Dolly Parton
Nottingham Evening Post
December 14, 2007
By Erik Petersen

Well-publicised physical discrepancies aside, Dolly Parton's a small woman. Which is not to say she's difficult to notice when she enters a room.

For she has, shall we say, a look that is somewhat individualistic.

Normally, it would perhaps be considered uncouth to mention how a woman of a certain age has hair colour that quite clearly comes out of a bottle, or makeup that's been applied with scant concern for subtlety. Normally, perhaps - but Dolly's made a pre-emptive strike against those jokes anyway, embracing them, along with the Tennessee mountain hillbilly stereotypes, and making them part of the humour and storytelling that's all part of the Dolly experience. She's a one-woman multi-million dollar entertainment empire who makes you feel like she could be topping up your coffee in a Waffle House off Interstate 40.

"I don't have a lot of the big videos and the lights," she says of her live shows. "People really don't care about the lighting - they want to hear me sing."

I mention that I've lived in the part of Tennessee where she grew up and continues to make a home. She hails from Sevier County, while I used to live just over the county line in Cocke County, where the biggest town has historically had something of a reputation.

"Oh sure, Newport," Dolly says. "Folks used to go there for their illegal whiskey, their illegal women ..."

This is a woman who's famously talked about going into town from her rural home as a girl, seeing the cheaply painted up town hooker, and reckoning that was the prettiest lady she'd ever seen. This is the woman who, asked about dumb blonde jokes on a recent trip to South Yorkshire, responded that she knows she's not dumb, and we all know she's not blonde. Even the title of her new album and tour - Backwoods Barbie - shows a woman ready to be the first with a punchline about blondes or hicks.

It might do naysayers well to remember also that dumb folks, blonde or otherwise, do not tend to rise to the top of an empire that involves a theme park, a film career, a charitable organisation that gives books to children across North America, and of course a catalogue featuring more than 30 years of some of the most popular songs in country.

Oh yeah, and now she's working on a musical version of 9-to-5 for Broadway.

"The Broadway stage is a little new to me," she admits, but a glance at her CV suggests she'll figure it out.

And this is a woman who, beneath the theme parks and films, the blonde jokes and breast jokes, is famous firstly because she's spent a career as one of country music's best singer-songwriters.

While she's happy to talk about the music, its the kids who really seem to get her going. There's a Dolly statue on the town square in the Sevier County seat, Sevierville - her "greatest honour, because it came from the people who know me" - and when you hear about the organisation that started there and spread all over North America and now to Britain, you start to understand why.

In addition to promoting this summer's tour, her recent trip to the UK coincided with the UK launch of her charity, Imagination Library. The programme, run through her Dollywood Foundation, gives free books to children in participating communities from the time they're infants until they reach primary school age.

"If you can get a child's attention early on, it's important," she said. "So they can learn how to read books, to love books."

If the subject sounds close to Dolly's heart, her upbringing offers an explanation. She grew up in rural poverty as one of a dozen children of a farmer who never learned to read. In the east Tennessee of Dolly's childhood, that wasn't a particularly uncommon story.

The Imagination Library started in Dolly's east Tennessee home and had spread to 43 states and Canada. The pilot UK programme is rolling out in Rotherham; Dolly and the people behind it believe it could be as big in the UK as it is in North America. In addition to her musical entourage, top Dollywood Foundation brass have been in Britain to get things off the ground.

"If other communities want to do it, it's possible to do it," says David Dotson, executive director of the foundation.

In Nottingham this summer, fans will hear the Backwoods Barbie do all those big songs and tell all those downhome jokes. In Sevier County and around North America, little children who have never heard Jolene or 9-to-5 are also familiar with Dolly.

"They call me the book lady," she said. "My dad was prouder of me for this programme than for my music career. He thought it was grand that all the kids called me the book lady."

And there's nothing dumb about that.

Source: Nottingham Evening Post