Dolly Parton
The London Observer
September 6, 1998
Interview:  Lonesome Cowgirl:  Dolly Parton-She's the queen of country music, a Dollywood legend, America's Princess Di.  People warm to her sentimental ballads and silicon looks, but something is missing...
By William Leith

      To me, an Englishman, Dolly Parton was always a small, mysterious figure on the edge of my consciousness.  She was a wig, a quavering voice with a slight lisp, and a pair of huge, pumped-up breasts.  She sang sad songs while wearing high heels and rhinestones.  As a cultural force, she seemed to be at her most powerful as the innuendo in Ronnie Corbett's voice.  She had a couple of hits in the 1970s.  Later, she was in a few films; the fact that she was not bad came as a pleasant surprise.  There was cosmetic surgery, weight gain and loss.  An unspecific air of minor tragedy hung around her, as it inevitably hangs around those who have been celebrated for their body parts.  In my mind, Dolly Parton was the American equivalent of Barbara Windsor.
      But in Nashville, Tennessee, the home of country music, things are different.  Dolly Parton is the biggest star country music has ever produced.  She is the "Queen of Country."  Here, Dolly Parton is revered and loved; she is somewhere between Princess Diana and a female version of Elvis.  One astonishing fact about her is that she has her own theme park, Dollywood.  Spend a few moments thinking about that.  There is a Dolly Parton museum.  Tourists travel for miles to eat candyfloss and look at Dolly Parton's old stage outfits and the kitchen table she sat at when she was a child.
      We meet at Parton's record company in Nashville.  Her "people" are around, plus one or two heavies.  There is talk of paparrazi outside the building.  After our interview, we will attend an industry bash to mark the release of Parton's new album, Hungry Again.  Following a period of artistic limbo, the album is a "return to her roots," to the time before Parton was famous.  She has recently said, "It's almost like I'm starting over."  While writing the songs, I am told, Parton lived in a mountain retreat and fasted for three weeks.  The songs, twanging and melancholic, might have been written 20 years ago, or 30.  She started by wearing denim at home and rhinestones on stage; now she seems to be doing it the other way round.
      She is sitting at a table, in an office, sticking rhinestones on several pairs of high-heeled shoes.  It seems too good to be true.  This is what somebody would be doing if they were sending Dolly Parton up in a comedy sketch.  She shakes my hand, beaming powerfully.  Her nails are long and red.  She is wearing a wig in the shape of a shaggy bob.  She does not look real.  For a moment, I am zapped into an ontological crisis; I do not know if this is the real Dolly Parton or an actress playing the part of Dolly Parton, or if, in any case, the real Dolly Parton is an actress playing the part of Dolly Parton.  Her lips look as if they have an extra dimension; there are inner bits and outer, permanently pouting bits.  She has a tiny waist and huge, firm-looking breasts, the top halves of which are on display.  The breasts look as if they are full of air, rather than plastic or jelly.  They seem to hover between us, generating a force-field of their own.  I will not mention them.  I will wait for her to mention them.
      I say, "How are you?"  It is all I can manage.
      She says, "I'm doing just fantastic at the moment.  I've been in Nashville, and I've been writing a lot of songs, and I've been working on a musical at Dollywood.  I'm feeling good and healthy and...ready to roll!"
      She certainly has presence.  She projects.  She wears a tiny cardigan, which she keeps pulling over her chest, and which keeps bursting open again.  It stays in place for about five seconds.  Then ping!  Parton tells me that she likes doing interviews, "'Cause I enjoy meeting people, and even though you get basically the same questions, you can draw energy from it."
      "What are the questions?"
      "What have you been doing lately?  Are you and your husband still together?  Yes we are, we've been married 32 years this past May.  [She is referring to the famously media-shy Carl.]  And then people ask everything that you're gonna ask me today."
      The fasting intrigues me.  To re-enter the world of melancholic twanging, Parton starved herself for 21 days.  She wrote songs such as "Blue Valley Songbird," about a poor girl from the Smokey Mountains who is abused by her father.  Others are called "Time and Tears," "The Salt in My Tears," and "I Still Lost You," which are more or less self-explanatory.  Like all country music, and like Parton herself, the songs are simultaneously painfully real and deeply artificial; it is a winning combination.
      Sometimes, Parton talks about herself as a business rather than a person.  She says, "At this time in my life, I was trying to make decisions about what to do.  I'm 52 this year.  It's hard to stay on top of country music, or any business, after you've been at it for so long."  The question was:  movies or music?  She chose music.  She decided to recreate the conditions of her early success a small house in the mountains, being thin, hungry, remote.  She wanted to feel like she did when she was "Still hungry for money, or for stardom, or whatever, before I left home."  She wanted to go back to the beginning of the Dolly Parton Myth.
