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Dolly Parton: The Fresh Air Interview

Dolly Parton has written thousands of songs, including "Coat of Many Colors," "Jolene" and "I Will Always Love You." In a 2001 interview with Fresh Air host Terry Gross, the actress and singer-songwrter describes how she went from East Tennessee to Nashville to worldwide stardom.

28:33

Other segments from the episode on September 6, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 6, 2010: Interview with Dolly Parton; Interview with Charlie Rich.

Transcript

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Dolly Parton: Singing Songs From The Heart And Soul

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're concluding our country music series today with interviews from our
archive with Charlie Rich and Dolly Parton.

Parton is one of the few performers who have been successful enough to
start her own theme park, but when I spoke with her in 2001, her
recording career had recently taken a turn away from the more commercial
end of country music to roots music. Her 1999 recording, "The Grass is
Blue," won the International Bluegrass Music Association's Album of the
Year award.

When I spoke with her, she had just released a follow-up called "Little
Sparrow," that featured traditional mountain music she grew up with, as
well as original songs in that vein.

From that album, here's her song "Little Sparrow."

(Soundbite of song, "Little Sparrow")

Ms. DOLLY PARTON (Musician): (Singing) Little sparrow, little sparrow,
precious fragile little thing. Little sparrow, little sparrow flies so
high and feels no pain.

All ye maidens heed my warning. Never trust the hearts of men. They will
crush you like a sparrow, leaving you to never mend. They will vow...

GROSS: Dolly Parton made her debut at the Grand Ole Opry in 1959. She's
written thousands of songs, including "Jolene," "Coat of Many Colors,"
and "I Will Always Love You," which was a big hit for Whitney Houston.

Now, you were born in 1946 in a one-room cabin in the Smoky Mountains of
east Tennessee. What was the music you heard as a child?

Ms. PARTON: Well, a lot of the stuff that we heard was that old porch-
picking music, old songs brought back from England and Ireland, that old
Appalachian music and a lot of the stuff that people up in the mountains
wrote.

So my mother was, and all my mama's people, used to always play and
sing. Mama used to sing a lot. So we would sing like a lot of the old
gospel songs. A lot of old gospel songs were written to sound old, like
I say, by a lot of my own people.

GROSS: Who was most musical in your family?

Ms. PARTON: All of us. My mother was very musical, and my Grandpa Jake,
I think, was a preacher, a Pentecostal preacher that I wrote a song
about many years ago called "Daddy was an Old Time Preacher Man." I
think he was, he was a music teacher of sorts back there in the hills. I
think we really got our talent from, you know, from mama's side of the
family, although some of my dad's people picking thing, as well.

But I have - there's 12 of us kids, six girls and six boys, and we all
sing and write and play. It's just that I think I've taken it farther. I
don't know that I'm near as good as some of the others, but I've been
more willing to sacrifice and work a little harder than some of the
others might have been willing, you know, to do just because they wanted
to have a family and do other things. But there's a lot of talent in
this family.

GROSS: When did you start writing songs and realizing that you had an
ear for that, as well as for singing?

Ms. PARTON: Well, I started singing already on television when I was 10
years old, but I started playing guitar and writing serious songs when I
was about seven.

And my mother was always fascinated with the fact that I could rhyme so
much stuff. So she used to keep stuff that I didn't remember I had
written. And she has stuff in a trunk, and many years ago, she said:
Here's some stuff you may want to look at. This is stuff you used to
write before you could write, before you could write it down. And she
used to write it down. So actually, I've been doing it all my life,
seriously and professionally since I was 10.

GROSS: Do you remember any of the songs you wrote as a girl?

Ms. PARTON: Oh, I used to write songs about cob dolls. I had this little
cob doll. The first song I remember writing, her name was Tassletop. It
was a little doll that mama – daddy had burned poker-hole eyes in to
make eyes, and mama had put the corn silk hair back on her and made a
little dress for her, and her name was Tassletop.

And I did – I think I was five or six, you know, somewhere in there,
seven, and it was like:

Ms. PARTON: (Singing) Little, tiny Tassletop, I love you an awful lot.
Hope you never go away. I want you to stay – and so on and so on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARTON: So I just wrote all about her dress and all about her hair.
So yeah, I just wrote about everything, you know, that come to mind.

GROSS: Were you writing about tragic love and heartbreak by the time you
were 10?

Ms. PARTON: Yes, I was, as a matter of fact. I wrote a song, I can't
remember exactly how it goes, but it was about a boy getting killed in
the war because we used to hear all those stories back home. And if they
weren't singing those sad-ass songs, they were telling stories about it,
you know, and it's like – and that makes an impression on a little
child.

