New York — When Dolly Parton found her commercial appeal waning amid a sea of younger, fresher faces, she looked back to the bluegrass music of her childhood in East Tennessee and found critical success.
"I've had so many good years in country music," said Parton, who turned 55 Friday. "Why would I think that I had to stay there forever, when I need to make room for other people? Some of us have to step aside, and if there's not a place for me, I'll make a new one.
"And that's basically what I'm doing."
The release of 1999's "The Grass Is Blue" has brought Parton the most acclaim for a recording she's received in years. It was named album of the year at the International Bluegrass Assn. Awards last year, and the disc is nominated for a Grammy as best bluegrass album. Parton is nominated for best female country vocal.
Parton wrote or co-wrote many of the songs on her new album, "Little Sparrow," which will be in stores later this month. The album combines bluegrass with the mountain music and Irish folk songs that she was raised on. Parton believes it's the purest music she's ever recorded.
"All I have to do is open my mouth and a song like 'Little Sparrow' or any number of these songs on this album will come out of me," the effervescent entertainer, looking slim and glamorous, told The Associated Press during a recent interview at a midtown Manhattan hotel.
"If I'm just standing around, just singing, or in the kitchen singing, I'm far more apt to sing a song like that than to sing some classic song, pop or rock or even country for that matter. I just remember all those things. It's embedded in my soul."
Parton's foray into bluegrass came at a time when she was getting little airplay on country radio. Although she's a Nashville legend, younger acts like Faith Hill, Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks have been hitting the charts and getting more attention.
It's an experience she described as "frustrating" but understandable.
"I've been trying for several years to get played on country radio with the new country, but a lot of us older artists, it's kind of hard, because there's a lot of new and wonderful people coming along; it's called progress," she said.
Her attempts to reach the new country audience over the last decade weren't successful, and after her 1998 album, "Hungry Again," her record company at the time, Rising Tide Entertainment, shut down. At a crossroads in her four-decade career, Parton decided to drop her management, then sit back and consider her next move.
She ruled out trying to conform to the pop-country sound that some industry executives wanted her to sing.
"I saw right away that I wasn't willing to play some of the political games that I would have to, to get a record played. I certainly know my name is known, and my reputation is good, and I still sing as good as I ever did, if I ever sang good at all," she said with a laugh.
Around that time, her old friend, producer Steve Buckingham, mentioned over dinner one night that Sugar Hill Records had done a survey to determine which country artist it would like to record a bluegrass album. Parton had won by a landslide.
That got Parton thinking of a possible album of bluegrass.
"I said, 'I got some time, do you want to do one?' And he jumped at the chance," she said. "People were saying that they were so happy that I was back doing those kinds of songs and back doing acoustic music, where they could hear my voice, and back doing stuff that sounded real."
Buckingham said Parton's bluegrass album puts the focus on her musicality, not her personality.
"Her persona, her character that she has created I think has sometimes overshadowed the artist," he said. "People sometimes see that but don't see what's underneath all that because she's a true deep artist."
"The Grass Is Blue" has sold about 100,000 copies and is one of Sugar Hill's biggest selling albums, although it's far less than the numerous gold and platinum albums she has earned over the years.
But Buckingham, who describes Parton's mood as "the best I've ever seen it," said commercial success wasn't what concerned the singer.
"I think what it did was it's empowered her in a certain way to give her the freedom to do what she really wants to do," he said. "It certainly doesn't sell ... anything like the Backstreet Boys or anything like that, but that's not why she's doing it. She's doing it because of what's in her heart."