Wed, Aug 24, 2011 - Page 14 News List

Home on the range with Dolly Parton

The country music star on high heels, ‘hillbilly ways’ and the truth about her marriage

By Hadley Freeman  /  The Observer, LONDON

Really, who could fail to love Dolly Parton? Well, aside from the Ku Klux Klan who, as if to confirm that it had a combined IQ in the single digits, has held demonstrations at Parton’s theme park, the inevitably named Dollywood, because of her annual Gay Day. (“God tells us not to judge one another, no matter what anyone’s sexual preferences are or if they’re black, brown or purple. And if someone doesn’t believe what I believe, tough shit.”)

She’s had 41 Top 10 country albums, she has written some of the best loved songs of all time (I Will Always Love You, Jolene), starred in two of the best loved women’s movies of all time (9 to 5, Steel Magnolias) and her oeuvre is the backbone of karaoke bars around the world (Jolene for the soloists, Islands in the Stream for the duets). She’s the self-dubbed Backwoods Barbie with a penchant for dropping self-mocking apercus such as: “If I have one more facelift I’ll have a beard!” Parton even taught me how to count when I was a child thanks to her Muppet persona, Polly Darton, on Sesame Street, whose signature song was, of course, Counting One to Five.

But while her embonpoint (“Let’s say 40DD — at least!”) and plastic surgery (“If something is bagging, sagging or dragging, I’ll tuck it, suck it or pluck it”) are as much a part of pop culture legend as Elizabeth Taylor’s multiple marriages, the superhuman quality for which Parton is best known is just how gosh darn nice she is. Film critic Roger Ebert once wrote that meeting Parton made him feel “as if I were being mesmerized by a benevolent power. I left the room in a cloud of good feeling.”

“I’m not happy all the time, and I wouldn’t want to be because that would make me a shallow person. But I do try to find the good in everybody,” Parton says perkily, and later proves it by describing Sylvester Stallone — her co-star in the deservedly little-seen 1984 film Rhinestone — as “just a nut, but so witty!”

Come on, Dolly. You’ve been so famous and — apologies for crassness — so rich for so long, you must have encountered a lot of venal people with less than good-hearted intentions. How can you still be so sunny and uncynical?

“Oh, I can spot a phoney a mile away,” she replies before I finish the question, perkiness instantly replaced with no-messin’ toughness. “If people work for me over the years I expect them to be paid what they’re owed but I don’t expect them to be paid more than they earn.”

PRIVATE WOMAN WITHIN

This sharper tone returns when she talks about the harsh treatment “my little friend Miley Cyrus” has been getting from the press: “We’re punishing her for growing up, just like we did to Shirley Temple,” she announces sternly. It can be stated with some certainty that this is the first time Miley Cyrus has been compared to Shirley Temple.

But in the main, Parton is as reliably sparkly and hilarious as any of her stage costumes. Her jokes about her bust and her looks are as well-worn yet effective as, say, I Will Always Love You. But it’s hard not to suspect that these quips, and the breasts, are distracting, um, fronts — her means of keeping prying eyes away from the private woman within.

Parton famously modeled her appearance on a prostitute in the town where she grew up, but she really looks more like a child beauty queen, a girlish fantasy of prettiness. It is as if she settled on her look when she was 10 years old and stuck with it for the next 50 years, knowing that constancy is the safest shield against curiosity. As she herself says when I ask if she minds people always asking about her breasts, “How can people not? They’re all you can see!”

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