie Chicks and the fallout from their political comments. I know you’re quite vocal on social media about politics which is something I admire, do you think more artists should voice their opinions and not be afraid of speaking out?
Well I can only speak for myself, but since the Dixie Chicks were crucified by so many males in the industry, I have chosen to speak out more because I think females should be more vocal about everything these days whether it’s politics, sexual harassment or whatever it is. We’ve been kept in the shadows for so long and our opinions have been suppressed so actually I think it’s good, it’s high time women spoke out more and more and more. At my age and my stage in my career I really don’t give a hank what anybody else thinks, I just say what I want to. When you have a platform I think you should use it for good!
We recently saw you on Masterchef, can you tell me about that experience?
Well you know I’ve always cooked to nurture people and to show affection and love for my loved ones. Masterchef was totally out of my element it was not an enjoyable experience for me as it was a challenge and I don’t see myself as a competitive person, I only compete with myself. For me food is a creative process not a competition so I wouldn’t say that it was a great experience for me.
Do you have a favourite dish you like to cook?
I cook a lot of different things but I’m a vegetarian and so I try to cook a lot of Country food and southern cuisines in a healthy way and try not to be so boring so the people who are used to eating southern food, it’s still enjoyable for them.
Since it’s coming up to Christmas I thought I’d ask you about the holiday season as it’s very special for you isn’t it? What are your plans over the Holidays?
My plans are to spend time with my son and grandson and daughter in law and to watch the babies play. To me the magic of Christmas is to be around Children and so that is what I plan to do.
And finally, what’s next for you? Do you have any plans to come back to the UK soon?
Well at the moment I’m working and writing for a duet album I’ll be doing with Don Mescall in the coming year and hopefully we’ll be touring this summer in Ireland and the U.K. and I’m working on a development project that I’m doing with one of the networks here in the US so we’ll see what happens.
That all sounds very exciting!
Well I’m excited I try to have projects in the pipeline so I don’t get too bored!
Stella's album Survivor is out now! We'll be playing some of this interview on the Nashville Sounds UK Country Music Radio Show on Roch Valley Radio this Thursday 27th December 10am-12 noon GMT along with a couple of her songs off the new record so join us at rochvalleyradio.org.uk