One of my earliest memories is riding (unrestrained) in my mom’s Bronco, windows down, singing along to “Islands in the Stream.” The wind ruffled my mom’s Flock-of-Seagulls-meets-Dorothy-Hamill hairdo as she belted out the lyrics, confirming for me that there was no woman more beautiful than the one behind the wheel, deftly navigating the streets of Nashville with nothing but a TAB in one hand and her lips perfectly polished with L’Oreal’s Frosted Coral. I was 5. She was in her 30s. Dolly was in her prime.
My love affair with Dolly Parton began early. Born in Tennessee, I’d already made several trips to Silver Dollar City, Dollywood’s precursor, before even hearing about Disney World. It didn’t feel like Christmas until we’d watched Dolly battle a witch and take up with a reclusive widower and his kids in A Smoky Mountain Christmas, in which, on top of it all, she played the ghost of a country music singer who’d met with an untimely death.
And don’t even get me started on the Memphis bridge, which I’d been told by my father (and repeated with confidence until otherwise informed in sixth grade) was called the “Dolly Parton Bridge” (it’s a double bump, sort of resembling breasts spanning the Mighty Mississippi). I dressed as an anatomically correct Dolly for Halloween in kindergarten, which was shocking enough, but was living in Bolivia at the time with very few other Americans, and zero Southerners, which made it all the more confusing. My first dirty joke was about Dolly Parton standing behind a tree, and the list goes on, and on, and on.
As an adult, I still love Dolly. I don’t particularly love her commercialization and characterization of the Appalachians, and I do realize that she is completely, utterly, over the top. Her breast augmentation, excessive makeup, big hair and attire are things that I hope my daughter, now 4, never aspires to. However, here’s what works about Dolly, and here’s why I hope my daughter grows up with a catalog of her own Dolly experiences, too.
1. Dolly Is Smart
One of my favorite statements by Dolly is “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.” She knows that she’s packaging a persona, and that persona sells. With a theme park, a water park, dinner attractions, a record label, production and publishing companies, along with thousands of songs penned over four decades, Dolly knows how to make a dime or two, and it’s not by pretending to be a Harvard MBA (but I’m certain she’s been smart enough to hire one or two along the way).
2. Dolly Is Confident
Unless I’ve missed an issue or two, size EFG (for Extra Friggin’ Grande) breasts and fully sequined coveralls have never graced the pages of Vogue. And I’m pretty sure that Hollywood in the ’80s wasn’t the most welcoming port of call for a Southern female from the hills. But instead of conforming to the norm, shaking her accent, and figuring out how to franchise a juice bar, she teased her hair, capitalized on what makes her different, and opened a theme park.
3. Dolly Is Proud of Where She’s From
See No. 2. Additionally, Dolly continues to inject money into local services and initiatives to benefit the people of Sevier County, where she’s from, and the greater East Tennessee region (her Imagination Library sees to it that every preschooler receives a specially chosen book each month until school age).
4. Dolly Is a Piece of Many Puzzles
Have you ever been to a Dolly Parton concert? Are you surprised that I have? Well, let me tell you a thing or two about them. If you think you’re going to be surrounded by a bunch of hillbillies, you’re wrong. Men, women, gay, straight, black, white, old and young are there, singing along to “Jolene.” She’s got a kind word for everyone and is embraced by everyone.
5. Dolly Keeps It Real
Who wants to spend another car ride listening to songs about lady lumps and putting rings on it when you can cruise to the tune of some woman-to-woman man bartering (“Jolene”), mamas who teach their babies that clothes don’t make a person (“Coat of Many Colors”) and the working woman’s grind (“9 to 5”)? Why eat beef broth when you can have a steak?