MEETING Dolly Parton is extraordinary; she's so small and so big and so unlike anyone else. "They're just working my butt off," she says in that Tennessee twang, flashing a huge smile as she strides into the Nashville television studio where we meet.
She's five-foot nothing (152cm), with a tiny waist from which blooms the most famously augmented decolletage in country music. She's wearing a doll-size pair of buckskin pedal pushers and "a big ol' hairdo; I love the big hair. And too much make-up."
She then makes my year when she sings Backwoods Barbie to me. Parton's mystique is all about contradictions. There's her shallow vanity - "I've had a bit of everything done. If I see it dragging, sagging and bagging, I'll go pluck it, suck it or tuck it" - and how it jars with the depth of her artistry. Her folksy self-deprecation, and her commercial acumen. For close to half a century, she's marketed herself as an enigma - "It costs a lot to look this cheap" - while insisting what you see is what you get.
But now, at 68, could Parton be growing newly reflective? "A lot of people just know me as the girl with big hair, big boobs, who sits on TV shows, does something funny, does something stupid," she says. "A lot of people don't realise I came out of the Smoky Mountains with a load of songs."
The Parton story is amazing. She was raised - the fourth of 11 siblings - in the backwoods of Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains. Her sharecropper father was so poor he paid the doctor who delivered her with a bag of cornmeal. "We'd have running water when we'd run to get it."
By the age of five, she'd written her first song, about a corn-husk doll she called Tassletop. "I started learning the guitar and all the major chords. I started writing some serious songs after the age of seven - heartbreak songs."
Her mother played the dulcimer, autoharp and guitar. "My grandfather was a preacher and they used to sing in church a lot ... anytime anyone would come up I would get them to show me new chords on the guitar, on the banjo ... I just decided very early on that I was going to do that for ever and ... make a business out of it."
She first performed on radio at 11. She moved to Nashville the day after she graduated from high school, in 1964, and met her husband Carl Dean, an asphalt contractor, a few hours later.
Since then, she's had 41 top-10 country albums, and is estimated to be worth $US450 million ($511m). She has written some of the most beloved and lucrative songs of all time - Jolene, I Will Always Love You. And she starred in two of the best-loved women's movies: 9 to 5 and Steel Magnolias.
Along the way she became the only Playboy covergirl to keep her clothes on, a philanthropist whose literacy charity has supplied books to millions of children, and an icon for gays and feminists.
She totally gets the gay thing - "They relate to me, they know I'm very accepting, I'm also very gaudy and a lot of my gay friends are also drag queens" - but the feminist idolatry seems to bemuse her.
"I've never thought of myself as a feminist. Although I've always been proud to be a woman, I never felt I was ever taken advantage of as a woman. I've used my femininity and my sexuality as a weapon and a tool ... but that's just natural."
She doesn't believe in mistakes. "I look at them as lessons, stepping stones, learning things." She talks to God, she says, to ask for career guidance.
Those methods led her in 1986 to create Dollywood, her Tennessee theme park. It celebrates Smoky Mountain culture, employs 3000 people in Pigeon Forge (including, it seems, most of Parton's relatives) and attracted nearly three million visitors last year. Her business advisers said it wouldn't work. "Needless to say I went ahead and done it, and I fired that group of people and hired new ones."
But if the steely businesswoman is real, does that make the on-stage Dolly any less authentic? She fixed her look in 1960, modelling herself on a local prostitute.
But why all the surgery? "I always wanted to be more than what I was. And I just liked wearing the make-up ... I feel comfortable when I'm made up." And then, a beat later: "I'm comfortable in my own skin, no matter how far it's stretched. Ha ha."
You get a lot of those practised punchlines from Parton. But perhaps nowadays you also get a thoughtfulness..
She ends the interview pensive. She wishes people would "think about life, think about home, think about family, think about something greater than us - something beside greed or gossip ... There's no secrets any more, no privacy, no morals. I'm certainly a sinner myself, but I do miss the fact that people just don't seem to think these things are important."
Dolly Parton's Australian tour starts in Melbourne on Feb 11.
by Rhys Blakely
With many thanks to The Australian
Podcast: The Ballad of Dolly Parton which lists her incredible achievements.
Dolly Parton singing "9 to 5".
There are more posts regarding Dolly Parton on this blog.
Dolly Parton At Glastonbury
Kenny Rogers Says Australian And New Zealand Tour Will Be His Last
Dolly Parton's Classic "Coat Of Many Colours" To Become A Movie
Dolly Parton: A Biography Movie And A Time Capsule For Her 100th Birthday
Patsy Cline Live — As A Hologram
Dolly Parton Premieres ‘Pure And Simple’ From New Album, Which Includes Glastonbury Set
Forever Country: Artists of Then, Now, and Forever