      She pulls her cardigan over her chest.
      She says, "I went back home and I thought, 'Well, I really need some answers,' so I got up there and I fasted for three weeks."  The cardigan pings back.  "After I got up there and started workin' out things, I started getting inspired, as you will.  The fasting state of mind, it's almost like you're on drugs or something, you get light-hearted and your spirit just comes.  So I just started writing these songs.  It came to me that I should write what comes out of my gut, out of my heart.  And that was to write like I was hungry again, to sing like I was hungry again."
      In America, and particularly here, in the poor South, the spiritual home of roadside burgers and deep-fried chicken, hunger plays an important mythological role.  Here, where nobody need be hungry, people eat all the time, as if they were.  Real hunger, of the kind that Parton sought out, is a rare achievement.  It makes you think of old dirt farms, of thin people wearing denim, of the traditional background for the narratives of country music.  Here, where fat people drive to fast-food outlets, the backdrop for country music seems to be disappearing.
      Parton says, "The hunger never stops, to me.  I'm a big hog.  But it's about self-discipline.  It's like, you're always hungry.  I'm always hungry.  Anybody that loves to eat, loves to cook, you're always hungry."
      Parton has had her problems with eating.  For a while, depressed, she ate too much.  Now she's over it.  Having lapsed, she is a paragon of control.  She says, "I've really had problems with it.  I never was heavy when I was a girl.  But when I got up in my thirties and started gaining weight, gaining weight, eatin' a lot and gaining a lot of weight, I hated that, hated the way I looked.  I tried every diet in the whole wide world."  Now, she stays in control by eating small portions.  "I have six, seven meals a day, but I eat in snack portions.  But I eat anything I want.
      "If I want ice-cream, I just eat a few bites of ice-cream.  If I want pizza, I eat a piece of pizza, but I make it last a long time.  If I want fried potatoes, I just don't eat the whole skillet.  But I eat small meals, and my body seems to burn that."
      She beams at me.  She is never very far from laughter.  She has a lot to say.  Something, you realise, turned her from a pretty girl who wrote songs into this immense, cartoonish superstar—some hidden reservoir of need.  She is spiritual, rather than religious.  She grew up under the influence of heavy Bible-bashing.  Her grandfather was a Baptist minister.  God, she thinks, exists inside the individual.  He is not "some monster in the sky."  She believes in reincarnation.  Her face, after being lifted, looks more pointy and beaky than it did.  Her eyes are big.  She says, "I love to eat.  I love to eat.  When I do come back as another person, maybe I'll be tall and have a tapeworm and won't gain any weight at all."
      I ask Parton about country music in general.  "I think it's just ordinary stories of ordinary people, and if you're real good at it, you can tell 'em in an extraordinary way.  Everybody feels exactly the same.
      "I don't care who y'are, where y'are, we all have heartaches; we all worry about our children, we all worry about our money, we all worry about our dogs, we all worry about our reputations.  We all wear a sign across our chests saying, 'I am important.'"
      I look at her.  She fingers the inner hem of the cardigan.  The breasts are in my direct eyeline.  They probably look bigger than they are.  Even so.  I mumble, " music is about heartbreak, then?"
      "No, no..."
      More mumbling.  "Or at least, that's how it's seen from the outside."
      "Well, there's a lot of it.  But there's a lot of country songs that's just about going down to the club, the party, kick up your heels and work all week, and go down town on a Friday night.  It's about everyday life.  There's a lot of fun."
      "Can country music change with the times?  Could country songs be about computers and mobile phones?"
      Parton laughs.  "I think they could be.  But probably just as a passing line in the song."
      The talk moves back to the new album.  Parton is a deft self-promoter.  She tells me her favourite song on the album is "Blue Valley Songbird."  She says, "It talks about a girl who was abused by her father, certainly it was not a true story of mine, but because I'm a storyteller I think up things like that."  I look up, interested.  Parton says, "She's from the hills; I took her out of the mountains, I took her on the road, trying to make it as a star, and I thought, wow, this is such a good story, this should be movie of the week, which we are now developing."
      Parton says, "See, it could give me a chance...see, there could be a very young girl who plays the very young girl..."
