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A Quietus Interview

The Liberty Belle - Dolly Parton Speaks
Jude Rogers , August 30th, 2011 09:41

Ever the showbiz professional, Dolly Parton leads Jude Rogers a merry dance during her allotted 20 minutes of chat about partners, Gaga, sexuality, The Lord and avoiding a big breast-induced bad back

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Bloody Dolly Parton with her huge candy-floss hair, her Botoxed-to-death cheekbones, her zeppelin tits. Bloody Dolly Parton with her perfect one-liners, her ripe Southern charms, those sweet down-home songs flavoured with gravy and grits. Bloody Dolly Parton for being both a Backwoods Barbie and a feminist icon; for making me love her to pieces despite her being such a hard nut to crack; and for only giving me 20 minutes to try.

And bloody Dolly Parton for being late on the phone today, my nerves ringing like pedal steel strings as I wait for her. My dictaphone in front of me to the right, waiting to count the seconds down. A sheet of 43 questions to the left, many of them I'll never get to ask. Sex, religion, lesbianism, death… I've got all of it, and I know that to get a new answer I'll have to arm myself, shake the girl up.

But I can't piss off Parton, either. She's Dolly Fucking Parton, the girl who first sang at home as a child into a tin can on a stick, while living with 11 siblings and her parents in a one-room cabin; who recorded her first single and played the Grand Ole Opry at 13, finally getting known for her TV show duets with Porter Wagoner in her early-20s, a quirky young thing next to a big-nosed, lanky beast. She got married around the same time to Carl Dean, a man, 45 years later, who we still never see. Her solo success burned slowly, even after her 1967 hit 'Dumb Blonde' (“Don't try to lie or I'll catch you with it,” she sang, every word bouncy with intent), until sparks flew with her cover of Jimmie Rodgers's 'Mule Skinner Blues' in 1970, which started with our girl whistlin', whoopin' and crackin' a whip.

Then the golden years came, all glistenin' with her very own mellifluous melancholy – 'Coat Of Many Colors', 'Jolene' and 'I Will Always Love You', the rights of which she held on to even when Colonel Parker asked her to sign them over so that Elvis could sing it. Then came the pop phase, the Johnny Cash-style TV show, the big Hollywood movies (9 To 5, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas) and the Tennessee theme park – Dollywood – that helps provide employment to people back home. And then came that world-guzzling Whitney Houston cover of ‘I Will Always Love You’ in 1993 that got her and her raw and rich songwriting skills the royalties they finally deserved. (Pop fact: it is the biggest-selling single by a female artist of all time.)

Dolly's 50s and 60s have seen her blowing raspberries at retirement, pushing her literacy project for poor kids, the Imagination Library, around the world – famously rocking up in Rotherham two years ago to a few “by 'eck!” Yorkshire sneers – and touring gung-ho across North America and Europe. I saw her stop at London's O2 in 2008, me squeezed among 20,000 middle-aged women and gay men, all screaming; her Highness shredding guitar and autoharp with her acrylic nails, telling tales about the Smoky Mountains as if they had just popped into her head. I knew I was witnessing showbiz at its most calculated and fabulous, just as I am as she sails in again this year with her recent live DVD and her new LP, Better Day, at time of interview still being held under lock and key by her publicists. And I still boggle at her ability to squish herself on to the sofas of Loose Women and The Graham Norton Show while being adored by the kind of music fans who pretend pop culture is below them. I have also watched enough interviews to know that at the sign of any difficult subject, my beloved's response always dazzles in a pool of lovely, shiny light.

But maybe she's not that wonderful, I think, staring at the clock. Then I remember Nashville is six, not five hours, behind me, and I forgive her.

Exactly one hour later, the phone rings and her spokesman connects me, his voice as smooth as butter. Speakerphone on, the dead air, a dark living room in east London, a terrified 33-year-old steeling herself.

I am fine. I am ready. Bring it on.

Then Dolly Parton starts singing my name down the phone at me. I dissolve in a nanosecond. The woman is a bloody genius.

Twenty minutes later, on the dot, I play back my tape. On most of my fuzzy interjections, I sound like a gushing, starstruck fool. On the harsher lines of inquiry, I often sound as wet as a monsoon. When the harsher lines work, I hear my voice cracking in the background, as she takes my gnarly hook, bends it backwards, and shoves it right where it hurts.

“Heyyyy Juuuuude!”

Dolly sings two lines of the Beatles song to begin with, and cackles like Pat Butcher. “You've never heard that before in your life, have you?” she hams. “Just like I've never heard 'Hello Dolly'.”

