Dolly Parton
The Guardian
July 12, 2002
Oliver Burkeman asks Dolly Parton about her music, her men and her love of Led Zeppelin
By Oliver Burkeman

It's just after 10 on a muggy Saturday morning in New York, the air already hot and thick, and most of the comfortably-off, comfortably-dressed guests at the Rhiga Royal Hotel are only just beginning to surface.  Not Dolly Parton, though. "Oh, I'm always up at 3am," she says merrily, placing herself compactly into a beige armchair in a suite of such unremitting beigeness it might have been deliberately selected to highlight her bright pink lipstick and radioactively blonde hair.

"I'm a very early person.  It's my most creative time.  Sometimes I get up even a little earlier," she says in a brisk twang, a curious hybrid of Tennessee drawl and east-coast fast-talk, peppering her conversation with self-deprecating asides.  "But I also go to bed early.  Well, you know what they say - early to bed, early to rise, makes ya...stupid."  She is tiny (5ft 1in) and 56 years old, but she doesn't look it.  It's not that she looks younger; she just somehow doesn't seem to manifest any of the normal outward indicators used to assess age.  This is disconcerting.

Parton is in New York to begin her first concert tour in 10 years, and in a way it is surprising that she is here at all.  Just five years ago, she was still effectively banned from country music radio stations, rejected as a cheesy throwback in favour of "new country", and it looked like Dolly Parton might be over.  It wasn't that she was poor - not poor in the sense of her almost implausibly country-music upbringing as one of 12 siblings, sharing beds due to lack of space in a down-at-heel home in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, before she headed, as a penniless 16-year-old, for Nashville.  (Her vast family is doing just fine now, incidentally, thanks in no small part to her success.)

But she was rich for reasons that only seemed to bolster her unreal, cartoonish image as an icon of American kitsch and some kind of popular-culture synonym for the word "curvaceous".  There was, for example, Dollywood, her Smoky Mountain Theme Park, which still does a roaring trade at number 1020, Dollywood Lane, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.  "I was lucky in that I'd made some smart moves before," she says today.  "Because if I'd been just depending on my records and my tours, I'd have been up shit creek."

So Parton kept working - writing and singing.  They have a saying where she comes from, she explains:  "A peacock who rests on his tail-feathers is just another damn turkey."  Still, she felt the sting of exile.  "When I realised I had no outlet for the music, I reacted just like a drug addict," she says.  "I thought, 'I have to find a way to get these songs out.  Even if I just record 'em and sell 'em out of the trunk of my car.'  Seriously.  I say that as a joke, but I meant it then."

There is a second part to the classic country myth, though: the comeback.  And Parton has been coming back spectacularly for three years now with a sequence of criticially acclaimed, pared-down, largely acoustic bluegrass albums.  The first two, The Grass Is Blue and Little Sparrow both won Grammys and took some risks.  Little Sparrow, for example, includes a bluegrass cover of Cole Porter's I Get a Kick Out of You.

Her new album is called Halos and Horns and her voice - unexpectedly, perhaps, for the singer who sang Jolene, Nine to Five and I Will Always Love You) - seems like it was meant all along to sail over the spare picked mandolins, clawhammer banjos and fiddles of bluegrass rather than the drums and gee-tars of what she calls "hard country".

The music is mostly self-written - that's what Parton is doing at three in the morning when everyone else is asleep.  There are a couple of covers, though, one of which almost caused mutiny among her musicians.  "I told them, and they said, 'My God, you're gonna try Stairway to Heaven?'  I said I'm not gonna try to do it - I'm doing it!  People are scared to death of that song.  Everybody does it on stage, but nobody records it.  Why not?  It's a fantastic song.  I don't know what it means, but I'm not even sure if the writers know what it means, because I've asked them."  She had always thought of it as a gospel song, though, perhaps with a bit of bluegrass thrown in, and when she approached Jimmy Page and Robert Plant for permission to put in a few extra lines ("Oh, the great almighty dollar leaves you lonely, lost and hollow"), it turned out that they did too.  The idea sounds like a gimmick.  The recording, on the other hand, sounds haunted and beautiful - and freighted with a subtle sadness that was never, perhaps, Led Zeppelin's strongest point.