So we thought we – you know, I thought that you needed to write some
really songs of tragedy. I thought you had to do that in order to be a
mountain singer.

GROSS: And I wonder how it sounded with you as a girl singing these
tragic songs.

Ms. PARTON: About the same as it does now. My voice ain't changed a lot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARTON: I kind of keep the same old voice. I sound like a little
girl singing all these lord-awful songs. It's like this, like, “Little
Sparrow” and “The Silver Dagger” from the other one, and, you know,
“Tender Lie” from this one. It's like, I love to sing all those sad
songs.

GROSS: Now, you've said that your grandfather was a preacher. Your
mother was devout. What was church like when you were young?

Ms. PARTON: Oh, well, we were one of those shouting, healing, holy-
roller churches, you know. And it was high-powered, which was great. I
really learned to sing in church, I think, really with emotion. And we
were a free, you know, it was a free-spirited church, and if you’d wrote
a song, a gospel song, of course, you could get up and sing it.

GROSS: Now, when you were young and singing in church, did you sing
about God in church and then sing about sinning at home?

Ms. PARTON: Well, I used to sin at church and sin at home, and I'd talk
about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARTON: I used to always sit in church looking out the windows at
the boys, wondering if I could make an excuse to go out and, you know,
go to the bathroom because all the outdoor toilets. But anyhow, I was
only going out to see the boys.

But anyhow, I had a deep faith in God. But I also was, was high-spirited
and fun-loving. And I, of course, was led to believe that everything you
did, you know, was a sin. But I don't believe that now. I think it's a
sin if you believe it to be, and if it hurts somebody else, it's a sin.

But I'm very deep in my faith. In fact, there's not an album that I do
that I don't do something that is spiritual. In fact, a song I used to
sing in church years ago that we did up-tempo, one of the songs we sang
every time we went to church was a song called "In the Sweet By and By."

And I, when I - I wanted to do one of those gospel songs on this album.
So I slowed this down, and it lended itself real nice to some more of
that Irish feel. So at some point, if you want to play that one, I think
that would be a good choice.

GROSS: Well, why don't we play that now?

Ms. PARTON: Okay, let's do.

(Soundbite of song, "In the Sweet By and By")

Ms. PARTON: (Singing) There's a land that is fairer than day, and by
faith we can see it afar for the father waits over the way to prepare us
a dwelling place there. In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that
beautiful shore. In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful
shore. We shall sing on that beautiful shore...

GROSS: That's "In the Sweet By and By" from Dolly Parton's new CD,
"Little Sparrow."

Your first record, it was a 45. One side was "Puppy Love," and the other
side was "Girl Left Alone." How old were you when this came out?

Ms. PARTON: I was about 10 or 11, I think, when I cut that. And that
came out on Goldband Records, probably several months, a year or so
after that.

That was my very first record, and that was a very exciting thing for
me, the first time I ever heard that played on the radio. It was on a
local radio show back home. It never did do anything other than just
that it was the first. But it did play locally, you know.

But it was fun. I'll never forget the thrill of hearing myself the first
time on the radio. I thought, well, I've made it now. Of course, I
hadn't.

GROSS: Could you sing a few bars of one of those songs?

Ms. PARTON: Oh, I could sing "Puppy Love," yeah.

Ms. PARTON: (Singing) Puppy love, puppy love, they all call it puppy
love. I'm old enough now to kiss and hug, and I like it. It's puppy
love.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARTON: It's got one of those – silly songs, you know...

(Singing) you pull my pig-tails, you make me mad. Then you kiss me, make
me glad. Sometimes, you even make me sad. Still, you're the sweetest
sweetheart I ever had. Oh, puppy love, puppy love...

Ms. PARTON: And I was trying to get all those little be-bop '50s kind of
sounds in there, too. But anyhow, needless to say, it didn't sell much.
But it was a start.

GROSS: Now, these were songs you co-wrote, I think with your uncle?

Ms. PARTON: My aunt, Dorothy Jo(ph), co-wrote the other side, "A Girl
Left Alone." Oh yeah, that's – when you was talking earlier about
singing those sad songs, I was 10 years old, singing:

(Singing) I'm a girl left alone. There's no hope for me. I'm tossed to
and fro like a ship on a sea. I made my mistakes, and now I must pay.

Ms. PARTON: Now, how many mistakes could I have made at 10 years old?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARTON: (Singing) Now I can see that there's no hope for me.

