Liz Hoggard meets Dolly Parton

Liz Hoggard meets the country legend

Dolly Rebecca Parton is the biggest star country music has ever produced. She's had No. 1 records in three different decades and won seven Grammys. And, after years in the artistic wilderness, Dolly is cool again. Björk is a huge fan; the White Stripes recorded 'Jolene'.

This year saw her highest debuting CD with the release of Backwoods Barbie, her first full-blown country album in 17 years, which includes covers of Smokey Robinson's 'The Tracks of My Tears' and Fine Young Cannibals' 'She Drives Me Crazy'. 'It's a song my husband loves,' she tells me. 'So I did it as bluegrass with a little hoedown towards the end.'

The album sleeve is classic Dolly: hot pink gown, leopardskin corset, legs akimbo in the hay. 'I grew up modelling my look on Barbie and the Frederick's of Hollywood catalogue, so it's a sort of homage.'

But don't be fooled. Not only is she one of America's shrewdest businesswoman (with a radio station, a theme park and a Hollywood production company), Dolly is a workaholic. She rises at 3am to meditate and write.

When I met her backstage in Vegas two years ago, I was struck by the disconnect between her cartoon persona and the real woman. She is warm, exacting - not remotely flirty. The moment the interview took light was when she told me what she was reading. 'To me, a great book is like a new lover: you can't wait to get back to it,' she said then. She even has her own child literacy programme.

A free spirit who remoulded her God into a more accommodating form, she took the homophobic sting out of country. 'I didn't want to worship a God that I felt was vengeful and scary.'

Of course Parton is the epitome of camp. But there is vulnerability, too. Like many icons, from Monroe to Warhol, Dolly suffers for her art. In her forties, her weight ballooned, she had mood swings, gynaecological problems: she hated herself and felt despairing enough to think about suicide.

It was Sly Stallone who inspired her to seek help. That's the brilliant thing about Dolly. Her life is a mini-series scripted by Jacqueline Susann. We soak up every detail from the invisible husband to rumours of gay affairs - 'If I ain't done it, I'm capable of it or I just ain't got round to doing it yet' - but are none the wiser.

One of 12, Parton grew up dirt-poor in Tennessee. She wrote her first song aged five and began appearing on TV at 12. She has raised five of her siblings; 100 relatives are on the payroll.

'I get asked if I wished there had been an American Idol when I was starting out,' she says now. 'It is a great vehicle for kids but in a way I'm kind of glad I had to suffer the way I did because it adds different colours to your writing.'

She has never been a pushover. Elvis wanted to record 'I Will Always Love You', but demanded half the publishing rights. Dolly refused and was vindicated when Whitney Houston's version earned her $6 million. 'I think stories like that are the reason why younger female artists say I've influenced them.'

At 61 she shows no sign of flagging. There's a Backwoods Barbie world tour. And she has written the songs for the musical of the 1980 film Nine to Five, which opens on Broadway next year.

She bats off claims of mega-celebrity. 'People always felt they knew me like a relative, not a star.'

Is she more of a handful now? 'I don't demand too much, but I expect a lot,' she hoots. 'I'd like to think I'm a good diva.'

If you buy only one album ...

Little Sparrow (Sanctuary, 2001)

· Dolly Parton tours the UK from 27 June; her album, Backwoods Barbie (Dolly), is out now


Liz Hoggard

The GuardianTramp

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