Dolly Parton: Homecoming queen

Dolly Parton talks to Alastair Mckay about a lifetime in music, and how turning 60 has turned her thoughts to family
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The Independent Culture

A busy day in Dollywood. The walkway is cordoned with plastic tape. A crowd of every shape and size (but mostly XXL) waits, cameras in hand. There are families with children, retired couples, bikers, a transvestite and a fat mother and daughter in Dolly T-shirts and stretch pants. Then, from near the park gates, the sound of cheering. A motorised carriage, piloted by a man in a brown top hat, glides by. In the back, in a turquoise suit on red leather upholstery, sits Dolly Parton, waving slowly: a live animation; half tramp, half princess.

A day earlier in Dollywood: I am waiting backstage at the theatre where Parton is due to perform to 1,700 fans. Through the French windows, it is possible to hear the girlish tones of Parton's voice, which has a quality of always sounding thrilled. The windows fold back, and there stands Parton, simultaneously small and larger than life. Apart from the famous bust, she has a delicate frame. She wears a denim jacket decorated with rhinestones, and a miniskirt. Her wig is very blonde. The legs are alarmingly perfect. She looks like a hillbilly china doll.

She was born 60 years ago, in Locust Ridge, 10 or so "country miles" from Dollywood. The fourth of 12 children, Parton grew up "poor, very poor" in the mountains of East Tennessee. Her first memory - though she admits there may be an element of post-rationalisation - is being bounced on the knee of her "Aunt" Marth, who owned the land on which her father farmed tobacco.

"She lived in this old shack since long before I was born, and I must not have been more than two. I remember climbing up on her steps and walking into her house, and smelling this odd smell. She used to burn some stuff because of her asthma, and she had a rocking chair and a spinning wheel. And she would sit me on her knee, and she would sing 'Tiptoe tiptoe, little Dolly Parton/Tiptoe tiptoe, ain't she fine?/ Tiptoe tiptoe, little Dolly Parton/She's got a red dress just like mine'. I remember saying 'Sing it again, sing it again'. I remember her before I do my mom and daddy or anything. It's the strangest thing."

Parton's youth is explored on her early albums, many of which have been reissued recently. To those who know Parton through the crude outline of her persona, the sweet purity of these records will be a revelation. There are mawkish moments, but the apparent simplicity of the songs contributes to their emotional power. On the album Just Because I'm A Woman, the title track is a peerless slice of feminist country and western. It observes how "a man will take a good girl and ruin her reputation", but when it comes to marrying, "he'll leave her to do the best she can, while he looks for an angel to wear his wedding band". "But listen and understand," Parton advises, "my mistakes are no worse than yours/Just because I'm a woman."

Parton wrote her first song, "Little Tiny Tassle Top", at the age of five. It was a hymn of praise to the doll her mother made her from a corn shuck. She realised "when I was a little, bitty child" that music was something she could be good at, and it stopped her getting "lost in the shuffle" among her siblings. "I realised very early on that people were noticing me because I learnt to play, I could sing, and I wrote these songs. People would say 'Oh my Lord, did you hear that song that little thing wrote?'. I saw I was getting a lot of attention, so it made me want to sing better, it made me want to write more."

Stylistically, she absorbed a mix of mountain influences, but bluegrass and southern gospel were dominant. "My mother's people were all very musical. My grandfather played piano and fiddle and guitar, and my aunt was like a Pentecostal preacher, she would sing and really pray, so I really believe that my great world influences came from my own family. I don't know who all they were influenced by - maybe the Carter Family, Kitty Wells and Hank Williams - but they were influenced more by those people than I was. It worked out anyway!"

Artistically, Parton deserves to be seen as one of the greats. Oddly, her critical reputation has been diminished by her commercial success, and her skilful manipulation of image. She has made an art of self-mockery, often joking that it costs her a fortune to look that cheap. "My look came from a very sensitive place," she says, "as a country girl's idea of glamour. I wasn't a natural beauty, and you have your complexes and all your insecurities, so you try to make the most of everything. I always try to make positives out of any negatives, and try to put things to where I'm comfortable with myself, where my personality can show, but where I have a support system with it. And although my look may make some people uncomfortable, it makes me comfortable. If I'm comfortable with who I am and how I present myself, then it allows my creativity and my personality to shine."