Ms. PARTON: But anyway, it's like at 10 years old. So I wrote – my Uncle
Bill(ph), who was also my manager at the time and also produced that
record, the A and the B side, we wrote "Puppy Love" together. So those
were just, you know, I say you've got to start somewhere.

And then my first record after that I wrote with another uncle of mine.
I was 15 years old and got on a major label, which was Mercury. And I
had a song called "It May Not Kill Me, But It's Sure Gonna Hurt."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How did that go?

Ms. PARTON: Oh, that's about it:

Ms. PARTON: (Singing) It may not kill me, but it's sure gonna hurt.

Ms. PARTON: And then it goes into fast tempo, and it's just about, like,
losing somebody. It's like you're going to walk away, and I'm going to
stay, and, you know, and I don't like it. It may not kill me, but it's
sure gonna hurt.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 2001 interview with Dolly Parton.
We'll more on this final day of our country music series after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're concluding our country music series today. Let's get back
to the interview I recorded with Dolly Parton in 2001.

There were 12 kids in your family. Looking at your mother and the life
that she was leading and the other women in the family, what did you
think the life of an adult woman was going to be for you?

Ms. PARTON: Well, I knew it wasn't going to be that. I knew that I had
to go. It wasn't that I wasn't proud of who I was and where I was from,
but I had a dream. I just couldn't imagine myself – I was babysitting
from the time – I have a sister and two brothers older, and there was
eight children younger than me.

So I had a house full of kids because mama was sick a lot. She had one
on her and one in her for as long as I remember. So those of us that,
you know, were home, we had to kind of to do the chores.

So I had kids. I had a house full of kids, and I just knew that I wanted
to do something with my music, and I knew that I was going to leave when
I was 18 years old. And I graduated from high school on a Friday night,
and I left for Nashville the next Saturday morning. I was ready to go.

And then I met my husband the first day I got there, and unfortunately,
we never were able to have children of our own. But that's okay, too,
because after I moved Nashville, I brought five of my younger brothers
and sisters to Nashville that lived with me. We sent them to school.

Now they have kids, and those kids call me Aunt Granny and my husband
Uncle Pee-Paw. So we're really like grandparents to them. So I've still
been saddled with a bunch of kids but no kids of my own.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So when you were 18, and you took a bus to Nashville, left home,
were you hoping to be a performer, a songwriter, both?

Ms. PARTON: Yeah, I was going to be all of that. I was going to be
everything I could be. But definitely, I was going to be a songwriter
and a singer, and that was what I headed out to be was to be a star.

And I vowed that I wouldn't go home until I had something to show for
it, and I didn't. But I was very, very homesick, and it was – well, I
actually got real lucky. But it was about a year before I really had
enough to show for it to think I could go home.

And then I got lucky, too. I had a top 10 record on a song called "Dumb
Blonde," like: Just because I'm blonde, don't think I'm dumb 'cuz this
dumb blonde ain't nobody's fool. That was my first top 10 record, and I
was, I guess that was in about '65, I guess, somewhere in there.

So I just knew that that's what I had to do, and that was my destiny. I
know now how lucky I was because I know a lot of people that got there
about the same time I did and had twice the talent, still ain't made it.

So I know how lucky I've been, and I'm grateful for it every day because
I love what I do.

GROSS: Now, another thing you did early on is that you sent songs to
Buddy Killen, the head of Tree Publishing, which is a big country music
publisher. And did you get other people to record your songs?

Ms. PARTON: Well, I wrote a song with my Uncle Bill Owens, the same
uncle that I was talking about. We had the song of the year, the BMI
Song of the Year in 1966. And Bill Phillips had a song called "Put It
Off Until Tomorrow, You've Hurt Me Enough Today."

And a lot of people through the years have recorded that song. So yes, I
had different songs recorded by different artists, that being the
biggest at that time. And I did write for Tree for a while. Buddy Killen
was very good to me. And then I had two or three top 10 records before I
started with the Porter Wagoner show in 1967.

GROSS: Well, since you mention Porter Wagoner, let me play a recording
that you made with him in 1968, and then we'll talk about that period of
your life. And the song is "Just Between You and Me." Who wrote the
song? Did you write this?

Ms. PARTON: No, I didn't write that, and come to think of it, I don't
know who wrote that, off the top of my head. That's been a few years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay, so this is Dolly Parton with Porter Wagoner, recorded in
1968.

(Soundbite of song, "Just Between You and Me")

Ms. PARTON and Mr. PORTER WAGONER (Musician): So I feel so blue
sometimes I want to die, and so I've got a broken heart. So what?

They say that time will heal all wounds in mice and men, and I know that
someday I'll forget and love again.

Just between you and me, I've got my doubts about it. Just between you
and me, you're too much to forget.

