Dolly Parton
Sunday Herald
November 24, 2002
Rhinestone cowgirl
She's the glitzy first lady of country music, she snubbed Elvis Presley, and now after a gap of ten years Dolly Parton takes to the road again to bring the music of her childhood back into focus, says Nigel Williamson

NINE thirty on a scorching autumn Saturday morning, and Dolly Parton is dressed up to the nines.  While the rest of New York City relaxes for the weekend in T-shirts and baggy sweat pants, she's wearing a tiny polka-dot micro-skirt, high-heels and a revealingly low-cut top, offset by dangling earrings, unbelievably long crimson-painted nails, a blonde wig and elaborate make-up which she must have been up at dawn to apply.

As she likes to boast, it takes a lot of money to make her look so cheap.  'Even if I weren't a singer, I'd still look this way,' she laughs.  'However much I spend and however many expensive designers I employ, it always ends up looking cheap and tasteless.  But then I'd hate to look matronly and boring.'

There's little danger of that.  In the flesh she's an even more improbable figure than she appears in her pictures.  The legs, which she is forever crossing and uncrossing, are bird thin.  Her waist can't be more than a size eight and the legendary superstructure is indeed remarkable.  You can't help remembering former Tory chancellor Kenneth Clarke's joke in suggesting Gordon Brown's budget proposals were drawn from the Dolly Parton school of economics 'an unbelievable figure blown out of all proportion with no visible means of support'.

At 56, Parton is currently in the middle of an astonishing career renaissance.  Over the past three years she's made a trilogy of critically acclaimed albums on which she has returned to the acoustic, roots-based music of her Tennessee mountain childhood, far removed from the glossy country-pop of such current Nashville heroines as Shania Twain and Faith Hill.  She's touring for the first time in ten years.  This week in Glasgow she will play her first British dates since 1984.

'Renaissance would be a fair word, I think,' she says in the trademark Tennessee drawl.  'I wasn't getting on the radio any more.  Nobody was interested in me as an artist any more.  When you're over 35 they think you're too old in modern music.  I couldn't even get a record deal.'

Her response was to forget about sounding commercial and fashionable, return to her roots and record the traditional kind of country and bluegrass music she loves.  'I've been in the business a long time and won all the awards and had a lot of success.  But I was still hungry to be an artist,' she says.  'I was missing having an outlet for my music.  So I thought I'm going to record these songs on my own, pay for them myself and then lease them to a record company.'

Her timing was immaculate, as the return to her roots has coincided with the revival of interest in old-time country music created by the spectacular success of the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers' film, O Brother Where Art Thou?  American country radio stations also refused to play that record's mix of bluegrass and mountain music, but the CD went on to win a Grammy as album of the year and sell five million copies.

She has her own theory about the renewed popularity of such music.  'We live in such a high-tech world.  That's progress, and there's nothing wrong with it.  We're into the future and we're stuck with it,' she reasons.  'But I think people are longing for simplicity and realism.  People want to believe they're part of something that has a tradition.  There's an honesty to this music, and it's not cluttered up with technology.  We're always going to have human feelings and so much of this music speaks to that.  It takes people back to a more honest place or makes them homesick for some place they've actually never been.'

Parton says she now feels she's on a mission to promote and propagate old-time country music.  'I feel like I'm able to teach people.  It's my ministry.  It's something I preach and live and know.  This is a really good time in my life because I feel needed.  People want to know about this old music and how it started.  And I can tell them.'

Although she's now associated with the big hair and rhinestones and glitz and glamour of modern Nashville, Parton grew up in another world.  Born into a family of 12 brothers and sisters in the Smoky Mountains, her share-cropping father couldn't read or write and her family was dirt poor.  The cabin that was the family home had no electricity, running water or a telephone, and the children were dressed in a succession of hand-me down clothes.

But she learned to love music and on the day Parton graduated from high school in 1964, she grabbed a suitcase full of clothes and headed for Nashville.  What followed was a classic rags-to-riches story.  First as a singing duet with Porter Wagoner and then on her own, she became not only country music's biggest star but a larger-than-life icon whose image is recognised and loved around the world.  She's also one of the world's most prolific songwriters.  Jolene, Coat Of Many Colours, My Tennessee Mountain Home, Nine To Five, Here She Comes Again, and, of course, I Will Always Love You all came from her own pen.  'I've written so many thousands of songs there's bound to be a few good ones,' she says with only a touch of false modesty.

As someone who makes their living interviewing celebrities, I have never been asked to get the autograph of any of the stars I meet.  Until, that is, I interview Dolly Parton.  Three of the most unlikely people, including an elderly aunt and a doctor, sheepishly asked if I might ask her to sign something for them.  I tell her this to her evident delight and ask how she explains the breadth of her appeal.

The answer is refreshingly honest.  'A lot of people get a kick out of my big mouth and the big outrageous personality.  And some people relate to me because I look like trash with the big tits and the big hair.  People know how serious I am about my music and family and my roots and God and my spiritual side.  People appreciate that I was brought up in the mountains, as poor as anybody could be and still survived.  So I come in all kinds of colours.  A lot of people understand that I look totally artificial but actually I am totally real.'

