She never really disappeared, but the country singer is everywhere once more. From her bonkers dancefloor diversions, to pioneering literacy and changing the face of country pop, she's one of music's greats, says Rebecca Nicholson
I love Dolly Parton so much that I've seen Joyful Noise three times. Joyful Noise is a 2012 comedy in which Dolly and Queen Latifah duke it out over the leadership of a local gospel choir. At one point Dolly chases her co-star around a restaurant, lobbing bread rolls across the room while simultaneously making terrible quips about plastic surgery. It makes Glee look like a Lars von Trier project.
Perhaps more people will discover this unloved gem's rough charms, because Dolly Parton is having a moment once again. Joyful Noise certainly fits with her current public image – a bawdy icon dripping in rhinestones who wrote 9 to 5 and knows her way around a witty bon mot. Her recent Glastonbury set saw her performing to easily the biggest crowd I've ever been part of at the festival; it felt as if every single one of the weekend's 200,000 revellers was united in an Islands in the Stream singalong. Since then, her Best of has become her highest-charting album to date in the UK. She said she'd adopt a dog left behind at the festival and named after her, to a collective melting of hearts. Even nu-skiffler Jake Bugg thinks she's “pretty cool”.
It's not as if Dolly Parton ever went away, but as a long-time fan, it's pleasing to see her returning to ubiquity once more. In a broader sense, it fits with what feels like a sea change in country pop. Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves have released excellent albums this year and much has been written about how these women are helping country to catch up with the world as it is today, reflecting the more progressive politics of its younger stars, finally laying to rest the submissive spectre of Tammy Wynette's Stand By Your Man.
They couldn't have done it without the women who went before them. While I love the harder edges of Loretta Lynn, whom I always imagine holding court to a dive bar full of grisly gals who have really been through it, it's Dolly I come back to most often. There's the simple fact of the spectacular songcraft: even though it was borderline absurd, her joyous Glastonbury set was a reminder of just how many hits she has under that glitzy belt. Legend has it that she wrote Jolene and I Will Always Love You on the same day, which is an impressive use of 24 hours by anyone's standards.
Her lyrics draw me back to the same songs again and again, so I can keep unravelling the layers within them, amazed that the surface simplicity can reveal something different every time. Naturally, Jolene is one of my favourite songs of all time, because it remains so beautifully unusual – the language of a love song diverted towards a threat, in order to diffuse it (compare it to Lynn's Fist City, where she responds to her husband's lover by promising to beat the shit out of her). There's 1969's Don't Let It Trouble Your Mind, which sees Dolly insisting proudly that her lover leaves, because she'd rather keep her dignity than a man who stays just because he thinks he should. Or The Bargain Store from 1975, her emotions written off as secondhand goods, cheap and used, but ready be given new life with just a little bit of care.
I get the appeal of disco Dolly, too, of course and have a lot of affection for her dancefloor diversions – not just the ever-bonkers Baby I'm Burning, with which she opened her Glastonbury set, but the delightful Sweet Agony, from 1980's Dolly Dolly Dolly (the title, naturally, stripped in neon across the sleeve), a disco-funk wonder. I love her onstage stories, no matter how many times she wheels out a version of the anecdote about modelling herself after the town tramp. I love that she appears to be as smart as she is funny, that she pioneered children's literacy schemes in the UK and US, that she's been a vocal supporter of LGBT rights for years. I love Dolly Parton so much that I will watch Miss Congeniality 2, for the scene where Sandra Bullock mistakes her for a Dolly impersonator and wrestles her to the ground.
She's one of the greats, if not the great. Long may she continue to do her thing, and if that means making more brilliant-awful films, then so be it. I will watch them all, at least three times.
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