      She tells me the story of the putative movie; the young girl, the abuse, the travels, the letters she sends back home, the cult following she develops, the fact that she never makes it as a star.  This last theme is interesting, because Parton, who has made it as a star, finds her own life to be less than perfect as subject matter.
      She says, "It's a continuous story, which also could be like what Kenny Rogers did.  He did 'The Gambler 1', '2', and '3.'  So, 'Blue Valley Songbird,' I might do a continuation of it.  She's still on the road, still trying to make it; even as an older artist, she always tries to make it and she never does."
      Impolitely, I do not ask Parton who she thinks might suit the role of the older "Blue Valley Songbird," but say, "Have you ever seen 'Heart Like a Wheel'?"  Parton says, "No."
      She politely listens while I explain the plot of "Heart Like a Wheel."  (Tragic female racing driver tours the Deep South.)  As soon as I've finished, she brightens and says, "Another one of my favourites from the album is 'Paradise Road,' and I wrote that song because that's the name of the musical at Dollywood that we've put together, which is kinda the story of my life."
      Dollywood is in Pigeon Forge, at the foot of the Appalachian mountains, just a few miles from where Dolly Parton grew up.  Her father was a tobacco farmer; he lived with his wife and, eventually, 12 children, in a small wooden house (Dolly was the fourth, a position from which, she told me, she had to struggle to get attention).  The area has changed immeasurably since she was young and hungry; on the road from Knoxville, the nearest large town, there are now miles and miles of unbroken fast-food franchises.
      I went past billboards advertising Dollywood.  It was 'Splashtacular!'; it was 'Entertaining!'; it was 'Fascinating!'  There was a billboard advertising the Dolly Parton radio waveband, with a picture of Parton, grinning, and the line, "turn me on."  There were endless roadside attractions, mostly to do with food.  Cracker barrel; Good Country Cookin; Home of the Hickory Hawg; The Muscle Car Museum.  One place advertised "45 types of breakfast."
      I turned off the road and went past a crazy golf course with a rabbit theme.  You can see the Dollywood fences a long time before you get to the entrance.  It costs $30 for a day pass.  People were milling around the entrance.  Inside, it was crowded.  The main theme is old-style country life, before Tennessee was taken over by burger joints.  In Dollywood, burgers are served in old-looking themed buildings, the sort of thing you see in cartoons.
      There are rides, quaint sideshows, a man who makes baseball bats.  There is glass-blowing.  There are shops.  A themed train goes around, tooting.  The replica of Dolly's child hood home is furnished with the actual furniture her family used.  Inside are plain, arts-and-crafts-looking chairs, an old wooden table, an old-style quilt, iron pans.  It looks like the sort of thing an ultra-trendy metropolitan student would go for.  Here, people gawp at its plainness, its authenticity.  It speaks of hunger, of denim.
      In the Dolly Parton museum, there is a video of Dolly, to welcome you.  She talks of the "rich earth of the Smoky Mountains."  She talks about dreams coming true.  The air conditioning is fierce.  There is a picture of a blonde, three-year-old kid.  Her first microphone, a plaque tells us, was made from a tin can and a stick.  An article from Women's World is headlined, "Her First Microphone was a Stick and a Tin Can."  You can see the myth at work.
      The museum tells the story of Parton's life.  There are the school yearbooks, in which she appears to be an attractive 40-year-old housewife, regardless of age.  There are some knackered old boots which belonged to her father.  Behind a glass case is Parton's childhood guitar, embossed with butterflies.
      The dresses get more outrageous as you walk through the museum.  We learn about how Parton left the Smoky Mountains for Nashville, wrote songs, appeared on the radio, and how she appeared regularly on Porter Wagoner's TV show.  But why?  What drove her?  There is footage of Wagoner with his trademark ludicrous suits.  Magazine covers are exhibited.  The National Enquirer of 28 August, 1984, advertises "Burton's Last Words" (apparently "Liz, Liz").  Below Burton, larger, there is a story about Parton.
      I went to Paradise Road, the musical about Parton's life.  It starts off with the young Dolly saying to her mother, "Oh Mama, I'd rather sing than eat."  (Something which was true, and then not true, and is, currently, true again.)
      The young Parton is played by lots of people; half the cast, it seems, are there to show a facet of Dolly.  In the story, God is the key to Dolly's drive towards stardom; one day, she finds God, and, deliriously happy, walking along, "kicking up dust on that mountain road," in fact, a car pulls up.  The man in the car asks Dolly, "Where are you going?"  At this point, one feels a tinge of protective worry.  Who is this man?  What harm might he do?  In the end, Dolly replies, "I'm going to Paradise," and the man, whoever he is, drives off.  "She not only found God," says the narrator's voice, "she found Dolly Parton."