GROSS: That's Dolly Parton with Porter Wagoner. You performed on his
popular TV show for a while and, you know, made several recordings with
him. How did you start working with him?

Ms. PARTON: Well, Porter had the number one syndicated country
television show in the country at that time. He had a girl on there for
many years named Norma Jean(ph), who had become a very big country star
in her own right.

And she got married, was getting married and moving back to Oklahoma
City and left the show. And that left a spot. So Porter was looking for
a girl singer, and I'd had – people had been talking about me in town,
you know, the new girl in town and that I had "Something Fishy," "Dumb
Blonde" and a couple of other songs.

And so Porter had just got wind of that, and he just called me down to
his office for an interview. And so, I sat down with my guitar and
started singing songs that I'd written. And he was very impressed, and I
got the job, and that's how that happened.

Then we started doing duets together, which we were very successful. I
was with the show for seven years.

GROSS: Well, I thought we could hear your original version of "I Will
Always Love You," which was used again in the movie "The Bodyguard" and
was a huge hit for Whitney Houston. Do you remember writing this song
and what you were thinking of when you wrote it?

Ms. PARTON: Oh, absolutely, I remember that one. That one was about when
I was leaving Porter Wagoner because I had been with him seven years. I
had told him – because, see, I had plans to have a solo career of my
own. I hadn't planned to get caught up with another group.

The Porter show was very successful, and it was a thing to do. And when
I had told him I would stay, I told him I would stay for five years
because I wanted to go on.

But I stayed two years longer. But I kept staying and staying, and I
kept wanting to go because I felt like I really needed to go out on my
own if I was ever really going to have a solo career.

And Porter was dead against it. He wouldn't hear of it. And he had a
fit. We fought a lot. There was a lot of problems going on. And no
matter how I tried to talk to him to make – I could not make him
understand. And I thought, well, why don't you just write a song about
him? Just say you appreciate him, and you appreciate everything he does
and that you'll always love him for everything he's done and that you'll
always love him, period.

So I just, out of a broken heart of not being heard or anything, knowing
I had to make major decisions that would ultimately change my life
forever, and his for that matter, I wrote that song one night out of
great grief and depth and just trying to say the right things to say
goodbye.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear you version, your original version of "I
Will Always Love You."

Ms. PARTON: Okay.

(Soundbite of song, "I Will Always Love You")

Ms. PARTON: (Singing) If I should stay, I would only be in your way. So
I'll go, but I know I'll think of you each step of the way. And I will
always love you, will always love you.

GROSS: That's Dolly Parton, recorded in 1974. So do you know how this
song ended up being used in "The Bodyguard"?

Ms. PARTON: Well, they had told me that when Kevin Costner and Whitney
Houston were doing this movie, Kevin also I think produced this movie
and put all this stuff together. There was a song they had wanted to
use, that they had planned to use that as the theme instead of "I Will
Always Love You." And then come to find out like a few weeks before that
they had – I don't know what the song was, but a few weeks before, the
song they had planned to use, someone else recorded it and put it out.

So they were in desperate need of a song to say basically what “I Will
Always Love You” said. And from what I understand, Kevin Costner's
secretary said: Did you ever hear a song that Dolly Parton, that country
star, you know, the one with the big boobs and the big hair...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARTON: Seriously, she said: Dolly Parton, that country star – she
said she had a song called "I Will Always Love You," and I think it’d be
perfect. And she brought it into him. And they said he loved it. And so
they chose it.

GROSS: Dolly Parton, recorded in 2001. We'll hear the final part of that
interview in the second half of that show as our country music series
concludes. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Behind Closed Doors")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. We're concluding our country
music series today. Let's get back to our 2001 interview with Dolly
Parton.

Now you said that when you were young, you knew you wanted to be a big
star. Why did you want to be a star?

Ms. PARTON: Because I wanted to be rich. I wanted to travel. I wanted to
be famous. I wanted to do stuff. I wanted to be seen, I guess. I need a
lot of attention. Being brought up in a family of 12, you don’t get much
attention unless you’re in trouble. You know, it's like - so I think it
was just I just had a very outgoing personality and I wanted to be
outgoing all the time.

GROSS: When you got to Nashville and you started actually performing in
the country music world, you started to meet people who had already been
stars. What did you see about their lives that you liked and that you
didn’t like? And when you started realizing that there were certain
traps that one could fall into if one became famous.

