Feature - Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton has sold over 100 million albums and notched up seven Grammy awards. So why is she so often dismissed as a novelty act? Mark Robertson pays tribute to a country music legend
‘It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.’ This oft-repeated line from Dolly Parton’s onstage repertoire has been heard from Nashville to Newcastle. But just because Parton can laugh at herself doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be taken seriously. She is in a class of her own as a singer and can credibly take her place alongside Nelson, Cash and Jennings.
Parton has written over 600 songs and sold more than 100 million albums worldwide, but for all her incredible musical endeavours she’s often known more for her anatomical (or is that astronomical?) proportions, a certain 80s comedy movie in which three secretaries worked 9 to 5 and one song about a woman pleading with another ‘I’m begging of you, please don’t take my man’.
At 61, with over 40 years in the business, you might expect her to be slowing down. Instead, she has spent the last decade touring the world with her own charming, charmed brand of country music and shows few signs of stopping. Her arena tour of Britain this month is almost entirely sold out. Such is the demand to see her in Scotland - where she last did a gig in 2002 - that she has had to cram in two shows in one day in Glasgow.
And if this wasn’t impressive enough, the world’s first ever cloned sheep was named after her - it was cloned out of breast tissue, you see, at the Roslyn Institute. She has been paid tribute to in everything from Saturday Night Live to Sesame Street and co-owns the production company that created Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Not one to forget her roots, Parton has been credited with injecting much needed finance into the economy of the Smokie mountains of eastern Tennessee where she grew up through her theme park Dollywood, the accompanying water park, Splash Country, plus a chain of themed restaurants that combine wholesome music hall entertainment and old fashioned country cooking.
She has also set up a hugely successful child literacy programme in the US, The Imagination Library, a charity which sends free books to underprivileged children. After starting small in her birthplace of Sevier County, the programme has now been rolled out across North America.
By the age of 13, Parton had already begun to make a name for herself locally as a singer of old time country and traditional songs. Appearances on local radio and TV led to slots on television country music showcase The Grand Ole Opry. Early on in her career, she was viewed more as a songwriter than a singer, penning hits for Hank Williams Jr and others before trying her luck as a pop singer. Her stab at the pop charts faltered, so she took to singing her own country songs. By 1967 she was propelled to national stardom when she took over as chief sidekick, singer of duets and homely eye candy on the prime-time country variety show The Porter Waggoner Show. She spent six years working with Waggoner on the show, and by the time she departed she was one of the most successful artists of any musical genre. Her parting shot to Waggoner in 1974 was ‘I Will Always Love You’, which many people associate with Whitney Houston but was in fact a Parton tearjerker years before. The story goes that Elvis wanted to cover the song but Parton refused to give up half the song royalties (which was standard practice with songs Presley covered) if he did. She is reputed to have made $6 million from the Whitney Houston cover royalties alone.
Further proof of Parton’s versatility was provided by her successful stint as a film actress in the 80s, which was topped with a Golden Globe nomination for 9 to 5. But she turned her attention back to music by the end of the decade.
And that, in a nutshell, is why we should all take our stetsons off to Parton. For over 40 years she has successfully balanced a high profile mainstream persona, enjoyed success in business, music and films, demonstrated her philanthropic spirit and retained her integrity as an inspired songwriter.
But Parton, especially in the UK, has always been regarded as a figure of fun, a comic actress or worse still, a one hit wonder. ‘Jolene’ is one of the greatest love songs ever written and it’s just one hit from a tremendous back catalogue.
It is Parton’s deftness with a narrative, her ability to evoke vivid and fully-formed characters in her songs that is her skill. Her Glasgow gig promises to be a crowd pleasing, feel good evening of music that is as unpretentious as it is ingenious.
Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow, Fri 23 Mar.
We will always love you
Twenty-four carat rhinestone legend or big, blonde joke? Our panel deliver their verdict
‘‘She’s terrific, voice of an angel. I belt out her greatest hits in the car; it makes the journey feel shorter.’’
Alex Salmond - SNP Leader
‘‘Dolly’s a great singer/songwriter and a unique personality. Not highbrow maybe but a lot of fun.’’
Ian Rankin - Author
‘‘She dresses really trashy because her fans like it. It’s sacrilege to describe her as a joke - she’s fantastic.’’
Jo Caulfield - Stand-up
‘‘Dolly is a blessing and a curse. She’s written some beautiful songs but people can’t see past the outrageous image. ’’
David Mowat - Country Music Promoter
‘‘She transcends the genre. She’s a larger than life superstar like Elvis and Michael Jackson.’’
Bryan Burnett - Radio Presenter
‘‘She is this really weird mix of innocence, holy rolling showgirl and Jerry Springer trailer park despair. Dolly Parton - a night in with the paracetamol and Red Bull. ’’
Al Kennedy - Writer
‘‘I’ve been to Dollywood in Tennessee, it was a great day out. The 80s stuff aside, her songs are so good.’’
Roddy Woomble - Singer
‘‘She has a beautiful voice and a lot of talent. And she’s not really into herself like so many celebrities.’’
Richard Holloway - Chair Scottish Arts Council