Pop: A very big noise in the country

Dolly Parton's back with a new album. How does she stay hungry for success? Melvyn Bragg spoke to the C&W legend
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Melvyn Bragg: Let's start with this new album which I enjoyed a great deal, Hungry Again - did that describe you or the album?

Dolly Parton: Well it described me. I feel a great need to be part of what is happening in the "new country" and I was hungry again to be in the mainstream. I was born and raised up in the Great Smoky Mountain of east Tennessee and I bought my old family home after many years and restored it like a retreat. When I wrote Hungry Again I went there and fasted for three weeks. I spent most of the summer there and I wrote 37 songs and condensed them down to 12 songs on this CD.

MB: Why do you think fasting helps you to write?

DP: I just really needed to get in touch with myself, to humble myself, I needed some self-discipline.

MB: Why was it important for you to do this?

DP: Well, it's part of my religion first of all. This is not the first time I have fasted. I have fasted many times. I didn't tell anyone I was doing this until after the summer was over and then all these wonderful songs and so many spiritual and creative, wonderful and inspired things had come from this. When you are my age and when you have been as successful as I have been, sometimes to know just how far you've travelled you've got to go back to where you begun. Sometimes to know how good you've been eating, you need to be hungry again, so I just wanted to feel it like it was back in the old days.

MB: And it's to do with your religion?

DP: Well I wouldn't call myself religious. I grew up in a very religious family, my grandfather was a preacher. I have an aunt that is a minister but we were brought up Pentecostal, holy roller, Church of God - you know, hellfire, brimstone - but fasting was always very much a part of our religion.

MB: Some of your early songs, I mean "Jolene" or "You Ain't Worth the Salt in My Tears", you're talking about betrayal. Was that going on all around you?

DP: Oh I've seen that. I've felt that. I have certainly loved passionately and wildly in my life. Even when I haven't got to experience it all physically. I'm like President Carter. I have sinned in my mind. I have fantasised, I have seen it. I have always been very romantic and I get hurt real bad and I've had my heart broken so many times, especially as a young girl before I met my wonderful husband of 32 years. And even he can't keep me from looking. I'm not blind, I'm just married.

MB: Some of the songs you say are autobiographical, like "Coat of Many Colours". A mother makes a coat out of rags for her daughter and tells her the story of Joseph and the coat of many colours, which gives the coat great significance and then she goes to school and all the kids laugh at her. Was it as bad as that for you?

DP: Yes it was. We were very poor. I'm from a family of 12 children, there's eight younger than me and I have two brothers and a sister older. We had absolutely nothing. My father worked the fields, what we ate was what we grew, our money crop was tobacco at that time and Daddy made like $2,000 a year on the tobacco, that had to pay formedical bills, any other kind of bills, that was the only money that we had so you can well imagine how hard that was. So my mother was very religious, and she used to read from the Bible and that's how she kept us under control. She could always make a comparison about some wonderful story from the Bible. The little ragged coat she made for me, she knew it was rags, she knew they'd make fun of me, but she made me proud of it, but when I got to school and they finally broke my heart I was angry at Mama. I just went home saying they didn't like my coat, they made fun of me. She said, look we are not poor, we don't have money but we've got love and we've got something to eat. As long we've got each other, as long as we've got love, you know, it's like you don't have to have money to be rich.

MB: But do you find now, Dolly, talking to people about that sort of background, it's very difficult to get them to understand what that was like? It seems a deep past that people just don't relate to anymore.

DP: Well it was an older time, and mountain people, that's where I was born and raised. Children don't know that life so much anymore but that's how we lived, that's who we were, we had to scratch a living out. I wouldn't want to go back, I have a song that's called "In the Good Old Days When Times Were Bad" my favourite line is: "No amount of money could buy from me the memories that I have of then, but no amount of money could pay me to go back and live through that again."

MB: What sort of music were you exposed to as a child, because you grew up when America and the world was electrified by rock'n'roll and yet you went for country.

DP: There wasn't much going on but country music when I was young. We weren't allowed to listen to the rock'n'roll because that was against our religion too. My grandpa being that holy roller preacher that I was talking about, that was the devil.

MB: Elvis Presley was...

DP: Oh I mean that was Satan.

MB: Really?

DP: Absolutely. And so was I when I started wearing the make-up and bleaching my hair. My grandpa thought I was going straight to hell. "Jezebel," he called me. "The Devil made you wear that hair." I said: "No, grandpa, I went and bought this bleach for myself, and the devil had nothing to do with it." But at that time I was singing mountain music, folk music, Appalachian English, Irish, Welsh, all those songs that were brought over from the old country. That's what I grew up on and then the church music. But when I did get a chance to listen to Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley I thought it was the greatest thing I'd ever heard because my hormones were changing as well. Not even my grandpa could stop that. I loved it but the country music was so embedded in me. That has been always for me the most deep-seated of all the music I know.

This article is a transcript of an interview which is part of `The South Bank Show' this Sunday on ITV