Dolly Parton's bosom goes before her. It is impossible to think of her voice and her songs without conjuring a mental picture of that famous cantilevered shelf which juts so implausibly over her minuscule waist. Her top-heavy form even enlivened debate in the House of Commons when some years ago Kenneth Clarke chastised Gordon Brown for relying on the "Dolly Parton school of economics — an unbelievable figure blown out of all proportion with no visible means of support."
If it seems unseemly to linger on a person's poitrine in this way then it must be said that no man or woman has more boldly gone into this territory than Parton herself. Reading past encounters with journalists — mostly male — it is she rather than her interviewers who nudges the subject back to her breasts again and again. Dolly's bust, she makes it clear, is up for grabs. There has been much speculation in the press over the decades as to the secret of her bosom's buoyancy: exactly how much silicone has been pumped into those mamas? She has never denied that she is partially plastic but she won't be drawn on the detail. When one persistent fellow pressed her for specifics, she said: "Look, I'm in show-business. I look at my boobs like they're showhorses or showdogs. You've got to keep 'em groomed."
Emboldened by Parton's own approach to her body, I had convinced myself that it would be a dereliction of journalistic duty not to ask her if I could briefly touch her, ahem, breasts. The readers of The Times surely had a right to know what such significant assets in the Parton empire felt like. But, alas, when it came to it I chickened out...partly because in the flesh, despite appearances to the contrary, there is nothing remotely fluffy about Dolly.
A big heart may be beating under her big chest but Parton is also a tough cookie and steely in her determination to run the show precisely to her specifications. If you attempt to steer her into uncharted waters, she makes her disapproval very plain. The version of herself that she is prepared to offer has been carefully honed over the years — the teasing paradox of the God-loving "toilet-mouthed" sinner; the woman who has been apparently happily married to her teenage sweetheart, Carl, for 36 years (they met outside the Wishy-Washy Laundromat in Nashville) who has neither confirmed or denied rumours of her affairs with men and women over the years; the simple country girl who is an extremely shrewd businesswoman, an owner of five houses as well as various enterprises including a radio station, a brand of cosmetics, a lucrative theme park in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, Dollywood, and a Hollywood film and television production company.
One of Parton's much-quoted lines is that she looks like a woman but thinks like a man. "You know, there are many women who think good," she tells me. "I just mean that you would be foolish as a man to underestimate me." Plenty of men have been fooled by her appearance which has doubtless been good news for the Dolly dollar: "It's worked for me because I've got the deal done and gone before a lot of people have got past looking at the boobs or the hair."
She makes no bones about the importance of being in control of her business affairs, and I wonder whether Parton would go so far as to say she was a control freak. "No, I'm not a control freak but I'm very alert and very aware of my things. I have to take care of my things my way," she says, sounding very southern indeed, with her mah's (for my's) and ah'm (for I'm) and swooping high-speed delivery. "I'm a very professional Dolly Parton. I don't try to run other people's lives but I know what I want, what I don't want, what I will do, what I won't do and I think it's important for people to take care of that part of things themselves. And I don't care if I'd been born a man or a woman or both."
When I visited Dollywood two years ago (of which more later), I was told by one of Parton's assistants there that her boss's days often started as early as six in the morning and ended late at night, with every minute in between accounted for. Like presidents and Hollywood stars, Parton keeps her interviews short and to the point, treating herself as a rare commodity to be sampled at arm's length by outsiders, and only with limited access. The briefer the encounter, of course, the easier it is for her to keep the conversation within the boundaries which suit her. She is happy projecting a contained provocativeness (four-letter words, a relish for sex) — which may be bold and shocking in her hometown of Pigeon Forge, dominated by hellfire Baptists obsessed with sin — but she is not prepared to be controversial in a broader context.
I come close to offending her, for instance, when I broach the subject of politics. "I'll talk about sex and God but I ain't talkin' about politics," Parton says firmly. So I can't talk to you about America and Iraq? "No, you cannot." She says that she definitely has her opinions — which I don't doubt for a minute — but she doesn't even care to discuss politics or religion with her friends because those discussions can very soon turn into arguments. And being in the limelight herself: "I don't voice my opinions about those things because people take it out of context. Especially journalists. You say one thing, next thing you know it's plastered all over the page and taken out of context: 'Dolly said this'. I just wish we all got along. I wish the world was perfect, but it is not."
