Dolly Parton, Cracker Barrel event reveals pop culture icon’s energy

StagePost production brings national media to Nashville

Tim Gunn is nervous.

In a back dressing room at MetroCenter’s StagePost, the fashion icon — made famous by Bravo’s Project Runway and now hosting his own show, The Revolution — stands rail straight, dressed smartly in a natty blue-gray suit and silently mouthing his list of prepared questions.

Gunn flew to Nashville from his home base in Manhattan for one reason: Dolly Parton.

“I would have ripped off my arms and legs and rolled here,” he says. “Look at me: I’m covered in goose bumps. I idolize her.”

Standing a few feet away is the affable former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, now the host of an eponymous show on Fox News. He laughs and tells the story of how, while working in his first broadcasting job at a low-watt radio station, 
he wore out the grooves on Parton’s version of “Mule 
Skinner Blues.”

He, too, says any inconvenience of leaving New York to do an interview in Nashville is unimportant simply because of his interview subject.

“This has been on my bucket list for a long time,” he says.

Gunn, Huckabee and four other television hosts — including those representing ABC’s Nightline, CNN and Great American Country — recently descended on Nashville to talk to Parton. In addition, the pop culture star spoke to more than three dozen other radio, TV and print outlets via satellite on a day that started officially at 6 a.m. and ran to early afternoon.

It was all related to the marketing effort for Parton’s new live album and DVD, An Evening With Dolly, part of Cracker Barrel’s music program.

Huckabee, who knows of what he speaks, said the all-day blitz was akin to what happens during a high-stakes political campaign.

“It’s just more entertaining for the population,” he said.

The time-consuming effort was no problem for Parton, who begins all her days at the unimaginably early hour of 1 a.m. But for the staff, all that kept them running was the go-go pace.

Cracker Barrel’s decor staff — responsible for stocking the franchise’s 600-plus stores with antiques, all managed out of a massive Lebanon warehouse — built two sets for the TV spots, each with the homey feel of a restaurant, its walls offering subtle hints to Parton: Hatch prints from past concerts, ads for The Porter Wagoner Show (on which she got her career start), etc.

Parton would do one interview on one set, change outfits and head to the other set for her next sit-down. (Check out our photo gallery from that morning here.) All this after the satellite spots, when she would handle three or four short interviews in one outfit — and then change for the next handful of spots.

Watching Parton is exhausting. Even at 66, she’s a tightly wound bundle of energy and enthusiasm, each interview sounding as if she has known the person on the other side for decades, repeating the same stories — with Whitney Houston’s recent death, the tale of “I Will Always Love You” was a frequent topic — but never sounding rehearsed.

Parton is a savvy businesswoman in addition to a legendary entertainer, blessed with a gift of knowing how to promote her latest project without the jarring intrusiveness of “Well, it’s called An Evening With Dolly and we’re just so happy with it” coming off forced like an obvious piece of product placement.

Between interview hits, Parton manager Danny Nozell said the media day schedule — with its minute-by-minute logistical litany that stayed remarkably and alarmingly on time — was the most efficient way to handle Parton’s time. When it’s a legend like Parton, getting the exposure is easy. It’s the handling of it that’s hard.

“Her schedule is so busy,” Nozell understated. “And our motto is ‘minimum Dolly time, maximum exposure.’ We make everything an event.”

When Nozell started working with Parton, they put together a long-term marketing plan, centered on the idea that everything Dolly does should be a big deal, because Dolly herself is such a big deal.

American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, it’s all event,” Nozell said. “Our website has gone from nothing to 2 million hits in three years. We’ve re-exposed Dolly. “It’s re-engaged people’s minds.”

Parton has the good luck, good fortune and good foresight to be constantly re-engaging new audiences. It happened when Houston sang “I Will Always Love You,” and introduced Parton’s music to a generation of pop fans. Parton got indie cred when Jack White sang “Jolene,” and she entered the zeitgeist of an even younger demographic playing “Aunt Dolly” to her “honorary goddaughter” Miley Cyrus on the wildly popular Hannah Montana.

“We really have a good mix [of fans],” Parton told the Post. “The Hannah Montana thing was huge. And I think people seek out songs. They’ll say, ‘Did you hear Jack White? Oh my God, that’s that old woman’s song!’ ”

And Cracker Barrel and Team Dolly hope the full-on assault from the Nashville-centered media blitz pays dividends for the April 2 release of the CD/DVD combo.

At StagePost, Team Dolly and Cracker Barrel had the advantage of a one-stop shop: satellite uplink capabilities, TV broadcasting, dressing rooms, full production facilities. StagePost’s Lynn Bennett said being flexible has kept his company humming since 1978.

“We’ve had to evolve to match the greatest needs for our customers,” he said. “Each day, it’s so interesting [with] the people that come through here.”

Bennett was the picture of calm as cameramen,  audio types and nervous interviewers whirled around like a Rube Goldberg device. And at the center of it all, Parton shined in one of umpteen-dozen bejeweled outfits, her famous blond coif atop it all, buzzing from set to set.

After wrapping her last interview of the day with CNN — capped with Dolly singing a few bars that brought a sudden silence to the buzzing studio — Nozell told Parton that she was done for the day, adding they would do it all again the next day.

The Parton and Cracker Barrel staffs both looked exhausted and excited, the operation lurching into neutral after running in fifth gear for the nearly nine hours.

Cracker Barrel marketing manager Julie Craig said the usual plan is to take the artists who do collaborations with the restaurant to the media outlets. With Parton’s clout and schedule, things were different.

“This is the first time the New York outlets have come to Nashville,” Craig said. “Usually we go to them.

“But this has been really neat and exciting.”