Dolly Parton

She says she might look cheap but she’s a quality person. Dolly Parton, the sassy country star from a “dirt poor” family, has always been serious about the music. She talks to SINEAD GLEESON

APART FROM barely-speaking toddlers, it’s very difficult to find anyone who doesn’t know who Dolly Parton is. Well, who doesn’t know Dolly Parton the brand, the icon, the woman who comes with a hundred physical and cultural signifiers? There is the vertiginous hair for starters, the undulating (and very famous) cleavage and the heavily made-up face that has seen its share of plastic surgery. Then there’s the no-nonsense businesswoman who owns all the publishing rights to her songs, and the penniless country girl who wandered from the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee to the stage at Nashville’s Grand Ol’ Opry to become country music royalty. Everyone thinks they know Dolly Parton, especially when her interviews are peppered with adages like “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap!”, in place of revealing something private about herself. Today, the singer is in a Liverpool hotel, on a day off from her tour, which she brings to Dublin this month.

“I’ve never really cared when people make assumptions about me,” says Parton. “I knew this was going to be my life, and a way of life, and I look the way I look because I’m serious about it. It’s a country girl’s idea of glamour. Some people look at me and just see the big boobs, big hair, and to them that’s enough. I know I loooook like a cartoon – and I don’t mean that in a bad way – but I know who I am, and how serious I’ve always been about my music.” Her drawl lingers over certain words, and Parton is surprisingly serious, considering her words before answering each question. Born the fourth eldest of 12 children, the woman who turned 65 this year discovered from an early age that she could sing and write songs. “My mother said I was always rhyming and making up songs. I learnt to play guitar at seven and wrote songs about everything that was going on. They were actually very sad songs for such a young kid.” Her family, who she describes as “dirt poor” struggled, but penury made Parton extremely ambitious and averse to poverty. An outgoing child, she was curious about the world outside of the Smoky Mountains, and longed to travel.

“Not only did my voice feel like God’s gift to me, but I knew it was something I could actually make a living from. It started as a hobby, but I knew it could be a business. My uncle Bill used to take me around places to sing from the time I was 10, and I moved to Nashville in 1964 when I was 18.” There, she initially concentrated on writing songs for others, but in 1966, released her first single with the tongue-in-cheek title of Dumb Blonde. Since then, Parton has notched up 42 Top 10 country albums, 110 singles – including Jolene and 9-5 – 45 Grammy nominations, a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and two Oscar nominations (for best song). In recent decades, the gay community have embraced her to their own ample bosom, something she says she is “very honoured” by.

Dollywood, her Tennesse theme park, has hosted several “Gay Days”, even drawing a protest picket by the Ku Klux Klan. She is a strict Christian and has no truck with homophobia. “I’m not God, I’m not the judge. I love people and I don’t judge anybody, because I was judged – and still am – for the way I look. I might look cheap but I’d like to think I’m a quality person. Dollywood is a family park, and all families are welcome. It doesn’t matter if they’re gay or straight.” There have been rumours that Parton herself is gay, thanks to a close friendship with childhood friend Judy Ogle. Ogle (who Parton calls “Sissy”) works as her personal assistant and the singer has repeatedly laughed off the rumours saying the pair are just “very comfortable with each other”. The absence of her husband Carl Dean has fuelled gossip, but Parton insists that the man she has been married to for 45 years hates the limelight.”Oh, he would never give an interview. Not in a million years. Whenever he has come to see me play and been backstage, he’s very uneasy. In the same year we got married [ 1966], I asked him to come to an awards show. On the way home in the car he said, ‘I want you to be everything you want to be, but please don’t ever ask me to go to another one of those things again’ [ laughs]. He’s proud of me, and I leave him to do what he wants to do.”Before she was married, Parton recalls one of her first crushes – on none other than Johnny Cash. He was on stage at the Grand Ol’ Opry;she was a wide-eyed girl in the audience. “Back then he was all boney and skinny, but he had such sex appeal, this magnetism and it was honestly when I first felt a sense of my sensuality and my sexuality. He just stirred things in me, that I had never felt before.” She laughs a huge, cheeky laugh. “Years later when we were friends, I told him and June about it. I joked with her that he was really my first love and that she better watch her step.”

For all the self-deprecation, the sassy one-liners and glitzy outfits, Parton is a canny businesswoman. Early on, after realising her potential for success, she set up her own publishing company and still owns the rights to all her songs. When Elvis wanted to cover her epic I Will Always Love You, his manager insisted that she sign over half of the publishing rights. She refused, and when the song was covered in 1992 by Whitney Houston, she made a huge amount of money from it. “I wanted to protect my copyright because it was an investment for my family. I’ve always thought that my songs are like my children – I expect them to support me when I’m old.”

We were never going to get through an entire interview without at least one zingy aphorism, but with all she has achieved, it’s difficult not to admire the graft involved in getting to where she is. She has no children (something she says wasn’t “meant to be”, possibly due to a partial hysterectomy at 36), but has no regrets. With husband Carl, she has raised some of her younger siblings, and her Imagination Library – a literacy initiative that provides free books to young children – is her way of giving something back. “It’s funny that we talked about me being a cartoon earlier. I love children and I really want to write children’s books, or maybe do a kid’s show.” She has been immortalised as Polly Darton on Sesame Street (singing the song Counting 1-5) and Dolly the Sheep was named after her, due to being created from a mammary gland cell.

If Dolly Parton gets her own TV show or writes those books, a whole new generation will have a lot of catching up to do on her back catalogue.

This article was originally published in The Irish Times on September 2nd, 2011

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