Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings Composers Dish On Bringing Dolly's Hits to Life

Composers Mark Leggett and Velton Ray Bunch use collaboration, country music and the deep archives of Nashville to make Dolly magic

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<i>Dolly Parton&#8217;s Heartstrings</i> Composers Dish On Bringing Dolly's Hits to Life

As much a darling of Hollywood as she is of Nashville, Dolly Parton is no stranger to seeing her songs brought to life on the silver screen. But while she has left her unique Dolly stamp on films like 9 to 5, Rhinestone and Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors (not to mention its festive 2016 follow-up, Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors), her newest Netflix project, the eight-part anthology series, Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings is her first step into new, more experimental storytelling territory.

Digging deep into Parton’s extensive back catalog, Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings features stories that stretch across both time and genre. In one, a very modern Jolene (Joulianne Hough) struggles to find a way to balance her musical ambitions and unapologetic sexuality in a community that isn’t necessarily ready for either; in another, a bullheaded young lawyer (Ginnifer Goodwin) employed by an energy company in 1940s Appalachia goes toe-to-toe with a fortune-telling old bones woman who won’t sell her land (Kathleen Turner) and is advising her neighbors to follow suit. One is a Western. Another is a character study of lifelong female friendship. Many feature Parton as a Dolly-esque figure in the protagonists’ little worlds, but aside from that, the only elements they share are Dolly’s music, and the two composers tasked with balancing that music with each utterly unique story in the series.

No strangers to Dolly’s little corner of Hollywood, Emmy-winning composer Velton Ray Bunch (Quantum Leap) and two-time Emmy nominee Mark Leggett (My Name is Earl) have both worked on projects in the Dolly universe before, including Coat of Many Colors. But they nevertheless had their work cut out for them on Heartstrings, charged with the task of pulling together so many disparate styles and emotional arcs. We wanted to learn not only how they managed to pull it off, but also what it was like doing so with the knowledge that Heartstrings was the passion project of one of country music’s greatest legends, so Paste got the duo on the phone in advance of the series’ Nov. 22 premiere.

Note: The conversation that follows has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.

Paste: We know that you’re both professionals, and that you’ve both been collaborating with Dolly for a while now, but still—Dolly is a country music legend for a reason. What’s it like, being a composer writing music for another composer?

Mark Leggett: Ha! Well, you’ve just got to start by saying, Dolly has great taste and is a complete professional, obviously, and one of the best songwriters around. But also, she is very encouraging to her team. Once you’re on her team, she is the ultimate cheerleader. When she walks into the studio, into the booth, and everyone is playing and recording, she’s just an observer. There’s no vibe like, “Oh, the boss is here.” She’s just part of the process, and she is so supportive. It is just one of the best working experiences. It didn’t make you nervous, though it probably should have! But that’s how disarming she is. She’s just such a genuine person that you almost forget, when you’re sitting right next to her and talking to her, that’s Dolly Parton! in person.

Velton Ray Bunch: And also, we’ve worked with her a long time, and she knows that we’re very protective of her vocals, that that takes precedence over everything, making sure that she sounds good, that everything that surrounds her tracks are good. So we take great care and doing that, and then, as Mark said, she completely leaves us alone. Of course, you know, if she doesn’t like something and we ask her opinion, she certainly give that—she’s not hesitant to do that. But gosh, what a dream to work with her.

Leggett: She wouldn’t hear everything we wrote before we recorded it, but when she would come into the studio and hear the orchestra for a few of the programs, she would look over and just smile when she liked something, and you would just know. But really, she knows she’s in good hands, so she was just there to be a part of the process and to observe.

As an anthology, Heartstrings is such a different kind of project from the one-off movies you’ve worked with her on before that we’re curious about the whole chicken-and-egg of it all. How did you guys first get on board?

Bunch: The initial meeting with Dolly was well over a year and a half ago, before there were scripts or anything. She sat down in a room over at Warner Bros. with Mark and me and her little cassette player and she played us “Ode to Billy…” what was it?

Leggett: “Ode to Billy Joe.”

Bunch: Right—“Ode to Billy Joe.” Not a Dolly song, this was a reference from her. She told us, “I love this song, I love the way it sounds, I’ve always loved it, and I would like for you to explore, when you re-record all these songs of mine, taking this sort of tact with them, giving them this treatment.” So that really gave us a guide as to where to start.

Leggett: That song, “Ode to Billy Joe,” by Bobbie Gentry, [stands out] for a pop song in that era, in the ’60s, because it has this small string ensemble playing these very evocative, bendy phrases, which was kind of a different sound back then.

