Warmth, wonder and wisdom

The superstar country singer proves her worth as a feminist icon

<strong>Dolly Parton</strong>


Trussed up in blue like a tiny proud peacock, mammaries cantilevered to the heavens, with a wig of peroxide candyfloss sealing the deal: there's no feminist icon quite like Dolly Parton. The 62-year-old first lady of country is back in Britain to promote her first album in six years, Backwoods Barbie. Quite a title, that - Jordan could have snapped it up if she had forgone the Hello! spreads to stick a rhinestone-spangled harmonica in her collagen pout. So why does Dolly get away with it? And what's so empowering about a silicone-filled sexagenarian comparing herself to a small plastic toy?

First of all, there's Dolly's long career of sassy survival songs. These began with her first solo single, 1968's "Just Because I'm a Woman", which ticked off a husband for passing judgement on his wife's sexual history. Then there's the way she told Elvis Presley to naff off when he asked to cover "I Will Always Love You" and take half the publishing rights. Add to the pot her much-loved role in the sassy female comedy Nine to Five, and her Imagination Library campaign, with its mission to give a book a month to children from birth until nursery school, and you can forget the nips, sucks and tucks.

All the same, given all these contradictions, it is fitting that Parton is such a shape-shifting character tonight. When she first bursts on to the stage, sequins sparkling, with a radio mike wrapped round her head like an extra body part, she resembles an alien from a Tim Burton film. Then she speaks, telling the audience how lovely and well-lit we are, and she comes across like Madonna's daft, trashy auntie.

This is the secret of Dolly's success: her ability to transcend us poor everyday people, but also to talk to us as equals, pulling us metaphorically closer to those homely bosoms.

Such a skill is obviously a crucial part of the Dolly Parton Show. After all, this spangly experience has been flourishing for years. It comprises songs bolstered by stand-up: like a consummate end-of-the-pier entertainer, Parton delivers some stories tonight that have had more airings than her favourite duvet.

Take the yarn about her mother's sewing before "Coat of Many Colours". I've heard it so many times, I could practically recite it. Same goes for the gag about her active baby-making parents being not Catholics, but "horny hillbillies". And when she hollers to the crowd, "It takes a lot of money to look this cheap," everyone joins in. But these one-liners are the catchphrases of this modern-day Mae West. And, like all good comedians, she delivers them fresh and new, as if she'd only just thought of them.

The songs themselves are rendered flawlessly. So flawlessly, in fact, that you wonder if the great woman is lip-syncing, especially when she's twanging her lap steel, banjo or violin with her big scarlet fingernails. If she is, though, she is an exceptional actress, puffing and panting between songs to catch her breath. So if the sound we hear is real, this underlines Parton's vocal talent as an underrated, extraordinary thing. Her soprano sounds both tough and brittle, bold and breezy. It captures the big working heart behind her sentimental songs.

Parton's big hits, unsurprisingly, are the highlights. "Jolene", unbelievably, is the third track she plays. Her heartbreaking delivery of the line "Please don't take him just because you can" proves there is no better song about the cruelties of love. "Nine to Five" enlivens the predominantly middle-aged crowd, while "I Will Always Love You" brings out the hankies.

Still, it's obvious that Parton loves her newer compositions, too. "Little Sparrow", the affecting folk song that she wrote for her 2001 album of the same name, is given welcome prominence, and the Backwoods Barbie material sparks and blazes.

Parton finishes her set with a new single, "Jesus and Gravity", which ultimately proves how happy she is with the music she's writing now. Wearing a blue negligee over her dress as she sings, she looks as if she's getting ready to curl up for the night. So even when she's walking off stage, pleated sleeves in the air, this professional legend is working impeccably: mixing homeliness with hilarity, warmth, wonder and wisdom.

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This article first appeared in the 21 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Tyranny and tourism