(Dorian Lynskey’s article appeared on the BBC 12/7; Photo, Getty Images, BBC.com; via Pam Green.
She gives little away about her private life, and touts a cartoonish public image: how did Dolly Parton become one of the world’s most-loved celebrities? Dorian Lynskey explores the singer’s appeal.
Last month, it was revealed that Dolly Parton had donated $1m (£744,000) to Moderna’s successful effort to develop a vaccine for Covid-19. The news inspired a joke (“It’s 9-to-5 per cent effective”), a fond YouTube parody (Vaccine, to the tune of Jolene), and yet another outpouring of love for a woman who inspires as much affection as any celebrity on Earth.
I witnessed the Dolly effect first-hand at Glastonbury in 2014, when she drew one of the biggest crowds in the festival’s history, an achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact that only two of the songs she recorded – Jolene and the Kenny Rogers duet Islands in the Stream – have ever made the UK Top 40. Throw in the floor-filling 9 to 5 and the showstopping I Will Always Love You, and she still has just four undeniably famous songs in her vast catalogue: far fewer than Kylie Minogue, Barry Gibb or other artists to have played the Sunday afternoon legend slot in the past decade. Her between-song patter, polished to a high shine, was the primary source of delight. Festival-goers enjoyed the music but they loved the person even more.
Parton’s fame used to have two distinct lanes. One was musical. As a writer and performer, she sits at country music’s top table with Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. She can play around 20 instruments, including the fiddle, dulcimer, mandolin and pan-flute. She has written, by her estimation, around 3000 songs, 175 of which are featured in a new book, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. In the early 1970s she was on such a roll that a single session in 1973 yielded both Jolene and I Will Always Love You. “At the end of the day, I hope that I will be remembered as a good songwriter,” she writes in Songteller. “The songs are my legacy.”
The other Dolly, the one I grew up with, was a jovial, self-deprecating talk-show regular and spoofable symbol of US excess. One example of her pop-culture ubiquity is the 1981 Two Ronnies sketch in which Ronnie Barker donned a platinum-blonde wig and fake bosom to play “Polly Parton”. Jokes about Parton’s chest, many of which she made herself, became such a trope in British culture that when scientists cloned a sheep from a mammary gland cell in 1996, they called it Dolly. No wonder her songwriting chops were eclipsed.
She is a master of distraction who wears her cartoonish public image like a suit of armour
In recent years, however, the two lanes have converged, and ascended to a higher plane of celebrity. Fuelled by her Glastonbury triumph, her 44th album, 2014’s Blue Smoke, became her most successful ever in the UK, while Netflix recently followed a drama series based on her songs, Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, with a loving documentary, Here I Am, and a seasonal special, Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square. Last year, the hit nine-part podcast Dolly Parton’s America was predicated on the idea that she was a uniquely unifying figure in a divided nation. Even now that the discourse around music is hotly politicised, this 74-year-old red-state white woman has largely escaped being labelled “problematic”. She is worshipped by different sectors of her fanbase as a pioneering feminist heroine, a $500m (£371m) business phenomenon, an LGBTQ ally, a patriotic icon and a cultural ambassador for the working-class South.
It helps that Parton is a black-belt interviewee, fully aware of her kitsch value, using humorous “Dollyisms” to sidestep anything that smells remotely of controversy and keep most of her private life and opinions under wraps. She is a master of distraction who wears her cartoonish public image like a suit of armour. “She gives away very little,” says her 9 to 5 co-star Lily Tomlin in Here I Am. “There’s a mystery about her.” Parton herself says: “People feel like they know me.” Both claims are true. Her Q Score, which measures the appeal of celebrity brands, is one of the highest in the world, with one of the lowest negative ratings. Not everybody loves Parton but very few people hate her. “I enjoy being loved,” she told the Guardian last year. How has Dolly Parton become the world’s sweetheart?