NASHVILLE, Tenn. – His aunt was dying of cancer when Brad Paisley first heard the demo for “When I Get Where I’m Going,” an inspirational song about life after death.
When she died a month later, in November 2004, Paisley knew he had to record it. In his head he heard a female accompaniment and, looking for the perfect one, thought of Dolly Parton.
“Her voice is angelic and that takes it to a more spiritual realm instantly,” Paisley said Thursday by phone from Canada. “And my aunt loved her and thought she was great.”
“When I Get Where I’m Going” has climbed into the Top 5 of Billboard’s country singles chart, giving Paisley his latest hit and Parton’s first foray into the upper reaches of the country charts in a long time.
The song by Rivers Rutherford and George Teren celebrates the afterlife with lines like, “Yeah when I get where I’m going there’ll be only happy tears. I will shed the sins and struggles I have carried all these years.”
Paisley, who sings lead to Parton’s soaring harmony, said timing really was everything with this song.
“I heard it right when I was grieving. If it had been a year before or two years before when everything seemed fine I don’t know if I would have cut it.”
Rita Takach fought her illness for six years in Paisley’s native West Virginia, far longer than doctors expected. During that time, she saw two marriages and a birth in the family and witnessed her nephew’s rise as a country singer.
Paisley, 33, still thinks of her when he sings “When I Get Where I’m Going,” and fans tell him they have a similar reaction.
“They all have someone they think of when they hear this,” he said. “It’s been a real pleasure to see it affecting people personally and causing them to think favorably toward a subject that is difficult.”
The song is Paisley’s 11th Top 5 hit. Since his first one, “He Didn’t Have to Be” in 1999, he has built a following with his fleet guitar picking and fun, clever songs such as “I’m Gonna Miss Her,” “Celebrity,” “Mud on the Tires” and the dark ballad “Whiskey Lullaby” with Alison Krauss.
For Parton, 60, a country music icon, “When I Get Where I’m Going” is a return of sorts to contemporary radio. While her recent records have received critical acclaim, they haven’t had the mainstream success of her past work.
Parton’s last Top 5 country hit was “Rockin’ Years” back in 1991, though she did reach No. 2 on the adult contemporary chart in 2004 with a remake of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with
One Music Row insider said that while it’s good to hear Parton’s voice on contemporary radio again, many listeners will miss it. Unlike Toby Keith’s hit with Willie Nelson a few years ago, “Beer for my Horses,” which had the two singers trading verses, Parton sings background on “When I Get Where I’m Going.”
“Radio isn’t even identifying Dolly on this record,” said John Hart, president of Nashville-based Bullseye Marketing Research. “They don’t say ‘This is Brad and Dolly.’ It’s ‘Brad Paisley’ if they announce it at all.”
But Hart said Parton’s vocals are a strong component of the song and one of the reasons it rates well. He expects it to reach No. 1.
Paisley said he’s just glad he got to work with the busty blonde legend — then flashed a bit of his trademark humor: “I was honored getting to rub shoulders with Dolly Parton. … Now make sure you write ‘shoulders.'”