A Love Letter to Dolly Parton

A talented singer and musician, an advocate for accessible education and healthcare, and an all-around wonderful entertainer, Dolly Parton shows the world that it’s possible to be both talented and humble throughout a career that has spanned several decades.

Having grown up poor on a small farm in East Tennessee, Dolly was one of 12 children born to Avie Lee Parton and Robert Lee Parton. Even though her family struggled with money, Dolly was said to have always been a musically gifted child and began learning the guitar at seven years old.

Using this rural upbringing to nurture her talents as a musician, the struggles that Dolly experienced in her early life were converted beautifully into lyrics, and the work she put into singing and learning the guitar soon became the forefront of the songs that she is so well-known for today.

Despite never quite reaching the number one spot in the UK charts, Dolly has achieved the coveted number one spot on the Billboard Country Music chart a whopping 25 times, with her first hit single ‘Joshua’ landing the spot in 1970. She has also collected a huge number of accolades, including nine Grammy Awards, a Kennedy Center Honour, and being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999.

With the talent Dolly possesses, it’s no wonder that her music has been such a staple in the charts for over 40 years. Her high-pitched, vibrato-heavy vocals feel all at once haunting and like a warm hug. In the midst of singing about heartbreak and devastation (like in her hit single ‘Jolene’), listeners can truly feel the desperation that Dolly emotes. On the other hand, in her happier songs (such as ‘9 to 5’) the upbeat tracks perfectly suit the cheerful style that she sings in. She is a musical chameleon who has a way of never becoming boring!

As well as dominating the charts, Dolly’s music has been featured in a wide variety of pop culture throughout the years. The UK comedy sensation Gavin and Stacey perfectly utilised her duet with Kenny Rogers, ‘Islands in the Stream’, whilst a cover of ‘I will always love you’, which went on to receive Academy Award nominations for Best Original Song and has become a staple for TV talent shows all over the world, was performed by Whitney Houston as the theme of the critically-acclaimed The Bodyguard. Dolly herself was also no stranger to the big screen, giving an Oscar-nominated debut performance in 9 to 5.

Dolly’s physical appearance, no doubt, is another of the most recognisable aspects of the singer’s presence. The first time I ever saw Dolly Parton was on an episode of Hannah Montana in 2006. At four years old, even I had heard her music before – who hadn’t? But her recurring guest role on the show as ‘Aunt Dolly’ really stuck with me. That huge blonde hair and glitzy, slightly outrageous outfits were something I had seldom seen at that age – they made an impression on me, and many others, throughout the time of her career. Even after receiving criticism for her ‘trashy’ style in the early years of her career, Dolly remained inspiringly confident in her style. Her famous quote, ‘It takes a lot of money to look this cheap!’ truly encompasses the brazen confidence she has in her fashion, which is something I feel like everyone can learn from.

Of course, talking about Dolly Parton’s career would be incomplete without mentioning the staggering amount of philanthropic work she has performed – and continues to contribute to – over the course of her career. After launching the ‘Dollywood Project’ in 1988, which started with an aim to provide books and school supplies to her hometown in Sevier County, soon morphed into Dolly’s most successful charitable project, ‘The Immigration Library’. This outstanding charity distributes high-quality, free books to children of the county from birth until school-age. Incredibly, this project has now expanded into a global initiative, with over 147 million books currently having been mailed to children all over the world.

As if that wasn’t enough, Dolly is a vocal LGBTQIA+ ally, speaking out in opposition of the North Carolina ‘bathroom bill’ and voicing her support for legalising same-sex marriage in both Australia and the US. In conjunction with her music, this is one of the many reasons she has been considered a ‘gay icon’ for years by many members of the community.

Earlier this year, Dolly donated one million dollars to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in order to help fund Coronavirus research, which is something the whole world needed and will be able to directly benefit from. These funds have contributed to the development of a new vaccine by Moderna, which has a reported 95% success rate.

If I were to list every achievement, charitable venture, or successful song Dolly Parton has ever accomplished then we would be here for an eternity. However, even just lightly skimming the surface of the thousands of things she has achieved in her career should help us model what we can aim to do in order to make a difference with the life we are given. From her private and happily married life, the support she consistently gives the communities around her, and enormous musical talent, it is clear that Dolly Parton is a person who is committed to leaving an overwhelmingly positive impact on this world. 

Image courtesy of Mauro Gigli.

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