Dolly Parton has been in the news a lot this week. Most prominently, the country superstar announced that the companies under her Dollywood umbrella, including her popular theme park, the DreamMore resort, and Dollywood Foundation, will donate $1,000 per month for up to six months to the families who lost their homes in the wildfires that ravaged the area of eastern Tennessee around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the sector of Appalachia for which Parton has been the most popular native and advocate for decades.
“We want to provide a hand up to those families who have lost everything in the fires,” Parton said in a video statement released Wednesday evening. “I know it has been a trying time for my people, and this assistance will help get them back on their feet.”
This kind of philanthropy (donations are now being accepted through dollywoodfoundation.org) is a major reason that Parton’s profile is as high as it’s ever been, but hardly the only one. The 70-year-old singer and songwriter is currently on her first full-length U.S. tour in nearly 25 years, which stops at NRG Arena Monday evening, promoting latest album Pure and Simple. The same night she released her video statement about the Tennessee wildfires, NBC aired Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love, a continuation of last year’s hit TV movie Coat of Many Colors; according to the Hollywood website Deadline, Circle of Love won the evening in a rout, sending Fox’s flagship drama Empire to its lowest ratings of the season. An hour before the movie aired, Parton sang the movie’s title song on Christmas In Rockefeller Center; two nights before that, she performed a knockout version of arguably her signature song, “Jolene,” on The Voice with goddaughter Miley Cyrus (currently a Voice judge) and the Arlington-based a cappella quintet Pentatonix.
Were it any other celebrity, such naked cross-platform saturation would probably be annoying, at the very least, but Parton’s public persona — the perfect balance of bubbly blond humor and sly self-deprecation — is so warm and good-natured that she does all that and never quite comes across as needy or overexposed. For all her wigs, rhinestone-studded costumes, high heels and sharp-tongued stock repartee like “it takes a lot of money to look this cheap,” Parton adeptly navigates showbiz’s shallowest waters while never losing touch with the country girl from the Tennessee mountains she remains at heart.
Mary Sarah, the Fort Bend County-raised singer who was a finalist on The Voice earlier this year, is in a better position than most to comment on Parton’s authenticity and generosity. When she was working on her first nationally released album, 2014’s Bridges, not only did Parton’s longtime guitarist and producer Kent Wells agree to produce the album, but he recruited more than a half-dozen country legends to sing duets with Sarah – a guest list that wound up including Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Ronnie Milsap, Tanya Tucker and the Oak Ridge Boys, among others. The first star to come aboard was of course Parton, and Sarah remembered barely being able to contain herself the day she met her in the studio.
“Gosh,” the 21-year-old Sarah told the Houston Press back in September. “I remember being in the studio that day, and just freaking out. I could not keep my thoughts straight. I was in another room, and she was in the studio room, and I hadn’t met her yet. I just kept thinking, ‘What do I say? What do I do?’ You want to have something to say that’s, like, memorable. You’re meeting an idol; you don’t want to be like everybody else that comes up and is super-excited about meeting them.”
But Parton quickly put any anxiety she was feeling to rest, Sarah recalled.
“I just remember walking into the room,” she said. “The one thing I learned without her even saying it, by just kind of watching her, was how real she is; how she knows how to make somebody feel so special. I feel like with her name, Dolly Parton, you could go two ways with the fame that comes with that. You could either let it go to your head or you could take it and use it in a positive way, and that’s exactly what she does.
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“She knows she has the power to impact people’s lives in that way,” continued Sarah, who returned to The Voice this fall as a backstage interviewer. “And so if it’s just to take two minutes to talk to you, or if she runs into fans, she’s got an amazing track record of being just a great, great legend, and awesome to her fans. That was one thing I definitely noticed, because I walked into the room, I was so nervous, and then all of a sudden she starts talking and you feel like you’ve been friends forever. She has a way of doing that to everyone. It’s definitely a gift.”
In a profile published in The Guardian in 2014, the year Parton released the Blue Smoke album and performed for a record crowd of more than 180,000 fans at the UK’s Glastonbury Festival, reporter Tom Lamont takes note of a picture in his Nashville hotel room bearing the words “What Would Dolly Do?” Near the end of the article, he mentions it to her in person.
We return to the What Would Dolly Do? print in my hotel room: is that a lot to bear, the comparison being drawn there? She says, “It’s the greatest compliment in the world.” I admit I’ve been thinking about trying to take it home with me and Dolly advises against it. “Now you know what I’d do. I wouldn’t steal it.”
Dolly Parton will perform at 8 p.m. Monday, December 5 at NRG Arena, 1 NRG Park.