Designer Kii Arens was face to face with his subject.

After meticulous preparations at Dolly Parton's rustic Smoky Mountains home, the former Minnesotan was ready to take a closeup photo for the cover of her new album, "Backwoods Barbie." Suddenly, she asked: "Did you hear the record yet?"

No, he hadn't.

"She looks at me like she's going to say something really serious, and she starts singing to me a cappella," recalled Arens. "The whole crew is around and it's just her, staring me right in my eyes, singing the title track to me because she wanted me to get the vibe of what it was. I got goosebumps instantly."

"Backwoods Barbie" is Dolly's return to commercial country music after three critically revered bluegrass albums. And, with the unlikely help of Arens -- aka guitarist Chia Karaoke of cartoonish glam-rockers Flipp -- she's promoting it more aggressively than any project in 20 years.

"A lot of people think because I've been at it so long and I've got Dollywood [her Tennessee theme park] and other things that I'm not as serious about my music as I really am," said the 62-year-old country legend, who performs Wednesday at Northrop Auditorium. "That's one of the reasons I've hired independent promotion people who know that world, just to let people know that 'Hey, the music is the No. 1 thing.' If they'll take the time to listen, [they'll see] that I really have some good things to offer."

Radio stations are taking the time to interview Dolly -- Twin Cities' K102 had her on the air for nearly an hour before the album was released in February -- but haven't found much room for her on their playlists. Her first single, "Better Get to Livin', " peaked at a lackluster No. 48 on Billboard's country chart even though the album climbed to No. 3, her highest ranking since 1991.

Does her celebrity get in the way of her new songs?

"I think it might to some degree -- just like my look has always hindered me to some degree, as to whether people are taking me as serious as a songwriter and entertainer," she said recently from Nashville. "But over the years they've seen beyond that. If I'm willing to go to these lengths, it's not about making money. It never was to me. It was more about the art and this is my gift, and I have to do everything that God meant for me to do. And I'll never stop even if they're buying it or playing it -- or not. I can't help it. It's my addiction."

Kii became the key

Arens, 41, a native of St. Paul, has done photos or design work for albums by Cheap Trick, Liz Phair and Flaming Lips as well as numerous Minnesota bands, including Faux Jean and Stockcar Named Desire. After nearly a decade in Flipp -- including a mud-spattered show at Woodstock '99 and a Chicago festival where the band had a helicopter drop Froot Loops on the crowd -- he moved to Los Angeles four years ago and opened LaLaLand Gallery.

Last year he got a call from Danny Nozell, an old Twin Cities pal who had recently become Dolly's personal manager after serving as tour manager. Did Arens have any ideas to fit "Backwoods Barbie"?

Arens came up with a Dolly logo inspired by the "silver mudflap girl" -- that sexy silhouette seen hanging behind 18-wheelers. Parton loved it, and enlisted Arens to design the entire project.

"He's brilliant," Dolly said of Arens. "Danny put this whole crew together. He brought Kii in, and we talked about what we wanted to do. I had the idea of the type of clothes I wanted to wear, and they had the idea of how we should place it."

Arens flew to the Smoky Mountains to scout locations, but finding Dolly's Tennessee mountain home in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., was easier said than done.

"We got this really weird direction sheet, like: Take a right at the Baptist church," he remembered. "We were kind of lost trying to find this place. Then some guy was trying to pull a transmission out of a car in a decrepit old trailer home. We asked him if he knew where Dolly lives. And he was like [in a "Deliverance"-style voice]: 'Dolly lives right here, but you ain't getting over that fence.' "

Famed photographer David LaChapelle was set to shoot the album photos, with Arens serving as art director, but LaChapelle's and Dolly's schedules didn't mesh. So Arens returned to Pigeon Forge and did a series of shots with a stand-in. Dolly approved all of them.

A duet with Dolly

The "Backwoods Barbie" photo shoot lasted from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., with 10 settings for Dolly -- from a fishing boat to a pickup loaded with hay. She wore 6-inch heels the whole time, Arens said, and even ran to the kitchen during a break to make her manager a bologna sandwich.

His favorite shot was Dolly mowing the lawn, with laundry hanging on the line.

"I always had music playing in the background, whether it was Belle and Sebastian, the Bee Gees or 'Galveston' or 'Gentle on My Mind,'" he said. While Dolly pushed the mower, "I had Frank and Nancy's [Sinatra] 'Something Stupid' playing. I started singing, and she started singing, and we're kind of singing together. I'm like: 'Here I am singing with Dolly.'

"And I stop in the middle of the song and I say, 'Dolly, here's a little trivia for you. This is one of only two times that a love song has been a No. 1 hit between a father and a daughter.' And she said [correctly]: 'Natalie and Nat King Cole.' I said, 'Isn't it strange, a love song being sung between a father and daughter?'

"She didn't even smile, and without skipping a beat, she said, 'That's not funny in this neighborhood.' "

Jon Bream • 612-673-1719