I think, like many Dolly Parton fans, it was Jolene that first piqued my interest, a song which perfectly meshes Dolly’s mighty voice with her vivid storytelling abilities.
I won’t pretend to be any great expert in country music, or that I’ve ever so much as set foot in East Tennessee, but there is something uniquely universal about the stories Dolly tells, even if you’re a mousey, bespectacled writer from England without a smidge of peroxide blonde hair or glitter.
Who among us after all can say they’ve never felt a pang at Dolly’s original rendition of I Will Always Love You? Or hummed 9 to 5 through gritted teeth while working an endless, thankless shift?
As a songwriter, Dolly is unparalleled, with a vibrant yet completely unaffected down-to-earth energy. Her deep well of emotional intelligence shapes every single ballad, affording each track a sincerity and sensitivity which continues to strike true, generation after generation.
Twentysomethings shouting along during late night karaoke sessions love Dolly just as much as their parents and grandparents do. They love her honesty and toughness, her glitzy armour and her unshakeable humour, and it’s so easy to see why.
A breezy, natural warmth shimmers through in everything Dolly does, whether it’s cheerfully commanding the screen in a classic weepy (Steel Magnolias is a personal favourite of mine), or sparkling away like a particularly captivating rhinestone on a chatshow coach.
But perhaps Dolly’s empathetic superpowers shine brightest through her many, many kind acts, which have firmly established her as one of the greatest philanthropists of all time, and an absolute living legend to boot.
To celebrate Dolly’s 75th birthday, I wanted to look back on just some of the extraordinarily thoughtful times this dedicated humanitarian has proven herself to be a true icon beyond the world of music and entertainment. So let’s start with a story which never fails to warm my heart.
5. Dolly offers to adopt a lost dog at Glastonbury, also named Dolly.
Back in 2004, Dolly was performing at a packed-out Glastonbury festival, an absolutely unthinkable notion at the time of writing, racking up rave reviews for her ‘sublime’ performance in the likes of The Guardian and Shortlist.
But her greatest triumph was to come once the mic was switched off, and the revellers headed home to rest. During the clean-up efforts, a beautiful white lurcher dog was discovered all alone in a tent and taken to the nearby Happy Landings animal shelter.
The dog was named ‘Dolly’ in honour of the great country singer, and pretty soon the news of the discovery reached the original Dolly’s ears.
In a heartfelt video message, Dolly said she was ‘very honoured and flattered’ about the dog being named after her, and vowed to take Dolly 2.0 home with her if her owners couldn’t be found:
I had my manager call the Happy Landings animal shelter to make sure the dog is being treated and cared for properly.
At this time, nobody has claimed the dog and the dog is in great hands at the shelter. I will take the dog home to America if nobody claims her within a reasonable amount of time.
The older dog was soon reunited with her owners, scuppering any dreams she might have had of canine stardom across the pond. However, this story is testament to Dolly’s caring nature and concern for the welfare of animals.
4. Dolly uses her own love of reading to inspire and help children.
Known to be a voracious reader herself, Dolly is passionate about improving literacy rates among young children. Raised by an illiterate but highly intelligent father, she is only too aware of the transformative powers of a good education.
Through her program, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, Dolly sends one free book each month to every enrolled child from the time they are born, right up until they begin kindergarten, allowing for an all important grounding in literacy.
An expert panel of educators and reading specialists select books deemed developmentally appropriate for each year of the young reader’s life. In 2020, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library gifted its 150 millionth book, with the organisation’s outreach having expanded enormously since it began in 1995.
Speaking with NPR back in 2018, Dolly opened up about just how close this cause is to her heart:
My dad didn’t get the chance to go to school. And Daddy couldn’t read and write, and that was kind of crippling to him. He was such a smart man, though. He just had such good common sense. They call it horse sense in the country.
But Daddy thought it was just something he couldn’t learn after he was grown, so he never tried to learn to read and write. And that was just kind of embarrassing to him. But I didn’t want Daddy to feel embarrassed.
Having begun in Tennessee, the Imagination Library now reaches children in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia, as well as Canada, Australia and the UK.
3. Dolly lends a hand in the aftermath of the 2016 East Tennessee wildfires.
Dolly’s love for her childhood home and community is well known, immortalised in songs such as My Tennessee Mountain Home and Blue Smoke. And when the people of east Tennessee needed her, Dolly was right there for them.
In 2016, wildfires claimed 14 lives and destroyed hundreds of homes in the area, leaving many families devastated and struggling to cope.
With her trademark generosity, Dolly responded to the tragedy by creating a ‘My People’ fund through her Dollywood Companies, with the intention of giving every affected family $1,000 a month for six months as a way of helping them get ‘back on their feet’.
In an essay written for CNN in 2017, Dolly described how she regarded all those living in her mountains as being ‘part of my family’:
When the smoke cleared, I realized that it was more than just me saying, ‘everyone in the Great Smoky Mountains is my family’. They really are My People.
I hurt and grieved and prayed right along with them, and because I’m one of them and they are part of me, I knew that I had to do something to get my people through these hard times and see them land on their feet on the other side. That’s what families do. That’s what neighbors do.
I knew that my people had helped me out through the years — been there and helped see me make all my dreams come true. And I was going to do everything I could to put their dreams back on track, too.
The My People Fund exceeded all expectations, raising enough so that the final distribution checks were raised from $1,000 to $5,000 per family. In total, $8.9 million went directly to the wildfire victims.
2. Dolly helps to reduce the school drop-out rate in Sevier County, Tennessee.
In 1990, Dolly launched The Buddy Program after becoming concerned about high school dropout rates in Sevier County, Tennessee.
Back in the early 1990s, over 30% of all students in the county never graduated from school at all, a factor which majorly affected the futures of these young people as well as the overall prosperity of the area.
And so it was that Dolly invited seventh and eigth graders to Dollywood, to attend a very special gathering at her Dolly Parton Celebrity Theatre.
During this fateful assembly, Dolly asked the youngsters to pair up with a friend to form an all important, motivating buddy system.
She promised that, if both kids in the pair ended up graduating, she would personally give them both a $500 reward check, encouraging them to help their buddy reach this milestone. That very year, the dropout percentage fell to 6%, and has more or less remained the same to this day.
1. Dolly helped to fund research for Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine.
In what was a truly terrible year, Dolly used her extra special star power as a genuine beacon of hope, donating $1 million (£756,000) to scientists working on the Moderna vaccine at Vanderbilt University.
This was back in April, a little under a month after the virus was officially declared a pandemic. As you may no doubt recall, at this point many of our world leaders were still not treating the situation with the severity required. But not Dolly.
Having always shared her wealth and time with the greater good in mind, it’s completely unsurprising, but no less admirable, that Dolly would be on the right side of history.
In November, the Moderna vaccine was found to be 94.5% effective against the virus, igniting a flicker of hope after so many months of despair. Dolly’s name can be seen on the preliminary report, right alongside sponsors such as the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Emory University.
And with this, I leave you with some lyrics from the great lady herself, taken from her touching coronavirus themed ballad, When Life Is Good Again:
When life is good again
I’ll be a better friend
A bigger person when
Life is good again
More thoughtful than I’ve been
I’ll be so different then
More in the moment when
Life is good again
A very Happy Birthday to the one and only, Miss Dolly Parton!
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
Dolly Parton's Imagination Library
The New England Journal of Medicine
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