If you haven't thought much about Dolly Parton over the past couple of decades, now's a good time to pay her some attention. The indomitable country star turned 73 on January 19 but shows no sign of slowing down. There's a lot you can learn from her about success, and about being your true self.
You might think Dolly Parton's career peaked in 1980, with the release of the top single and hit movie 9 to 5. You might think that nearly 40 years later, in her 70s, Parton might be slowing down, devoting most of her time to her family, or turning her attention to her commercial enterprises such as Dollywood, or her philanthropic work. You might also think a performer who built her public image on being a bubbly blond bombshell of the 60s and 70s would start losing her appeal as the decades go by and her wrinkles deepen. But if you thought any of that about Dolly Parton, you'd be wrong.
Parton, of course, has always been much more than a blond bombshell. She's written over 3,000 songs and for years was a songwriter for other stars rather than for herself. Her top-grossing hit of all time (so far) is "I Will Always Love You," made most famous by Whitney Houston in the 1992 film The Bodyguard. Many years earlier, Elvis Presley reportedly wanted to perform that song, but insisted on acquiring half the rights to it as well. Parton wisely refused.
These days, Parton is having a resurgence. In addition to the 9 to 5 sequel that she says is in the works this year, she is fresh from her involvement in the Netflix movie Dumplin'. Parton wrote and performed the soundtrack for the movie and Netflix is apparently hoping her song "Girl in the Movies" might beat out "Shallow" from A Star Is Born for the best original song Oscar.
Whether or not it gets an Academy Award for its song, there's something about Dumplin', both the film and the bestselling young adult novel it's based on. I'm not usually a big fan of YA novels or heartwarming family movies about Texas beauty contests. But for me, it got the awkwardness of mother-daughter relationships, and the struggle to be comfortable and happy in your body, in the face of societal disapproval, exactly right.
It's no accident that half the characters in the story--the main character Willowdean, her best friend, her late beloved aunt, and the drag queens who help her prepare for the pageant--are all obsessed with Dolly Parton. Or that "Jolene," the song Parton re-recorded for the movie, and that the main character loves above all others, is something of an anthem to insecurity and longing and the belief that you just aren't pretty enough.
In the book, a boy she likes finally asks Willowdean what the big deal is anyway about Dolly Parton. "I don't really get it," he says. "She's so...fake."
"Her music is good, I guess," Willowdean explains. "But it's her that makes it good. With her big hair and fake boobs. I've never seen anyone who's living the life they set out to live like she does."
Parton does seem to know--and completely accept--exactly who she is. Her big blond hair is always a wig of course, one of many wigs, all of which she's named. One particularly over-the-top hairpiece is named "Dragzilla." Parton has often said that if she hadn't been born female she'd be a drag queen. "I'm so over-exaggerated," she explains in a matter-of-fact way.
The epigraph for the book is a Parton quote: "Find out who you are and do it on purpose." Whether you like her music or not, that's great advice for all of us.