Growing up in the South meant that I knew who Dolly Parton was before I knew my ABCs. I’ve seen her in concert, I’ve explored Dollywood and I even attended Dolly Parton’s Stampede once. So I’d say I’m relatively familiar with her.
She’s an icon in a multitude of ways. Parton’s an inspiration to many who’ve seen themselves somewhere in her story.
Parton grew up in a one-room cabin on the Little Pigeon River in Pittman Center in Tennessee. She was the fourth of 12 children, born into a life of rampant poverty and hard choices. Like most Appalachian kids, Parton found familiarity in the music she shared with her parents and siblings. There’s a certain importance of tradition and folklore that can only be passed down through song.
At age 10, Parton began to perform professionally. She appeared on local TV and radio shows around Knoxville, Tennessee. Three years later, she made her debut at the Grand Ole Opry where she was mentored by Johnny Cash.
After high school, she immediately left for Nashville. The rest is history.
She’s a songwriter, actress, businesswoman, philanthropist, author and icon. There are few people who can rival Parton’s notoriety or popularity. She really does epitomize the American Dream.
Parton’s distinct style and voice has inspired and influenced music and pop culture for the roughly 50 years that she’s been in the spotlight. She’s not just a musician, she’s a brand.
Some of her earlier songs like “My Tennessee Mountain Home” or “Coat of Many Colors” describe the community and life of poor Appalachia. Her success is a testament to the greatness that can come from the hills. She represents accessible success. The core centrality of family and the themes of struggle resonate with people for a reason.
Her family was Pentacostal, something her and I share. Sunday mornings were bathed in hymns and melodies. That’s how Pentacostals worship. Even though I’m no longer practicing, the unrestrained fervor of her voice evokes strong memories of congregation and community. This is her iconic power.
Beyond her musical success, Parton's a fierce philanthropist. Her nonprofit organization, “Imagination Library,” focuses on childhood literacy, a legacy dedicated to her father who could neither read nor write. The program promises children a free book every month from the ages of zero to five. Since its creation, the nonprofit has sent out over 112 million books to children across the world. This is her legacy, too.
In addition to her nonprofit, Parton is renowned for her philanthropic work in nearly every other field. When a forest fire consumed the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, she organized her various companies to provide $1,000 a month to the families who lost their homes. She isn’t just a voice on the radio.
Dolly Parton’s philanthropic work continues far beyond these two instances. She’s donated to a multitude of causes that range from environmental conservation to medical research. Her philanthropy isn’t a testament to her raw success but it rather speaks to her personal integrity and moral obligation to the world.
The South doesn’t have many role models like Parton. She combines the best of tradition with a modern and universal love. When questioned about same-sex marriage, she responded, “Why can’t they be as miserable as us heterosexuals in their marriages? Hey, I think love is love and we have no control over that … I think people should be allowed to [marry].”
More recently, she even publicly changed the name of her dinner theater production. What was formerly known as Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede is now simply Dolly Parton’s Stampede. Removing the harmful and stereotyped “Dixie” from her show was a moment of solidarity with the changing expectations of the South.
When she was questioned on her support of the Black Lives Matter movement, she said, "I understand people having to make themselves known and felt and seen … And of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No!”
Country music is forever changed by Parton. As the creator of over 800 songs, she’s a powerhouse inside the studio and out. Her style and brand is as timeless as her music.
The South has a long and complicated history with maintaining relevance in the modern U.S. Parton is someone who represents her heritage and embraces her culture while respecting the world around her, even when it’s very different from her own. Children below the Mason-Dixon line can listen to “Jolene” or “9 to 5” and find a role model and hero in the voice behind the song.
Summer Conley is a junior public policy and administration major. Contact Summer at firstname.lastname@example.org.