And no, she says, Rolf Harris was not an influence.  What she actually says, when I mention Rolf, is a polite:  "No...who?"  I say:  "Australian illustrator.  Children's TV presenter.  Digeridoos."  "Well, that shows it's a good song," she says.  "You can do it however you like, and as long as your heart is in it, it will work."

She actually chose the song, at least in part, because it was a favourite of her husband of 36 years, Carl Dean.  Dean is among the most mysterious of music - industry spouses; he and Parton met as teenagers and he has never, as far as I can establish, made a public appearance in that time.  Instead, he serves in Parton's conversation as a rhetorical manifestation of Smoky Mountain masculinity: solid and dependable, easily accepting but not easily starstruck.  "Carl is very proud of me, but he just wants to know I'm having a good time.  He's pretty much a loner, and I'm the only person he wants to be with anyway.  When I'm gone, he loves his alone time."

What does he feel about being married to Dolly Parton, the Dolly Parton, though?  "Oh, when people say, 'How can you stand her to be out there?', he says, 'Look, I would think less of any man who didn't fall in love with her.'  That's how foolish he is."  Has he ever spoken to the press?  "Oh my.  Oh God.  Are you crazy?  That is never, never, never gonna happen!"

The perfect marriage - but there have been plenty of rumours about Parton's personal life, linking her with a roster of Hollywood men, from James Woods to Burt Reynolds.  "I don't deny nor admit anything," she says, grinning.  "Why bother?  I'd rather have people think I'm exciting, rather than vanilla.  And if I haven't done it, I'm capable of doing it.  I just ain't got around to it."

Dolly Parton the singer, songwriter and some-time actor, seems to stand in a curious relationship with Dolly Parton the celebrity with the hair and the make-up and all the rest.  Asked whether the move to bluegrass made her think of changing her image, she rattles off a series of jokes about how comfortable she feels looking the way she does.  "This is how I look, it's how I look best.  There's only one Dolly.  People say, 'How long does it take to do your hair?'  And I say, 'I don't know - I'm never there.'  I have more important things to do."

Then again, you can't use a word or phrase in her presence - however inadvertently - that could even remotely be interpreted as a euphemism for the size of her bust without her pointing it out and coming over all Barbara Windsor.  (I make the mistake of referring to her forthright response to critics of her music by using the adjective "up-front".  "If you'll pardon the expression!" she cries, victoriously.)

Delighted to expand on this subject, she says:  "The thing that's always worked for me is the fact that I look so totally artificial, but am so totally real.  It gives me something to work against.  I have to overcome myself.  I have to prove how good I am."  She imitates a growly redneck, addressing herself:  "If you're gonna look like that, you better do somethin' or they're just gonna think you're a damn joke.  So - you've got to sing a better song."  But, she insists, she doesn't dwell on the question, nor, for that matter, on finessing her looks.  "I can be ready to go in 20 minutes," she says.  "I've got it down to a gnat's ass."

Children are the ones who understand her best.  "They think I'm like some sort of cartoon, because I look like a cartoon and my name is Dolly and my voice is small and I'm a joyful little person."  She plans to record childrens' albums, in between the bluegrass, and running Dollywood, and launching a cosmetics brand.

Commerically, she says, things haven't been better since the heyday of her first stardom.  "They've even started playing my records again on the radio - so go figure," she says.  "Seems you gotta get rich in order to sing like you're poor again.  So now I do these songs, five, six, seven minutes long, and I'm not going to edit them down.  They can play them or not play them.  I'm not saying, 'Oh, kiss my ass.'  I'd love it if they did play them.  But I'm OK with it if they don't."

She will never retire, she says.  "I'm 56, but I feel just like I did when I left the Smoky Mountains.  I hope to fall dead in the middle of some wonderful project that I'm working on, preferably on stage or in the middle of the song I'm writing."  The appeal of the latter thought seems to catch her unawares.  "Yes, that's what I'd love," she says, seizing the idea and elaborating.  "To just fall over on my guitar, dead.  And have the song already done, have it on tape.  Yeah.  And it'd be, like" - her voice falls to a newsreader's respectful murmur - "'They found her dead, both boobs hanging over the front of her guitar, and this classic song just laying in her lap.'  That's how I'd like to go."