The Profile Dossier: Dolly Parton, The Queen of Country Music
"If you don't like the road you're walking, start paving another one."
Dolly Parton is many things — a singer, songwriter, movie star, philanthropist, and business powerhouse. But most of all, Dolly Parton is herself.
"I know who I am, I know what I can and can’t do. I know what I will and won’t do. I know what I’m capable of and I don’t agree to do things that I don’t think I can pull off," Parton says. "I’m not going to limit myself just because people won’t accept the fact that I can do something else."
That's because if you were Parton, why would you want to be anybody else? Through her flashy and flamboyant style, the iconic country singer has captured the hearts of fans all across the globe. She is liked across cultures, generations, and even political affiliations. (Nielsen ranked her the No. 1 most marketable country artist in the world in 2017.)
Parton is the most honored and revered female country singer-songwriter of all time. She is also the first country artist to chart a top 20 Billboard single across seven consecutive decades (60s; 70s; 80s; 90s; 00s; 10s; 20s).
Although Parton was born in poverty, her passion for music came early. She learned about music from her mom, who regularly performed at the local church.
As the fourth of 12 siblings, Parton and her family lived in a tiny, one-bedroom log cabin in Sevierville, Tenn. She grew up with no electricity or running water, but her mom would always re-iterate that they were "rich" in all the things money couldn't buy. Parton remembers her saying: "You're only poor if you choose to be." As a result, Parton has never been embarrassed by her upbringing.
"I'm proud of my hillbilly, white trash background," she says. "To me, that keeps you humble; that keeps you good. And it doesn't matter how hard you try to outrun it — if that's who you are, that's who you are."
In fact, Parton has used her difficult childhood to fuel her philanthropic work. For example, her dad didn't know how to read or write, and he carried great shame about it his entire life. One day, Parton told him: "Daddy, there are probably millions of people in the world who don’t know how to read or write, who didn’t get the opportunity. Don’t be ashamed of that, instead, let’s go do something special.”
That something special became Parton's Imagination Library, an organization she started in 1995 for the children within her home county. Today, her program spans five countries and gifts over 1 million free books each month to children around the world. In total, she has donated more than 140 million books to date.
And her philanthropy and advocacy doesn't stop there. Drew Magary recently wrote in an op-ed, "You can’t hate Dolly Parton ... Dolly Parton donated $1 million to vaccine research, and that’s merely a line item on what is an extensive philanthropic resume. Dolly Parton is a champion of child literacy, feminism, and pediatric health care. Dolly Parton is, by all accounts, an extremely kind, giving and talented person."
At 75 years old, what is Parton's secret to staying successful for so long? She genuinely enjoys herself on a daily basis. “I always count my blessings more than I count my money," she says. "I don’t work for money, never did."
Here are all the valuable lessons we can learn about authenticity, business, and forgiveness from the American icon that is Dolly Parton.
On building the Dollywood empire: Parton is music royalty. But she is also at the helm of a multimillion-dollar business empire. The Dollywood Company co-owns Splash Country water park, the DreamMore Resort & Spa, and Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Cabins, as well as eight dinner theaters and restaurants in Tennessee, Missouri, and South Carolina. During COVID, the country icon has had to make some hard choices, while also expanding her slate of music, screen and branding projects — and even planning for a world without her.
On refusing to get political: Parton has been a constant presence in pop culture for half a century. And while her songs touch on female empowerment and give voice to working people, she refuses to take part in the political mess that was the last few years. “I have my own thoughts, my own opinions, of course,” Parton says, “but I don’t believe that I should offend people that don’t have that same opinion by voicing my own opinion.”
On the importance of re-charging: At 75 years old, Parton is still full of energy. Her secret? A constant curiosity to learn and evolve as a human. "It’s like, work begets work, energy begets energy," she says. "I just really stay alive because I just live on creative and spiritual energy."
On being true to herself: Early in her career, Parton's friend and mentor Chet Atkins told her to tone down her over-the-top style. She remembers him saying: "People are never going to take you seriously as a songwriter and singer. I know you’re great at that, but people are just going to look at you like it’s all about the body.” Parton appreciated the feedback, but she couldn't decouple her style from her identity. "I not only didn’t tone it down, I figured if my work was truly good enough, people would eventually recognize that,” she says. And they did.
On Dolly's America: Even during America's most intensely divided moments, one of the few things everyone seems to always agree on is that Dolly Parton is a national treasure — but why? This question led to a 9-part journey into the deeply personal, historical, and musical re-thinking of one of America's greatest icons. This podcast is guaranteed to give you goosebumps.
On dealing with suffering: 2020 was a year that brought pain and suffering to the forefront, and if there's one thing Parton has learned over the years is that you can't ignore pain. Too many people, she says, are too scared to look directly at the mass suffering. "I don’t know how to teach anybody how to deal with pain. I just go to pain," Parton says. "I just go to people that are suffering, and if I can’t do anything physically, I can write about it or donate something to the cause, but I don’t ignore it."
On her winding path to stardom: When she was 10 years old, Parton performed on stage for the first time, and she turned to her uncle and said, "I'm going to be a big star, ain't I?" Parton is a woman who was the hero of her own journey. This documentary demonstrates just how instrumental she was in advocating for women's rights in a time when the movement was only starting to gain steam.
