We Have So Much To Learn From: Dolly Parton
Okay, I admit it! I was initially drawn to Dolly Parton because of the way she looks. Specifically, her clothes. I loved the sequin-embroidered jumpsuits with bell bottoms so wide they could smuggle a small child, rainbow-beaded fringe, head-to-toe embellished denim, and skyscraping blonde curls. “The higher the hair, the closer to God!” as Dolly says. She would know, ’cause she’s as divine as they come.
For a person that rocks the — some would say — too-practical combo of Birkenstocks + socks as much as I do, my adoration for Dolly’s regalia might come as a surprise. Though I’m passionate about proper arch support, I’m equally drawn to all that is over the top. I’ve always thought that fashion shouldn’t be so damn serious, and Dolly’s Annie Oakley-meets-RuPaul aesthetic is a perfect embodiment of this.
“Oh I’d never stoop so low as to be fashionable, that’s the easiest thing in the world to do!” -Dollyism
Dolly’s fabulous get-ups were a gateway drug that ultimately propelled me down a path of borderline-obsessive fandom. With every interview I watch and every new folk, bluegrass, or gospel song that I uncover, I grow ever more addicted.
Dolly is both a brilliant businesswoman and a dexterous creative person, her left and right brains working together in as much harmony as her deep space-skimming wigs and basketball-sized set of honky tonkers. She is simultaneously the most glamorous women in this country and unapologetically backwoods (her word). Dolly is viewed as a textbook stereotype—often dismissed as a bimbo with little more than some juiced-up sweater puppets and a Disney princess waistline—but is, in actuality, a person of incredible intelligence, humor, and nuance.
“I never leave a rhinestone unturned!” -Dollyism
Dolly has mastered the balance of difficult dichotomies. She is both a seductress and a sage; a rhinestoned Buddha with Triple-F tittays. From her, we have so much to learn.
1.Dolly hustles harder than anyone in The Biz.
Dolly’s stage career has been so impressive that it often overshadows her prolific career as a songwriter. She was on the road to Nashville the day after she graduated High School and has been cranking out tunes ever since; Dolly has written over 3,000 songs over her career. 3-tap dancing-thousand, y’all. I haven’t even taken 3,000 satisfying shits in my life let alone done 3,000 productive or cool anythings.
In addition to her 43 solo studio albums, Dolly has four live albums, two Christmas albums, and 18 collaboration albums. She has 42 career top-10 country albums—a record for any artist—and 110 top-40 country singles. Dolly is a talented instrumentalist, and plays the guitar, fiddle, banjo, piano, and saxophone, to name a few. She’s highly decorated, having won nine Grammy Awards (amongst a bazillion others).
FUN FACT O’ THE DAY: Dolly wrote “I Will Always Love You,” the song made famous by Whitney Houston’s cover for the movie, The Bodyguard. In fact, it’s the most lucrative song she’s ever written. When people say “That’s Whitney’s song!” or think Houston wrote it, Dolly always responds with some good-natured version of, “I say that’s fine she can keep the credit, I just want the cash!”
And long before “I Will Always Love You” found itself in Whitney’s repertoire, Elvis had big plans to cover the song. Of course, Elvis covering a song could have been the breakthrough moment for an up-and-coming songwriter like Dolly. Elvis’s manager called her a few days before recording and told her that Elvis required 50% of all production rights to songs he covers. Dolly told him to eat dirt (politely)—she had an inkling that the song still had a life ahead and wasn’t interested in splitting future earnings. Dolly’s a beast.
2. Dolly’s net worth is estimated at $620 million.
And, she came from less than nothing. Dolly and her 11 siblings (10 surviving) grew up in a one-room shack in Tennessee and rarely had enough to eat, let alone beds and toys. Dolly heard herself sing on TV before her family ever owned one.
“I never woulda been ashamed of where I came from, but I woulda been ashamed for not being the best that I could be.” -Dollyism
3. Dolly loves the way she looks and makes no apologies for it.
Alright, I’m just gonna get this one out of the way, because you can’t talk about Dolly without dispute over her appearance. To understand what I’m talking about, I beg you to watch this 1977 interview with Barbara Walters.
If you can stomach Walters’s blatantly patronizing opening statements, see Dolly respond to the unbearable questioning about her breasts and wigs—and being a “hillbilly”—with charm and discretion. For those that can’t watch the interview: “Once people got past the shock of the ridiculous way I look, then they would see that there was parts of me to be appreciated—I’m very real where it counts and that’s inside, it’s my outlook on life, and the way I care about people, and the way I care about myself.”
