Assay: One of my favorite things about myself is that I often get hit by epiphanies or obsessions. Discovering a new obsessive interest is one of my great joys in life.
I just got struck by a new obsession, and what a joy it is to explore this subject. Dolly Parton. All of a sudden, I just can’t learn enough about Dolly Parton. And I’m not even a huge fan of music – her music or anyone’s music. I’m fascinated by her life and character.
For that reason, I spent quite a bit of time the other day watching her old TV interviews on YouTube.
In my writing (and thinking and reading), my subject is human nature. Why do we do what we do? How can we change? How are people alike, and different, from each other?
One question I often ponder is: Why do some people who achieve stardom bend under that pressure, and succumb to its pressures and temptations in destructive ways? And why do other people seem to be able to withstand that pressure?
One answer is "character."
But that just raises the question – what aspect of character? Inborn qualities, beliefs, habits, relationships, experiences, what combination protects certain people?
Because I’ve thought a lot about this question, I was particularly interested in this exchange between Dolly Parton and Oprah Winfrey, on The Oprah Winfrey Show in April 1992. (Wow, that’s 26 years ago.)
Dolly Parton: I feel so lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to make a good living at what I love to do. I always wanted to sing, I always wanted to be a star, I always wanted to be out with the people, and I’m getting to do that. And I’m getting to enjoy doing that. I think we’re all born, we wonder who we are, what we’re doing here, it’s the same old thing, all through history, who are we, who am I...
Oprah Winfrey: Same old thing! You’re wondering who you are.
Oprah Winfrey: [Don’t you think] that one of the reasons that you are where you are, and I am where I am, those of you [pointing to audience] are where you are, is because you believed you could be here?
Dolly Parton: It’s faith. I think you have to work very hard...There’s a certain amount of luck, too...I used to not realize how lucky I had been. I was always grateful and humble, but I always have worked very hard, too. But I see so many people that have twice the talent that I have, that maybe came to Nashville at the same time I did, they write better songs, they sing better, but there’s just something—where the timing’s not right—so I think there’s a certain element of luck in that. But I think that people can do a lot with what they’ve got, if they just had the faith. I mean, so much of it is faith and belief. I think one has to be careful not to get arrogant with that faith, because I think, you know, if you don’t humble yourself, God will do it for you.
Oprah Winfrey: Absolutely. And when God does it, it will bring you to your knees.
I found this fascinating. Hubris! I wish that these two mega-starts had spent much more time exploring their thoughts and their experiences on this subject. I wish that Oprah Winfrey had asked, "Dolly, what do you mean by ‘humble?’"
A few minutes later in the interview Dolly Parton talks about being "a servant to the people." Is that what she means? She certainly has done many things to be a servant to the people, generally in her performances, and particularly to improve the lives of the people in the Great Smoky Mountains where she grew up. Or does she mean something else?
Well, maybe I’ll learn more as my obsession continues.
If you’d like to watch this interview on The Oprah Winfrey Show yourself, here’s the interview. This discussion happens around 16:50.