Bunch: It was such a simple record, “Ode to Billy Joe,” in terms of the amount of instruments used, and that also appealed to Dolly. So we took the songs that she gave us and stripped them down to simplify them, then added strings, or added whatever we thought we needed, and really, for the most part, it came out great.

Leggett: But Dolly really initiated the sound, right from the very first meeting, that was how we got off the ground, Dolly saying, this is the sound we want.

What was the development process like, both for the individual songs/episodes and for the anthology as a whole? Did working with Netflix change your process at all?

Leggett: You know, it was different each time. Sometimes [ideas] would come from the song, and we’d say, “We’d like something sort of like that, could Dolly do an ad lib based on that melody?” And we would get that free and clear. But then we would also send them tracks and then go back and forth.

Bunch: It wasn’t that different working with Netflix, no, because we were partnered with Warner Bros., who we had worked with many times before, and of course Dolly, who we’ve been involved with for a long time. The one difference, really, between this project and others we’ve done with her before, was more that there was so much material—there were basically eight movies, and they all involved lots of other musicians from Nashville, or from Atlanta, where the series was shot, or from the Georgia region. So that did add a little more complexity to the final project.

I’d love to hear more about that. Do any guest musicians stand out in your memory? Anyone country music fans or Dolly diehards should be on the lookout for?

Leggett: As far as big names go, Julianne Hough was one they were really excited to bring in [on screen], and she sings very well on the Jolene story. But in terms of the studio, we were more utilizing players that had been on Dolly’s recordings of some of these songs, where we could hire the original fiddle player, or one of the other musicians. The people at Dolly’s camp in Nashville, running her studio, they would send us parts as we needed them. We could say, “Hey we’ve got Jolene here and we’d really like to have that fiddler, or that one guitar lick,” and they would send us names, or files, or even Dolly’s vocals, things like that.

As far as specific names go, Kent Wells is one of the musicians from Nashville. He’s a fantastic producer and guitarist. We received a few parts from from him. And then there’s Tom Rutledge, he’s Dolly’s key guy, and he’s just fantastic, great guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, and he would organize players there and say, “Hey, we need to get this, this and this from the record.” And they actually came in and recorded a few things here and there, and gave them to us à la carte as we needed them.

Bunch: One interesting thing that I found as we were going along was that some of these songs were quite old, so we weren’t always able to acquire the original, for instance, fiddle part, or the original dobro player. And so mostly through Tom’s connections, and through Kent Wells, we’d have to go and find these players and, you know, get them to play it again. That was really quite fascinating, I thought, to find so many of those folks still around and playing great.

Any good stories about tracking those folks down?

Leggett: You know, really all we had to do was call Tom in Nashville and say, “Tom we need this, this and this,” and he’d say, “I’ll see what I’ve got!” And he would find the old multi-track reels and find parts for us. And of course the players are repaid for any reuse that we would do from their original sessions. But really it was not much of an adventure, it was more like Tom saying, “Hey, we’re going to have to re-record that one part because we don’t have it here, or we’re just gonna lifted from the multi-track.” So, a little bit of archaeology there.

Bunch: And on their end, Dolly’s library is so extensive—I mean, there are literally, I don’t know, hundreds or thousands of songs—and they have it so well organized after all these years, and things work so smoothly, we just really had a nice time going through all that old stuff and and revisiting these old, old tracks.

How challenging was it to find the right balance between just using Dolly’s music in every scene and pulling back far enough to give the audience room to really sit with the story at hand?

Leggett: It’s easy to want to put Dolly in everything, because then your work is kind of done. It’s a little bit more work to just continue on your own.

Bunch: Carrying that thought forward, there were a few episodes—I’m thinking particularly of “Cracker Jack” (Episode 4) and “Sugar Hill” (Episode 6)—that had very little Dolly in them in the script, where we were able to take her vocals and drop them in in different places where the producers had not expected them to come, and it worked like a charm.

Leggett: “Cracker Jack” was definitely the most challenging, because it was really a dialogue-driven story, so we just had to stay out of the way. With something like “Jolene,” when the music hits, the music hits, but for that story, it was difficult to lay it down. So we did that mostly with piano and light orchestra, strings, woodwinds, and it eventually came out well, but it was a challenge.

I noticed, watching all the different episodes, that even when Dolly’s songs aren’t being used in full, her voice is still really present. How did you incorporate that?

