Arts & Culture

I Dream of Dolly

The sweet music and pure inspiration of Dolly Parton

I married my husband because he loves Dolly Parton. (That wasn’t the only reason, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t up there with “incredibly smart” and “kind to children.”) Dolly is a litmus test. People who love Dolly tend to understand that life is a huge mess of contradiction and struggle but that is no reason not to have a great time while you’re here. Dolly is nothing if not pure inspiration. Sprung from Tennessee mountain dirt, one of a dozen children living ankle by cheek in a single-room cabin, Dolly rose to become the most important female songwriter in the world. She is also an uncommonly generous philanthropist, an actress, an award-winning film producer, a pop culture icon, a canny businesswoman, a gifted musician, and most famously, a singer, blessed with an idiosyncratic soprano so twangy-sweet it brings grown men (see above) to their knees.

Unlike other country music legends, Dolly has never gotten tangled up with drugs, or fallen drunk out of a limo, or married a no-good man who treated her like a needy cur, or posed topless. Dolly doesn’t play tragic. She smiles! She laughs! And by laughing loudly and often, she–amazingly, magically, in her saucer-plate sequins and vaudevillian makeup–embodies dignity. Also, good sense.

Back when she was just starting out, Elvis himselvis asked to record her song “I Will Always Love You.” Catch was, he wanted half the rights. Dolly turned him down. That ballsy decision ended up earning her millions of dollars years later. Not to mention admission into a club of what surely must contain only one member: women who said no to Elvis Presley.

Dolly has always said no to the right things. (With the exception of Rhinestone.) No, I won’t sell my songs. No, I won’t tone down my look, or my ambition, or my intelligence. As a result, her list of accomplishments is as massive as her, um, assets, but what makes it unique is less length than breadth. What other woman has garnered a Ms. magazine Woman of the Year Award, a Kennedy Center Honor, forty-five Grammy nominations (eight wins), a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval (the first ever awarded to a person), and a recurring role on Hannah Montana? Dolly reaches the high and low, feels Jesus and gravity, and through it all radiates humility and graciousness. She is the anti-Madonna. And the antidote to the reflexive cynicism and weariness of our world.

“Dolly is an angel,” my husband says, only half joking. Okay, not joking at all. I see her more as a role model. WWDD? Well, work harder than a lumberjack, for one. And do it in high heels and a push-up bra with a grin on her face. Dolly bleeds optimism, which is not the same as naivete. As she sings in a recent song, “I’m just a backwoods Barbie, too much makeup, too much hair. Don’t be fooled by thinking that the goods are not all there.”

When she is given grief (or death threats) from folks who, say, can’t reconcile her Christian faith with her inclusive personal politics, Dolly punctures their bigotry without rancor. “God and I have a great relationship,” she explains with a wink, “but we both see other people.”
Which is the true genius of Dolly. Brains big as hers, used only for the power of good.

At sixty-five years old, with fifty-six indelible years in show business, Dolly has integrity and bone-dry honesty that remain as unassailable as her wigs. “If I have one more face-lift, I’ll have a beard,” she jokes.

She has lived her life on her terms; killed the whole country with kindness; showed women the green, golden ground between doormat and tiger lady. Dolly is a walking self-help book, an animate example of the classy way to get it done. It all starts, she says, with owning your crazy. WWDD?

“Find out who you are,” she advises. “And do it on purpose.”