Dolly Parton
The Scotsman
November 22, 2002
Dolly's mixture
By Fiona Shepherd

The Country Music Hall of Fame describes Dolly Parton as possessing "the heart of an artist, the brain of a computer and the spirit of a preacher".  For an alternative list of attributes, try bust of a glamour model, hair of a Barbie doll and nature of a saint.

Countryís first showbiz superstar would be happy to embrace both appraisals.  The 56-year-old rhinestone-encrusted icon is comfortable with all facets of her appeal and appears to delight in all her achievements, whether it be her recent return to her bluegrass roots, her film-star turns in 9 To 5 and Steel Magnolias, or the tacky tourist confection of Dollywood, her fairytale Tennessee theme park which attracts two million visitors - and Graham Norton - every year.  "Iíve made a lot of mistakes in the minds of some people but Iíve made few, if any, in my own mind," she remarks.

Her ridiculously broad fan base, from country purists to drag queens, would agree with such trenchant self-belief.  RuPaul would fall over his stack heels for some grooming tips from Dolly.  Sinead OíConnor and the White Stripes, who covered the plaintive Jolene, are ardent fans.  Shania Twain finally got to meet her heroine at this yearís Country Music Awards.  And if insistent internet reports are to be believed, Saddam Hussein used Whitney Houstonís version of Partonís I Will Always Love You - top of VH1ís recent 100 Greatest Love Songs poll - as his campaign song in the recent Iraqi election.  Now that lot would make some celebrity guest list for An Audience With Dolly.

Ticket demand for her first UK tour in 19 years has been sky-high.  But it has taken a string of acclaimed bluegrass albums to get her back on the road.  A decade ago the rise of new country pushed the diminutive diva off the radio playlists for a time and, fearing that her fan base may have dissipated, she laid off touring, confining herself to occasional appearances at Dollywood.  She didnít need the cash anyway - Whitneyís global hit had earned her $6 million in royalties, to which her self-mocking response was "it costs a lot of money to look this cheap".

Now, in the words of her 1998 album, she is Hungry Again.  The massive success of the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack revived public interest in bluegrass and inspired Parton to revert to the mountain music she grew up with.  Once again, she has surprised her audience with the stripped-back sound and stark emotion of the Grammy-winning albums The Grass Is Blue and Little Sparrow and her 72nd album Halos And Horns, released earlier this year.

"I take more pride in my songwriting than anything else," she says.  "If I could do but one thing in show business, it would be to write songs.  I love to sing and perform but I get more personal satisfaction by leaving something in the world that wasnít there the day before."

Do fans give a darn about this new credibility?  Hell, no.  That she is a terrific songwriter is already a given.  Dolly is equally and deservedly loved for her homely wisdom, perpetually sunny outlook and her brassy, trashy image, which she allegedly modeled on the prostitutes in her hometown and "a country girlís idea of what glamour is".  She adds:  "I can look like a whore but I can sing like an angel - thatís where Halos and Horns comes from," she says.  "Iíve made it hard on myself looking the way I look and loving the music like I do.  At first glance, people look at me as just hair and tits and a big mouth.  Well, I know that and I am that.  But I am so much more than that.  I look so totally artificial but am so totally real."

Her early life could have come straight from the pages of a Country & Western songbook.  Dolly Rebecca Parton was the fourth of 12 children born to Scots/Irish sharecropper Robert and his half-Cherokee wife Avie Lee, and brought up in extreme poverty in eastern Tennesseeís Smoky Mountains.  Parton recalls being scorned for her patched clothes, as documented in her early hit Coat Of Many Colours.  In a catalogue of more than 3,000 published songs, that one remains her favourite, simultaneously reminding her of her background and of the talent that was to be her get-out clause.

"Seems like you gotta get rich to sing like youíre poor again," she has remarked.  But rather than going back to her roots, Parton maintains she has never left them.  As soon as she had made enough money from music, she bought and restored her old family home in Locust Ridge in order to live there.  She then purchased the local store and church, creating her own backwoods theme village retreat.  Locust Ridge has become the private flipside to the kitsch and glitz of Dollywood, which she also founded to celebrate her Smoky Mountains roots.  Such apparently guileless attachment to the old homestead when she could have settled in industry epicentre Nashville, or the airbrushed pavilions of LA, only cements her charm.

In the mid-1960s, Nashville was the only destination for an aspirant country singer.  Parton, who had been performing since the age of ten and already had an unsuccessful record deal under her belt, arrived there, penniless, the day after her high school graduation.

Her break came in 1967, when country star Porter Wagoner chose her as his female sidekick on his TV show.  They had a string of hit duets before Parton went solo and supernova in the early 1970s.  Wagoner felt slighted but Dolly preserved their legacy by writing I Will Always Love You about her mentor.  The rags-to-riches transformation was complete.

Where her story diverges from traditional country melodrama is that Parton has been lucky in love.  For all her coquettish ways, Dolly has stood by her man, contractor Carl Dean, ever since they met in a Laundromat on her first night in Nashville 36 years ago.  He is something of an enigma, having never made a public appearance with his wife and, perhaps even more surprisingly, taking no part in her numerous business ventures, which include a chain of restaurants (called Dixie Stampede), her own line of wigs and a literacy programme - Dolly Partonís Imagination Library (ainít it cute?) - for young children.  Again, there is a connection with her beloved roots - Partonís father was illiterate.

Her iconic allure was never really in doubt but, artistically, Parton now feels firmly back in the saddle.  Her new single, the 11 September-inspired Hello God, is closer to her familiar country pop style than her bluegrass material but, for all its traditional sound, it makes a more reflective response to global conflict than Toby Keithís patriotic, chest-beating Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue.  Plans are also underway for a Dolly tribute album, with Shania already queuing up to cover Coat Of Many Colours.

She has also continued her sporadic film career with a role in Disney feature Frank McKlusky C I and has finally fulfilled her ambition to play Mae West, that other beloved buxom blonde broad, for a forthcoming TV movie.  Her other objective - to pose nude for Penthouse to mark her 100th birthday - remains some way off.

With all this fresh creative activity, someone should name her Tennesseeís ambassador for film and music.  Actually, the state governor already has, saying:  "Dolly exemplifies the total spectrum of Tennesseeís extraordinary talent."

Or, in Dollyís words:  "If I havenít done it, Iím capable of doing it.  I just ainít got around to it."

Dolly Parton plays the Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow, on 26 and 27 November.