Dolly Parton is the timeless sunshine, inspiration and common sense we all need right now.
By Kristy Tolley
Born and raised in the small Tennessee mountain town of Locust Ridge, Dolly Parton was the fourth of 12 children. Her family endured financial hardships throughout her life. However, Dolly’s determination to pursue a successful career in music never wavered. She packed her bags the night of her high school graduation and headed to Nashville the next morning.
You’d be hard pressed to find a pop icon more universally adored than Dolly Parton, and it’s no wonder. Her ability to engage with and relate to people of all ages and walks of life is inspiring. She’s sold over 100 million albums worldwide, earned 50 Grammy Award nominations, three Emmy Award nominations and one Tony Award nomination. In addition to her musical success, Dolly’s big heart and strong faith have guided her to pursue other endeavors throughout her six-decade career, including helping fund the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. This iconic actress, entrepreneur, philanthropist and megastar shares a bit of her life and work with AAA.
This issue of Go Magazine celebrates what makes mountain towns so special. What are some of your favorite aspects of mountain life?
I love being from the Smoky Mountains. They are just so beautiful no matter the time of the year and that’s why we have so many people who want to come visit the area to see the beauty God has put right outside our back door. But, for me, growing up in the Smokies was all about family and friends who feel like family. It seems like, even now, everyone is so close in those small mountain towns, and I think it’s because — especially when I was growing up—you really had to depend on each other to make it through. But that is what is so special and what I remember so much; the relationships we all had. Even my little coat of many colors—which I wrote the song about; the song that really means the most to me — it all came about because one of our neighbors knew my mama could put those scraps of fabric to good use with all us kids around. Right now, I wish the world could realize how good it would be if we could all depend on each other to lift one another up when we need it most.
Dollywood has been thriving for 35 years. What was it like to see it come to life?
The best thing to do is to follow your dreams no matter what anyone says because you’re only stopping yourself if you listen to any of that. I was very blessed in finding the right partners to really make Dollywood what it is today. But you know, I was nervous on that very first day in 1986. I remember waking up and looking out the windows of my tour bus just hoping someone was going to want to come. Remember when you were a kid and you had a little party and you were afraid that no one was going to show up? It was a lot like that. But then when the cars started coming in, it gave me a lot of relief and great joy that people wanted to visit. I’m very thankful and grateful that the cars are still coming in. I try to make sure I keep everyone busy by giving them ideas whenever I have them! They do a great job adding things and keeping it all new. We’ve really turned Dollywood into a destination for families and people are coming from all around the world to see what we’ve got going on!
Your Imagination Library children’s literacy program celebrates 26 years this year. What compelled you to create the program?
The Imagination Library came from a serious place in my heart. My dad — and a lot of my relatives — couldn’t go to school when they were young because they had to work. My daddy couldn’t read or write, and it always bothered me because I knew it bothered him. He was the smartest man I’ve ever known, and I can’t imagine what he could have done had he known how to read or write. When I decided I wanted to start a charity, I knew I wanted to help kids develop a love for learning and literacy so that is what we did. I made sure my daddy was there to help me get the program started. So, the Imagination Library really is in honor of him. I’m so proud of how many kids we’ve been able to help through the years, and I know it would put a smile on his face to know kids around the world are learning how to read because of him. We’re always looking to expand the program because my number one goal is to get as many books in the hands of kids as we possibly can. The folks at the Foundation are always working hard to find more ways to expand us into new communities where we aren’t currently located.
The pandemic created challenges I don’t think any of us ever could have predicted. When you face challenges or difficult situations, what are ways you turn them around?
The first thing I do when I face a difficult situation is pray and ask God to help me see the light in whatever is going on. I have to say that He has always been faithful to help me find the blessings in those moments. He has also given me a great gift in being able to take those moments and express them through my songwriting so that I can share those feelings with people. I hope that through what I’ve been able to write about over the years, I’m using that gift the way He wanted me to. And that is what I’ve been trying to do during this past year. It certainly has been a challenge, but I think God is wanting us to slow down and rely on Him to help us through what is going on. I’ve tried to do as much as I can during this time to help folks realize we’re all in this together, and to make it out the other side, we’re all still going to have to be in it together! I know I’m just little ol’ me, but I’m trying to do my part, and I hope everyone else will as well so we can experience the brighter days that are coming.
Of all the places you’ve traveled to, what was your favorite trip?
One of my favorite things has always been to do get in our little RV and just travel the country. I have my big tour bus, but my husband, Carl, and I have always had RVs because we love to get out and see the world when I have some down time. We love traveling the backroads and seeing all the things you miss on the interstate.