In the past month, Dolly Parton has saved us both from the pandemic and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, if you’ve been paying attention. Dolly Parton has been saving us her entire career.
Back in April – while the Trump administration was still downplaying the risks of the coronavirus, and churches and religious organizations were lobbying for the right to hold super-spreader events and infect their congregations, and terrible people were stockpiling masks and hand sanitizer in the hopes of profiting from mass death – the singer made a $1m donation to Vanderbilt University medical center. The donation, just one of a few such donations she’s made to Vanderbilt over the years, was used to fund research for the Moderna vaccine, currently testing at 94.5% effective. (Why it is still being called the Moderna vaccine and not The Dolly I do not understand.)
And then, for the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, she strapped on something sparkly and bounced around singing Holly Jolly Christmas to give us a blessed reprieve from the ubiquitous cast of Hamilton and a rotating assortment of teenage pop star twits at the corporate-sponsored holiday event. Truly her generosity knows no bounds.
For decades, Dolly has been our contradictory savior. Authentic yet synthetic, tough yet haunted, brilliant yet aw-shucks, with a constructed, surgical femininity that somehow circles back into genderless and asexual. Wealthy enough to buy herself some taste, she always held on to a poor person’s idea of glamour and managed to make tacky classy.
Those paradoxes piling up always made it hard to see Dolly and all the good she was doing, although it was never hard to feel her. I remember sitting inches from my grandmother’s television in the 80s to watch Dolly’s variety show. Here was this tiny woman inflated into an enormous presence with big hair and the highest of heels, cracking jokes in a mountain accent. Her audience would be full of everyone from old ladies to young punks to respectable business folk. And they’d all be laughing and having a good time until Dolly took out her guitar to sing a song about daddy and they’d all start to cry. Making you cry about your daddy is another way of saving you.
My grandparents had plenty of records (and 8-tracks) – Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, Roy Orbison, Kenny Rogers – but there was always something special about Dolly. That voice, like it’s coming over the mountain and down a clear creek to channel itself out of her throat and into our world. And it’s here, just for you, to listen to while watching the rise and fall of old shirts and jeans in the laundromat dryer, while driving home from the night shift as the sun begins its slow crawl over the hills, or drinking coffee at an all-night diner, waiting until it’s safe to go home again.
We shouldn’t need our artists to be better than us ethically as well as creatively
That should be enough. If you write a song as good as The Bridge, or perform something as well as Lonely Coming Down, you should be allowed to never have to do anything ever again. You should get a giant pile of wigs and crystal-studded blazers and velvet pants to satisfy you until your dying day. Like Elvis. You shouldn’t also have to feed and educate and heal the people of your state, your nation and your world, just because no one else is bothering to do it.
We shouldn’t need our artists to be better than us ethically as well as creatively. It’s wonderful and kind that Dolly gives so much of her time and wealth to those less fortunate than her. She grew up in the kind of material deprivation that often creates a kind of cruel selfishness, or a lifelong vulnerability, but occasionally crystallizes into moral clarity. What she lived without – and she was one of 12 children born to illiterate parents who lived in a one-room cabin in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, so she lived without a lot – seems to have guided her to the decision that no one else should have to.
So she set up the Imagination Library, a charity that gives free books to children all over the world. When wildfires tore through Tennessee in 2016, she set up a fund to give families who lost their homes $1,000 a month to help them get back on their feet. The charity, called My People, still gives grants and donations to firefighters and rebuilding efforts. She risked her career to support HIV/Aids groups when it was still taboo in country music, and she gives away a ton of money to healthcare facilities and organizations.
Dolly is someone who understands that money is something you do rather than something you have, an insight our politicians and leaders somehow keep missing. People use money to create division, to hurt and destroy. They amass it and sit on it and want to be applauded for it. Dolly uses it to construct the kind of world I bet she wishes she had been born into.
Jessa Crispin is a Guardian US columnist