Songbird with a Mission
All-around superstar Dolly Parton credits bluegrass/mountain
folk music with re-energizing her career, but the surprisingly
modest lady from Appalachia may be one of the very reasons
bluegrass is having a renaissance. She brings that same
energy to her philanthropy, as A&Us B. Andrew
Plant finds out when he talks to her about the AIDS
Dolly Parton is bigger than life. Snicker if you will, but
this diminutive powerhouse with the unforgettable voice and
gentle heart has been working a business plan for nearly forty
years. Her plans and goalsand her many accomplishmentshave
been impressive. Still, Dolly (yes, she is one of those people
who can wield a single name) has been heralded in the past
year or so for her, er, comeback.
I wasnt sure she ever went far enough away to warrant
a comeback. Even if her album sales had not been what they
once were, Dolly certainly kept busy, and has remained more
visible than most artists. Period. Her visibility is at least
due in part to her versatility. And it is that versatility
that has led to her resurgence.
Dolly has sampled and succeeded at musical genres from old-time
country and spiritual classics to pop and disco (what other
country queen would dare tackle a dance remix of Cat Stevenss
Peace Train?), moved easily into movies, out-themed theme
parks, and re-invented herself more times than Madonna ever
Sevier County, Tennessees most famous daughter went
back to her roots, so to speak, with two bluegrass albums,
the Grammy-winning The Grass Is Blue album in 1999, and its
2001 follow up, Little Sparrow. She kept up the pace in 2002,
keeping a bluegrass feel, but adding some country back to
the mix with Halos & Horns. By late 2002, Halos &
Horns neared the top of Billboards country chart, all
the while faring well on the pop list too. Dolly Parton began
her fifty-seventh year with her best album sales in seven
years. Her most recent release is Ultimate Dolly Parton, a
first-ever career-spanning collection of twenty songs from
BMG Heritage that she oversaw personally.
Surely people realize, as Dolly herself put it, "that
there is a brain underneath the hair and a heart underneath
the boobs." If you dont already know that, all
you have to do is observe the respect afforded to Dolly by
her peers and people in the business of entertainment. Or
hear about the singers many philanthropic commitmentssome
of them many years in the making.
Knowing a bit about her lifes work, we asked for an
opportunity to bring Dolly to our readers. Lucky for us all,
the Smoky Mountain Phenomenon agreed, and corresponded with
A&Us B. Andrew Plant. Perhaps she consented because
Drew also hails from East Tennessee, we thought. Still, we
found that Dolly talked to usfor youbecause she
is indeed as caring as she is talented.
Above all, Dolly is honest. She is the first to say that,
like many of us, the emergence of the AIDS pandemic was foreign
to her. "As you probably know, I came from the country
in East Tennessee, and I suppose I was as naive and ignorant
as anyone," Dolly says. "When I went to Los Angeles,
I became best friends with my manager, Sandy Gallin, who is
gay. Many of Sandys associates, friends, and creative
teams were gay people. They are some of the finest, most creative
folks there are.
"Because I became friends with many of themlike
Steve Rubell of Studio 54
in New Yorkit wasnt
long before I learned firsthand of the devastating impact
of AIDS," she says. "I have lost many dear friends
both gay and heterosexual. Thats when I
really began to understand and get involved in the fight."
And get involved she did, though, in characteristic Dolly
fashion, she downplays her own good works. "My Sandollar
Productions Company [named for both Sandy (Gallin) and Dolly]
was responsible for the public awareness production of the
Common Threads quilt program that traveled all over the nation,"
"I guess I could have been more prominently involved,
but I helped. It was Howard Rosenman, Carol Baum, and Sandy
that really led the project."
The quilt event the singer-actress-businesswoman refers to
is the Academy Award-winning (for Best Documentary) Common
Threads: Stories From The Quilt. Common Threads, which also
won a Peabody Award for Outstanding Journalism, tells the
story of the first decade of AIDS though five different stories,
woven together via the NAMES Project/AIDS Memorial Quilt.
