Dolly Parton lures Sixties star Hopkin back to the big time

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One was the elfin star from Pontardawe, catapulted to fame by Paul McCartney during the dying days of the swinging Sixties. The other is the dirt-poor girl from Tennessee with the big voice and even bigger persona.

But while Mary Hopkin's career has taken a back seat to her family life for the best part of four decades, Dolly Parton has become one of the most enduring brands in popular music. A feminist icon, an influential songwriter and compelling performer, Parton can add a new achievement to the list - luring the reclusive folk legend back into the limelight. She has persuaded Hopkin to join her on the title track of her new album, Those Were the Days, released next week. She joins a glittering array of backing singers including Cat Stevens, Norah Jones and Keith Urban.

Hopkin, 55, has been routinely rejecting offers of work for 30 years in pursuit of the quiet life and has not performed live for nearly a decade. According to her agent, Gerry Maxim, she divides her time between her home in Wales, near her elderly mother, and a remote French farmhouse with no phone - "I can only contact her there by carrier pigeon", said Mr Maxim.

She shuns all interviews and posts only occasional goodwill messages to her internet fan site. But when the opportunity to lend her voice to the new Parton project arose, she jumped at the chance - even if the two singing legends did not get to meet in person. "One day out of the blue we received the offer in a phone call from Dolly. She is a great fan of Mary's and vice versa."

Hopkin's track was recorded in Wales using tapes supplied by Parton and sent off to the United States for the final mix. "Mary is a very private, very sweet, lovely person and dedicates her life to her family. Getting her to accept offers of work is almost impossible - but that is her prerogative," said Mr Maxim.

The British star stamped her mark on the English adaptation of the traditional Russian folk song, "Those Were the Days", back in 1968 - despite Sandie Shaw releasing her version in the same year. Produced by Paul McCartney, it sold 8 million copies worldwide and transformed the shy 18-year-old former choirgirl into an international star. Ironically it also toppled the Beatles' "Hey Jude" from the top of the British charts, going on to claim the number two slot in the US.

The youngster first came to the Beatle's attention on a recommendation from the model Twiggy following her victory on Opportunity Knocks in 1968. McCartney was scouting for new talent to put out on his Apple label and sent a telegram to the singer urging her to get in touch. A second McCartney-penned hit "Goodbye", made number two (The Beatles' "Get Back" then occupied the top slot).

There was a tour with Englebert Humperdinck, two albums and Hopkin represented the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest with "Knock Knock Who's There?" - a song embarrassing even by that competition's desultory standards. Hopkin bowed out of the music industry in 1972.

A month later she supported Ralph McTell at the Royal Festival Hall. A recording of the celebrated night was released last year. Her first child was born that year, but Hopkin's lustrous tones continued to be in demand, though she shunned the solo spotlight.

Through her husband, the producer Toni Visconti, she did backing vocals on David Bowie's "Low", memorably on "Sound and Vision". There were cameos with Bert Jansch, Thin Lizzy and a "rock-folk-rock" concept album with Steeleye Span's Bob Johnson and Peter Knight. She charted again briefly in 1976 and gave birth to her second child. By the end of the decade she had formed the ill-fated Sundance with Mike Hurst from Springfield and the Electric Light Orchestra's Mike DeAlbuquerque. The band toured with Dr Hook and Hopkin enjoyed a relationship with the band's singer Dennis Locorriere. Sundance split acrimoniously and in 1984 Hopkin collaborated with Oasis - not the Britpopers, but a bizarre musical fusion including whimsical songwriter Peter Skellern on piano and Julian Lloyd-Webber on cello.

There was a poorly received album, an abandoned tour and another split. In 1989 she released Spirit, her first solo album since 1971's Earth Song/Ocean Song, spending the rest of the decade on collaborations that generated little excitement outside the folk world.

Fans will hope the fresh taste of success with the rhinestone queen will spur her on to return to the recording studio in her own right - and prove that the glory days of Mary Hopkin haven't ended after all.