Through wars and social movements and a wild ride of presidential administrations, Dolly Parton has remained one of the closest things we have to a universally beloved national figure.
And that was before she helped fund a coronavirus vaccine.
The Moderna vaccine, which the company said Monday
“My longtime friend Dr. Naji Abumrad, who’s been involved in research at Vanderbilt for many years, informed me that they were making some exciting advancements towards research of the coronavirus for a cure,” Parton tweeted
On Tuesday, Vanderbilt professor of pathology, microbiology and immunology Mark Denison told the New York Times that Parton’s donation funded critical, early research.
“Her money helped us develop the test that we used to first show that the Moderna vaccine was giving people a good immune response that might protect them,” Denison said
And Parton’s fans, who are legion, rejoiced — calling for sainthood, celebrations and statues in her honor. (There’s already a life-size bronze statue of her outside the Sevier County courthouse in her native Tennessee. A few more wouldn’t hurt anybody.)
In a bitterly divided, hyperpartisan era, it’s a marvel that Parton captures and keeps so many disparate hearts.
Some of her diverse appeal stems from her unwillingness to wear her politics on her rhinestone-covered sleeve.
When Parton was reunited onstage with her “9 to 5” co-stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin at the 2017 Emmy Awards, Fonda and Tomlin introduced the best supporting actor award with a few veiled jabs at President Donald Trump. When it was Parton’s turn to speak, she steered the conversation back to center.
“Well, I know about support,” she said with a winking grin and a gesture toward her chest. “Hadn’t been for good support, Shock and Awe here would be more like Flopsy and Droopy.”
“I don’t do politics,” she told People magazine afterward
But her penchant for sidestepping partisanship is only a small part of why such a large swath of the country continues to love and revere her.
In a newly released book, “She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs,” author Sarah Smarsh writes about Parton’s childhood, career and philanthropic endeavors, and examines how a 74-year-old apolitical country singer from an impoverished Great Smoky Mountains holler went on to become a feminist icon, an LGBTQ ally and a cherished symbol of Americana, all at once.
“People can’t get enough of Dolly,” Smarsh writes, “who is now — as hagiographic magazine pieces, breathless tweets, and diverse, roaring audiences attest — a universally beloved icon recognized as a creative genius with a goddess-sized heart.”
Her part in possibly vaccinating us against COVID-19 is sure to deepen that love even further.
So what’s her secret?
For starters, she gives away a tremendous amount of her money. Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a literacy project inspired by her father’s inability to read or write, has given away close to 150 million books to children around the world. When wildfires swept through the Smoky Mountains in 2016, Parton’s foundation provided
And though she keeps politics at arm’s length, she dives heart- and headfirst into the issues that hit people where they live. Her songs tell universal stories of longing and grieving and mistake-making and love.
“Like any transcendent storyteller,” Smarsh writes, “her politics occur at the human level, examined as experience rather than abstract concepts and lived directly rather than bandied in academic terms.”
Smarsh, who grew up in rural Kansas without much money but surrounded by strong women and country music, explores what Parton means, in particular, to women who may eschew the label “feminist,” but whose self-reliance knows no bounds.
“The women who most deeply understand what Parton has been up to for half a century are the ones who don’t have a voice, a platform or a college education to articulate it,” Smarsh writes.
“It’s widely discussed that Parton never forgot her roots, never left behind her community — the economy of which now revolves around the (Dollywood) tourist attractions, the children of which receive books and scholarships her foundation provides, the recently incinerated homes of which will be rebuilt with her help,” Smarsh writes. “Less has been said about the extent to which she never left behind a certain archetype of American woman, the one whose trailer leads the world to deem her ‘trash.’ She isn’t necessarily white, but she is necessarily poor, and she most definitely didn’t get to study feminist theory in a college classroom.”
Parton’s style is uniquely her own, and she embraces the endless jabs at her appearance, taking the power away from her detractors and reclaiming it as her own. Anyone who has been judged and dismissed for their looks can admire that.
“Parton could’ve classed herself up decades ago,” Smarsh writes, “wearing less makeup as women who can afford it are given to doing, or singing something that doesn’t belong on the CD rack at Cracker Barrel. Instead she built her image and wrote her songs so that she can’t sing or look in the mirror without representing women who go unheard and unvalidated every day.”
Her dad, Parton once told Jimmy Kimmel, had a bumper sticker on his pickup truck that said, “Dolly Parton for president.”
It seems an unlikely bet, given her distaste for politics. But it’s sure a treat to watch her gift us with her presence and her heart — and now, her efforts to put an end to the ravages of COVID-19.
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