It should be noted that the names of the Common Threads leaders
Dolly rattles off so easily should not be taken lightly. (Here
she is casually teaming up with some of Hollywoods elite
for the cause.) Howard Rosenman was a Sandollar executive
and has gone on to develop and produce many big-name movies
and events for key Hollywood players and organizations. Rosenman
also is a co-founder of Project Angel Food in Los Angeles,
which provides "meals on wheels" for people with
AIDS, and served on the Board of Directors for AIDS Research
Alliance, an organization working to find effective drug therapies.
Carol Baum is a producer who has since worked on films such
as The Good Girl, Snow Falling on Cedars, and Father of the
And, if you dont know who Gallin is, you may at least
remember media reports last year surrounding a Vanity Fair
magazine interviewee who speculated that Hollywood was controlled
by a "gay mafia." As the story went, this mafia
was dominated by David Geffen, Barry Dillerand Sandy
Gallin. (Well, all of those gentlemen are indeed entertainment
Gallins thirty-five-year career has included time as
an agent, producer and personal manager, representing not
only Dolly, but the likes of Michael Jackson, Neil Diamond,
and Cher. In addition to producing feature films, Las Vegas
entertainment and Broadway shows, he was one of the founders
of the aforementioned Project Angel Food and has been a trustee
of AIDS Project Los Angeles, one of the first and largest
AIDS service organizations.
Interacting with luminaries like this not only helped Dolly
achieve her best, but they also are likely part of the reason
she is comfortable in the knowledge that HIV does not discriminate,
as she related to me. "Gay isnt something
you do. It is something you are!" she exclaims. "Of
course, in the beginning everyone thought it was just a gay
disease, and it has taken too long to get everyone to understand
I asked Dolly (okay, I addressed her as "Ms. Parton,"
wouldnt you?) why it seems the country music industry
has been slower to come out publicly in the battle against
AIDS when the entertainment industryand music industry
in generalhave been so present in the crisis.
"I think country musicians, in general, have not been
as involved in the fight because many of them come from the
country like I did," Dolly says. "Maybe there were
[fewer people with AIDS] or
maybe those who contracted
it moved off to the city for care or to avoid family conflicts
over their lifestyle. In any event, I think that will change
greatly in the future."
That said, this dynamo who does a lot and takes credit for
much less, wonders if too much is sometimes asked of the famous.
"Sometimes I think too much pressure is put on celebrities
to help a specific cause," she says, "when they
are maybe spending their time and energy helping [some other
cause]. Some help [people with] diabetes, strokes, Alzheimers,
or the poor, the handicapped and so on
.Most of us help
a specific project or need because it has touched us personally."
The havoc HIV wreaks is by all means on Dollys Ill-do-what-I-can
list. "Certainly, I might have done more and earlier,
but I feel good about what I have done and am doing,"
she says. "At Dollywood, at least twice each year, when
I am there, we have a special Make-A-Wish get-together. Many
times, there have been kids, moms, and men that have the AIDS
Dollywood, of course, is the one-woman conglomerates
theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, near where she grew
up. She opened the park, which has grown to include myriad
entertainment venues, crafts, a museum, a water park and more,
to showcase her "neck of the woods" and her heritage.
Dolly, not surprisingly, believes in familymany of
whom are involved with the theme park and her other businessesand
has strong beliefs about giving back. So her response was
easy when I asked her about any other contributions in the
realm of AIDS, which we might not know about.
"I believe we all should help others through several
projects," Dolly says, "as payback for our success....For
example, Elizabeth Taylor, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen,
Tom Hanks, and [projects like] the movie Philadelphia, [and
Red Hot + Country, to which Dolly contributed a track] have
chosen to raise funds directly for AIDS research, hopefully
to find a cure. I have donated to many of these projects and
The lives of superstars are of course no less touched by
the Modern Plague than others, as evidenced by the story Dolly
relates to me of just one of the ways she has personally been
affected by AIDS. "One of the dearest people in the world
and a special friend was Tony Chase," she says. "Tony
designed hundreds of my most special gowns."
And, if you can picture some of Dollys elaborate, sequined
outfits, her admiration of Chases talent is quite a
compliment. "He contracted AIDS, and I helped him with
medicine and financially," she says. "I kept Tony
close to me until the end. Ive lost some family members
and in-laws, also
.Some were gay and some were not. Just
recently, we lost Herb Ritts
another dear, dear friend."