Leggett: The best part of the show, for us, was when we would have a piece of score that we had written that was maybe loosely based on a Dolly song but wasn’t really based on the melody—it was just orchestral underscore, you know, maybe with a guitar—and we would think, wouldn’t it be nice to have Dolly just sort of… drift through this little part right here, just her voice, some sort of wordless vocal, an ooh, ahh sort of ad lib? And then we would send a rough track of what we had written to Nashville, and then a day or two later Dolly would have recorded her part for a couple of tracks and Tom would send it back and say, “You guys use what you need!” It was just a real treat to wake up in the morning and start working on a piece of music and you have this Dolly Parton vocal that you can now incorporate into your writing. That was the best part of it for me.

Bunch: Oh, absolutely. It was like having an entirely new instrument in our quiver.

Speaking of that quiver, with so many different genres and time periods represented, did any of the songs stand out for you in the kind of instrumentation/styles they let you take on, or any cool instruments you were especially excited to get to use?

Leggett: I was excited personally about “These Old Bones” (Episode 8), which is a period piece, in Appalachia, in the 1940s, where Kathleen Turner plays a clairvoyant old woman in the hills who has visions and can see the future. Just instrumentally I knew what we could use with that, using dulcimers and lots of Appalachian-style instruments to create ostinato beds and emotion for us to put the rest of the orchestra on top of. And we created sounds of the actual throwing of the bones—that’s what that was called, that style of fortune telling—so we concocted a sound that was literally rocks and bones being thrown and we were able to incorporate that into the score. So that was a little bit more of a creative endeavor than some of the other episodes, which were straighter guitar and orchestra or piano and orchestra.

Bunch: One of my favorites was “J.J. Sneed” (Episode 7), because it was an unknown song to me, from one of Dolly’s old albums. It’s kind of cowboy story, so we were able to take that song and recreate, almost tongue-in-cheek, a Bonanza-type of feel, which was really fun and different for us. There was a lot of humor to it, and then to be able to use that western theme, the big orchestra—

Leggett: Cowboy voices.

Bunch: —yes, cowboy voices all through it. That was a lot of fun.

Leggett: In general, I play a lot of stringed instruments, so… gosh, what did I bring in? There actually is some balalaika in there, and there’s some buzuki, not really playing melodic, exposed lines, but more creating background textures, creating, you know, tonal beds and rhythmic beds and these things. We would also use just anything laying around that could be a kind of percussive sound—fingers tapping on a table top, for a light kind of rhythmic sound, or I have some sheet metal that I hang from a rafter in my big live recording room to tap on and just create rhythmic patterns as it’s hanging and resonating. We used some whistling. Just anything we could do to create textures.

Bunch: We tried to tried very hard to keep everything, for lack of a better term, organic—you know, real music, as opposed to synth pad.

Leggett: One thing we use a lot is an electric guitar, but in an ambient format, in places where you’d traditionally use a synthesizer to create a big soundscape to lay other instruments on top of. So I would start with guitar, and bring in ambience and textures with that. When you bend it just right in that context, it kind of sounds like a guitar, but you get some of the fluid motion out of it, and it definitely fits the bill for for layering an orchestra on top of because it’s not too big, even though it is very evocative.

With Dolly’s massive back catalog, there’s obviously no end to the songs that could be put into play, should Heartstrings continue past this first season. If you could pick any song to expand on, both musically and narratively, for a theoretical second season, which would you pick?

Bunch: For me—and in fact I told her the last time I saw that her next movie has to have this song, it’s one of her greatest songs—it’s “Appalachian Memories.” It’s based on a true story from her childhood, when her dad left home for work, I think to Detroit, and it’s just a very moving song, so I told her, we have to do this. And she said, “Oh, I haven’t forgotten that!’

She just has so much in her catalog, it’s impossible to narrow it down, but the really interesting thing about these episodes is that, except for “Jolene,” these were relatively unknown songs, so that made it really quite interesting for us to work on.

Leggett: There’s one we did, the “Down from Dover” episode, about an unwed pregnant woman in the middle of the Vietnam War, which was based on a song that was actually banned in the late seventies. It’s a great story, the writers and Dolly developed it in a very compelling way, but that was a song I’d never even heard of, and I think she’s got a lot of those. I think she’s holding back on us.

And as you’ll see if you watch any of these stories, she’s a very open minded person, very accepting of a lot of different people, different cultures, different lifestyles, and these episodes actually show that. It’s not just, you know, country songs made into little stories—there’s more to it than that.

Bunch: Exactly. And she’s got such a huge catalog, with so many hits that we didn’t even touch. It feels like we barely even scratched the surface.

Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings is streaming now on Netflix.


Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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