Where are you, Dolly? I ask. Don't sweet-talk me straightaway, girl. I want a picture, a view, not just a lovely, lilting drawl, which has already showed it can sing just as well as it always did.

“I'm in Nashville, Tennessee, and I have this wonderful complex with a little chapel and my office. I call it Seven Angels Mission. And I'm now in my own little office – well, it's a big office, actually – sitting behind my desk. And I've got my phone here, and my notes in front of me so I know that I'm talking to you, so that's where I am.”

I beg for more, the tiny extras, the revealing little details. She's got her businesswoman's suit on, and a pair of glasses. There are butterflies on the wall and guitars in the corner. She is drinking coffee out of a mug that says 'I Will Always Love You' on it.

Shit. We're down to 17 minutes already.

Get her onside first. Okay, Dolly, so you're getting on. That song title on your mug means you don't have to do what you're doing now. “No,” she says, and laughs, this one softer, pealing like church bells. So why make a new album? “Because I really wake up every day thinking, ‘What can I do to make this life better for myself and mankind?’ I do! And what can I do creatively – what song, or story, can I write? I want to leave something in the world today that wasn't there yesterday.”

So far, so on message, straight from the schmaltzy pop-star handbook, her vowels so long, so languorous. “I love life,” she continues (she says “laaaahff”, of course). “I try to make the most of everything, because we only have two alternatives: either live and make the most of it, or kill ourselves – and I'm not ready to die yet!”

And there it is, like a flash: the first burst of dirtiness. I try and go back to her childhood, to try to find out just how tough it really was. Instead, she swerves off, talking about the music that kept her feeling alive. She remembers falling in love with Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow on the radio. She remembers her mother and two aunts singing British folk songs, a capella, at home, her minister aunt Dorothy Jo keeping everyone together on guitar. She has spotted that I am Welsh and talks about her recent research on her family tree. I feel myself slipping back in my chair comfily, before she chastises me for not knowing that already.

Put in my place by Parton. The clock tsks at me also. Fourteen-and-a-half.

I want to know the first record that swung Dolly's head. She goes off into a lovely, lengthy monologue about being a girl of 12, 13, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, living with her uncle who was in the air force. There was a recording studio next door... You could get lost in the rhythms of her speech, in the long, running tracks of it. Then she tells me how she went from there to Nashville, five years later, in 1964, and also how that first song was the one: “'Puppy Love', my song. That swung my head alright.” Thirteen. I need deeper stuff. A rustle of paper. A salvo. Some people think most country is naff, cheesy and outdated, so how would you defend it? “I think people who say they don't like it should give it a closer listen,” she says, matter- of-factly. “It's simple stories, told in a simple way, with great music. It's got so much real life in it.” And then that common connection, that contemporary link: “It's almost like the reality shows that have become so popular.” Straight after comes the poet. “Country has a lot of reality in every shade, every colour of it.”

Twelve. In the 60s, it seems to me – rustle, rustle – that country was the only genre in which women were consistently assertive, ticking off bad behaviour, liberating themselves through their songs. Not always, Dolly says. Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn – all my examples – were all managed by their husbands. “But once women get a toe in the door, they start moving off, moving in. That's what's in us, you know? And now I think it's just general knowledge.”

Contemporary favourites? She talks for 45 seconds about adoring Alison Krauss – her incredible voice, technical prowess “good enough to conduct an orchestra”, her humility, her purity – but she also admires Madonna, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. Why them? “They're all women doing great; making their individual statements. I admire more their guts than the music, necessarily, their sisterly approach.” Ten-and-a-half. I go for the Gaga quip. Gaga always says, like you do, that she's not a great beauty. She makes a big show of her body. She also makes a big noise about being artificial. What is it like to be a role model, as you both are, when you flaunt yourselves as you do?

This devil's advocate bites her lip. Later, she sees she drew blood.

“Well, that's what's working for her,” Dolly begins, very calmly. “It's not that everybody should try and be like Lady Gaga, or me, or Madonna, or anyone.” I notice the tone sharpening. “That's not the message. I think the true message there is, 'To thine own self be true.' And I'm not saying everyone should wear meat on their head. Or a wig. Or have tits that are too big for their body! But it's all about your personal choices, your personal needs, according to your own personality. And I know for myself, I feel good dressing the way that I dress.” I imagine her nodding. “This is how I think I look, and am, my best.”

Deflection, assertion, a wholesome message, humour, self-justification = a pro.

