Megan McLachlan chats with re-recording mixer James Parnell of Netflix’s Heartstrings about literally hearing Dolly Parton right before he met her.
Netflix’s Heartstrings anthology series depicts narrative stories around beloved Dolly Parton songs. And in developing these stories, re-recording mixer James Parnell has the challenge of creating sonic worlds where you hear the buzz of Harvest Festival-goers in the episode “Jolene” or the hum of old cars in “These Old Bones.” Each sound Parnell and his partner Kelly Vandever mixes adds to the mystique of the episode and the series as a whole.
I chatted with Parnell about what it was like to work on the anthology series, how the show stretches three-minute songs into 80-minute films, and what it was like to meet Ms. Parton herself.
Awards Daily: This is a really unique anthology series. Were you a Dolly fan coming into it?
James Parnell: I was, but I didn’t know the extent of her history in the entertainment industry. I obviously knew my parents used to listen to Dolly Parton, but I didn’t know her career went back so far. I think she was 10 years old when she started performing, and she was 13 when she first performed at the Grand Ole Opry. So it was a huge eye-opening experience just to see how far back her career goes and then to be able to revisit songs from a select number of her albums over that time period was just amazing, to be able to see the breadth and depth of her work.
AD: Since each episode takes place in a unique setting, how challenging was it to create each sonic world?
JP: Unlike a traditional television show that has recurring places and environments, as you said, each one of these was different. It was incredibly challenging, especially because we were doing it over such a wide range of places. The episode ‘J.J. Sneed’ takes place in the late-1800s, so it’s an old Western. ‘Down from Dover’ is Vietnam War-era. We had to be very location-specific, but also period-specific with the sound effects we were cutting. The types of phones, the types of automobiles. We had to make sure that we were being period-accurate as well as environment-accurate with everything.
AD: Wow! So what kind of research did you end up doing? Was there anything that you had to figure out a sound for that was just aggravating?
JP: Thankfully, at Monkeyland, the studio I work at, we have a massive library of sound effects, and we have recordings from multiple eras and also recordings of old cars, old trains, old helicopters. So for ‘Down from Dover’, we had a huge library of recordings of Vietnam helicopters. We had all of the recordings necessary for the fireworks at the end of ‘Two Doors Down.’ And we had old musket recordings, so thankfully it wasn’t too much of a challenge. I will say that on the mix phase, there were a couple of episodes that gave us more of a challenge than any other episode, and those were definitely the kind of flashback or flash-forward war sequences in ‘Down from Dover’ and also ironically ‘Sugar Hill.’ In ‘Sugar Hill,’ there’s a moment where [a character] sits at the lake and listens. Finding the balance of insects, animals in the distance, and the coyote calls, we really struggled to find the suitable balance that would sonically tell the story and lend itself to the emotion of the episode.
AD: Did you mix music, too, or was it mostly sounds in the background?
JP: In terms of music, there were several sources. One was from Dolly’s fantastic engineer in Nashville, Tom Rutledge. He’s an amazing guy and an amazing engineer. He would be recording Dolly’s vocals, which were recorded bespokely for Heartstrings. It was old and new adaptations of her songs that were featured in the episode. But there was also the LA Philharmonic and Capitol Records that did recorded sessions for every episode. I got to be in attendance for the final one. They were kind of closed sessions, but obviously being the music mixer on the show, I’d get to go to the final episode. It was fantastic to hear this 22-piece orchestra come together.
AD: How do you stretch out a 3-minute song into an 80-minute movie when it comes to sound?
JP: Wow. That’s actually a good question. I haven’t even thought of that. Obviously the songs start the episode and are the focus of the episode. There is a wonderful team of writers that gives us material, but I think to answer your question, I think it’s that they did a wonderful job of leaving the songs in. So you know Episode 1 is ‘Those Old Bones,’ and it opens with this majestic shot of the Smoky Mountains where Dolly’s from and there’s a whole bunch of establishing shots of rolling hills. The song really lends itself to that. Then the LA Philharmonic gracefully took that over and in the same musical key, blended it into score. And then when the mischievous kids end up getting chased out of Old Bones’s front yard, then it goes back into the song. It’s just this wonderful exchange of musical talents, whether it be Dolly’s sounds or handing off to the wonderful composers Mark Leggett and Velton Ray Bunch who did a fantastic job of composing the score for the anthology series. It was actually easier for me than anybody else. All the material was given to me, so I had the pleasure of getting everything at the end of the process.
AD: That’s so cool. So when you’re putting it all together, did you try to stick with similar themes and instrumentation? How did you stay with a theme?
JP: We have sound spotting sessions, where we go into a small dub stage and sit down to play the episode and they say, ‘OK, here are moments where we have score, so your sound effects can’t step on that’ or ‘Here’s a moment where we want the dialogue and the score to really lead, so pull the background back.’ Sometimes it would be like, ‘We’re noticing we’re lacking a bit of emotion here—can you lend your sound effects to that?’ We’d go heavier in those scenes.
AD: That’s so interesting. What a cool job.
JP: Definitely non-conventional. (Laughs.)
AD: So one last question: Was Dolly around during production a lot, and if she was, did seeing her add pressure to your work?
JP: (Laughs.) It was interesting because I had been mixing the whole anthology series and hadn’t met Dolly. Then the day she was to come, I actually was sitting on the mix stage getting ready for her to come in, and I could hear her walk in the lobby, so I ended up hearing her before I met her, which was nice because it lends itself to the experience I’ve had with Dolly my whole life. This tiny Dolly Parton walks into the room. I’m 6’3″—so a lot of people are shorter than me—but Dolly is really tiny and compact and very lovely. And she said, ‘Hi, I’m Dolly Parton!’ and I was shaking her hand and thinking in my head, ‘Yes, you are Dolly Parton.’ It was very surreal. She was absolutely charming, and we watched ‘Jolene’ and ‘Down from Dover’ episodes, and in ‘Down from Dover’, she was getting emotional. I was freaking out because I thought there was something wrong with the episode, but she was just enjoying it so much. When we finished, she said it was really beautiful.
Heartstrings is now streaming on Netflix.