Dolly Parton has enjoyed an enormously successful musical career spanning over 50 years, delighting fans with an ever-expanding array of hit songs; but at this moment in time, Dolly’s notable talents and justifiable fame are almost eclipsed by the news that she is now a hero helping save the world from the coronavirus! This past spring, Dolly donated one-million dollars to Vanderbilt University Medical Center which worked with drugmaker Moderna to develop a soon-to-be released vaccine; her donation helped fund the critical early stages of the research. In typical Dolly fashion, the glamorous, self-effacing star said that she was excited to hear that her contribution provided a “little seed money that will hopefully grow into something great and help heal the world.”
Dolly Parton epitomizes the artist who successfully does what she was born to do — her music spans generations and genres, but almost always tells a story to which listeners can relate. The first Dolly song I remember is “Coat of Many Colors,” which told of a little girl proudly wearing to school a coat made from rags by the girl’s mother who shared the Biblical story of Joseph as she sewed, only to be met with derision from other children. That simple but vividly-told story was very similar to an actual event that happened in the life of a friend of mine; and it made me cry.
My next Dolly-song memory is of the beautifully emotive “I Will Always Love You,” written as a farewell to mentor and singing partner Porter Waggoner; I cried at that one, too. And then came “Jolene,” which describes a rival of beauty beyond compare “with flaming locks of auburn hair/ With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green.” “Jolene” has been rewritten by linguist and author Gretchen McCulloch as a commentary on Dolly’s contribution to fight the current pandemic; the revised lyrics describe the Coronavirus as “beyond compare with spiky bursts of auburn hair/ that COVID, that Corona emerald green.”
Dolly’s songs straightforwardly speak to the heart and soul of listeners, just as the artist herself does. Her life’s history is well-known, as she openly shares from the full life she has lived and is living. One of 12 children born to an extremely poor family in the Tennessee mountains, Dolly was always extremely confident and mightily creative, writing and singing her first compositions at 5 or 6, and appearing on local radio and television shows at age 10. She gained initial national fame working with Porter Waggoner, then went on to become the first woman in country music to have her own TV program. In 1980, the energetic singer moved into film, starring alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in a movie inspired by the Dolly-composed hit song 9 to 5. Did you know that that recording featured Dolly rhythmically brushing her long acrylic nails together, evoking a washboard and/or a typewriter, subliminally reminding us that making music is also work?
Dolly’s many accomplishments include establishing her own theme park, Dollywood, and creating the Imagination Library which since its launch in 1995 has provided over 150 million free books to children throughout the United States and around the world. She has recorded only a fraction of the several thousand songs she has written, continuing to produce music at an astounding rate. Her current projects, some of which were created to make up for losses related to the pandemic, include producing and acting in the Netflix series “Heartstrings,” overseeing a re-staging in London of 9 to 5: The Musical, releasing an autobiographical book Songteller, creating a new album of Christmas songs, writing and starring in a Netflix Christmas film, and releasing a line of baking products for Williams Sonoma (guitar-shaped cookies and festive oven mitts)!
Dolly Parton is a shining example of artists who give of themselves to communicate with others in a reciprocal exchange that can provide comfort and joy; now her generosity may also help save the world from a raging pandemic, providing yet another reason for celebrating the many gifts shared by this multi-talented national treasure!