With a career spanning over 50 years and a string of unforgettable songs to her name, Dolly Parton has managed to achieve the near impossible: cross-generational appeal …
Queen of country music. Pioneering feminist heroine. Business phenomenon. Patriotic icon. Philanthropist cum laude. Unapologetic cosmetic surgery devotee. Steel Magnolia. Black-belt wit. Regardless of how you define her, 76-year-old Dolly Parton has cross-generational appeal. Having performed with the likes of Queen Latifah, Katy Perry, Norah Jones and Vince Gill, a new generation has been introduced to her music (being Miley Cyrus’ godmother also helps). Entrepreneurs love that she has figured out the American Dream and made it work – her net worth is estimated at €600m, the result of hard graft (she wakes up everyday at 3am to start answering emails). Middle America loves her humility, Christian values and housekeeping skills – she’s a passionate cook with a cookbook, Dolly’s Dixie Fixin’s: Love, Laughter and Lots of Good Food, under her sequined belt. Politically she sidesteps controversy, preferring an inclusive approach. Parton has written a song for Transamerica, a film about a trans woman, and donated another to Love Rocks, a LGBTQ benefit album. And the fashion community admire how she wears her rhinestone-embellished costumes with self-deprecating charm (“It takes a lot of time and money to look this cheap.”) Therefore, it’s no surprise to find that her Q score, which measures the appeal of celebrity brands, is one of the highest in the world. Perhaps this is also because she has enjoyed something of a renaissance recently.
Her nine-part podcast, Dolly Parton’s America took a deep dive into her rise from a “dirt poor” upbringing in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee to Nashville legend. The Netflix show Heartstrings, a documentary Here I am, a seasonal special Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square, a musical and a memoir, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics have all helped keep her in the limelight. Musically, Parton has composed over 3,000 songs during her 50-year career, famously turning down Elvis Presley who wanted to record her song I Will Always Love You, later recorded by Whitney Houston. Parton can also play 20 instruments, including the violin, dulcimer, mandolin, pan-flute and her acrylic nails!
When I had my booster vaccine before Christmas I thought of Parton. She donated $1m towards research which supported the development of the Moderna vaccine which has demonstrated a 95 per cent protection rate from serious illness caused by the virus in trials so far; the Dolly Parton Covid-19 research fund, just one example of her well-known philanthropy. Last month she trended on Twitter when it was announced that employees of her Dollywood theme park (which includes a water park, theatre, rollercoaster rides and a replica of her two-room childhood home) would be given the opportunity enrol in college free of charge. Herschend Enterprises, which operates Dollywood, announced it would cover “100 per cent of tuition, fees and books for its 11,000 employees who chose to pursue further education.” The programme, called Grow U, launched on February 24.
Parton’s Dollywood Foundation includes a nonprofit literary initiative called The Imagination Library which posts free books to kids. Nearly two million children globally have been registered for the programme and more than 172 million books have been delivered. “I created the Imagination Library as a tribute to my Daddy,” Parton explains. “He was the smartest man I have ever known but I know in my heart his inability to read probably kept him from fulfilling all of his dreams.” Ireland signed up to The Imagination Library in 2019. If a child is registered at birth by the time they turn five, they will have received a collection of 60 books ranging from TiN by Dubliner Chris Judge to Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant.
Parton’s own literary choices are interesting. When asked to name three authors she would invite to dinner, she listed Maya Angelou, Charles Dickens and American author and philanthropist James Patterson. “Since we’re both in entertainment, we could write it off as a business expense,” she quipped about Patterson. Now they’re publishing a novel together. They share striking similarities, not least their humble beginnings, overcoming the odds to build entertainment empires. Both in their 70s, neither shows any inclination of retiring soon.
They both have non-profits dedicated to childhood reading and literacy. Both are prolific writers in their genres and have collaborated with numerous big names – Patterson with President Clinton and Maxine Paetro, Parton with Julio Iglesias and Kenny Rogers among others.
Published on March 7, Run Rose Run, combines Patterson’s mastery of the thriller genre and Parton’s insider knowledge of Nashville’s dark underbelly, telling the story of a young singer with a secret that inspires her music. Full of heart and humanity, it’s reminiscent of Parton’s songs from Jolene to Coat of Many Colours (which she famously sang in Páidí Ó Sé’s pub Co Kerry in 1990 while on holiday in Ireland). Perhaps of more importance to Parton is a new album of songs inspired by the book’s characters. “At the end of the day, I hope I will be remembered as a good songwriter. The songs are my legacy,” she wrote in her memoir The Songteller. That’s already guaranteed.
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