Having watched Dolly Parton’s new Netflix special Christmas on the Square, I am convinced of two things: 1. this was intended to be watched with a bottle of wine and 2. it is absurdly good exactly because it knows how bad it is. It is also everything I could have expected from the one and only, Dolly Parton.

She plays a homeless angel that follows a Scrooge-like Regina Fuller, played by Christine Baranski, to change her mind about selling a town. Yes, that is right. Dolly Parton is playing a homeless angel, but wearing a full glam face of makeup—mind you. The Netflix special is a musical, with storylines and songs that are both campy and heartfelt, mixing Old Navy with glossy 1980s Hallmark commercial. In other words, it is musical theatre heaven. But it also brings us just what we need in 2020: more Dolly Parton.

The 74-year-old country singer, songwriter, and performer earned the record for the most decades with a top 20 hit in US Country songs, and most hits on the US Hot Country Songs chart by a female artist. Even though her career took off in the 1970s, her classic songs, “Jolene” and “9 to 5” continue to be played today. She even wrote Whitney Houston’s hit-classic “I Will Always Love You.“

But recently, the legendary country-singer also made the news for her $1 million dollar donation to Moderna, which helped to fund coronavirus vaccine research. The Vanderbilt University Medical Center used her donations for clinical trials, with the experimental vaccine announcing a 95 percent effectiveness this past month. 

It highlights another enduring legacy of Dolly Parton, her charity work. 

Her book gifting program, Imagination Library, began in her home state of Tennessee. Born and raised in a poor family from East Tenessee, Dolly Parton founded the organization in 1995 to help give back to her home county. Since then, the Imagination Library has been wildly successful, growing across five countries, delivering 1 million free books to children each month. In 2014, she told Southern Living that the organization is “one of the things I’m proudest of, of anything I’ve ever done.”

Her Dollywood Foundation helps to support the Imagination Library and other charity works. One of those include the Buddy Program for her hometown high school. In the early 1990s, the local high school had a 30% drop out rate. After launching the program in 1991, the drop-out rate plummeted to only 6% and those same high school graduates went on to support their own community. Dollywood Foundation continues to support Mountain Tough, which provides resources for families and businesses in the Sevier County affected by COVID-19, as well as My People Fund which supports local fire departments and families hurt by wildfires. 

In 2019, she became the first country singer to be recognized as MusiCares’ Person of the Year, the Recording Academy’s highest philanthropic prize. 

But widely applauded success of her charitable works and philanthropic work, also points to her long-standing presence within the music industry. She’s not someone to be forgotten.

The first time I learned anything of Dolly Parton was from Miss Congeniality 2 where Sandra Bullock runs into a Dolly Parton impersonator event and accidentally ends up tackling the real Dolly Parton. But growing up, I’ve heard her music in more movies and TV shows than I remember and I haven’t seen a women’s acapella group that hasn’t covered one of her hits. Honestly, I still have so many questions about Christmas on the Square, but that is for another time. But her continued presence and influence in pop-culture to this day, over half a century from when it first took off, is very telling. 

[Image Description: Sandra Bullock attacking Dolly Parton in "Miss Congeniality"] via Giphy.
[Image Description: Sandra Bullock attacking Dolly Parton in “Miss Congeniality”] via Giphy.

For all the jokes around fake hair and plastic surgery, Dolly Parton’s authenticity in her music and hometown roots gets to everyone, crossing even partisan lines. 

Despite the widespread attention and limelight that she has encountered in her long career, she’s also dodged politics throughout it.  Although she wavers on whether or not she identifies as a feminist, she embraces the idea of being a “feminist in practice,” writing songs about women’s experiences. She’s also spoken up in support of LGBTQ+ communities, supporting the right to gay marriage back in 2014 and speaking against anti-transgender bathroom bills.

There is a lot that can be said about Dolly Parton’s politics—or lack thereof, but she’s always delivered her opinions with a self-defacing attitude and non-judgemental approach. In 2020, it’s just what we need. 

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  • Helena Ong

    Helena Ong is a freelance writer and journalist from San Francisco, California. In the past, she's worked at San Francisco Public Press, World Policy Journal, and NBC4 Los Angeles. She graduated from Pomona College, where she served as Production Editor for her college newspaper, The Student Life.

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