The authentic magic of Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton, the warm-hearted chanteuse from Tennessee, blends old-fashioned etiquette with openness and is loved by millions. She also has a very shrewd business mind.

“Amid the rising Covid-19 death toll and the aftermath of an ugly presidential election, Dolly Parton is one of the few subjects that Americans can still agree on,” says the Financial Times. “Red state or blue, country or rock, believer or agnostic” – the “warm-hearted chanteuse” crosses the most divisive lines. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that news of her contribution to ending the pandemic has been “met with paroxysms of joy online”. One Twitter user suggested a new word, “dollypartoning”: shorthand for finding out that someone you already like is an even better person than you thought. 

Parton’s timely $1m donation to Vanderbilt University Medical Centre in Nashville at the start of the pandemic was pivotal to funding early research into what eventually became Moderna’s mRNA vaccine, says The Times. Typically enough, the connection was a seemingly unlikely friendship she’d struck up with a professor of surgery at the hospital following a 2013 car crash. “She has an incredible mind, she could easily have been a scientist,” says Dr Naji Abumrad. Indeed, at 74, it’s easy to believe that “the queen of country music” could turn her hand to anything. “I describe my looks like a blend of mother goose, Cinderella and the local hooker,” Parton once quipped. Her accomplishments are just as eclectic. If nothing else, she is renowned for her considerable business smarts.  

The birth of a phenomenon

Born one of 12 children, on a small Tennessee tobacco farm in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in 1946, Parton’s childhood – later woven into songs and the witty “Dollyisms” beloved by fans – shaped a sense of fearlessness, says The New Yorker. She was never afraid of being poor: it would have been impossible to have less money than her family did. Still, her singing career took off young. Dolly sang and made up songs “soon as she could talk”, getting radio gigs as a child thanks to an uncle who was also a performer, says the FT. At 13, she secured a slot at a country music institution, the Grand Ole Opry, introduced on stage by Johnny Cash. “Decades of hit songs and movies followed”, yet Parton is as relevant as ever – partly because the themes she writes about are timeless, and partly because “every few years, a new fan group discovers her music”. In 2000, the garage band The White Stripes fashioned her 1974 standard, Jolene, for a new generation.

Sixties Nashville was “the most patriarchal of societies”, says The Times. Yet “pretty lil’ Miss Dolly Parton” emerged as a formidable businesswoman, taking control of her publishing and rights almost from the off. The sale of more than 100 million albums as a solo artist alone helped build a $600m fortune – much of it reinvested in Tennessee through philanthropy and entrepreneurial efforts. In 1986, Parton bought a local theme park in a bid to create more jobs, renaming it Dollywood. It turned into a money-spinner attracting 3m visitors a year. But she tends to laugh off her financial prowess. “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.”

Her secret to success 

Parton’s secret, if there is one, is balancing “a whiff of old-fashioned etiquette concerning the subjects one doesn’t talk about” with a particular kind of openness, says The New Yorker. Famously, she has never declared a political allegiance, carefully “two-stepping” her way through the culture wars. “The magic with me is that I look completely false when I’m completely real,” she once said. “People respond to what you’re giving out. I accept everybody. I love the spice of the world and we’re all spice. It takes us all to make it full of flavour.”

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