Dolly Parton: The Grand Dame of Country Music

By Shay Moser

Who is Dolly Parton? You could answer this question in many ways. A philanthropist may be top of your mind considering she was honored this month among this year’s Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy recipients for the $1 million donation she made in 2020 to help fund Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine research.

She’ll receive her medal in a private New York ceremony on Oct.13, along with four other honorees.

Parton said she was honored to receive the award in a statement: “I’ve always believed that if you can help, you should help, and I truly hope that I can be an inspiration for others to lift those around them. Whether through my Imagination Library or giving to COVID-19 research, I try to support things that have a special meaning for me. I hope everyone can find something they’re passionate about supporting and do what they can to help make this world better.”

Parton’s passion is supporting numerous non-profit organizations that aim to improve the quality of life of children and others in need. When she founded the Dollywood Foundation in 1988, it offered scholarships to high school students in Sevier County, Tennessee, where she grew up. In 1995, the Dollywood Foundation grew into Imagination Library, distributing free books monthly to children up to age 5. Over the years, the Dollywood Foundation has supported charities, causes, and more. In 2016, the Dollywood Foundation grew again into the My People Fund, which provided $10,000 to more than 900 families affected by the Great Smoky Mountains wildfires. Today, the foundation continues to grant scholarships and awards and support numerous non-profit organizations that bring education and poverty relief.

LGBTQ+ rights, marriage equality, and Black Lives Matter are causes Parton has spoken out about on multiple occasions.

While her philanthropic activity has been in the news lately, you may know Parton most as a musician. She began performing as a child, singing on local radio and television programs in the East Tennessee area. Her early success came as a songwriter, penning several charting singles, including two Top 10 hits. Then in 1965, at age 19, she signed with a record label that helped her release a series of pop singles that didn’t make the music chart. However, her first two country singles she recorded reached No. 24 and 17 on the country chart. Then she found success with country star Porter Wagoner before starting her solo career. Parton’s solo success came in the early 1970s when she had three singles reach No. 1 on the country chart, including “Jolene,” “I Will Always Love You,” and “Love Is Like a Butterfly.”

“At the end of the day, I hope to be remembered as a good songwriter. The songs are my legacy,” Parton wrote in her book, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, which features 175 of the 3,000 songs she’s written. Parton can belt out more than vocals, too. She plays several instruments, including the guitar, banjo, piano, autoharp, violin, dulcimer, harmonica, and saxophone.

After respectfully turning down the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination in February, Parton accepted her nomination in April. In her initial statement about declining the nomination, she said, “I don’t feel I have earned the right. I don’t want the judges to split votes because of me, so I must respectfully bow out.”

In an interview with NPR’s “Morning Edition,” Parton said if she is voted in by fans, she would accept the honor. The induction ceremony will take place on Nov. 5 at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. It also will air on HBO and be available to stream on HBO Max.

An actress may come to mind when you think of Parton, as she starred in popular films such as 9 to 5, for which she wrote and recorded the song of the same name that topped the country and pop charts in early 1981. In addition, she earned Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). She also starred in Rhinestone (1984), Steel Magnolias (1989), Straight Talk (1992), and Joyful Noise (2012).

Parton has continued to act in made-for-TV films, Netflix series, and more. In her latest acting stint in July 2022, she played herself on the sci-fi show The Orville in the episode “Midnight Blue.”

“I only take parts close to my personality,” Parton said on Beyond the Influence Radio with Tim McGraw. “I have never yet done a scene that was far-fetched.” 

If you didn’t know Parton as a hardworking songwriter, singer, actress, and philanthropist, you might know her as a businesswoman. During the height of her movie career in the ’80s, she was building her brand, opening the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and founding Sandollar Productions, which produced the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie. She’s also used her earnings to open a dinner theater, the waterpark Dollywood’s Splash Country, and the Dream More Resort and Spa.

“As soon as I could, I started my own publishing company, got my record label. I think it’s important, if you can, to keep all your goods close to home where you can control them and know what’s happening with them,” she said in a article.

From a musician to a humanitarian — you know who Dolly Parton is if you didn’t already. Still, you may wonder how she’s managed to stay healthy mentally and physically throughout her successful career.

Like any of us, she’s had emotional challenges, health issues, family problems, and more. Away from the limelight, Parton has struggled with binge eating, excessive drinking, dangerous diets, depression, and suicidal thoughts. However, her faith turned her bad habits around following a partial hysterectomy from an endometriosis diagnosis.

“I was getting away with murder,” she stated, as recorded in the book Dolly on Dolly. “See, I was 35 when I first got sick. I wasn’t watching what I ate; I wasn’t conscious of nutrition and wasn’t taking care of myself. I was working hard while a pile of personal and emotional problems was underneath. Then, all at once, I fell apart. It was stomach problems and female problems — all over health problems. It was God’s way of telling me to get myself straight. I’m grateful it happened when I was still young enough to bounce back.”

Today, Parton still relies on her faith. And a healthy marriage to Carl Thomas Dean helps, too. She told Parade in 2015, “I married a good man, a guy completely different from me. He’s not in show business. He’s not resentful of any of that. He loves to hear about the things I do. I love to hear about the things he does. So, we enjoy each other’s company. We get along well. He’s got a great sense of humor. We’ve just been best buddies and best friends, and it’s working!”

As far as food goes, especially when on tour, Parton sticks to a low-carb diet. “I’m a short little thing with a big, country girl appetite, so I have to watch it,” Parton told “I’ve been every size in the world, [but] I’d be big if I ate everything I wanted because I’m a big eater. So, my best bet is to stay on a low-carb diet since on low carb you can eat quite a bit of food of the things you’re allowed.”

It’s good Parton has a healthy balance in her life; the 76-year-old Parton isn’t stopping anytime soon. She’s busy as usual. Dollywood got a facelift in 2022. She published her first novel and has three albums and two movies in the works.

“This is a lifestyle for me. I’m used to doing that. I’ve done it all my life, and I like the excitement of it,” she said to 10 News in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. “You keep your energy up, and energy begets energy.”

When she takes a break, Parton said she likes to read and visit family before it’s time to tackle the next project.