Ms. PARTON: Well, I don’t think I even looked at it in that way. I just
- being from a big family of all kinds of people, I know that people
have problems. I just knew that I would always be myself. I would always
stay anchored in the love of my family and in my faith in God. And if I
stayed true to my music, if I stayed true to myself more than anything
else, you know, that I would do that. I just always felt sorry for
people who would get themselves in such messes. I've been in enough of
my own, but I figured that was my own, you know, choice to get in it and
to get out of it.

So, but you learn, you see and I learned real quick. But I think being
brought up in a big family and all those brothers, and my father and
being very close to my uncles, I think I had a good understanding of
men, so I knew how to maneuver and not allow myself to get caught in
that trap.

Just because I was a girl, you know, didn’t mean anything. I was very
serious-minded about my work but knew how to enjoy men, knew how to, you
know, maneuver in that world. So it was much easier, you know, for me
than it seemed to have been for a lot of the girls, especially, you
know, that were new in town. So being a girl always served me well.

GROSS: Now you’ve joked that if you were a man you would've been a drag
queen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARTON: I always say that it's a good thing that I was women because
if I'd have been a man I would've been a drag queen, just 'cause I'm so
damned gaudy. Because I like all the flash and the glitter and, you
know, I just love, you know, just I love playing in my clothes. I love
playing, you know, in my life because I love makeup, I love clothes and
I've got the kind of personality that can pull it off. And I just love,
you know, what I do. I'm comfortable being myself, even if I make other
people uncomfortable with the way I look. If I'm comfortable with it,
then it, you know, it's okay with me.

GROSS: How did you first start dressing in that, what's the word I'm
looking for? Almost oversized...

Ms. PARTON: Gaudy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...gaudy, oversized kind of way, where if your hair was big it
was going to be real big and, you know...

Ms. PARTON: Well, I think a lot of that came, though, from a very
serious place. That was country girl's idea of what glamour was. And
when I, you know, I didn’t have any money to have stuff and I've often
joked about it, but it's the real truth that I patterned myself after
what they considered the trash in our hometown.

There was this one woman, I thought she was beautiful and, you know, she
had the peroxide hair and she, you know, had it all piled up on her head
and had red fingernails and red lipstick and, you know, wore her powder.
And I just thought she was the prettiest thing I'd ever seen. And Mommy
said, oh, quit looking at her. She ain't nothing but trash. And I though
ooh, that's what I want to be when I grow up, trash.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARTON: So that's where kind of my look came from. And then how the
glamour girls and the movie stars all that, you know, it was really like
that. But it was still, you know, I mean, I enjoy it, I still like doing
it, and I've always just, it's like when they say less is more, that's
not my motto. Mine is more is more and the more I can get the more I
want of life and of everything.

And it's like - but in addition to me being all that gaudy and all, I
take my music and my writing very very serious. And hopefully, people
know that my heart is true. And I've always believed that a part of my
magic, if there was any, was the fact that I look so artificial but I am
so totally real. And I think when you hear these kinds of songs, I think
you know that it has to come from the heart.

GROSS: Dolly Parton, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Ms. PARTON: Well, thank you.

Dolly Parton, recorded in 2001.

Coming up, we conclude our country music series with Charlie Rich, who
got his start at Sun Records, then became an originator of the
countrypolitan sound.

This is FRESH AIR.
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Fresh Air
..TIME:
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..NTWK:
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..SGMT:
Charlie Rich: The Silver Fox With A Big Country Sound

Terry Gross, host:

We're going to conclude our country music series with an interview from
our archive with the late Charlie Rich. He was one of country music's
biggest stars in the '70s with hits like "Behind Closed Doors" and "The
Most Beautiful Girl."

He got his start in the 1950s as a session pianist and staff writer for
Sun Records, the label that launched careers of Elvis Presley, Johnny
Cash and Roy Orbison. Rich also had a hit on Sun, "Lonely Weekends." In
the '60s he had the novelty hit "Mohair Sam," but there were many lean
years in that decade.

In the '70s, he became famous. He was an originator of a style that
became known as countrypolitan because of its slick orchestral
arrangements and backup singers.

Rich died in 1995 at the age of 62 from a blood clot on his lung. I
spoke with him in 1992, after he recorded an album that showcased him
without the big production values. It was just Rich and a few musicians
doing songs written by Rich and his wife Margaret Ann, as well as jazz
and R&B standards like "Moon Indigo" and "You Don’t Know Me." The album
is called "Pictures and Paintings."

Let's start with the title song. It was written by Doc Pomus and Dr.
John and features Rich at the piano.

(Soundbite of song, "Pictures and Paintings")

Mr. CHARLIE RICH (Musician): (Singing) Pictures and paintings are etched
in my heart, for a love with no ending and never had a chance to start.
Now all I am left with, all that I have, are pictures and paintings
etched in my heart. Pictures and paintings...

