Everyone loves Dolly Parton. This isn’t my opinion. This is an objective fact.
Dolly has one of the top 10 celebrity brands in the world. She has been rated using the Q Score, a widely used celebrity brand measurement system. More importantly, Dolly is number one in “negatives”. That means not only do we love her, but we can’t think of anything bad about her.
Last week, when I was laid up with a bad back, I dove into Dollyworld. It was a delightful few days (as long as I didn’t have to walk, turn over, or cook dinner.)
My conclusion: Dolly Parton, the songwriter, singer, actress, businesswoman and philanthropist is the most underestimated woman in my lifetime.
Under the big hair and the bigger boobs is a brilliant woman who dreamed. She strategically attracted attention and then unveiled her exceptional talent. But there is more. Her superpower is that she loves her audience without judgment, and that makes us adore her even more.
GET A GREAT 9-HOUR TUTORIAL ON DOLLY PARTON
Anyone who wants a fascinating view of Dolly should start with the Peabody Award-winning, podcast Dolly Parton’s America. This terrific piece of long-form journalism was developed by Jad Abrumad, a four-time Peabody Award radio/podcast pioneer.
When he was fishing around for a new project, Jad saw Dolly perform in Queens, N.Y. There he observed a multi-racial, trans-generational audience of men in cowboy hats, gen Z gays, drag queens, church ladies, and children. This, he says, is Dolly’s fan base.
It was 2016 at the height of a divisive presidential election. Politics were put aside. Women held hands. People sang along. Adoration flowed. Dolly Parton did what no politician could do at that time. She got an incredibly diverse group of people to agree on one thing … her.
The stars were aligned for Jad. Turns out his father, a Lebanese-immigrant surgeon practicing at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee treated Dolly after a minor car accident in 2012. There was chemistry and they became friends. By networking through his Dad, Jad secured many hours of interviews with Dolly, and entry into what he calls the ‘Dollyverse”.
In Dolly Parton’s America Jad paints in nine, one-hour segments a three-dimensional view of the Dolly story. He looks at her origins, her early years as a girl-singer of “sad ass songs”, her legacy in Tennessee, and her business acumen. There is also a great segment on what Jad calls “Dollytics”, even though our girl Dolly is skillfully apolitical.
Dolly Parton’s America is a deeply satisfying and entertaining look at the “Dollyverse”.
Here (with lots of links) are a few tidbits I learned along the way. There is also a playlist of classic Dolly videos at the end of the post.
ABOVE ALL ELSE, DOLLY IS A SONGWRITER
Dolly was born in 1946. After growing up in a one-bedroom log cabin with 10 sisters and brothers, she found her way to Nashville and was signed (and unsigned) by her first record company when she was 16. Five years later, she was hired as a “girl singer” on the Porter Wagoner Show, the most successful country music TV show of its time. It resulted in a 10-year partnership that was as contentious as it was successful. (Source: Library of Congress Timeline) As Dolly told Jad, Porter didn’t realize when he hired her that she could do more than sing. In her mind, she was, first of all, a songwriter. She had ambition and dreams (this has been a theme throughout her life). When she left the Porter Wagoner Show, some called it the “great hillbilly divorce”.
DOLLY’S SONG IS THE BEST THING ABOUT 9 TO 5 (THE MOVIE)
The movie 9 to 5 was Dolly’s first acting gig. It is a 1980 farce about working women featuring young Jane Fonda, Lilly Tomlin, and our friend, Dolly. The movie is pure slapstick silliness. Dolly plays the sexually harrassed secretary who endures in silence until the girls kidnap the bad boss and deliver revenge.
By far the best thing about the movie was her song 9 to 5. The song is a classic and was far better than the movie. Love the lyrics. They tell the story of Dolly’s ambition and the guts she had when she reached for her dreams. The tune is almost too catchy. It’s an earworm. I can’t get the damn thing out of my head.
DOLLY IS BRILLIANT AT SWATTING AWAY POLITICAL OR DEMEANING QUESTIONS
Dolly has done hundreds of interviews. The most fascinating is Barbara Walter’s interview from 1977. Walters was the most famous female American journalist in the late 20th century. Dolly at that point was 31 years old. Walters had the nerve to suggest “you don’t have to look like this” in the most demeaning, patronizing way. (Read between the lines…You look slutty.) Dolly smiled tolerantly and said, “the joke’s on people. I know exactly what I am doing.”
