Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton has built a career as one of the most recognized singers in America. Behind the scenes, she built her wealth on a groundbreaking business model, and she has used that wealth to help a generation of young Americans learn to love reading.

With hits including “Jolene,” “I Will Always Love You,” “Coat of Many Colors,” and more than 3,000 other songs, Parton’s music has spanned decades and is beloved by millions worldwide. She is the best-selling female country music artist of all time, with more than 100 million albums sold. 

Parton, born in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee in the years after World War II as the fourth child of 12, began writing music as a child, first achieving fame through her work on “The Porter Wagoner Show” before striking out as a solo artist in the mid-1970s. 

Parton was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011, has won nine Grammy Awards and has been nominated almost 50 times. She was awarded the Living Legend Award by the Library of Congress in 2004, and was inducted into the Kennedy Center Honors in 2006.

Parton has also proved a savvy businesswoman, opening the Dollywood theme park in 1986, which is Tennessee’s most-visited tourist attraction.  

But few of her achievements mean more to Parton than the establishment of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, an organization that aims to boost child literacy and reading by sending free books monthly to children aged 5 and under. 

The organization began in the United States and has expanded to the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada and Australia, with more than 1.6 million children registered for the program and more than 143 million books sent out. 

“Children are such precious souls,” Parton told The Hill in an emailed statement. “They have everything in front of them and the world has yet to put limits on them or undermine their dreams. Almost every day a parent or a child thanks me for their books and for all of the joy those books bring to them. They tell me this is something they will always remember and it just doesn’t get any better than that.”

David Dotson, president and CEO of the Dollywood Foundation, told The Hill that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to “exploding” growth for the Imagination Library, with 78,000 children enrolled in July alone. 

Dotson attributed the program’s success in many ways to widespread public trust in Parton, who Dotson says is involved in all major decisions around the Imagination Library and who has been dubbed by some children as “the book lady.”

“She’ll always be known for her music, but I think 100 years from now, she is going to be known, if not more, as the woman who inspired critical thinking and reading in generations,” Dotson said. 

Beyond the Imagination Library, Parton’s work on the song and namesake movie “9 to 5,” which addresses women’s treatment in the workplace, coupled with her enduring legacy as one of the most prolific female songwriters in country music have led some to describe her as a feminist icon. 

Both Parton and Dotson have pushed back against the feminist label, though Parton said during an interview with Time magazine earlier this year that “I suppose I am a feminist, if I believe that women should be able to do anything they want to.”

“It’s not so much about what she’s labeled or called, it’s who she is and what’s she’s done, and that’s what is blazing the trail,” Dotson said. “She came up at a time in music when there weren’t many female songwriters or performers. When you think about that world in the 1960s and 1970s and what she accomplished by just doing it, and doing it better than anyone, it’s just amazing.”

Parton told The Hill that she is proud to have served as an inspiration to women and other groups during her long-lasting career.

“I am very proud of everything I have accomplished but when I am in the middle of something all I can think of is finishing what I started,” Parton said. “It’s only now that I can sit back a little bit and understand that what I do may inspire other women to pursue their dreams.”

“It means a great deal to me because it’s an affirmation that my work means something to people,” she said. 

— Maggie Miller

photo: Getty Images