GROSS: Charlie Rich, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. RICH: Thank you, Terry. Nice to be here.

GROSS: Do you think that the country superstar image of yours gave
listeners a very limited view of who you are musically?

Mr. RICH: I think once you get like pegged, so to speak, that you kind
of have a tendency to not be able to know exactly what you can in a
sense get away with and what you can't. So in that respect, I think that
you’re kind of up a creek, because if you, in a sense, if you go out and
do something that's far out from the public that you’re playing for,
sometimes you might just lose a lot of them. So that's about it. And
this one we had no holds barred and just could play like we wanted to.
There wasn’t any arrangements. There were not any, I don’t know, it was
really a pleasure for me to do it and work with the guys here.

GROSS: I'd like to talk with you about your life. Maybe we can start
with your childhood. You grew up, I believe on a family plantation?

Mr. RICH: Yes, that's right.

GROSS: So your family owned a plantation in Arkansas?

Mr. RICH: Yes. It was actually a rental type thing. My father was a
planter and he rented like about 3,000 acres of land and farmed it. I
guess that's probably where I first, you know, heard the blues that I
still enjoy so much and everything was on this plantation.

GROSS: So you were exposed to black music from the people who worked on
the plantation.

Mr. RICH: That's true.

GROSS: How did you make friends with the people there? I assume that
they were older than you were.

Mr. RICH: Well, they, you know, some were older, some weren’t. The, one
of my main people was a guy named C.J., and he kind of taught me some
blues licks and I used to sit and watch him play piano and that sort of
thing. And he was kind of a honky-tonk piano player for the time. And,
of course, there was still, there was a quite a few blues things around
Memphis, which the plantation was over in Arkansas but it's only about
30 miles from Memphis. So Memphis had a pretty good blues thing to start
with, you know.

GROSS: Did you go to black churches and listen to the music there?

Mr. RICH: Well, didn’t really have to go. I did but, you know, you could
hear it like on a Sunday or if you were riding your horse down the path
or whatever, you could hear the black music come from the black
churches. And as a matter of fact, in the, you know, in the cotton
fields and that sort of thing you could hear the singing and the, I
don’t know, it’s just stuff that was contagious kind of.

GROSS: I believe you parents were Baptist missionaries.

Mr. RICH: That's true.

GROSS: And they sang in the gospel quartet. What did they think of you
learning the blues? Did they object to that?

Mr. RICH: No, they did not. No. As a matter of fact, my father and the
sharecropper I was telling you about, C.J., they used to get together
for, you know, some Saturday night session. My dad played guitar and
C.J. played piano and that sort of thing. So there was no - really no
racist thing or any of that to speak of, even though the times were that
way. In our particular situation, it just never occurred that way.

GROSS: So did you ever sing gospel music yourself?

Mr. RICH: Well, of course, when, you know, when we went to church and
that sort of thing, I sang what I guess we consider now white gospel
music, which is in a sense, kind of like the quartet type singing. My
mother played piano, my dad sang and two or three of their friends sang
and kind of they did a lot of churches and they did some radio shows and
things like that. And they took me one time to a little station in
Jonesboro, Arkansas and I was supposed to sing and they put a chair
under me to - so I could reach up to the mic. But I never did sing. I
was shell-shocked or something - mic shocked, maybe.

But anyway, the quartet was performing and I was supposed to sing a
thing myself but I couldn’t get any sound to come out.

GROSS: How old were you?

Mr. RICH: And I still, in a sense, sometimes have a problem with that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How old were you when this happened?

Mr. RICH: Oh, I was about five or six.

GROSS: When you actually started performing, was stage fright ever a
serious problem?

Mr. RICH: Well, I think so, yes. I don’t know if that's - I don’t know
whether it's that or like anxiety or some of the new names they have for
things now. But like once, you know, once the ball is kicked off
everything fine, but before that it's a little nerve-racking, yes.

GROSS:: Right.

Mr. RICH: Still. It's anxiety-panic disorder I think is what they call
it now.

GROSS: A (unintelligible) name.

Mr. RICH: A bad business to be in, huh?

GROSS: Yeah. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Charlie Rich. Now
what about piano? How did you start playing? Was there a piano in your
house?

Mr. RICH: We had a piano in the house and my mother played. I have two
sisters and they both took piano lessons. And I took from about the
third grade till about the ninth grade and then decided I wanted to play
football, and I did that. And in the meantime, I was learning to play
saxophone in the band. And only after I got back into the - when I went
into the Air Force, did I actually start playing piano again,
professionally, so to speak.