She married her teenage sweetheart, Carl Dean, in 1966, and though they are still married, he is rarely seen in public. On stage, she observes: "I went to one love-in in my life, and I married the man I met. And it's not true that we're divorcing, so don't believe what you read in the tabloids."

She has a joke that if she wasn't a singer, she would have been a missionary or a prostitute, and if she'd been a prostitute, she would have done it in the missionary position. But, really, she thinks she might have been a beautician. "I just like putting make-up on. It's not that I think I can't be real without it. It's just that I never know who's gonna come by. I have to be at my best. When I get up in the morning, I put on my make-up and fix my hair 'cause I think my sisters may come by. I don't want to open the door and scare the hell out of somebody. So I just get my make-up on and get ready. I don't know what the day's gonna bring."

Asked whether she has always been shy and retiring, she collapses with mirth, placing a cold hand on my arm. "Actually, to be honest with you, when I was little, I was always kind of hyper. I had a lot of energy, but I was kind of bashful with strangers. I know that sounds funny, saying that I was ever shy or bashful, but there are times even now where I'll find myself feeling very shy." She considers the matter again. "I don't know - that sounds stupid. I'm very comfortable in my area, where I know I can present myself, but there are times where I revert back to that little shy girl."

Age crops up frequently in Parton's conversation. Turning 60 was significant, though she was in no hurry to hold a party. The death of her parents seems to have put her in a reflective mood. "As you get older, you tend to want to migrate back to home. I find myself spending so much more time here now than I did in years past. Just for personal reasons, because I bought the old home place. My mom and dad passed away not long ago and I bought their old farm, where they lived.

"I kind of fix up all our family places. I buy up all the stuff from where any of our family lived and I share it with the rest of my family. It's real special to me. I find that I spend a lot more time here. More and more as I get older. Maybe I'll wind up moving back."

There were also signs, after September 11, of a more pronounced spiritual side to Parton's writing. "Go to Hell", on the patriotic album For God and Country, found her taunting Satan: "Take your weapons of mass destruction, terror and sleaze/Go to Hell with your corruption, just get away from me."

"That was my cry for help," she says. "But I've always been very spiritual. Not religious. Even now I don't say I'm religious. The kind of religion I grew up in, the Pentecostal holy rollers, that was exciting, because it was the music of prayer and I learned a lot from that. I guess you always get more religious-minded as you mellow. But I don't really think about it a lot. If I died today I'd be just as happy to go to heaven or hell as I would if I'd spent the rest of my life reading the Bible or praying, because I think God judges us with a tender heart... and if not, I should burn in hell!"

Parton's latest album, Those Were The Days, is a reprise of her favourite songs from the 1960s. The fact that it includes Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind", the Peter, Paul and Mary standard "The Cruel War" and Pete Seeger's "Where Have All The Flowers Gone", has been interpreted as a sign that Parton is making a political point, but when she performs them in concert, any subversive intent comes wrapped in mockery. "We've gone from taking acid to taking antacid, from bell bottoms to big bottoms," she says. "In those days, it used to be sex, drugs and rock'n'roll - now we can't even have sex without drugs. There's no such thing as free love. Have you seen the price of Viagra?" Was she a real hippie? "I got real hippie, and real busty, and real butty," she says. "I know I'm all slim and trim right now, but trust me, there's a real hog inside me trying to get out."

She leaves no rhinestone unturned, but the icy purity of the voice can still raise gooseflesh. She plays a churchy version of "My Tennessee Mountain Home", then talks about her mother. "It's like momma's not gone anywhere, when I'm up here holding this autoharp. It's like I'm holding her right here."

'Those Were The Days' is released by EMI on 20 February

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