I interviewed Dolly Parton once. She was as unstoppable as a force of nature, overwhelming. That comes across breathtakingly on her 2014 Glastonbury performance; a bravura set, rounding up all the hits (Jolene, Coat Of Many Colour, 9 To 5, Islands In The Stream) before a delighted crowd. There’s also a strangely poignant I Will Always Love You and an unnecessary, overblown cover of Bon Jovi’s Lay Your Hands On Me.
Dolly Parton may have spent a good portion of her career being treated as a novelty act, the sweet hillbilly girl with the big smile and the big hair, but it's clear she's had the last laugh. Very few country acts working today have approached Parton's career longevity, and at 70 years old she's still a force to be reckoned with. She doesn't have to play the summer state fair circuit, she hasn't had to re-record her back catalog, she's now acknowledged as a great singer and excellent songwriter, and as much as she likes to pretend she's a dumb blonde, she's a wealthy multi-media magnate who has played the game her own way and won.
Growing up in the fabulously named Locust Ridge, Tennessee, the young Dolly Parton developed both a desperate desire to overcome her dirt-floor poverty and a nearly unmatched ability to pen songs that explore and dignify the experiences of the American working class. At this stage — after 40-plus studio albums, several of them stone classics, and countless hits written both for herself and numerous others — Dolly Parton should be at the top of most lists of the greatest country artists of all time. But over these past 50 years, so much (too much!) has been made of her hillbilly chic outfits, her big hair and cosmetic surgery and "backwoods Barbie" stage persona that, while deeply respected and reliably beloved by Red State music fans, Parton can be frequently overlooked and even dismissed as a trifle by other music fans.
Generally tasteful and acoustic, Dolly Parton's 43rd studio album is most effective at its most effortless, as when she breezes with contented charm through the title track's celebration of uncomplicated love. But the legend stumbles when she tries too hard to be cute on "I'm Sixteen," a song about how love keeps you forever young. She defies age more convincingly when she revisits two songs she first recorded in the Seventies – it's like she's daring you to play the new "Say Forever You'll Be Mine" or “Tomorrow Is Forever” alongside her original Porter Waggoner duets so you can marvel at just how little time has frayed her 70-year-old voice.
Dolly Parton long ago ascended to icon status. It’s decades since she transcended the genre of country music and became a vast global brand: these days, the headlines are more likely to be about her theme parks or her philanthropy than her music. She can always pack arenas with people eager to hear Jolene, 9 to 5 and her triple-tested between-song patter – her 2011 Better Day tour grossed $34m (£25.84m); her 2014 appearance at Glastonbury drew both a record-breaking crowd and the festival’s biggest TV audience that year.
With over 40 studio albums to her name, Dolly Parton is one of the most celebrated musicians in country music. That said, her 43rd record, Pure & Simple, has a lot to live up to when stacked up against the hits. In order to do so, Pure & Simple definitely sticks to its title, though that’s not necessarily a good thing. The album discusses love, loss, and nostalgia, yet with a simple quality that often diminishes the emotion and intrigue of those weighty subjects.
Throughout her career, Dolly Parton, like plenty of image-conscious celebrities, has refrained from broadcasting her political views. But in a recent interview with the New York Times, Parton made some passing comments about the American presidential race. “I personally think a woman would do a great job,” she said. “I think Hillary’s very qualified.
We need Dolly Parton now more than ever. The easiest response to the flood of bad news washing over us every day is hopelessness, but surrender is not in Parton's vocabulary. (This is the woman who wrote Coat Of Many Colors, after all.) At a time when darkness and anxiety permeate our pop music landscape - think Drake, Rihanna and even Justin Bieber's semi-heavy turn on Purpose - Parton's 43rd album is an injection of sunshine.