GROSS: You were in an Air Force band?

Mr. RICH: Yes, in Enid, Oklahoma.

GROSS: Now, I think that your first real professional break came when
your wife, Margaret Ann, took a tape of your songs to the Sun studios in
Memphis. And I was wondering if she did that secretly or if you knew
that she was going to do that?

Mr. RICH: She did it secretly. At that time we had just gotten out of
the, because we got married while I was in the Air Force...

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. RICH: ...and I was 19 and she was 18 and we didn’t have anything to
do and we had two kids and another one on the way and I was getting out
of the Air Force so I didn’t have a check coming in. So my uncle set me
up in the farming business over across the river in West Memphis. And
that is where I was doing some stuff just at home and putting it on a
little Webcor recorder. And she took some of it secretly over to Bill
Justis at Sun Company.

And he gave her - he was nice to her and everything but he gave her a
Jerry Lee Lewis record and said, go tell Charlie when he can play that
bad, come see me. Because Jerry was real hot at the time, you know.

GROSS: Yes. Sun was the studio that had Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and
Carl Perkins. Would you have had the nerve to take that tape to Sun
yourself?

Mr. RICH: Well, at the time I was busy like, you know, with another
occupation, or trying to be.

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. RICH: And I didn’t really know that much about the recording
industry and that sort of thing. If it hadn't been for my wife, probably
the tape would never have gotten to Bill and I don’t know where I'd be
now, maybe driving a tractor or something.

GROSS: Right. Well, the first record that you made you made for Sun
Studios. It was a song of yours called "Lonely Weekends."

Mr. RICH: Right.

GROSS: And you recorded it in 1950.

Mr. RICH: '60 wasn’t it?

GROSS: Excuse me?

Mr. RICH: '59 or '60?

GROSS: Yeah, I'm sorry. You recorded in 1959. How did you get to record
this?

Mr. RICH: I had written that song written and as we got the ball
rolling, so to speak, Sam got interested in the stuff we were writing
more so than being an artist...

(Soundbite of clearing voice)

Mr. RICH: ...and I think I wrote that for Elvis or Jerry Lee or whoever
would cut it probably. And I guess we got a pretty good demo on it and
so Sam decided we'd cut it on me and we did and ended up getting a good
cut and it's the first record that we had out that, you know, that did
quite well for us back I think it was 1959 or '60.

GROSS: Let me play it. This is Charlie Rich, "Lonely Weekends."

(Soundbite of song "Lonely Weekends")

Mr. RICH: (Singing) Well, I'll make it all right. From Monday morning
'til Friday night. Oh, those lonely weekends. Since you left me. I'm as
lonely as I can be. Oh, those lonely weekends.

You said you'd be good to me. You said our love would never die. You
said you'd be good to me. But baby, you didn't even try.

Well, I'll make it all right. From Monday morning 'til Friday night. Oh,
those lonely weekends.

GROSS: Now listening to that it sounds like you were a little influenced
in your singing back then by Elvis Presley. Did you think of yourself as
being influenced by him then?

Mr. RICH: Back then, everybody in a sense tried to - you know, they
tried to either write something that Elvis would like or would do or
would maybe even, you know, imitate him if they could to some degree.
And being it was my first time out, I didn’t know I guess what else to
do. I don’t think jazz was selling...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICH: ...real great about that time. But, so I think in a sense, he
set a style that a lot of different people, including myself, tried to
imitate to some degree - knowingly or unknowingly.

GROSS: We're concluding our country music series with out 1992 interview
with Charlie Rich, who died in 1995 at the age of 62.

We'll hear more of that interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to my 1992 interview with the late songwriter,
singer and pianist, Charlie Rich.

In the 1970s, you hooked up with the record producer Billy Sherrill and
he produced your really big hits like "The Most Beautiful Girl" and
"Behind Closed Doors." How did you meet up with him and start working
with him?

Mr. RICH: Well, at the time, I had met Billy before as an engineer for
Sun Records in Nashville. Sam also had a studio in Nashville, so we went
over there one time and recorded some things and Billy was an engineer
on the sessions. That's really the first place I met him.

Next time I met him he was kind of the head producer over at Epic
Records in Nashville. And we worked together for about three or four
years and we did stuff like you say, "The Most Beautiful Girl" and
"Behind Closed Doors" and "I Take It On Home" and quite a few different
things. And some worked and some didn’t. But those were the biggest
selling records. And, of course, that meant, you know, overseas tours
and moving around a lot. And finally, we even played Las Vegas quite a
bit and places like that. So it just led to quite a bit of work.