DOLLY PAYS IT BACK AND FORWARD
Dolly is an ambitious businesswoman who relaunched a dying amusement park in her hometown of Pigeon Forge in 1986. One feature of Dollywood is a replica of her family home, the one-room log cabin. It was built by her brother and decorated by her Mom. A big part of the Dollyverse focuses on where she came from and why her family was rich in love but poor in money and material possessions.
I remember when Dollywood first opened. It seemed farfetched to me to have an amusement park based on the life of a living singer. Boy was I nearsighted. Dollywood is a tourist destination nestled next to Great Smokey Mountain National Park. With a permanent population of just 6,000 people, Dollywood and Pigeon Forge now accommodate 9 million tourists annually. (Source: PA Times article for American Society of Public Administrators).
Dolly used her business acumen to create a huge economic employment engine for her family and the community where she grew up. This poor and depressed coal country is an economic miracle. Now besides Dollywood, there is an array of tourist attractions (Dollywood’s Splash Country water park, Dolly Parton’s Stampede, Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort, and Dollywood Cabins) that in a normal year employ more than 4,000 people.
The county is also home to 30 manufacturers, which employ another 4,000 people. Covenant Healthcare invested $120 million in LaConte Medical Center, the community hospital. Retail is another big employer. Tourists drive business at chain stores, including Walmart and Red Lobster which routinely rank near the top of their respective chains for sales volume. (Source: Becoming the ‘Next Pigeon Forge’ Can’t be the Economic Savior It Once Was for Appalachia. www.100daysinappalachia.com. 2020)
Dolly is a strategic thinker and her smarts go beyond her family and community.
Just this year Dolly donated one million dollars to pediatric infectious disease research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC). This gift was earmarked to fight serious infectious diseases such as coronavirus that have worldwide ramifications. (Source: Dolly Parton donates $1 million to pediatric infectious disease research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, June 15, 2022)
Previously Dolly donated another one million dollar gift to VUMC in April 2020 in honor of her Naji Abumrad, MD, professor of Surgery, to increase scientific knowledge and advance the battle against COVID-19 by supporting research teams working urgently to perfect treatments and cures. (Wow. Dr. Abumrad, Jad Abumrad’s Dad really made an impression.)
Even better-known is Dolly’s Imagination Library, which has gifted more than 184 million books to children from birth to age five. Founded in 1995, Dolly says her Dad inspired the organization because he couldn’t read.
“When I was growing up in the hills of East Tennessee, I knew my dreams would come true. I know there are children in your community with their own dreams. They dream of becoming a doctor or an inventor or a minister. Who knows, maybe there is a little girl whose dream is to be a writer and singer.
“The seeds of these dreams are often found in books and the seeds you help plant in your community can grow across the world,” says Dolly. (This made me tear up. It is so aligned with Dolly’s belief that children with dreams combined with ambition can achieve goals that might look out of reach.)
DOLLY IS OPEN-MINDED AND INCLUSIVE
If inclusion is political, this is one area where Dolly is all in. I understood it when I watched the TV series Heartstrings (2019). This was a rather strange anthology show inspired by Dolly’s songs. While the actors were good, the show was as sugary sweet as pecan pie. The themes are quite modern including female empowerment and gay teens coming out. Summarized, the Heartstrings message is:
Be yourself and step out. Let people see the real you.
All I can say is you go girl. Keep doing what you are doing. Dolly has made our world a better place. She deserves our thanks.
GO DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE. HERE’S DOLLY’S SONGBOOK AND 50 YEARS OF BIG HAIR, BIG BOOBS AND GREATNESS
Dolly sings her song Dumb Blonde. “This dumb blonde ain’t nobodies fool.” (1967. The Bobby Lord Show) (She knew when she was 21 how smart she was.)
I Will Always Love You. 1974. Written and sung by Dolly in 1974. Ninteen years later, Whitney Houston killed the song. It became the bestselling single of all time by a woman.