By Shelley Marsden
It is more than a little disarming to hear the honeyed, southern and instantly familiar tones of Dolly Parton – the Dolly everyone has heard and seen on countless TV shows, movies, concerts and records – but this time speaking directly to me.
Everyone’s heard stories about how unpretentious and ‘nice’ Dolly, despite her exalted superstar status, is in real life.
Speaking to her in person, the warmth and humility seem entirely genuine, the real thing.
The late American film critic Roger Ebert said when he interviewed her in 1980 (for Steel Magnolias), he just couldn’t believe how really ‘nice’ and unbothered by fame she was.
When I remind her of this, I am greeted with a hoot of good-natured laughter.
“You know what? I ain’t got time to get conceited. I’m just busy counting blessings. I don’t even think of it in those terms, really. I’m, just thankful for everything.
“This was my dream when I was little and I thank God for letting me see that dream come true. A lot of people never see their dreams come true, so it’s never crossed my mind that I’m supposed to ‘act’ a certain way. In fact, I’m so spiritual that I worry, more than anything, about idol worship.
“I don’t like to see people get so caught up in celebrities. I always try to let people know that I’m not some kind of God. There’s nothing shining and important about me; that’s the love and light of God, and I ask him to let me in my own way lead people to him. I give God the glory for all the good things that have ever happened to me.”
Dolly is promoting her new album Blue Smoke and her European tour next summer, tickets for which sold out in record time when they were released for sale on Friday.
Country music, particularly now with crossover stars like Taylor Swift and Rascall Flatts taking it to a wider audience, has an enduring appeal.
As Dolly – who has been writing and recording since the 1960s – puts it: “If you talk bad about country music, it’s like saying bad things about my momma. Them’s fightin’ words.”
And as Shania Twain said: “It’s still your grandpa’s music, but it’s also your daughter’s music.”
Who better to ask than the genre’s biggest and most successful survivor about what exactly is the allure of a genre that its critics unsuccessfully seek to dismiss as depressing, corny or cliched?
Dolly Parton doesn’t hesitate – it’s because it’s about ordinary people.
“Country music tells real stories, about people living real lives, with real problems.
“It’s always been popular for that reason, and it will continue to be.
“Simple stories told about simple lives, the hard times, the heartaches, the ups and the downs. Those stories speak to people – unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, that is.”
Perhaps partly because its origins are steeped in the Celtic tradition, the Irish seem to feel a profound kinship with country, creating their own version of it, and that love affair, with Dolly at least, is very much mutual.
The 67-year-old Tennessee native, who confesses she has Irish ancestry “in there somewhere”, loves Ireland and the Irish and their music and feels an innate bond, growing up as she did in the Appalachian Mountains, many of whose early immigrants were Scots-Irish.
“All the songs I grew up singing came from the old world”, she says in that distinctive drawl, “from Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. Hey, that’s in my Smokey Mountain DNA.
“I have a huge following in Ireland, they completely believe the songs I sing and I can feel that when I’m there, too. I really feel like I’m home when I come to Ireland.”
For the full interview, see the November 9 Irish World.