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Dolly's Back where she belongs

Spotlight on Dolly PartonAge: 45.

Home town: Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

Current home: Nashville, Tenn.

Marital status: Married for 25 years to real estate developer Carl Dean.

First single: Puppy Love, written by an uncle, recorded for a tiny label in 1957.

Contribution to late-'70s disco craze: Baby I'm Burning single in 1979 made her the first country artist to have a disco hit.

First film role: 9 to 5, also starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.

Most memorable description of herself: A recent Vanity Fair article described her as "Marilyn Monroe with Thanksgiving stuffing." Parton said, "I don't know what I think of that. What does it mean?"

Most recent CD played: The Oak Ridge Boys' Unstoppable.

Favorite food: Potatoes. "Every time I've fallen off a diet, it was because of a potato."

Most recent book read: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Fannie Flagg.

Favorite place to visit: Hawaii.

Sitting in a plush office high above the Sunset Strip recently, Dolly Parton couldn't help reflecting on the long road that has taken her from humble beginnings in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., to her current perch as one of the world's most recognizable stars.

"I had to learn it the hard way, but I'm still just a country girl. I'm able to give a lot of good advice when young people come to me because I've been through it."

It's rare to find the gregarious Parton in a less-than-friendly mood, and on this day, the 45-year-old singer and actress was positively enthusiastic. Who could blame her?

Her current album, Eagle When She Flies (Columbia), was No. 1 on the country charts and rising on the pop list.

A greatest-hits album, one of several the singer has issued over the years, was still selling briskly.

And Rockin' Years, the duet single written by her brother Floyd that pairs Parton with current country favorite Ricky Van Shelton, was still climbing the country Top 10.

As if that wasn't enough cause for excitement in the Parton camp, there's Straight Talk, the feature film she begins shooting this week, which also stars James Woods. An NBC-TV movie Parton co-wrote, tentatively titled Wild Texas Wind, will be broadcast this fall.

But aside from all that (plus the cover of the June issue of Vanity Fair), Parton wanted to talk about her roots, which she pays tribute to on Eagle, her first true country album since the mid-'70s. For the first time in her life, she said, she is able to sing the music she loves best, and, equally important, people are buying it.

"I'm finally in the position to do the music that I do best and have it accepted. I've been working for years trying to build my name and reputation as an artist so I could sell country music to all the fans I've made outside of country music. I think I do country music better than I sing anything else."

Parton made the decision to abandon traditional country music in 1973, when her then-latest single, Jolene, sold just 60,000 copies.

"That wasn't even enough to pay for the aspirin I needed for the headache I got from not being able to make a living. So, I thought I'd better expand because I knew I was country but I had to start thinking about the music business."

Parton branched out into pop and a sort of middle-of-the-road country hybrid that propelled the singer from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry to Las Vegas main rooms. By the time Parton's pop hit 9 to 5, based on the hit feature film that brought Parton together with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, reached the top of the charts in 1980, she was about as far from her traditional country roots as she could be.

It was with the 1989 album White Limozeen that Parton made an effort to return to her country music past. A couple of tracks on the album, which was produced, like Eagle, by country artist Ricky Skaggs, indicated Parton's desire to delve more deeply into bluegrass, gospel, Appalachian folk and contemporary country music.

"It used to be that if you liked country music at all, you were a cornball or just a goofball that didn't know anything. You were not current at all. You were just a joke in many circles. But now, people are relating to what the story is really about.

"Because no matter how it's done instrumentally, these are real stories about how people live. You can have a broken heart just as bad in the city and need a job just as bad as a country boy. You can have just as many problems wherever you live."

That may explain country music's new high profile, evidenced by the success of such new artists as Garth Brooks, Clint Black and George Strait.

"A lot of people want to go back to more traditional things and live simpler lives," Parton reflected. "And so many young singers, like Garth Brooks and Clint Black, are going back and singing the older songs while the more traditional singers are trying to record more pop material. The new singers are selling more records than any of us did back then. You can't just live in the past. You can go back to the past and make something new, which is exactly what they're doing."

Parton points to such classic artists as Kitty Wells, Rose Maddox and the gospel Chuck Wagon Gang as primaryinfluences. But she is also quick to credit musical family members, including a great-grandmother who sang and played the dulcimer, as important figures in her upbringing.

Parton has taken some heat for her work in Rhinestone, a failed musical comedy that featured Sylvester Stallone's singing debut. But the film marked Parton's return to show business after a two-year break due to health problems.

"It'll always be a hit with me because I enjoyed making it so much. I kind of played myself and wrote the songs for it, so it gave me a chance to know that I was okay and could go back to work. Evidently, it was a bad movie."

As for a sequel to the much-loved film 9 to 5, Parton put it this way: "I don't like to chew my tobacco but once. We've been talking about it ever since the movie came out. At the time, I didn't want to do a sequel because I don't like doing something over again. It just didn't appeal to me. But we've often talked about it. I've tried to come up with a way where the three of us can work together again."

Her new film, Straight Talk, is a comedy about a girl from Arkansas who is mistaken for a radio talk show doctor and consequently finds herself on the air counseling a national audience.

"She just gives down-home, common-sense advice to people and nobody's heard anything like it before," Parton added.

The television movie Wild Texas Wind is the story of a country-and-western swing-band singer involved in an abusive relationship. The film also features Gary Busey and Ray Benson, a member of the band Asleep at the Wheel.

Said Parton: "It's the most serious acting I've ever done. I always knew I could do that sort of thing if I was in control. It's just that it's hard to do things that are bizarre or odd if I'm under everybody else's direction. We had fun doing it, but it was some serious stuff."

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