Mid afternoon at Glastonbury, and anticipation for the traditional Sunday singalong slot is tangible.
It’s a tricky balancing act to pull off well: ideally a veteran household name, safe and family-friendly enough for the older-leaning crowd that throng to the festival’s last day, but with sufficient kitsch appeal for the students, hipsters and drug casualties.
Dolly Parton arrives, and it is instantly clear she was a smart choice. The heaving all-ages crowd in the Pyramid Arena is the biggest of the weekend so far – easily topping Arcade Fire, Jack White or Metallica. Bounding onstage in a silver-sequined glitterstorm of comically exaggerated drag-queen femininity and syrupy Deep South shtick, the Backwoods Barbie looks dazzling in a sculpted, laminated, vaguely computer-generated way. Scientists call it the Uncanny Valley, that slightly creepy effect when something looks not quite human. Never mind the Botox, here’s Dolly.
The original Steel Magnolia of platinum country-pop gets us on board early with a foot-stomping “Jolene”, the sepia-tinted poverty ballad “Coat of Many Colors” and sanitised saloon-bar raunch like “Two Doors Down”. She also bombards us with scripted jokes, folksy family memories and ingratiating local references: “I grew up in the county so all this mud ain’t nothin’ new to me!” Well, shucks.
But behind the tiresome Nashville-meets-Vegas facade there is musical brilliance, savvy commercial instincts and a deep canon of fine songs. A close-harmony section with two male backing singers throws up some genuine gems, notably the wistful waltz-time tearjerker “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You”. Switching effortlessly from guitar to banjo to autoharp, Dolly and her band elegantly trace Appalachian country-folk back to its Celtic immigrant roots.
The final pancake pile-up of ageless hen-party classics includes “Islands in the Stream” and Dolly’s superior original arrangement of “I Will Always Love You”, the honky-tonk heartbreaker that Whitney Houston later reworked into a massively melodramatic chart-topper. The crowd roars along to every line, soaking up every last drop of Dolly’s gloriously fake flattery. Pure emotional uplift, a real Dollywood Ending. And how is Glastonbury feeling now? Happy happy happy, like a room without a roof.