Lessons from the Life of Dolly Parton: My Fascination Continues

Dolly Parton mural
Thanks to all the listeners and readers who wrote to me to make sure I’d heard about the new podcast Dolly Parton’s America. It explores the life and achievements of the brilliant Dolly Parton, whom I admire so much. I’ve had a chance to listen to the first two episodes, and I can’t wait to keep going. I allow myself to listen only on my morning walk (that’s the Strategy of Pairing), so I can’t just binge it all in one or two days. One of my favorite things about myself is that I often get hit by epiphanies or obsessions. Discovering a new preoccupation is one of my great joys in life, and I’m intensely interested in the life of Dolly Parton. What a life. I haven’t been this interested in anyone since Winston Churchill or St. Therese of Lisieux. Perhaps surprisingly, I’m not particularly interested in her music—though there are a few songs I love, like Jolenebut in her decisions and her character. Now, why am I so fascinated by Dolly Parton? For one thing, I think she’s very under-estimated. Of course, she’s a super-star and celebrated, but I think that people don’t appreciate how thoughtful, strategic, and far-sighted she has been during her decades-long career and in all her accomplishments. She started out in a one-room cabin in Tennessee, one of twelve children; she was the first one in her family to graduate from high school; she’s accomplished so much. From her childhood, she has had absolute clarity about her gifts and her aims, as well as a supreme command of herself and her public presentation. (In this way, she reminds me of Andy Warhol, another person who interests me very much.) If you’re interested, here are past episodes of “A Little Happier” in which I talk about lessons from the life of Dolly Parton—each one is just 3-4 minutes long:
  • Dolly Parton and Oprah Winfrey Talk about Humility and Hubris. 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?
  • Why Did Dolly Parton Identify More with Barbara Walters than Barbara Walters Identified with Her? Dolly Parton is very skillful at turning interviews the way she wants, and maintaining a certain playful image in the public eye. I wish that over the years, interviewers had asked her more thoughtful questions and pressed her to speak more revealingly about her ideas and aspirations.
  • Another Lesson from Dolly Parton: You Don’t Necessarily Have to Be Good at Something. In my study of Dolly Parton, I learned that Dolly Parton doesn’t read music. And then I did a bit of research, and I learned that Paul McCartney can’t read music! Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, none of them read music! These musicians didn’t have a thorough education in music, they lacked arguably crucial skills—but that didn’t stop them. They loved music, they wanted to play, create, and perform, and they figured out how to do that.
  • Dolly Parton Describes the Difference Between a Wish and a Dream. “I’ve always been a dreamer, and yes, I have always tried. And dreams are special things. But dreams are of no value if they’re not equipped with wings and feet and hands and all that. If you’re going to make a dream come true, you’ve got to work with it. You can’t just sit around. That’s a wish. That’s not a dream.”
Of them all, this is my favorite episode of “A Little Happier” about Dolly Parton:
  • A Happy Story from the Life of Dolly Parton. How I love this wonderful story from the life of Dolly Parton. It makes me very happy to think of these three great artists taking such delight in their own powers—sitting around Emmylou Harris’s living room and striking up a song, as one does—and persisting in their vision for years, until they finally got to do what they wanted.
I’m loving the Dolly Parton’s America podcast. As I said, I’m not a music-focused person—so what a treat for me to hear, for the first time, Dolly Parton singing “Mule Skinner Blues.” Hey, hey! Now I need to watch the Ken Burns documentary Country Music. My parents told me that there’s plenty of Dolly Parton there, too. And she’s on the cover of Elle magazine. She’s having a real moment. With all of this, however, I must say that the thing that intrigues me most about Dolly Parton is that she seems to be a truly good and worthy person.



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