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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&U’s B. Andrew Plant finds out when he talks to her about the AIDS crisis.

 

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 goals–and her many accomplishments–have 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 wasn’t 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 Stevens’s Peace Train?), moved easily into movies, out-themed theme parks, and re-invented herself more times than Madonna ever thought about.

Sevier County, Tennessee’s 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 Billboard’s 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 don’t 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 singer’s many philanthropic commitments–some of them many years in the making.

Knowing a bit about her life’s 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&U’s B. Andrew Plant. Perhaps she consented because Drew also hails from East Tennessee, we thought. Still, we found that Dolly talked to us–for you–because 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 Sandy’s 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 them–like Steve Rubell of Studio 54…in New York–it wasn’t long before I learned firsthand of the devastating impact of AIDS," she says. "I have lost many dear friends from it…both gay and heterosexual. That’s 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," Dolly says.

"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 Hollywood’s 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 Bride II.

And, if you don’t 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 Diller–and Sandy Gallin. (Well, all of those gentlemen are indeed entertainment industry leaders.)

Gallin’s 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’ isn’t 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 otherwise."

I asked Dolly (okay, I addressed her as "Ms. Parton," wouldn’t you?) why it seems the country music industry has been slower to come out publicly in the battle against AIDS when the entertainment industry–and music industry in general–have 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, Alzheimer’s, 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 Dolly’s I’ll-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 virus."

Dollywood, of course, is the one-woman conglomerate’s 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 family–many of whom are involved with the theme park and her other businesses–and 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 others, also."

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 Dolly’s elaborate, sequined outfits, her admiration of Chase’s 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. I’ve 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 Dolly’s 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 aren’t 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 life’s 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 musical artist!).

"You had asked me about music that helps me or inspires me when dealing with things like this," she says. "I’ve written a few, like "Hello, God"–that is my reflection on September 11, wars, disease and world problems–but my favorite is "Farther Along," the old gospel hymn…."

And she quotes: "Farther along, we’ll know all about it. Farther along, we’ll understand why."

Then, with the homespun simplicity that makes Dolly so charming and witty–and real–she 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 that’s 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 disease.

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 March issue.

 

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 Dolly’s 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 Dolly’s 501(c)(3) non-profit Dollywood Foundation, which fosters educational programs for children in the singer’s native Sevier County, Tennessee.

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 County’s 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.

Dolly’s 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 Dolly’s choice–and this seems so fitting–The Little Engine That Could. The Foundation even provides the bookcase for each child to store their books.

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 you’re getting old when you like being called the Book Lady!"

Dolly (and other celebrities–who 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 Dolly’s 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. Dolly’s "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.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

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