Quite some time ago, the world-weary team of journalists at Entertainment Weekly produced a surprisingly serious and well thought out list of the most important women in the history of the American entertainment business.
I wish I could give you a URL for that article, but I have never been able to figure out that magazine's approach to digital content.
Anyway, my memory is that Lucille Ball was No. 1, in large part because of her revolutionary role in managing her own career options. Oh, and she was a brilliant comic actress.
Dolly Parton was No. 2 for pretty much the same reason. Bluntly stated, she was and is a brilliant businesswoman who has opened all kinds of doors for other women in Nashville and the entertainment biz, period. She is also one of the most underrated songwriters, and stage performers, of all time.
I bring this up for a simple reason. Dolly is always news here in East Tennessee, where she is to our culture sort of what the Queen is to England -- only Parton has tons of business clout to go with all of her earth mama of the Smokes symbolism.
Now Dolly has gone and done something really important linked to the wildfires that ravaged our region a few weeks ago. You may have seen one or two short items about that on the national news. Maybe. For elite media, this was kind of like the Louisiana floods 2.0, as in something going on in red-state land that really didn't matter that much. Maybe if Donald Trump had paid a visit?
Parton has pledged, through her foundation, to give every family that lost a home -- 700 homes and businesses were destroyed -- $1000 a month for six months to help get them back on their feet. Her do-it-yourself TV telethon raised about $9 million to help out, too.
You can imagine the local coverage here in East Tennessee. However, Dolly's crusade also caught the eye of editors at The Washington Post, which printed nice, long, highly detailed feature on her. However, anyone want to guess what part of Parton's story the Post pretty much ignored?
You got it: The role her unconventional, vaguely Charismatic, but very public faith has played in her life and work. This is a fine, must-read story -- but something is missing at the very heart of this thing.
Our own Bobby Ross, Jr., wrote a post the other day -- "Waltons? Little House? Have faith in ratings success of Dolly Parton's latest Christmas movie" -- about news coverage of the second made-for-television movie about Dolly's childhood. In it, he noted that this two corny, sweet, but heart-tugging flicks may have broken the American TV record for Bible and faith references per minute. It just happens when you're talking about a singer who grew up very, very poor in a mountain cabin with 11 other kids in the family.
That's where the Post started, with Parton and her people:
In a video interview she prepared to promote the telethon, she recalled hearing about the fires while on the tour.
“Of course I ran immediately into my dressing room to turn on the TV to see if it was really true because people were saying ‘Oh my God, you know the mountains are burning.’ And I said, ‘oh that can’t be, not to that degree.’ And sure enough,” she said, “I mean, it was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen because at that time, I didn’t know if my own blood kin were engulfed in the flames. I didn’t really know if our business is there. . . . It looked like the world was on fire and I was absolutely going to pieces like we all did.”
“Everybody on the phone trying to reach everybody. . . . And it took hours and hours for us to really know for sure that our own family was okay and that most of our properties, we were blessed and thank God for it, that most of our businesses were okay and our families were okay.”
Giving is nothing new for Parton. Underneath the aw-shucks, who-me persona is a serious woman, now 70, and one of the most philanthropic celebrities around.
Read the details on all of her giving, much of which has been anonymous.
However, let me point out one thing in particular that captures the size of Parton's vision. I have to note this project, since my wife is a librarian for the state of Tennessee who works with lots of small libraries in the Hills.
Easily her most wide-reaching philanthropic work is Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, one of the country’s largest literacy projects, which she funded partially with proceeds from Dollywood, according to Forbes.
To her, it was important that children be afforded the opportunity to read, regardless of their parents’ income level.
The Imagination Library began in 1995 with a simple goal: Mail one book, each month, to every child in Sevier County from birth to age 5 so “she could ensure that every child would have books, regardless of their family’s income.” The program was so successful that in 2000, she offered to expand it to any community that would partner with her to support such a program.
The program is now global, found in some 1,600 communities across the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. It now sends more than 1 million books to children across the world, every month.
That brings us to a big word in Parton's worldview -- family. And that leads straight to one of her greatest songs -- "Coat of Many Colors." It tells the story of the coat she proudly wore as a child, made out of discarded rags by her mother. The Post story quotes this verse:
My coat of many colors
That my mama made for me
Made only from rags
But I wore it so proudly
Although we had no money
I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My mama made for me
This verse didn't make the cut, although it offers a glimpse into the spiritual DNA of that home:
Momma sewed the rags together
Sewin' every piece with love
She made my coat of many colors
That I was so proud of
As she sewed, she told a story
From the Bible, she had read
About a coat of many colors
Joseph wore and then she said
Perhaps this coat will bring you
Good luck and happiness
And I just couldn't wait to wear it
And momma blessed it with a kiss
Trust me, folks, it's not hard to find material online about Joseph and his colorful coat.
If you watched Dolly's "My People" telethon, it was about as Bible Belt as you can get -- with many of the entertainers going out of their way to feature material about faith, family and giving. That was sort of the whole point.
So I wish the Post team had put some Bible story material into this fine feature, because it's hard to talk about Dolly without family, church and faith working its way in there somewhere. Those colors are a very important part of the fabric of this remarkable woman's life.
P.S. Check out this great blog post that went viral, written by East Tennessee blogger Amy Rawe, entitled, "An Open Apology To Dolly Parton."