Dolly's world-view is this: "If we were more God-loving, God-like, Christ-like people, we wouldn't be having the problems we do. But we're having them because nobody will forgive, nobody will love, we're all so selfish and just get into our own little place of what is right and what is wrong and so we're all just screwing up big time." These sentiments are echoed in several of the songs — Hello God, Raven Dove — on her new record Halos & Horns, the fourth back-to-bluegrass album Parton has released in the past four years. This return to the unadorned acoustic music of Parton's mountain roots — fiddle, banjo, snare-drum, washboard, tambourine and goosebump-inducing harmonies — has given her career a new lease of life, happily coinciding with the post-O Brother Where Art Thou hipness of bluegrass (her first album in this vein, as she points out, came out before the film), and prompting her to form a new band, the Blueniques, made up largely of Pigeon Forge recruits, and go back to touring. For die-hard Dolly fans like myself, it is incredible to think that she hasn't performed a concert in this country for 20 years.
"It takes a lot of money to look this cheap" is one of Dolly's favourite Dollyisms, along with, "If I hadn't been a woman I'd have been a drag queen." She based her look, she has said, on a local prostitute who stood out from the rest of the drably dressed, careworn women in the community with her yellow hair, red nails and lipstick. For our interview, however, Parton looks comparatively sober, almost tasteful, in a little charcoal grey skirt and matching monochrome sweater, a V-neck revealing only a glimpse of pale cleavage, flesh-coloured nylons and high-heels. Most of the time, she tucks her pointed feet underneath her bottom on the sofa.
There's the same wig of teased hair but close-up — obviously, really, since she's a 56-year-old woman — her face does not have the dewy, youthful glow of her photographs in which even recently she looks like a gorgeous tarnished angel. The Annie Leibovitz snaps on the sleeve of the new album are a case in point and among the best of Parton I've ever seen: tatty, faded denim shirt, blue jeans, and the sort of understated make-up which takes at least three hours to apply.
The singer's husband, Carl Dean, has always come across as a mystery man in the press, principally because he has rarely been sighted in public. They met the day Dolly arrived in Nashville; she was 18, he was 21, and they married two years later. I must say that I do like the detail of the Wishy-Washy Laundromat: "Well, I was doing my dirty laundry that I'd brought from home — you know having graduated the night before — because I was in such a hurry to get to Nashville and be a star.
"Carl had just finished work — he and his father owned an asphalt paving company — and he had gone home and cleaned up and he was just driving around...looking for me, he said. And he must have." Her voice does a fabulous loop-the-loop — he-yyyyyy-uhv. "He was very shy and bashful and that's not like him. So that's another way I believe God has purpose for people.
"Of course, I was tiny and I was blonde, for sure, had that hair all hiked up and I had on a red rib-tickler halter top and my little hip-hugger red pants and I guess he just looked and thought, 'I'm gonna say something to her.'"
Do you remember what he said? "Well, yeah, I know exactly what he said. He just pulled up to the sidewalk and said, 'You're gonna get sunburnt out here, little lady.' And I said, 'Oh, you think?' And so we just started talking and that was that."
She says that her husband loves music and is forever whistling and singing around the house and the barn "in a kind of pop sounding voice". He has a large record collection and is a great Led Zeppelin fan, which was one of the reasons why she did her own version of Stairway to Heaven on Halos & Horns "because I'd heard that song in the house a million times". I think it's by far the most exciting track on the CD, and really beautiful — full-blown and delicate at the same time, building up to a great choral swell of celestial female voices at the end.
And what was Carl's reaction? "'Only you'd have the nerve to do that damn song that way!' You know, he doesn't say it's good or bad. He just says, 'Well, it's different, I'll give you that.' Yeah, that's about all he says."
Is he a loner? "Very much a loner. But he's friendly. He's funny. He does have a handful of very good friends but they're mostly people that he went to school with."
I had gone to Dollywood in the summer of 2000 in the hope of talking to Parton, who was scheduled to be there. The interview had been agreed — after questions had been asked about The Times ("Was it a tabloid?" "Was it a new paper?" "What was its circulation?") — but after a great deal of shilly-shallying about how many minutes I would be given, Dolly's people cancelled. I decided to go anyway, and thought that if I approached Parton after her press conference to launch her new water park — Dolly's Splash Country — she might relent. Not a bit of it. There was no hobnobbing with the locals at the reception, no pressing of flesh, or bestowing of gracious smiles. This was a glimpse of the "very professional Dolly Parton". She came, she went, she vanished and although you can be sure I pestered her manager, Ted Miller, for at least an introduction having come so far, none was forthcoming. Dolly had a toothache, it was explained. And, besides, she was only interested in local journalists for this story.
