Dolly Parton interview: Miley Cyrus? She's just like Shirley Temple

Dolly Parton talks to Helen Brown about hard livin', Glastonbury and her god-daughter Miley Cyrus

Dolly Parton at the Echo Arena, Liverpool, on June 8 Credit: Photo: RICHARD MARTIN-ROBERTS/GETTY

I have loved Dolly Parton since I was a small child. I sat spellbound as her records span on my parents’ 1970s turntable. And that pure, quavering voice still goes straight to my heart. I’m not alone. Over an astonishing 59-year career, Dolly Parton has sold more than 100 million records and received 46 Grammy Award nominations. So, although the taxi driver who takes me to meet her at Liverpool’s Echo Arena makes the predictable jokes about her famous cleavage, there’s far more to Parton than the assets that – with a wink towards her god-daughter Miley Cyrus’s hit – she refers to as her “wrecking balls”. As she always says: “I may look fake but I’m real where it counts.”

When she walks into our backstage interview room – a tiny, twinkling dynamo in denim and diamanté – she laughs and sits down opposite me. Then she leans forward and gives my knees a reassuring squeeze. “Don’t be nervous!” she says. “It’s just me! You’re supposed to feel like you know me. I’ve been around long enough!”

She’s right, of course. Although she surely must keep some things back – is she really, as rumoured, covered in tattoos where we can’t see them? – she’s invited her public into her life like a good ’ole southern hostess. Her Dollywood theme park in her native Tennessee (which welcomes an average of three million visitors a year) even features a replica of the one-room shack in which she was raised: the fourth of 12 children born to a poor sharecropper and his wife. There’s a lot of farmyard manure in the early pages of her deliciously frank, folksy and funny 1994 autobiography, which, she says, is why she’s not deterred by photos of the mud at Glastonbury, where she’ll be appearing later this month: “I’ll be singing in my high heels, mud or no mud!”

When Dolly was born, the family were so broke they had to pay in cornmeal the doctor who delivered her. But poverty led to creativity: her mother would make dolls of corn husks and she wrote her first song about one of them: Little Tiny Tassletop. It was a wild childhood in which the kids ran free. At one point, Parton jumped a fence and landed on a ploughshare, slicing the toes from her foot. Her mother doused the wound in kerosene to fight infection, packed it with cornmeal to staunch the bleeding and then sewed the toes back on with a regular needle and thread. No anaesthetic. She’s one tough cookie.

Her musical impulses found an outlet in the rhythms all around her: the clang of shucked peas hitting a pan, the clonk of a cow bell. Her three main passions (God, sex and music – although she says the order changes) were all united in an abandoned church where she gazed at the pornographic drawings scrawled on the walls and took the strings from the old organ to fashion herself a makeshift dulcimer. She continues to be a musical innovator: demonstrating to me how she learnt to play her long, acrylic nails like a washboard, then picking up the old guitar that I couldn’t resist bringing along for her to sign, and explaining how she uses open tuning and some nifty fingerwork to steer those same pink talons around the fretboard.

She becomes even more girlish with the guitar in her hands and I remember that she was already singing on local radio by the age of nine. She cut her first record at 13, which led to an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, where she was introduced by Johnny Cash. She charts her progress from there on her new album, Blue Smoke, singing on the single Home how she left for Nashville aged 17, but still has the gift of a “magic door that opens up back to the time when I was a kid, to the sounds of the crickets and katydids… Home!”

I ask if she’s part of a dying breed of “authentic” country musicians, if she thinks it’s possible for young pretenders such as Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus to access the same innocence, and she smiles. “Well, Miley does have that ’ole time feeling from her daddy [Billy Ray] and the way he grew up. Through her grandparents in Kentucky she is connected to that earthy feeling and attitude.” Of her god-daughter’s more sexually provocative stage antics she says: “She had to make her statement because people wouldn’t let her grow up. Just like people wouldn’t let Shirley Temple grow up. But I promise you that she’ll surprise the world with her talent through the years. Taylor Swift is very clever and really knows how to handle herself. I admire them both.”

But she admits: “There’s nothing like really being from that old world. That real authentic sound in the voice. From the soul. It’s just embedded in my Smoky Mountain DNA and even though great voices can duplicate it there is a missing link if you haven’t totally lived it.”

Most articles you read about Parton concentrate on her appearance. But we all know how (despite rising at 3am to work each day) the 68-year-old retains her youthful looks. I think the real miracle is that she still sounds about 25. There’s a lovely duet with Kenny Rogers (with whom she famously sang Islands in the Stream) on the new album called You Can’t Make Old Friends. The cracks and croaks in his weathered voice sound rich and warm, but you can tell how old he is. I tell Parton she sounds young enough to be his granddaughter and she giggles “Well, thank you! You’re just makin’ me feel better and better! I sing every day and I guess if you keep it up it stays strong. The husk [in my voice] is from a lot of talkin’ and hard livin’. It’s an unusual voice: people either love it or they hate it.”

One of her favourite tracks on Blue Smoke is a cover of Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice. She recently described Dylan as “a weird buckaroo” and tells me, “I met him a few times through the years and I don’t feel like we ever connected. Maybe he just thought I was too phoney or he didn’t get to know me too well. But I always loved his music. His mind is so deep but his melodies are so good. They lend themselves so well to harmonies. I’ve even thought about making an album called ‘Dolly Does Dylan’ but I think that sounds too close to Debbie Does Dallas!”

Blue Smoke also features what she describes as “the most unusual cover of my career”: a version of Bon Jovi’s Lay Your Hands on Me that she’s recast as a foot-stompin’ gospel number. The woman who once pressed the strings of a church organ into the service of country-pop has come full circle, taking a rock ’n’ roll tune back to the church. “Well,” she says, “I was brought up in the Pentecostal church where people would shout and sing and be joyful and they would actually lay on hands for the sick. When I first heard the song I wasn’t listening properly and I thought that’s what it was about. Then I realised it was just a love song.”

While Parton is a committed Christian, and a patriot, she’s not your average red, white and blue Bible basher. She loves her huge gay fan base. And, as she writes in her book, it seems that a lot of people cling on to the parts of the Bible that condemn various behaviours while forgetting the line about judging not, lest ye be judged.

My own favourite song from Blue Smoke is If I had Wings, which sees her hopeful vocals flutter unaccompanied. She says she’s always been fascinated by flying things: hummingbirds, butterflies and the june-bugs she once tethered by string and watched soar like kites until she went from being “a Smoky Mountain astronaut to a kid with a bug leg hanging by a piece of thread”. But, having flown free so long herself, Parton has no intention of being grounded yet. “I only feel as old as yesterday and as young as tomorrow!” she proclaims as she swirls the pen across my guitar and whisks off, high heels a-clickin’. I’m left gazing down at the pattern of rhinestones she’s left embedded in the leather seat behind her. Wherever she goes, she sure makes an impression.

Dolly Parton is touring the UK until July 2. Details: Blue Smoke: The Best of Dolly Parton is out now

Dolly Parton tickets are available via Telegraph Tickets