As Dollys many business ventures are interconnected,
so too are her community contributions. Or she hopes they
will be, anyway. Even if the connections may not be clear
at first glance.
"My main focus [philanthropically] is on children and
their early education and inspiration," Dolly says. "I
believe that many of the problems we have in the world are
because we just arent smart enough. I think things like
my Imagination Library program will help us. Maybe one of
my kids will grow up to be a doctor who is smart enough to
find a cure [for AIDS].
"In the meantime, I believe we all should donate more
time and money to this cause," she says, emphasizing
that she knows the immense challenge HIV presents. "We
are just now barely beginning to understand it
How does Dolly deal with lifes great challenges? My
guess was music and it sounds like I was correct (okay, it
was an easy guess, given that the interview is with a top-selling
"You had asked me about music that helps me or inspires
me when dealing with things like this," she says. "Ive
written a few, like "Hello, God"that is my
reflection on September 11, wars, disease and world problemsbut
my favorite is "Farther Along," the old gospel hymn
And she quotes: "Farther along, well know all
about it. Farther along, well understand why."
Then, with the homespun simplicity that makes Dolly so charming
and wittyand realshe closes our correspondence
with a straightforward, powerful statement. One you know she
means. "Anyway," she concludes, "I will keep
trying to do more, and I hope others will stand up for what
they believe in and all of us do our part."
It seems at first like an oversimplification, but thats
the straightforward charm of Dolly. She sees a problem or
a goal, sets a plan and gets to work. If her past successes
are any indication, we know having this voice among those
battling AIDS lends greatly to our chances of beating the
B. Andrew Plant is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and
is Editor at Large of A&U. He interviewed Presidential
candidate and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean for the
Dolly Does It All
or Tries To
She sings, she acts, she writes music, she is a businesswoman,
she is the CEO of her own "brand," she is a philanthropist
Many of Dollys charitable works emanate from Dollywood,
the 100-plus acre theme park where her name went up in 1986.
(Click here to log on to www.dollywood.com.)
The park is the hub of much of the activity for Dollys
501(c)(3) non-profit Dollywood Foundation, which fosters educational
programs for children in the singers native Sevier County,
The Foundation administered (from 1988 to 1993) a "Buddy"
Program to reduce the dropout rate in Sevier County. Middle
school kids would choose a "buddy" to encourage
them to stay in school. Upon graduation, Dolly personally
presented each of them with a $500 scholarship. The program
is credited with helping reduce the dropout rate in Sevier
County from thirty-five percent to less than fifteen percent.
Other programs include a pilot first-grade teacher assistant
program, adding a teacher and assistant for the Countys
Alternative Learning program, computer labs for a Principals
of Alphabet Literacy program, teacher training, after-school
tutoring, guidance counselors, and emergency support for children
for school clothes and supplies.
Dollys biggest Foundation effort may be the Imagination
Library. Begun in 1995 to stimulate young minds and encourage
a love of reading and learning, the program provides one book
per month to all pre-school children (birth until age five)
in Sevier County. Each child begins with Dollys choiceand
this seems so fittingThe Little Engine That Could. The
Foundation even provides the bookcase for each child to store
Imagination Library has been a success (like most things
Dolly touches) and is being replicated in communities across
the country. Of the Imagination Library expansion, Dolly recently
said, "People are starting to call me the Book
Lady. You know youre getting old when you like
being called the Book Lady!"
Dolly (and other celebritieswho could say "no"
to Dolly?) perform annual benefit concerts to support the
Foundation and its many different programs, including the
Library; these efforts have raised several million dollars.
And then there are Make-A-Wish days at Dollywood, and Dollys
quieter giving efforts, and so much more.
Just after her January 19 birthday this year, a fundraising
CD, Respond II, was released, featuring Dolly and other female
performers. The two-CD set benefits families affected by domestic
violence. Dollys "Endless Stream of Tears,"
from her The Grass Is Blue album, is her contribution to the
set. For more information about the CD, log on to www.respondproject.org.