Still my time there was not without its diversions. Her appearance was sensational, to say the least. The local press and dignitories were sealed off behind a cord waiting for Dolly to say the word so that the bulldozer could start the ground-breaking ceremony. We had watched her blonde head approach us, poking out of the top of an army tank as it made its stately progress up an interminable dirt track while Islands in the Stream crackled in and out of the loudspeaker system.
She was helped out of the vehicle by a half-a-dozen butch lifesavers, and there was an appreciative murmur as she asked coquettishly: "So howdy'all like mah wet suit?" Lady Penelope meets dominatrix scuba diver, I wrote down on my notepad. I was amazed by how filthy she was, which possibly explains why she and Graham Norton hit it off so well. (Norton went to Dollywood to film a Christmas special last year.) All the attractions, she explained, were based on places that were important to her as a child: "Like the Suck Hole but I don't think with mah reputation we should call it that!" She screamed with laughter. She brought up a story which had appeared in the National Enquirer about her alleged dalliance with a 15-year-old boy: "It's not true, unfortunately. I wish it was," she said mock-wistfully. "Sounds fun!" And then she was gone.
I was impressed by Dollywood itself. Having expected to enjoy it in an ironic "Isn't it kitsch?" way, it was far better than that, with none of the plastic unpleasantness of mainstream theme parks. In Craftsman's Valley, blacksmiths, soap-makers, woodcarvers and coopers were hard at work. The food all smelt delicious: wholesome, authentic home-cooked ham and beans and grits. The children's area was a splendidly inventive Professor Branestawm interactive paradise. There's a replica of the two-room newspaper-lined log cabin Dolly and her 11 brothers and sisters grew up in, and many spangly frocks in the Rags to Riches Museum. And, naturally, you can hear every sort of music from country to gospel to Fifties rock'n'roll...although one of Dolly's brothers, Randy, who does a sort of gospel meets Blues Brothers gig would probably not be drawing crowds where it not for his sister's patronage.
I went on the Imagination Express, a brightly painted vehicle designed to look like a train, for a storytelling session at a local infant school down a long, winding road. This was part of Parton's literacy programme — the Dollywood Foundation — through which every child in Sevier County, where the singer was born, receives a new book every month from birth to the age of five. I was given Madeleine in Paris to read to the children by Parton's jolly assistants, Karen and Doreen, since my suggestion of Harry Potter had been rejected. (The book had recently been banned in a couple of southern states on the grounds that J. K. Rowling was promoting sorcery.) That evening, I went to The Dixie Belle Saloon and drank nasty sweet non-alcoholic cocktails out of a plastic drinking vessel in the shape of a boot. The county is dry, and being America there was no smoking. And although the cocktail waitresses were trussed up to look like old-fashioned whores (frilly knickers, plunging necklines), it would — of course — be a sin for gentlemen to harbour impure thoughts about them, even if those thoughts only did remain in the mind.
What is intriguing is how Parton reconciles her robust appetites with her Godliness, particularly given her severe Baptist upbringing. For a true Holy-Roller doesn't just believe that sex is sinful — it's also a sin to dance or drink or have any kind of fun. As her fire-and-brimstone preacher grandfather used to tell her: "A dancing foot and a praying knee don't fit on the same leg." And she used to think: "'Well, why not?' Because I believed in making a joyful noise and rejoicin'."
Even as a child, the young Dolly was a determinedly free spirit so she simply remoulded her God into a more accommodating form: "I didn't want to worship a God that I felt was vengeful and scary. I mean those preachers — and not just my grandpa — they would scream at you, and threaten you, and yell at you, 'If you go out of this church unprepared and get killed on the way home, you're gonna go straight to hell'...that used to scare me to death."
So she would take off on her own and have her own conversations with God in an abandoned church and "try to reason with him a little bit find him in a softer way". One morning, when she was nine years old, she had such a feeling of profound light-heartedness as the empty room flooded with sunshine that she believed herself to be "saved". She skipped down the street telling everyone she met that she was on her way to paradise and insisted on being baptised there and then..."So I made my communication with God in my way and he's always dealt with me according to how I can accept him in my own heart and in my own emotions and in my own mind."
