82-year-old legend and her award-winning producer son Damion Elliott, discuss working with the Country Music Hall of Famer on new gospel ballad
Dolly Parton’s most recent Grammy wins were in 2020 and 2021 for Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song. Dionne Warwick’s most recent Grammy win was a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019.
So for as much as it stands to reason that the two icons pairing for the Feb. 24 release of the single “Peace Like a River” is a legacy-celebrating moment, add in Warwick’s son Damon Elliott on production — himself a Grammy-winning and Academy Award-nominated producer — and the song’s potential becomes apparent.
While sitting with Warwick and Elliott at Nashville’s downtown J.W. Marriott hotel on a Monday evening, one thing is apparent. Warwick still feels that she can be entirely relevant in the mainstream musical conversation. Between her surge on social media during the COVID-19 quarantine and her recently released CNN documentary “Don’t Make Me Over,” she’s having a moment.
“Being the ‘Twitter Queen’ is the most amazing, fun and surprising thing in the world,” she says. “But I’m still learning, producing and artistically creating like I always have and always will do.”
Add her acclaim to Parton’s continued dominance as a businesswoman, performer and philanthropist who has superseded nostalgia to be woven into the fabric of how America broadcasts its idealized best self on the global stage.
Regarding Parton’s evolution from “heritage act” to “superstar, her manager Danny Nozell said in a 2020 interview that, via viral and TV marketing of “ethical, passion-driven, quality” products to a younger generation of pop fans, the 77-year-old Parton is “on fire” and “absolutely smashing it.”
Warwick laughs heartily when asked if the connectivity between herself and Parton extends back to their childhood roots.
“I never have and probably never will go to her hometown of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee,” jokes the native of East Orange, New Jersey.
However, regarding the connection of their six-decade-long, globally-beloved careers, Warwick highlights Parton’s 1980 surge into the mainstream spotlight via her acting role in the film “9 to 5” as when she began to take significant note of her work.
“I saw the film and fell in love with her,” Warwick says. “She was just so, ‘woo woo woo,’ exceptionally talented and full of venom and vigor, as she still is. Then when my cousin, Whitney [Houston] re-recorded [Parton’s 1974 classic] ‘I Will Always Love You,’ she indeed became a part of my life.”
Elliott’s a producer with over a quarter-century of experience who has worked with not just his mother but everyone from Beyoncé and Billy Ray Cyrus to iconic songwriter Dianne Warren, Wynonna Judd and others.
Thus, the moment’s gravity when Nozell sent him a demo vocal of Parton on the track that became “Peace Like a River” was not lost on him.
“I hadn’t heard Dolly record a song like this — in my mind — since ‘I Will Always Love You,'” says Elliott. “It’s the honest, straight-forward power of the lyrics, delivered without all of the ‘country’ expectations. I immediately told my mother that, though Dolly sent her the song, that it would be best if delivered as a duet.”
Elliott’s partnership with his mother is a curious one. He began his career in 1996, and a decade passed until he was in the studio, behind the boards, helming her projects. Warwick’s reasoning says everything about the high level of talent they both share.
“I had to make sure he knew what he was doing,” says the six-time Grammy winner. “Had [my son] not honed his craft, he wouldn’t be working with me.
“Facts!” says Elliott emphatically. A rip-roaring laugh punctuates his response.
“For my entire lifetime, I’ve watched my mother — with her heart, style and voice — without even trying, honestly, always appear greater than anything relevant at any given moment.”
Parton and Warwick recorded their parts together in Los Angeles in mid-January. The session is described by her as “like working with any of my other duet partners.”
Of course, other in-studio duet partners for Warwick include Burt Bacharach, Barry Manilow, Tthe Spinners and Stevie Wonder, among many.
Parton is in a rare class.
“We stood face-to-face and did what we had to do,” Warwick says. “Just like all of my other songs, we were interpreting, then relaying, a thought as a message for people to hear. It was a lot of fun. Plus, we finally got to know each other better. I loved that.
“The song is like a double-barrel shotgun featuring two timeless artists [as the metaphorical bullets]. It will resonate with the world and amaze people. People need to be hit with the message of peace right now.”
When asked about the idea that the space between country and R&B has been mined for platinum-selling superstardom for as long as the century-old country genre has existed, Warwick sets down her tea, then pauses and makes an incredible statement. Her words cut at the core of so much of what is right and wrong with the socio-cultural lines re-forming and dissolving between the genres.
“I don’t know how to put music in boxes,” she says. “Music is just music. There are eight notes to a scale, 13 if you’re working chromatically. We all, regardless of genre , use the same notes. People who put music in boxes always forget this.”
“Be who you be. It’s not hard to do,” says Elliott. “Mom has left people with a legendary mark of who she is upon the world.