In this and all interviews I’ve watched (about 30), Dolly accepts ownership of her appearance (psshh, as if she should have to) and makes it clear that she chooses to look as she does, the implied always that a man is somehow behind it all. She is also aware that her looks are a professional tool; Dolly knew that if she could get people to look, she could get people to listen. So, she basically pulled that move where she waves one hand to getchu to “look over here” and whishawww! smacks you across the mouth with the other hand. Dolly exploited the stereotype of a “dumb blonde” in ways that actually allowed her to overcome it.
In fact, Dolly’s first single to hit the charts was called “Dumb Blonde,” and it’s about as prophetic as a first single could be. While many thought she was just playin’ cute and calling herself dumb in baby-doll melody, the lyrics actually say:
“Don’t try to cry your way out of this
Don’t try to lie or I’ll catch you in it
Don’t try to make me feel sorry for you
Just because I’m blonde
Don’t think I’m dumb
Cause this dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool”
There’s a valid counterargument here: Dolly presents an unhealthy and unattainable image of womanhood. And I hear dat. But to me, it’s as refreshing as taking your wig off after a long day at work to hear Dolly openly talk about her plastic surgery. Feels a helluva lot better than looking at Gisele in a bikini or a v. perky 48-year-old Jennifer Aniston, both of whom are sold to the public as “totally natural” versions of womanhood—when this couldn’t be further from reality. (All three women are natural beauties, but only one takes ownership of augmenting that natural beauty.) Keep it real, Dolly! (Well, you know what I mean.)
“I had to be successful, ’cause it costs a lot of money to look this cheap!” -Dollyism
4. Dolly doesn’t talk shit about people. Like, never.
And that’s the hardest thing in the WHOLE world to do, especially after 50+ years in show biz. Can you imagine how many turd rockets she’s worked with over her 50-year career? She genuinely tries to see the good in each and every person, and it is not an act. As a natural cynic, this is my favorite Dolly quality. It is in this way that I have the most to learn from Dolly Parton.
Here’s a tickler for ya: Dolly got a big break in her career when Porter Wagoner asked her to fill in as the female vocalist on his syndicated television show. Wagoner’s show was well-regarded, so Dolly remained for seven years. Dolly was grateful for the exposure and opportunity but always felt the show limited her creativity, and there came a point where Dolly wanted to pursue a career as a solo artist. And when she told Wagoner that she was leaving, he (shocker) absolutely flipped his lid.
Dolly doesn’t usually talk about the split, but she handled it with so much grace it seems to be beyond that of mortal capability. She even wrote “I Will Always Love You” as a THANK YOU to Wagoner when she left the show—CAN YOU IMAGINE?? When I quit my job of six years, I gave my old boss two half-assed weeks of work and threw him a “peace out, bro” on my way out the door. And then, Wagoner freaking sued Dolly for leaving. He believed Dolly owed him for any future success. And still, she’s never said a bad thing about him and remained cordial with him up until his death. That woman is not of this earth.
Do yourself a favor and watch this 2-minute clip about Porter and Dolly from Comedy Central’s Drunk History:
5. Dolly is a Dumpster Dog at heart.
Make no mistake, Dolly spends lots of money and has many tendencies that I wouldn’t categorize as Dumpster Doggy upon first blush. But upon closer examination, Dolly is verifiably scrappy. She works her ass off because she wants to succeed but also claims she’d be happy for the rest of her life if she only had makeup, cheesy potatoes, and sex. Check. Check. Check.
A few of my favorite Dumpster Dollyisms:
“I make jokes about it, but it’s the truth that I kind of patterned my look after the town tramp. I didn’t know what she was, just this woman who was blonde and piled her hair up, wore high heels and tight skirts, and, boy, she was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. Momma used to say, ‘Aw, she’s just trash,’ and I thought, That’s what I want to be when I grow up. Trash.”
“My weaknesses have always been food and men—in that order.”
On her 50th wedding anniversary: “We got married again and we took our little RV and just got fast food and ate on our camper and spent the night and went back to our house.”
“I’d rather my life be rocky road than vanilla!”
“Don’t chase people; be you, do your own thing and work hard. The people that belong in your life will come to you, and stay.”
Dolly’s always made the best of what she’s got and is proud of her experiences—both the good and the bad. She hustles and laughs and cries and occasionally eats Mickey D’s because why the frick not. Dolly is a professional self-deprecator, she doesn’t try to be someone she’s not, and she embraces humanism and all its glorious imperfections. She does her best. And that’s what bein’ a Dumpster Dog is all about!
Listen to the lyrics of the songs, “Coat of Many Colors” (this version is endearing) and “The Bargain Store” (below). Unfortunately, it’s not great sound quality but I’m hooked on this song’s Grace Slick-meets-mountain music eeriness and the take me as I am lyrics.
6. She won’t say she’s a feminist, and that’s okay.
Dolly’s reach likely extends further because she doesn’t use the hyper-politicized “F word.” Don’t get me wrong, I think that it’s utter garbage that wanting equal rights for women is in any way taboo, but I also know that a lot of the world doesn’t feel that way—and they still need wonderful female role models. Enter Dolly, who leads by example.