      Parton herself appears in the show, on large video screens above the stage.  At one point, having become famous, she is seen fielding questions from journalists.  "Why do you wear 5-inch heels?" asks one.  The reply is "Because I can't find any six-inch heels."  Another asks, "What would you like people to say about you 100 years from now?"  She says, "Isn't she good for her age?"  Why does she have such a small waist, and such small feet?  "Because things don't grow in the shade."
      In the Dolly Parton myth, there is a seamless progression through adolescence.  She moves from the God-fearing home in the Smoky Mountains to the Peroxide Dolly without scraping the gears.
      In another theatre, a tall guy with long hair and a spangled waistcoat sings country-rock, accompanied by a shorter, pretty, blonde woman.  These are Randy and Rachel Parton, two of Dolly's siblings.  Between songs, Randy tells tales from the Parton family scrapbook: the house, the children, the poverty, the authenticity.  His hair is a helmet in front and frizzes out at the sides.  He is dressed as if for a Turkish Sultan's birthday party.  The sister's voice is good; neither is she a bad songwriter.  You wonder where she would be, if she had Dolly's drive.
      It was dark.  I wandered around Dollywood.  People were still in the shops, spending "Dolly Dollars," theme-park currency with Parton's head in the middle.  The shops sell T-shirts and "Dolly dolls" and jam.  You can put a penny in a slot and re-emboss it with a Dollywood symbol.  I had some fast food in a 1950s-themed fast-food place.  I had my picture taken for a themed postcard.
      Why did Dolly Parton become Dolly Parton, superstar?  Sitting in her record company office in Nashville, she says, "Well, I was this child that had a dream..."  There is a pause.  She says, "I felt like not much attention was paid to me.  So I found my attention.  I actually found a friend in my guitar.  I had a very active mind.  I had an outgoing personality.  I needed to be noticed.  People said we'll take you down to the radio station.  I was the kind of kid that the more attention I got, the more attention I needed, and I felt like I had a gift, and the more people told me that I was good, the more I believed them."
      Parton talks about the effect of applause ("I thought, wow, this is what I'm gonna do for the rest of my life"), and the need to be loved.  She says that, as a child, she was needy for love.
      I say, "Is it the same for everybody, the need to be loved?"
      "No.  Well, they might have it.  But I have an outlet to get it."
      The change came at 15.  She stopped being the sensible-looking high-school girl, and invented the Dolly look.  She says, "I was very fascinated with trashy-looking people, women with red nails and high heels and lipstick, to me that was beautiful, and yet in many ways that was against our religion.  But I needed to be outgoing, so I needed to be colourful to look at."  She imitated a local woman her parents knew as "a tramp, a trollop.  I would say she was pretty.  My mother would say, 'She's a little tramp.'  And so, in my little mind, I would say that's what I wanted to be.  I wanted to be a tramp."
      One day, she bleached her hair.  There was conflict.  Her family "just about had a heart attack."  Her grandfather, "thought the Devil had totally entered me.  He said the Devil had made my hair like this.  I said, no, the Devil didn't have much to do with it."
      She tightens the cardigan.  She is, she tells me, never satisfied with herself.  "I never write good enough, I'm always trying to write better; I never sing good enough, I'm always trying to sing better; I never look good enough, I'm always trying to look better."  The cardigan pings back.
      She is honest about her cosmetic surgery.  "If you see something which is starting to sag and bag, and it's a very simple procedure, and if you've got the money, why not go and have that little thing lifted up a little bit?  Or those big things?  To me, that's what they're there for."
      I look straight ahead.  She laughs.  She has, finally, mentioned the breasts.
      " do you think people see you?"  She says, "I know that I'm kind of cartoonish.  I know I'm like a cartoon, which is fine.  Mickey Mouse is a cartoon.  He's lasted a long time.  If I have any magic at all, it's because I look totally artificial, and I am totally unreal.  So I think that people can sense that what's coming out of me is far more important than what's on the outside.  The outside is fun for me, and I try to make it fun for them.  I want to be your favourite dresser doll.  If I looked as real as I am, I'd be a plain old blank wall."
      She gets up; it is the first time I have seen her standing.  She is tiny.  At the party, she wears her everyday clothes wig, tiny cardigan, high heels.  There are pictures of her all around the room.  In the pictures, she is wearing denim dungarees.  Her show clothes.  Somewhere deep in her psyche, the Dolly Parton myth is going into reverse.