When the news broke on Tuesday that Dolly Parton might have rescued us from the Coronapocalypse – not single-handedly, admittedly, but by having given $1m to a hospital hosting the trials of the Moderna vaccine, which has been shown to be 95 per cent effective against Covid-19 – it was treated by some people as something of a joke. Cue various punny takes on her hit songs (“Vaccine, Vaccine, Vaccine, Vacciiii-iiine…”) and wry amusement at the fact that our saviour might turn out to be a diminutive 74-year-old country singer who keeps her hair in a cupboard. But from those who know anything at all about Parton – OK, enough of the unfolksy formality, about Dolly – the reaction was: of course.
Anyone who happened upon Dolly Parton: Here I Am, the feature-length documentary, that aired last Christmas on the BBC and is currently available on Netflix, will know that there’s very little Dolly can’t do. Born the fourth of 12 children to a family of “poor mountain people” in rural Tennessee, Parton pitched up in Nashville as a teenager and through a combination of grit, pluck, skill, and an eye for a lemon-chiffon off-the-shoulder top, became one of the most celebrated country music artists and songwriters ever with a string of super-hits to her name including “Jolene”, “9-5” and “I Will Always Love You”, later recorded by Whitney Houston (“It’s my song, but it’s most definitely her record,” she tells the documentary makers. “She made me rich!”)
No one would accuse Dolly of hiding her light under a bushel – you have to have a fair amount of self-belief to open a theme park in your own honour – but that’s not to say that she doesn’t have quite the track record for low-key good deeds. There was the stealth-political message of her 1966 song “Just Because I’m a Woman” (Sample lyric: “My mistakes, they’re no worse than yours just because I’m a woman”) which, the film argues, while not overt feminist propaganda, nonetheless nudged the societal dial. She’s also, in case you hadn’t noticed, something of a gay icon and has been vocal in her support for LGBTQ+ rights (and on an entirely unrelated note, some readers might be interested to see her playing an angel in an upcoming Netflix movie, Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square, out on 22 November).
But did you know that she set up an eagle sanctuary? Or that she launched a prize for teachers who’ve overcome adversity? Or that she did at telethon to raise money for people whose homes were destroyed in the Great Smoky Mountains wildfires of 2016? Or that she set up a scholarship that helps Tennessee high school students pay for college? Or that she funded the Dolly Parton Center fo Women’s Services and Dolly Parton Birthing Unit at a medical centre in her home state? Or that once a month, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library sends out a free book to 1.3m preschool children to promote literacy in America and also in participating authorities in Canada, Ireland and the UK (including, as I can attest, the London Borough of Southwark)?
So of course Dolly Parton is helping to solve Covid. It’s what Dolly does, when she’s not churning out new songs – her tally is estimated to be around 3000 – or tottering about on stage, as she does in the documentary, playing a small saxophone and shaking her tiny tassled tush. She’s probably devising state-of-the-art carbon-capture technologies and knitting bobble hats for pangolins as we speak. Because as Jane Fonda, her co-star in the 1980 comedy 9 to 5 tells the film-makers, oh so wisely: “You underestimate Dolly at your peril.”
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