On Halos & Horns there's a jaunty-sounding song called Shattered Image which Parton wrote and recorded in 1976 in response to one of the first tabloid stories about her love life. It uses the image from her childhood of her throwing stones into the river to shatter her watery reflection, and then fast-forwards to the present: "I'm far from perfect, but I ain't all bad/It hurts me more than it makes me mad/You gather your stones by stooping so low/Then shatter my image with the stones you throw."
She says she dragged the song out again because of more stories in the press about her alleged 19-year affair with an improbably named singer-songwriter called Blaise Tosti. He claims that Parton seduced him when he was 13 years old: "That's bullshit. I know the people. We used to go to the house and feed the family because they were poor and the boy's mother was an alcoholic. He was a kid then, I was young also and I had just gotten married and brought down my own brothers and sisters to raise them. (One of the reasons she has cited for never having had children of her own.) And he was a great singer and a great writer and I worked with him. But, you know, people turn on you and are desperate for money so they do stuff and it does hurt."
There has always been speculation about the precise nature of Parton's relationships with her leading men — from the man she first sang with, Porter Wagoner, through to co-stars in various movies, such as Burt Lancaster. She's an open book on this, just as long as you don't attempt to turn the page yourself. So she will spin an impression to me of herself as a free agent: "Even if I was having an affair with someone, you don't like to hear people talking about it...all people are capable of anything and I'm no angel...I've not done all the stuff that I've been accused of, but I have done a lot of stuff that nobody's found out yet..." But if she suspects that you are angling for more information, she will slap you down: "I'm not here to tell you everything about myself. You have no right to know that any more than somebody else. But I'll tell you all I can. I'll tell you all I will [weee-youl]," her voice goes up. "And you can guess the rest."
My question had been, simply, whether she thought her God was an unjudgmental one, particularly as regards sex. "Well, how can sex be wrong?" she says, after subjecting me to her mild knuckle-rapping. "I have no problem with sex. I have no hang-ups about sex. I enjoy sex. And if that's a sin, well, then somebody else will have to punish me and if God decides to...and, you know, I'm not saying that I'm right, I may be the first person he punishes, I may be burning in hell tomorrow...but if it's wrong, as much faith as I have in God, I would just ask him to take the whole desire from me. You can make anything a sin. It's all in how you deal with it. If you believe it's a sin, if you feel it's a sin, then it is a sin."
Parton has not always felt this unmuddled and forthright. In her forties, she suffered from a serious depression for 18 months. She was 50lb heavier than her ideal weight, which ballooned over three or four years, she had mood swings, gynaecological and personal problems: "Never between me and Carl...that was always fine, thank God." She hated herself and felt despairing enough to think about suicide. You didn't! I say, shocked that such an indomitable force could have been so derailed. "I didn't do anything, let me finish telling you," Parton says, crossly.
"I'm just saying that when you get into those places, you really realise how people get on drugs and how they would commit suicide because you really don't want to live and it's like you're waking up dead every day. And one night, I was thinking: 'Do you know what? I'm just lying here wallowing in my fat, wallowing in my misery, and it's either do something about it — git off your fat ass and git on a diet — or shut the hell up.' And I said to God, 'You either get my ass out of this mood, show me a way, help me, or I'm ending it. Even if committing suicide is a sin, I'll just burn in hell.'"
Fortunately for us, God came up trumps, Dolly went on a diet, sorted out her hormones, and went though a whole emotional, spiritual and professional rejuvenation. When I point out how unexpected is this glimpse of a darker Dolly, even though a fair number of her songs — and she has, incredibly, written more than 3,000 — deal with heartbreak and despair, she says: "I am cheerful and optimistic but people also forget that people like me are not mannequins, we're not plastic dolls; even if we've got plastic parts, the heart ain't plastic, the mind ain't plastic. People think that just because you're a star and because you've got a big smile that you never suffer, you never hurt. But people like me are the ones that hurt most because we're the ones that leave ourselves wide open in order to be able to write. To be sensitive enough to pick up on everybody's sorrow as well as your own, you have to leave yourself wide open. And I don't know how to do anything just a little. Same with food. If I want to eat, I want to eat the whole thing. If I'm gonna love you, I'm gonna love you to death. If my heart gets broken it's gonna shatter. And you know, it's just the whole thing. That's the kind of person I am."
Dolly Parton's new album Halos & Horns is on release. She begins a sell-out tour at Manchester Bridgewater Hall on November 15