By Betsy Rothstein - 02/10/09 03:22 PM EST
With a big bleach-blond hairdo and heaving bosom, country singer Dolly Parton showed off her trademark Southern charm Tuesday afternoon at the National Press Club.
“You gals friends?” she asked a pair of elderly woman who showed up in the picture line to pose with her.
Parton, 63, recently named the International Ambassador of the 75th Anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, was there to speak to a sold-out crowd as part of the club’s lunch speaker series. She promoted an upcoming children’s book, I Am the Rainbow and put in a plug for the “Nine to Five” Broadway musical, set to debut in New York on April 20, for which she wrote the musical score.
Next in the greeting line was an elderly woman in a wheelchair. “Well here comes the big wheel!” she called out to the woman, who was now beaming. Parton told her she was beautiful and wished her a happy birthday.
The singer looked like a star in a fitted sequined maroon skirt-suit, a snug mustard-yellow top and patent-leather beige peep-toe heels. Her skin was flawless. “She’s a tiny little thing!” a woman remarked.
As she walked into the room, guests gave her a round of applause. When it came time to speak, Parton sprang out of her seat.
“I’m proud to be called the book lady,” she said, bursting with energy and explaining the Imagination Library program she created to provide books for children. So far, she says, her program has given out 3 million books.
“My father never went to school,” she explained. “He couldn’t read or write. He worked like a dog, clothed and fed us. My dad was so proud of me. He passed away a few years back, but he got to see the Imagination Library.”
Parton said the program isn’t intended just for underprivileged children. “There are a lot of people with money who don’t pay attention to their children,” she said.
The singer spoke of growing up in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. “We used to always see the bears come down on our property,” she said, explaining that when she was asked to be the International Ambassador of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park she “said yes in a New York minute.”
Midway through her speech, she said she wrote eight new songs for a CD for the Friends of the Smoky Mountains. After making lunch attendees accompany her with a drumbeat on their white-clothed tables, she began to sing one of the songs.
“I wish I had you on record!” she squealed to her audience.
Later she sang “Coat of Many Colors,” a song, she explained, about growing up poor and having to wear a coat sewn for her by her mother. She recalled going to school, having her classmates laugh at her coat and returning home in tears. “I always said I had to get rich to sing songs about how I was poor,” she said.
Parton said growing up in the mountains affected her greatly. “Everything about the Smoky Mountains influenced me,” she said. “I think I happen to be from one of the most beautiful places in the world, and I’ve been everywhere.”
Lunch guests were giddy with excitement over Parton.
Even before the event began, people were getting star-struck. One man in a suit who was double-fisted with glasses of white wine was asked if he wanted to sit upstairs on the balcony. He replied, “Of course, unless Dolly Parton needs someone to sit next to her.”
Inside the lunch, people remarked on her shapely figure. “I’ve always admired her — she’s a great composer,” said Laura Howard, a retired information technologist for Amtrak. “I love her singing. I have been enjoying her for a long time. I have no idea how old she is — do you know?
“You know what else I admire? Her figure. I don’t know how she stays in such good shape.”
Parton never remarked on her figure. She did, however, comment on the huge impact of “Nine to Five” and its effect on a woman’s place in the workplace. “Being a woman has served me well,” she said, laughing. “I’ve always said, I look like a woman but think like a man.”