Dolly’s first solo album is called “Just Because I’m A Woman.” The song’s title track is about holding women to different sexual standards than men; it retells the story of Dolly’s husband asking her to get married at a time when unmarried women were expected to be pristine virgins and men were not. (Not sure how that miraculous math works, BTW. 1 + 1 = ????) When her now-husband asked if she had slept with other men, she answered honestly. Well of course she fuckin’ had! What else were they doin’ in backwoods Tennessee with no Netflix and no memes and literally nothing else to do? Still, this upset him deeply, even though he had been with other women. Here’s her clapback:
“I can see you’re disappointed
By the way you look at me
And I’m sorry that I’m not
The woman you thought I’d be
Yes, I’ve made my mistakes
But listen and understand
My mistakes are no worse than yours
Just because I’m a woman”
In 1980, Dolly went on to star in 9 to 5 with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. The movie is considered the first real attempt at thrusting the topic of workplace sexual harassment onto the national discussion board. In this strategic comedy, the women plot different ways to kill their abusive boss. She wrote the movie’s title track, and it remains one of her best songs and greatest hits.
Dolly also recorded two albums with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt under the name Trio. She has said of collaborating, “For some reason, I have better luck when I work with women. I guess I have a good sense of sisterhood.” And you gotsta love a woman that loves to work with other women. Here’s Dolly, Emmylou, and Linda together 11 years before they made their first album as Trio:
7. She’s 100% non-judgemental.
The best examples of this are Dolly’s responses when she’s asked about her large following of gay men, whom she adores. She’s said before that “It’s a good thing I was born a woman, ‘cause otherwise I woulda been a drag queen.”
When pressed by conservative critics about her support of the gay community, Dolly is adamant that everyone should love whomever they please and that she’s in no place to judge. Three of my all-time favorite Dollyisms on the matter:
“If you’re the fine Christian you say you are, why you judgin’ people?” I have enough work to do, I ain’t got time to do God’s job too.”
“I think gay couples should be allowed to marry. They should suffer just like us heterosexuals.”
“We’re all just sinners out here doing the best we can!” -Dollyism
8. She does exactly what makes her happy.
Knowing that she was going to be working hard to lift herself out of poverty, Dolly determined what made her happy and stopped at nothing to make a career out of it. Now, we would all be so lucky to be born with her God-given talent or even some notion of what our “purpose” is, but we all have some idea as to what makes us truly happy—and Dolly teaches us to go after those things.
Now, none of that is to say that you don’t have to work your ass off. You absolutely do. Hard work is non-negotiable, but for Dolly, so is finding a life’s purpose. Or as Dolly calls it, “being a star”:
“When I was a little girl I always dreamed of being a star. I really didn’t know what all that meant. I didn’t know. Being a star just means you find your own special place, and that you shine where you are. To me, that’s what being a star means.”
9. Dolly is making the world a better place.
And not just through her music, although that’s as gooda place as any to start. Dolly got into show biz ‘cause she “wants to make people happy every day.” Again, this sounds like a line, but if you heard her say it you’d believe it too. More importantly, her actions back it up.
Dolly has dedicated much of her energy and wealth to the people of her hometown and state. Ever heard of Dollywood, Tennessee’s largest theme park? (Who will go with me!?) While Dolly doesn’t pretend that she didn’t want an amusement park with her name blazoned across it, she founded Dollywood as much to create jobs for the people of her hometown as for any other reason. She currently employs 4,000+ people in a part of the country that modern job creation has largely left behind. This includes her extensive family, many of whom she employs.
Dolly’s Imagination Library sends a book per month to kiddos in East Tennessee (and now across the whole globe) ages 0-5, her goal to inspire children with the magic of reading. She’s already given away over 80 million books and is currently slangin’ libros at a rate of 1 million per month. The Imagination Library website says that early studies show that communities enrolled in the program have shown improved literacy rates. And now I’m crying. (If you want to register a child, you can do so here.)
I could spend an eternity on the topic of Dolly’s philanthropy, but let’s summarize ’cause I’m already 3,000 words deep (OMG I have done 3,000 somethings!); Dolly’s saving everything and everyone, from bald eagles to people who lost their homes in the Tennessee wildfires. She wants to give people a chance who might not otherwise have one, and she’s finding new ways to do it.
“If you see someone without a smile, give ’em one of yours!” -Dollyism
What’s your favorite Dollyism, song, or story? Share in the comments! (And srsly, who wants to go to Dollywood?)
Note: I am not Dolly’s biographer nor do I claim to be a Dolly expert. I just love her and want to share her with people. If any of this information is wrong or I’ve misquoted her, let me know and I’ll update it! Cheers!