It turns out, East Tennessee is a matriarchy.
Oh sure, there’s some popular men ‘round these parts, most of them former Volunteer football players in descending order from Peyton Manning.
But while we may have a few kings, in East Tennessee, there is only one queen… Dolly.
Ain’t nobody doesn’t like Dolly.
Born and raised in the hills of Sevier County – where the seat of her vast empire remains – Dolly used her immense talents and a keen business sense to rise to levels of fame that only a few reach.
Of living icons known the world over, there’s Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jordan, Pele and Dolly Parton.
And while East Tennesseans are happy to share Dolly, and her many “Dollyisms” with the world, and invite the world and its tourism dollars to East Tennessee, there is no place where she is beloved like in her home.
Why do we love Dolly? Well, let us count the ways.
Photo by John Gullion/TheSmokies.com
1. The Music
“If you talk bad about country music, it’s like saying bad things about my momma. Them’s fightin’ words.” – One of Dolly’s many famous ”Dollyisms”.
First, few songwriters have had longer, more successful careers than Dolly. McCartney? Paul Simon? Stevie Wonder? You won’t find Dolly mentioned among the all-time greats as often as she should be. Some of that is genre bias, but also some of it is that Dolly’s other successes overshadow the massive talent that got her started. A quick perusal of her work shows massive hits, cultural touchstones, spread across multiple decades. That kind of success and longevity is rare but the talent doesn’t stop at songwriting. A natural performer, Dolly was singing on the radio before she was 10. Her voice – with that East Tennessee accent – perfect for the coming wave of country music. She could – and can – duet with almost anyone and in a genre that fell into cookie cutter traps periodically, she consistently stood out both with her musical choices and her voice.
2. The Acting
“I’m not going to limit myself just because people won’t accept the fact that I can do something else.” – Dollyism
Dolly’s a natural performer and her charm and charisma pops every time she’s on the screen. Whether she is co-starring with Burt Reynolds, playing in ensemble casts or taking a turn making Johnny Carson blush on the Tonight Show, few people in the world are blessed with more natural talent than Dolly. It’s the realm of her empire she’s probably developed the least, often playing Dolly Parton-esque roles. But watch some of the tender moments in “Steel Magnolias” and you’ll see Parton holding her own with some of the most talented actresses of the ‘70s, ’80s and ’90s
3. Her look
“I’m like a cartoon! I’ll look this way when I’m eighty. I can see it now, people will be rolling me around in a wheelchair and I’ll still have my big hair, nails, my high heels and my boobs stuck out!” – Dollyism
From her over the top outfits, to her liberal use of rhinestones to her iconic collection blonde wigs – Dolly’s iconic look is unapologetically like a 1950s mountain girl version of Barbie. Dolly has no interest in looking like anybody else. “I’ve often made the statement that I’d never stoop so low as to be fashionable. That’s the easiest thing in the world to do,” she told Barbara Walters in 1977. She even famously once entered a drag queen celebrity impersonator contest as herself – and lost. But it’s more than just her look. It’s the disarming way she handles herself, both bawdy and somehow sweet, like a bubbly, country version of Mae West.
4. Her sense of humor
“I know some of the best Dolly Parton jokes. I made ’em up myself.” — Dolly in a 1980 interview with Roger Ebert
Among her many talents, Dolly Parton is quick-witted and genuinely funny. She likes to play the role of a stereotypical blonde, but Dolly’s sense of humor reveals a quick, agile mind. Brash, Bawdy and Brilliant. Dolly is always quick to make a joke at her own expense, often pushing the limits of what might be considered good taste if normal humans attempted it. But with Dolly? No one ever takes offense. She’s a conversationalist in the tradition of Mark Twain, a natural born story-teller. Watch Dolly work a room for 10 minutes and you’re guaranteed a handful of lols.
5. Her business acumen
“I look like a woman but think like a man and in this world of business that has helped me a lot…by the time they think that I don’t know what’s going on, I done got the money and gone.” — Dollyism
From Day 1, Dolly was hustling. Underestimated because of her looks, her background, her accent, Dolly happily played her role, set the pieces on the chessboard and checkmated local entertainment impresarios before moving to Nashville, then Hollywood and doing the same thing time and again. She’s built herself into a conglomerate and Dollywood, her namesake park, has grown from the rinky-dink former Silver Dollar City into truly one of the best theme/amusement parks in the country. Growing by leaps and bounds, Dollywood is in position to rival anyone in the country except maybe for Disney – and Walt had a 50-year head start.
Photo by John Gullion/TheSmokies.com
6. Her local, and global, philanthropy
“If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then, you are an excellent leader.” – Dollyism
Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is a program that began providing a book a month to children in Sevier County from birth to age 5, quickly grew to all of Tennessee – then the United States. Now, Imagination Library serves Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and the Republic of Ireland. When the wildfires burned Sevier County, killing 14, injuring 134 more and costing millions upon millions of dollars to her home community, Parton stepped up and organized massive fundraising. Her My People Fund promised each family which had lost its primary residence in the fires $1,000 a month for the next five months. When Parton arrived to help dole out the final payments, she brought the nearly 900 families an unexpected bonus – another $5,000 each for a total of $10,000. Parton revealed another surprise – the creation of the Mountain Tough organization to provide ongoing support to fire victims over the next three years and the pledge to fund it with at least $3 million. Parton may live in homes in Nashville or Malibu or wherever in the world, but her actions showed her home remains in East Tennessee.
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