Not many performers can be called a true icon, but Dolly Parton is the exception to that rule. From movies to music to Dollywood, Parton has managed to stay relevant and adored throughout her career. Dolly chatted with Contributing Writer MICHAEL COOK about what we can expect from her new album “Blue Smoke,” what touring is like for her nowadays and what surprising artist she would like to collaborate with.

Why is your new album “Blue Smoke” so special?
I always get excited with any album that I do, really. I think that the one I just did is the best one yet! I wake up with new dreams every day!

I wanted to do an album with all the colors of my career: gospel music, mountain music, doing some covers – some other people’s songs, they were fun to do. I work with a lot of the same musicians that perform on my road show, and we get excited together knowing that we get to keep performing together. It’s just so much fun to write ‘em, and get out on the road and perform ‘em!

When you look back at a young Dolly Parton, what is a thing or two that you would tell that Dolly now?
I would tell her I’m pretty proud of her! When you get older you really reflect and look back, you know? I realize how fortunate I am about having my dreams come true, because so many can’t say that. Many people are just as talented as I am, and they may not have made it. Kris Kristofferson sang, “Why Me Lord,” and that’s what I think. That little girl that headed out of the Smoky Mountains that moved here in 1964, now here at 68 years old, I still feel like that little girl. I love the music, I love to write and hope to do this ‘til I keel over dead in about 30 years!

As a songwriter, what songs of yours are you the most proud of?
My songs are like my children. I hope to have ‘em to support me when I’m old! They’re really like your kids; you love ‘em all. Some I love more than others. I really love the song “If I Had Wings.” I like the songs that I sang growing up. I love the little song “Miss You Miss Me.” It came from a really personal place. So many people are divorcing, and the kids end up suffering the most. I enjoy the rewrite of “Lay Your Hands On Me,” the Bon Jovi song, and the Bob Dylan song “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” It’s fun to experience new things.

What is touring like now for you?
It’s better now; I have a built an audience. I know I’m gonna have a crowd. I used to worry if anyone was even gonna show up! It’s a lot of fun for me still. I love the audience. I love to perform, and I love to write more than anything. It’s like an all-around great experience for me. I still enjoy it as much as I did in the old days.

What’s it like bringing music closer to perform at home?
I know everyone in the area can relate to my music; they know me. I grew up in those mountains across from North Carolina: bluegrass, countryflavored things. I hope they enjoy watching me perform it as much as I enjoyed writing ‘em!

How do you get ready to tour?
Now that’s a good question! It’s really a good year and a half of work before hitting the road. You’ve got to decide if you want to even do it, first of all. Second, you have to decide what the show is going to be and what it needs to be. Then you get with promoters and the people who can try to sell it. Then you work for weeks and weeks rehearsing, and only after you really hit the road can you really rest! After your lighting, sound, you do the sound check and the show at night. In my off time, I rest, read, things like that. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a joy!

How do you stay healthy on the road?
When we travel overseas we have our own caterer. Some people are vegan, some people have health restrictions, things like that. We have great people that provide some really great food, and some junk too when we want it! After the show, I can just lay around and rest my voice. I don’t do interviews during the day when I tour,veither. We’ve all worked together a long time on the road, and we have to take care of ourselves. The younger ones can get a little rowdy, but they pay the price; they can afford the hangover!

What are some of your highlights from performing at the Grammy Awards? Any dream collaborators?
I’m always thrilled to be nominated and be a part of the whole show, but when you win it’s even greater! I was always proud of my “The Grass Is Blue” Grammy, personally.

My dream collaborator on stage? Well, you know, in Nashville we have these famous treats called “Goo Goo Clusters.” I send them out to people all the time. If I got together with Lady Gaga, we could be “Gaga and Goo Goo”!

What’s the story behind the song “Banks of the Ohio”?
All of my life I’ve been singing that song, and it was a folk ballad. I just always liked it, and it was such a man’s song about a guy who killed his girlfriend. I decided that I was going to write a part like I was a reporter or a writer, who would be seeing it from that point of view. It makes it easier for a woman to sing it.

How are you able to stay so loved and so relevant?
People are always gonna be people. We are gonna have the same thoughts, heartaches, faith in love, family, love things like that. I love life and kept a good attitude about it. I’ve always said I had more guts than talent, and I just love people and allowed people to know me. I think they think of me as an aunt or as a sister, and I get younger fans, because some of the younger fans have their parents listening to me. After all, I was “Hannah Montana’s” aunt! So I have a little younger audience with that show also.

This is your 42nd studio album. How has the recording process changed?
Everything is so different than when I came to Nashville. It was so different: You would go into a studio for a three-hour session, most of it was live, people didn’t do all of the stuff that they do now. You don’t even have to be in the studio now – you can sing from your living room! When I record, I like to go in with my band, the same people that I travel with. I still like doing it like we used to years ago. I’m just an old timer. I think the technology is great, but I love to feel the music and work with the musicians like we used to.

What does Dolly Parton do in her downtime?
Well, I’m close to my family. I’ll babysit my nieces and nephews, my grand nieces and nephews. We get our golf carts, pack a picnic, and my husband and I head out in our RV. We go down on a riverbank, I read, cook. I really just enjoy time with family.

Did you have an “ah-ha moment” with “Blue Smoke”?
That would be doing the Bon Jovi song on this album and turning it into a gospel song, with their permission and help. I called Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora personally, and the three of us got together. They gave me their thoughts, and it was gonna be a big surprise to everyone. I heard it years ago and thought that it sounded so gospel!

You have such a gay fanbase. To many of us, you are a virtual gay icon. What are your thoughts on how far things have come?
I think they knew from the beginning that they’ve been held back, judgment has been passed. I love everybody. I look for the light in everyone and think that they should shine! It’s no one’s place to judge. God loves us all, and people know that I’m open and accepting.

Do you have any advice for new artists?
I try not to give advice, really. I just pass on information. To thine own self be true! You need to know your talents, protect them, fight for them. If you are that good and you have that much faith, chances are it will happen. If you are dreaming an impossible dream, you can know that it’s OK to change dreams midstream! Rework it, and then apply what you’ve learned to a new dream.

How has it been to watch how big social media has become with the recording industry and with music in general?
You can cover more things in 10 minutes than you could in 10 years now! I try to surround myself with younger people who know that medium. I’m as old as yesterday, but I’m as new as tomorrow! I am thrilled to still be hangin’ in there!

Have you found the love of your life?
Fifty years ago this May I met, and 48 years ago I married, my husband (Carl Dean). I’ve known some really great loves, though. Everything may not be a love affair, but I’ve had relationships with so many people. Kenny Rogers, for example: Our friendship, it’s a business relationship, but we love each other. I’ve had some wonderful people in my life through the years.

What’s your writing routine?
I write all kinds of ways. In the middle of the night, if it’s something that I dreamed, if I am taking a bath, I have a tape recorder nearby or a notepad. I can write anywhere really, any time for any reason. Sometimes, I plan in advance to take two weeks to just write – don’t call me – and I just write in my old mountain home or lake house. I just let it flow and write ‘til I get tired of it. Then I come back home. I usually take my old set of fingernails off, get a new set put back on, and then get back at it!