Glastonbury 2014: Dolly Parton - the debutante who is so fake she’s real

Proud of her brassy looks and enhanced figure, the 68-year-old country star may seem an odd choice for the festival. Not so, says David Usborne

Glastonbury is a music festival for scholars of the authentic. It’s real-deal honest, and fans expect the same of the artists and their music. Synthesised, fake and plastic can go elsewhere. So what will they make of the superstar headliner from America who will perform at its 44th edition on Sunday?

If you don’t know who that is, just say “Jolene” in your head and more than likely you will hear it echo back three more times to ascending chords that will then tell you two more things: country music and Dolly Parton. And your next thought, quite likely, is boob job and just about everything else job. We have never seen her real hair and the mouth seems to have slipped some way off the horizontal. She is fake on two legs.

Dolly Parton's enigmatic set 'biggest attraction since the Rolling Stones'

The festival’s curator, Emily Eavis, has mixed things up before, like when she invited hip-hop hero Jay-Z to the main stage a few years back. And with Parton, who at 68 is 18 months older than Hillary Clinton, she might have expected trouble. This is a woman who once entered a Dolly Parton look-alike drag contest and lost, to a man. She runs a seriously cheesy theme park in Tennessee called Dollywood and, let’s face it, got famous partly from making floozy films. Have you seen The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas?

 

Yet Parton will fit right in, precisely because contrary to all that she is as honest and authentic as you get. The reassembled features? She talks about them openly. “I am not a natural beauty. So I need all the help I can get,” she said with characteristic self-deprecation recently. Her best-known line is this: “It takes a lot of money to make a person look this cheap.” What’s to hide? It’s her (very valuable) brand.

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She’s game for Sunday. “I’ve heard that people from all walks of life come,” she told the Radio Times. “They smoke a lot of dope and drink a lot of booze, like most festivals, right? But then there’s a lot of people that don’t. They just come to listen to the music. Who cares, as long as they’re having a good time?”

She might even be moved to share a little of her ink. In May, she caused a flurry by confirming, if a little coyly, long-running rumours of hidden tattoos on her arms and breasts. “I do have a few little tattoos,” she said. “But they were mostly done to cover scars because I’m so fair… so it started with that.”

Nor is there anything phoney about her life story, from a one-room cabin in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee to her 26-room home near Nashville, or her musical talent. She won’t be at Worthy Farm on sufferance; she’ll be there to be saluted. She is an eight-time Grammy winner, is twice Oscar-nominated, has sold 100 million records and, by the way, wrote 3,000 of her own songs including most of her hits.

The life story she has told often, but it’s never less compelling. Born the fourth of 12 children on 19 January 1946 to Robert Lee Parton, an illiterate tobacco farmer, and his wife Avie Lee, she had a hardscrabble start that she would later describe in the song “Coat of Many Colours”. She learned music from her holy-roller preacher grandfather, and from aged seven was singing on local radio stations. The day after she finished high school she packed up and left for Nashville to seek stardom. A day later she was approached by a man outside the Wishy Washy launderette. Two years later they were married.

Dolly Parton in London,1977 Dolly Parton in London,1977 (Getty)

Carl Dean, 73, has been her husband ever since. In other words, she has had only one. (And she has never had the alcohol or drug problems that have afflicted other country stars.) Dean is never seen in public and there have been the occasional rumours, not least about Kenny Rogers, with whom she used to perform often and was the other half of perhaps the best country duet of all time, “Islands in the Stream”.

Two years ago, Rogers moved to clear the rumours up. “Everybody always thought we were having an affair,” he told the Huffington Post. “We didn’t. We just teased each other.” He also said this: “She is one of the most honest people I know. Dolly has no filter. If it goes in her mind, it comes out her mouth and I think that’s what makes her so special.” And that’s why she admits to a saucy streak. “I love to flirt, and I’ve never met a man I didn’t like,” she told one interviewer recently. “Men are my weakness… but Carl knows I’ll always come home and I’m not having sex with these people – I’m just flirtin’ and having fun.”

That doesn’t fit with the other whispers that resurface every now and then, that over all these years she has actually been in a lesbian relationship with a childhood friend, Judy Ogle. They are talked about rather like Oprah Winfrey and her friend Gayle King are. “Like Gayle, her friend, Judy, my friend... they just think that you just can’t be that close to somebody,” Parton said in 2012. “Judy and I have been best friends since we were like in the third and fourth grade. We still just have a great friendship and relationship and I love her as much as I love anybody in the whole world, but we’re not romantically involved.”

There is one group of fans who wouldn’t mind if they were. She is not quite Cher, but Dolly nonetheless has captured the hearts of many gay men. It’s partly that the costumes shout “Camp!” but she hasn’t hidden her support of gay rights either. “I don’t think it’s anybody’s place to judge another,” she has said. “That’s God’s business who we are and God loves us all. I think people know I’m open and accepting of all God’s people.” But she is also admired more widely as a woman who has made it on her own terms. She prefers not to call herself a feminist but the message about empowered women is there, thanks not only to her role alongside Jane Fonda in the 1980 film 9 to 5 and her hit song that came with it, but also for her recent defence of goddaughter Miley Cyrus. 

Dolly collaborated with Kenny Rogers on the country duet, “Islands in the Stream” Dolly collaborated with Kenny Rogers on the country duet, “Islands in the Stream” (Getty)

It is a label that has come also with her business success. (Her personal fortune is estimated at about $450m/£260m). It began almost as soon as she stepped off that bus in Nashville and she started writing songs with her uncle, Bill Owens, many of them chart-toppers. Her first real break came in 1967 when she became a regular on Porter Wagoner’s country music road show. Her decision to leave it and strike out on her own in 1974 led her to write “I Will Always Love You”. When Elvis Presley asked if he could record it she declined because he wanted half the royalties in perpetuity. It was a decision that paid off years later when Whitney Houston did her own version that earned Parton very much more. It was also in 1974 that “Jolene” hit the charts in the US. In 1976, it became her first major British hit, reaching number seven.

Parton has never made any apology that in later years she branched out in two ways, becoming one of the first country stars actively to cross over more into the pop genre and also to take the Hollywood shilling with roles in several other films including Steel Magnolias and Straight Talk. She once put it this way: “I had to get rich in order to afford to sing like I was poor again.” When the show is as diffuse and crazy as Glastonbury, it’s hard for anyone to steal it. But on Sunday Dolly Parton, wig, boobs, heels and all, will give it a darned good try.

A life in brief

Born: 19 January 1946, in Sevier County, Tennessee.

Family: The fourth of Robert Lee Parton and Avie Lee’s 12 children. Married for 48 years to Carl Dean.

Education: High school in Sevier County. The day after graduating, in 1964, she moved to Nashville and signed with Monument.

Career: Has had 25 songs reach No 1 on the Billboard country charts, a record for a female artist. Branched out into films and theme park ownership.

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