Paradoxical as it may sound, there is something in this.  For almost everything about Parton, from the not-so-cheap trashy glamour of the way she looks to her noted business acumen, has its origins deep in her poverty-stricken childhood.  Her explanation of how she developed her image is so eloquent and gripping that after hearing it you resolve never to laugh again at the way she looks, no matter how preposterous.

'It came from a poor country girl's idea of what glamour was,' she explains.  'I grew up in a very religious family where it was a sin to shave your legs or pluck your eyebrows and you weren't allowed to dance.  And everything that wasn't allowed was the very thing I wanted to do.  I don't think I was doing it to rebel.  It was just stuff that a young person wants to do.  You want to dance and you want to be pretty.'

And, as she puts it, 'when you're poor and you're country and you have no sense of taste or style or anyone to teach you, then you find role models wherever you can.'  In Parton's case, this was the local town prostitute.  'At least that's what all the other women called her.  She had peroxide yellow hair and she had it sprayed and teased, she wore red lipstick and red nail polish and high heel shoes and short skirts.  And I used to see her as a child when we went into town and I thought she was the prettiest thing I'd ever seen.'

When Parton said she thought she was beautiful, her mother would reply 'she's just trash'.  'So in my mind I decided I wanted to grow up to be trash, too.  I was fighting my family and they said I was going straight to hell, but it suited me just fine.  I didn't do it to get in trouble, although I usually did.  I did it because I wanted to feel pretty and dressing like that made me feel pretty.  And to this day I guess I don't feel good unless I look cheap.'

She laughs loudly.  Parton's ability not to take herself too seriously is one of her most endearing qualities.  But she's deadly serious about her money and its prudent investment, an attitude inherited from her father.  Watching him raise 12 kids on next-to-nothing taught her 'the value of a dollar'.  She has invested in television and film production companies, but her biggest success has been the Dollywood theme park in East Tennessee.  Far from being some self-indulgent monument to her own vanity, it was established on hard-headed business principles namely that the Smoky Mountain National Park has 10 million visitors a year.

'It wasn't hard to realise a theme park might do well there.  I've got all this money and I can waste it on clothes and wigs and push-up bras and high-heel shoes, or I can keep some to invest in business stuff,' she says.  'Dollywood has been open 17 years and every year more people come and we make millions of dollars through there for the whole community.'

Another story which illustrates her marriage of principle and business sense is her refusal to allow Elvis Presley to sing her I Will Always Love You.  Long before Whitney Houston, Presley wanted to record the song, but as was his usual practice, demanded half of the songwriting credit and the publishing royalties.  Most songwriters were so flattered that they readily agreed.  For Parton, too, having Elvis sing one of her songs 'would have been next to God singing it'.  But she stubbornly refused to give up half of the credit to someone who had no hand in the song's composition.  'And so he didn't sing it and I cried all night,' she confesses.  And yet she had the last laugh, for when Houston recorded it several years later, Parton earned six million dollars from the song.  If she'd agreed to Presley's demands, his estate would have received half of the proceeds.  'But I'd still love to have heard him sing it.  Wouldn't you?' she asks wistfully.

IN A business littered with divorces, Parton is proud that she is still married to Carl, her husband of 36 years standing, who she met on her first day in Nashville in 1964.  'He's very independent, and when I'm away working that's fine for him because he loves his solitude,' she says.  'He's not in the music business, and that's what has saved us.'

They never had children, which Parton says she doesn't regret.  They'd planned for them and even discussed names but it never happened.  Instead, they took in five of her younger brothers and sisters.  'We raised them and sent them to school.  And then I started taking birth control pills because we had a house full of kids and I had my career.  And next thing I was too old.'  The siblings she raised now have their own children, who call her 'Aunt Granny', and she appears content with that.  'We have all these kids and grandchildren and we take them everywhere and send them to college and buy them cars when they graduate and we treat them just like we would our own children,' she says.

Parton lives in Nashville but has also bought and renovated the old family cabin in the Smoky Mountains the very one she sang about in My Old Tennessee Mountain Home.  'I've fixed it up just like it was when I was growing up.  I spent a couple of million dollars making it look like a $100 place,' she jokes.  She has made some concessions to modernity by introducing electricity and plumbing 'but the bath tubs are made to look like old horse troughs and the commodes look like old outdoor toilets with wooden doors.'  Like her own private movie set, she's also constructed around the house a general store, a chapel and an old school house 'all created out of my childhood memories and dreams'.

It is here she goes to write her songs, 'up in the mountains and creeks I knew as a child'.  And when the wigs and the outrageous clothes have finally been hung up for the last time, it's as a songwriter that Parton would like to be best remembered.

'You're putting something in the world that wasn't there yesterday and people are going to sing after you've gone.  If nobody even knows what you looked like or who you were, you've left something there for other people.  The songs are like my children.'  She pauses for effect and laughs as she remembers just how much money I Will Always Love You has made.  'And I expect them to support me when I grow old.'

Dolly Parton plays the Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow on Tuesday and Wednesday.