We already adored her. Of course we did.
As a musician, she is legendary. An institution. I've been in that room in the house in Dollywood where they have all her awards, and it is too much for the eye to take in. And you just KNOW she's got a few favorites at home on the mantle too. Her body of work speaks for itself, accolades aside. There is a Dolly song for everything, and we know every word.
But the music is not the only reason she is so beloved. There is an incomparable something about her that has always sparkled, always made you feel like you KNEW her, like you could run into her at the grocery store and she'd give you a hug. (Let me stop you now if you feel compelled to disavow me of this particular daydream). But at this particular moment in history, heavy and chaotic as it is, Dolly has emerged as something much more than iconic artistsand genuinely nice person. She is a unifying figure, one who has managed to bring hope, joy, and a kind of aspirational resilience to the present upheaval.
Jad Abumrad explored this phenomenon in his podcast, Dolly Parton's America, even before the pandemic. If you have not already listened to every single delightful episode of this series, then congratulations: your weekend is planned!
A philanthropist to the Nth degree, she has long provided scholarships for any kid from her hometown who wants to go to college. Fiercely committed to literacy, she has donated over 130 million books to children around the world. And just recently, she made a many-zeroes contribution to Vanderbilt Medical Center, funding research that made significant strides towards a coronavirus vaccine.
It’s no wonder Tennessee wants to put a statue of her on the state’s very front lawn.
And here, I think we might be coming around the heart of things, the intangible something that makes Dolly the incomparable force that she is, and it is this: she doesn’t want the statue.
In response to the announcement she said “I am honored and humbled by their intention but I have asked the leaders of the state legislature to remove the bill from any and all consideration. Given all that is going on in the world, I don't think putting me on a pedestal is appropriate at this time”
What it takes to step out of the spotlight in a moment like this is something more than just humility. It is a whole different kind of internal economy: one that defies individualism. This is what it looks like when you know that you don’t live for just yourself, and that nothing you have is really your own. Because when you get right down to it… you are just part of the neighborhood. More than anything else Dolly just gets that.
As a rule, America operates on an economy of self-- glorifying independence and rendering individualism a uniquely American idol. Such an economy is rooted in ego; it values wealth, seeks status and power over communal wellbeing, and elevates “personal freedom” above all else. This is how one of the wealthiest and most privileged countries in the world ends up with one of the highest death rates in a global pandemic: because our toxic notions of 'personal freedom' somehow got caught up in a fight about masks and, well, here we are.
These twisted notions of individualism also lead to things like: corporations get to do whatever they want, even if it means poisoning the environment. A de-regulated power grid in Texas that fails in catastrophic fashion and costs lives in a moment of crisis. Generations of systemic racism that we can't seem to even talk about without white folks hollering how "It's not my fault, I never owned slaves!" and "all lives matter!" in yet another communal failure of empathy. And the guns... let's get into the 'personal freedom' gun conundrum another day, because we're talking about Dolly here and I want to stay on task.
Ultimately, what Dolly displays with her life is this wonderfully counter-cultural understanding of her place in the world. And it's hard to be counter-cultural when you are so deeply a part of the culture, you know? But that's what makes her kind of extraordinary. She has this internal economy, not of independence, but of INTERdependence.
And I think deep down, we all know that is the way. Now more than ever.
For my part, one of the things that I've always loved most about her is her accent-- here is one of the only truly famous people in the world who comes from that part of the world and yet did not somehow water down or eliminate her dialect to make herself more relatable to folks on the outside. Though I'm sure she's been pressured at times to talk more "regular," I hear home when she talks, and I love that she represents my people and my place out there in the wide world.
That sense of place is what people see in her that sparkles, that connects, that we want to somehow emulate but don't know how. Here is a woman who has more fame, fortune, and power than any of us would know what to do with; and yet she continues to honor her roots, and to take her place as part of a larger whole. Giving back to make communities stronger, to give families a future--maybe even to help end a global pandemic.
But she'll pass on the statue, thanks. She is just part of the neighborhood.
If we want to be like Dolly, but no one is offering to build us a monument that we can turn down (just speaking for myself here) then where to begin? All I can say is, it has to do with transforming our internal economy from one of independence to one of interdependence.
To start: know where you're from. Then, just take your place in the neighborhood. Be who you are. Show up for folks. Sing a song. Read a kid a book. Give something away. Maybe see what comes to life from there.
We will always love you, Dolly! These are just a few of the reasons why.