Nine. We talk about her professional split from Porter Wagoner in 1974, and the first single from her new album, 'Together You And I' – a song they used to sing together. Wagoner died in 2007. “I still miss him,” she says. What is it like to carry on, I ask gently, as your peers are dying? “That's a good question,” she adds, sadly, and pauses for a moment. “No one's ever asked me that, but I've thought about that... all these people who I grew up singing with on Grand Ole Opry, or on the road. It just makes me turn round and go, 'Oh my God. Everybody's dying all around me.' And I know that I'm in that... in that time- space, too.” A pause. “I know that that's what's going to happen now.”

She soldiers on. “But I don't feel old. And I don't think I look old, or as old as I probably am, because I've tried to see to that! I'm a cartoon. I don't think cartoons ever grow old.” And then she turns the whole issue into how happy she is to be healthy, how she will never retire, how it never crosses her mind. Seven. Now she's on to Johnny Cash. She knew June and Johnny when she was young. “I remember seeing him when I was 13 or so... this wiry, skinny little guy coming out on stage. That was the first time I knew what sex appeal meant and was. Because just seeing him move, just looking at him, really stirred me deep inside. I had this exciting feeling – this lust – and I didn't understand what it was!”

Did you act upon that later?

“Oh, no! But I told him about it. We laughed all through the years. He was my first sexual encounter!”

Six. Sexuality, then. I mention the invisible husband. I duck out, like a coward, of mentioning Judy Ogle, her “close personal assistant”. A different tactic: with the constant rumours about your sexuality, do you have anything to say to your gay fans? “Well, I thank you. I'm glad you accept me. I completely accept you and love you. I have so many gay friends, fans and loved ones. We all have gays in our families, friends and neighbours who are gay.” You almost feel her shimmying her shoulders as she goes, “Yes, I'm totally open and accepting.”

But how do you reconcile your big southern Christian roots – and your other audiences – with that?

“Well, I always go back to God. I look to God as He promises to be. He's there. He's everything. What I took from scripture when I was young was that we're not meant to judge. I don't care what you do behind closed doors, who you love, how you love... That's up to you. As long as you treat me right, I will treat you right. As long as you're not bringing harm to people... And I'm not ashamed to talk about my life. God made me the way that I am. If God wants me to stop, he'll be the first one to tell me.”

I am worshipping at the common-sense church of Dolly and then, oh my God, three minutes. I need more. A last shot. Why do you always say the same stories in your gigs, over and over? “Well, I'm open with people. What I say is the truth. I do tell stories over and over, but those are my stories.” The tongue is definitely cutting now, the defence locking down. “I could tell them somebody else's stories, honey, but they wouldn't be mine!”

Two. Panic. Her literacy programme. Your favourite book. “I read everything. I always go through the New York Times bestseller list, but my favourite little book, one of the first books I ever read as a child, the first book I give away in the Imagination Library, is The Little Engine That Could. I am total proof that that works. I am a little engine that did! I think, I can, I thought I could, I did!”

One. Each second rolls away like tumbleweeds down an old country track, the Smoky Mountains in the distance, on the edge of the horizon. I want to listen to her for hours, bed in for the day. Instead here I am, trying to get her to go off- message, trying to provoke someone I love for a pull-quote.

Tell us something about you that would shock us. Shock us, Dolly! Go on!

And this is what she says. “I think you'd be surprised how private I really am.” It doesn't come across as ironic, but totally genuine.” I tell people everything they need to know, and I'm open, but I have a very private life. People don't know my husband. They don't know what goes on with my private time. And as outgoing as I am in public, as much people think they know me, they would be surprised how little that is.”

She pauses, and I hear her saying something away from the speaker: “They're telling me I have to go...”

I look at my paper, now a mess of inky scribbles. I don't ask her what she thinks the protagonist of 'Jolene' is doing now, because I've accidentally crossed it out. I don't ask for her best and brightest songwriting tip. I remember a question my friend Lara asked to ask her, and I ask it instead.

I am hearing the tape again as I type this, and I am shaking my head. How do you avoid having a bad back with big tits?

“What, honey?”

I repeat myself, looking around my living room with horror.

“Hahahahah! I love that. Because my boobs are so big! I don't know! I'm still hanging them around my neck somehow. It's magic! Oh Jude, they're trying to yank me out of this room... I've got to go...”

I thank the woman whose songs have carried me through romances, bad break-ups, bereavements and drunken singalongs with best friends. I thank the woman who turned country into a global phenomenon and still entertains millions every year. I thank the woman who said everything and nothing, who left me climbing walls but still applauding her. And I leave her thinking about the girl who asked her about the effect of her GGs on her vertebrae.

“Thank you, honey! Bye-bye!” she says, or rather, “Bah-bah!” Bloody Dolly Parton, I think. I will always love you.