On who Parton really is: In this video, Parton answers the web's most searched questions. They start with, "Is Dolly Parton married," to which she responds, "Well, yes I am. We've been together most of our lives, and we're still happy. Can you believe that?" But pay special attention to what happens when she's asked "Who [is] Dolly Parton?" She doesn't respond the way you probably expect.
On living a rich life: Growing up, Parton's mom always told her they were rich. She would say, "We're rich in spirit, we're rich in kindness, we're rich in thoughts, and we're rich in all those things that money can't buy you."
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Don't waver on your boundaries: In the 1970s, Elvis Presley wanted to record Parton's song, "I Will Always Love You," but his manager Colonel Tom Parker wanted half the publishing rights. Parton said no, and she wouldn't budge on her position. “I never thought of it [as being] about being a woman or a man. I thought of it as being an artist, and a writer, and a person of a strong will," she said. This was a boundary she wasn't willing to compromise on even though it was Elvis on the other end. "It broke my heart to say no, but I was willing to suffer that temporary disappointment and heartache than to live with something that I knew was wrong," she says. Once you establish your foundational values, you won't be tempted to break them in difficult situations because the promise you've made to yourself is more important than any opportunity.
Beat the bullies at their own game: You can make fun of Parton, but you can't shame her. Why? Because she will not let you. “I know what they’re thinkin',” she says. “So I’d rather say it before they do, so we get that off our chest.” Want to say she looks fake? She'll hit you with, "I may look fake but I'm real where it counts." Her lighthearted approach doesn't mean she doesn't take herself seriously — it just means she's able to outsmart the haters. Remember, no one can make you feel shame unless you let them.
Be wary of other people's monkeys: Parton has some sage advice: Stop carrying other people's burdens. Here's how she puts it: “There's some that constantly put monkeys on your back. It's their monkey, but somehow you end up carrying it. Often, there are people who really care, but they constantly have problems and they want to share it with you and they’re constantly trying to get you to fix things for them. In truth, you're worried more about their problems than your own. Be wary of the monkeys.” You can always help others, but be careful not to internalize their problems and mistake them for your own.
Decide how your day will go before it's even started: Before Parton gets out of bed in the morning, she tells herself: "I expect things to be good today." If they're not, then she tries to find a way to make them good "'cause I know I'm gonna have to live that day anyway." She adds: "Energy begets energy." Learn how to set the tone for your day before it's even started.
Stop judging, and start living: Even to this day, people judge Parton: Why does she wear so much makeup? Why does she have such a strong Southern accent? Why is she the way she is?As a result, Parton learned that living life on your own terms would attract all sorts of judgement. "I've had to go against all kinds of people through the years just to be myself," she says. "I think everybody should be allowed to be who they are, and to love who they love. Everybody has their own journey, they have their own way of doing things. And who am I to judge?" Remember, trying to dull other people's light won't make yours shine any brighter.
There is no 'right' way to be an activist: Even though you probably won't see Parton in women's rights marches, it doesn't make her any less of a proponent for equal rights. “I still believe that women should get paid equal and should be treated with respect," she says. "I don’t have to preach. I write it. I sing it. I live it. If I’m not a good example of a woman in power, I don’t know who is." In other words, there is no one way to advocate for meaningful change. While some people like to preach about it on the internet, others let their actions speak for themselves.
Keep date night alive: Parton and her husband Carl Thomas Dean, 79, keep their relationship extremely private. They've been married for 58 years. Parton and Dean met at a laundromat when Parton was only 18, and he took her to McDonald's for their first date. Two years later, the duo decided to elope and they've been inseparable ever since. The key to a happy and long-lasting marriage? They still plan spontaneous, but simple, dates for one another. "I'll cook the stuff that I know we love. And I pack it up in a picnic basket. And then we'll go find some riverbank somewhere with our little camper, park, have a picnic," she says. "Or we'll pull up to some little Days Inn motel, go in as long as the bed's clean and there's a bathroom. We just do our little things like that."
Let your struggles drive you to action: “Dolly, The Country Powerhouse" is a pretty great title, but that's not how Parton's known in all circles. "Everywhere I go, the kids call me 'the book lady,'" she says. The older I get, the more appreciative I seem to be of the 'book lady' title." That label came after Parton created the Imagination Library, which gifts books to kids for free. "I always thought that if I made it big or got successful at what I had started out to do, that I wanted to come back to my part of the country and do something great," she says. To Parton, the fame and the money are simply tools to do good in the world.
Learn the power of forgiveness: In 1967, Porter Wagoner introduced Parton on his popular television show. She was only 21 years old, and this was her big break. But Parton had bigger plans for her career, so she went on to leave the show on seemingly good terms. Wagoner took it hard, and he went on to badmouth her and ultimately sue her for $3 million, alleging breach of contract. The suit was settled out of court, with Parton later saying, "It took me a while to pay it off, but he got the first million dollars I ever made." When Wagoner hit financial trouble later in his life, Parton bought his production company — only to gift it back to him. “Forgiveness is all there is,” she says.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
"If you don't like the road you're walking, start paving another one."
"I’m not happy all the time, and I wouldn’t want to be because that would make me a shallow person. But I do try to find the good in everybody."
“If you see someone without a smile today, give 'em yours.”
"Don’t get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life."
"It’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world."
"Find out who you are and do it on purpose."
"Storms make trees take deeper roots."
"The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain."
"If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then you are an excellent leader."
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