GROSS: Well, I want to play "The Most Beautiful Girl" and I have to tell
you that, you know, I just recently went back and listened to this
record again and you sing so soulfully on it. You really sing
beautifully on it. I'll confess, though, when it was a hit I used to
just like hear it in the background a lot and I wouldn’t always, you
know, pay careful attention to it.

Mr. RICH: Yeah.

GROSS: Like one does with a lot of hits, you know, that you’re just
hearing like on jukeboxes...

Mr. RICH: Sure.

GROSS: ...and in stores and in the background on the radio. But you
really sing so well on it.

Mr. RICH: Well, thank you. That's very nice of you.

GROSS: So, let's give this a spin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICH: Okay.

GROSS: And this is Charlie Rich, one of his big hits, "The Most
Beautiful Girl."

(Soundbite of song, "The Most Beautiful Girl")

Mr. RICH: (Singing) Hey, did you happen to see the most beautiful girl
in the world? And if you did, was she crying, crying? Hey, if you happen
to see the most beautiful girl that walked out on me, tell her I'm
sorry. Tell her I need my baby. Oh, won't you tell her that I love her.

GROSS: Did you feel that you fit in with the country music crowd in the
'70s?

Mr. RICH: Well, I traveled with country music folk and played country
music shows and auditoriums. And I didn’t - I liked country music but
that wasn’t all that I liked. And I still think there's some great
country records out there and some good things come out of country
music. I just can't seem to just stay in one particular thing because I
kind of - I feel like it kind of makes me stale if I try to stay in one
particular category. And so I venture out on a lot of new things. Some
work, some don’t.

GROSS: In 1974 you won the Country Music Award for Entertainer of the
Year. And in the next year, 1975, you were presenting the award to the
winner, and you opened up the envelope which revealed that the winner
was John Denver. So what you did was you took out your cigarette lighter
and burned the piece of paper that announced who the winner was. What
was going through your mind when you did that?

Mr. RICH: It's kind of strange. They're a lot of, on that particular
instance there were a lot of people asking me if it was a form of
rebellion or what have you or something of that nature or if I didn’t
like John Denver or if - but actually, that wasn’t the situation at all.
Things at those awards shows and things can get pretty hectic in the
back, before you even get on stage and what have you. And it seems like
millions of people running around back there and that sort of thing.

And I guess my anxiety-panic disorder kicked in or something. But there
was no intent as far as trying to make a statement. It was just kind of
a mistake that, you know, that I've done, I've made a few before.

GROSS: Well, no matter how it was intended, I'm sure a lot of people
interpreted it as a slam to John Denver. I was wondering if there were
any consequences that you suffered as a result of having, you know, done
this at the Country Music Awards?

Mr. RICH: Well, I don’t know. It may have...

(Soundbite of clearing voice)

Mr. RICH: It’s hard to say exactly. It may have been that I had been
overworked in '73, '74, '75 and that sort of thing and maybe I was
rebelling but not against John Denver and not against country music. I
just - like I say, it was just a mistake that I made that I guess was
important. But actually, I think everything works to the good, so maybe
I was saying, well, I want to try something else besides country or
something. I don’t know.

GROSS: So you think it was in your own way a way of getting out?

Mr. RICH: I think maybe so, yes.

GROSS: Was that the result?

Mr. RICH: Well, it was - I kept on recording and went with another
couple of labels and some different producers and that sort of thing.
And we did a lot of records, a lot of writing and the same things that
we’d been doing, not many being successful. And we tried doing some, you
know, strictly country type stuff and I just said that I don’t want to
just do just country type stuff the rest of my life. I want to do some
different things. And so that's kind of where I am now, I guess. And
Peter Guralnick and Joe McEwen gave me that opportunity with this album,
so that's kind of the result.

GROSS: Well, Charlie Rich, I want to thank you a lot for talking with
us.

Mr. RICH: Terry, it's nice to talk to you.

GROSS: Charlie Rich, recorded in 1992. He died in 1995 of a blood clot
on his lung. He was 62.

We'll close with his recording, "Don’t Put No Headstone on My Grave."
When I asked Sam Phillips to choose his favorite of all the records he
ever produced, and keep in mind, Phillips produced Elvis Presley's first
records, Phillips chose this recording, describing it as a masterpiece.

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song, "Don’t Put No Headstone on My Grave")

Mr. RICH: (Singing) Don't put no headstone on my grave. All my life I've
been a slave. I don’t want the world to know, here lies a man that loves
you so.

Don’t send no flowers when I'm gone. Just put me down and then move on.
Just put me down and let me be, free from all this misery.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
129612715

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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