Sisters will, of course, be sisters. At some point, they’ll almost certainly find their affection and familial ties challenged by the need to establish their own identities. Just such a dynamic reared its head between Stella Parton and her older sister, Dolly, when Stella set out on her own musical course—a choice that was met with some initial family opposition. Stella’s Top 10 chart debut in 1975, “I Want to Hold You in My Dreams Tonight,” in fact made a bigger initial splash than that of her sister, whose role as the duet partner of country star and TV show host Porter Wagoner meant a delay in launching a successful solo career. The determination that fueled sister Stella’s artistic individuality, though, was the result of something she and Dolly had very much in common: the siblings’ upbringing around strong women.
“Our mother was very strong, very spiritual, and so was my grandmother,” Parton begins. “Even though we were raised in a very strong Christian family, and my dad was a very strong man, in a lot of ways it was a matriarchal society,” she says with a laugh. “But it was okay, because of the goodness of the women that were in charge of raising the children and holding the line on the men if they got out of line; they did it with a soft voice and a strong mind.”
While grit is a common Parton trait, the two women do have differing qualities. “My sister has always kind of used honey to push her way through that glass ceiling, and I’m awfully bad to pour a little vinegar in my honey,” Parton says, punctuating the comment with another bright laugh. As for their musical divergences, she describes herself as “more of a blues-type thinker” whose incorporation of various styles has resulted in a sound she calls “American fusion.” In fact, her attraction to multiple genres would inform the name of her own independent label, Soul, Country and Blues Records. The label launched her onto the country charts, where she scored a string of major-label hits in the latter half of the ’70s. If you think that sounds like a bold and pioneering move to have made 40 years ago, you’d be right: Parton is widely cited as country’s first successful female indie artist.
Also distinguishing her work from her sister’s is Stella’s unusual preference for material written from a male perspective. “I never did the ‘Delta Dawn’s or the ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’s. I didn’t do those kinds of songs,” she explains, “because I tried to do men’s songs the way I thought they should be done.” Suffice it to say she also steered largely clear of Dolly’s songs and their unapologetically female perspective. So, Stella’s decision to record a tribute to her older sis definitely marks a major departure. Titled “Mountain Songbird,” Parton’s current album contains 11 classic Dolly compositions.
The most challenging track to find her own approach for, she says, was “I Will Always Love You,” not only a signature song for the elder Parton, but one that other artists have famously interpreted. Imagining herself in the harmony-singing role that began when she and Dolly were youngsters, she opted for a simple acoustic version with overdubbed harmonies, the way she would have sung them if performing with her sister. “And [Dolly] loved it,” says Stella. “She cried when she heard it.”
Stella primarily chose story songs for the album, she says, because in many cases, she was present when Dolly wrote them and knows the experiences behind them. The autobiographical “Coat of Many Colors,” for instance, summons Stella’s vivid memory of Dolly coming home “hurt and brokenhearted” after being mocked for her prized jacket, handmade from scraps by her mother. Such shared history, in fact, qualified the younger Parton to serve as the family consultant on the set for Hallmark’s 2015 TV movie “Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors,” which also featured Stella, an experienced actress, in a minor role.
Bookending the 11 freshly re-recorded highlights from Dolly’s catalog are two additional songs. The opener and title track, “Mountain Songbird,” was co-written by Stella with Tom T. Hall and his late wife, Dixie. “It’s about how we as a family felt when she left home and came to Nashville to become a star, and how it’s affected us through the years,” Parton says. “It’s quite tender and kind of bluegrassy.” The other, “More Power to Ya,” is a female empowerment anthem co-written by Stella and Dolly. The inspirational number served as the theme for the Red Tent Event in 2014, a women’s conference Stella helmed and hopes to repeat.
Because she was raised around robust female role models and has herself done plenty of overcoming, Parton’s missionary heart is drawn to “women that feel hopeless—to me, that’s what the Red Tent is about. I’ve taken the bad things that have happened to me in life and the good things, and tried to merge those together and make something to give other people hope. I’m just a messenger of hope; music is the tool that I use to get that message across—that if I can accomplish something and overcome things, you can, too.”