Mark Mason

Why everyone loves Dolly Parton

Plus: Craig Charles continues his heroic one-man battle against BBC Radio 6 Music's gloom

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When her musical 9 to 5 opened at the Savoy Theatre earlier this year, Dolly Parton stayed at the Savoy hotel itself. Very convenient, you might think: the walk between the two takes about ten seconds. But to ensure she arrived at the far end of the red carpet like everyone else, Dolly had to be collected from the back entrance of the hotel, and driven in a black SUV around to the front. Such are the lunacies of stardom.

We learned about this in Dolly Parton’s America, a nine-episode podcast from WNYC radio. ‘In this intensely divided moment,’ they claim, ‘one of the few things everyone still seems to agree on is Dolly Parton — but why?’ A clue came in the episode focusing on the star’s approach to politics. (This was subtitled ‘Dollitics’. Parton’s first name is made for puns. See also her theme park in Tennessee, ‘Dollywood’.) ‘You’re going to ask me whatever you ask me,’ Parton told presenter Jad Abumrad, ‘and I’m going to tell you whatever I want you to hear.’ She freely admits that political stances just aren’t her thing. Despite the #MeToo generation forming a new fan base for 9 to 5, with its plot of downtrodden female employees taking revenge on a seedy boss, Dolly refuses to get drawn into making critical statements about, for instance, Donald Trump.

Here she differs from Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, her co-stars in the 1980 movie version. When the trio appeared at the 2017 Emmys, Fonda and Tomlin, in a clear reference to the US President, reprised the film’s line about refusing to be controlled by a ‘sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot’. Standing between them, Parton took a fraction of a step back, no doubt thankful that decades of ‘work’ have left her face incapable of betraying her thoughts.

Dolly openly admits that her neutrality is business-based. She knows that some of her fans are on the left, some on the right. (Among the country music community we can guess that the latter ‘some’ is much the larger.) She doesn’t fancy the career implosion suffered by the Dixie Chicks after their 2003 statement about being ‘ashamed that the President of the United States [George W. Bush] is from Texas’. Instead she deflects political questions with a ‘tit joke’ (her phrase), or concentrates on the music, for instance the story about singing 9 to 5’s title song to Tomlin and Fonda on the film set, recreating the sound of the typewriter keys by clacking her false nails.

All of which allows Parton to carry on making her millions. You could call this cowardly. Or you could call it the perfect example to set for the wokeists. Unlike many of them, Parton actually has a talent for something — in her case, writing blinding songs — rather than just an inclination to stand around slagging everyone else off. The best way of proving your worth is to get on and prove it. But even if Dolly is accused of cowardice, she won’t mind. Criticism has never bothered her. ‘I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes,’ she once said, ‘because I know I’m not dumb. And also I know I’m not blonde.’

Over on BBC Radio 6 Music Craig Charles continues his heroic one-man battle against the station’s wrist-slitty gloom. Despite employing presenters with vitality and humour (Shaun Keaveny, Lauren Laverne), 6 Music seems intent on enforcing a playlist that demands Earnest Reverence. Whenever I tune in they’re halfway through one of those ‘serious’ records beloved of humourless sixth-formers, the type of dirge that no doubt walks the Mercury Prize but leaves any sentient human devoid of hope. Charles’s Funk and Soul Show, however, lifts the spirits higher than Rod Stewart on a tour of Colombia. And at 6 p.m. on a Saturday it’s perfectly placed. Younger types will be preloading for a night out, old farts will be cooking. One listener emailed recently to say she was ‘kitchen-dancing while wrestling with a risotto’. The only other domestic task as well suited to musical accompaniment is, of course, ironing. You can’t beat shooting along a shirtsleeve in time to Basement Jaxx.

Last week’s What’s the Big Idea? on CBeebies Radio was about growing up. Yet again we were reminded that kids know all the important stuff without having to be told. ‘I want to be a grown-up,’ said one, ‘because you get to do jobs and get things for the babies and some clothes for them.’ That’s Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene in 23 words, all but three of them single-syllable. And to prove the children have got Shakespeare’s seven ages of man covered too, another said that in adulthood ‘you have grown-up teeth — and then you have none’.