“I don’t think it’d kill anybody to wear their mask”: Dolly Parton on love, acceptance, and the pandemic

The country legend doesn’t want anything to do with politics, but she wants you to be yourself.

(Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
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Dolly Parton does not want to be anyone’s messiah. “I don't want to be worshiped, because there's a scripture in my Bible that talks about idol worship,” she said earlier this month after being named one of People magazine’s people of the year. It’s an awkward line to toe for an icon whose artistic impact has spanned decades and a philanthropist who has done some staggering work for humanity — like raising $700,000 for flood victims this past summer in Tennessee through her Dollywood Foundation, donating over 170 million books to children through her Imagination Library, and giving $1,000,000 to Vanderbilt University in 2020, money which helped fund the development of the Moderna vaccine.

But perhaps the most fascinating thing about Dolly is her universality. Dolly is beloved by fans across generations and demographics; she is a connecting thread of goodness even between people whose ideologies are diametrically opposed. It is a quality that very few in her position possess, much less know how to court and maintain. Over her decades of fame, she has endeared herself to social liberals by being an unexpected proponent of LGBTQ rights and with her own brand of cheeky feminism, while also very carefully avoiding ruffling the feathers of her evangelical or conservative fanbases. It feels fair to posit that in this divisive, increasingly volatile world, Dolly is one of the few things we can all agree on.

Her duality hung in the air when I spoke to her over the phone this month, a call during which she was just candid enough on questions of life according to Dolly, while staying characteristically opaque on topics considered “controversial.” With a slew of upcoming projects like a novel with James Patterson, a new perfume, and her Sonos station Songteller Radio, Dolly is finding even more ways to engage with fans while spreading her message of humility, universal love, and hard work. And she’s quick to bring the conversation back to those projects and themes if it veers too far into our current hell world. For Dolly, politics is perhaps where positivity goes to die, and within that ethos, she’s created a space where inclusivity can be a state of mind rather than a controversial talking point.

Mic: I think it’s fair to say that everyone is excited for your new novel Run, Rose, Run. What should we expect from your first long-form book?

Dolly Parton: It’s got a lot of mystery, information about the music business, romance, suspense, love. All the things that make for a good book. I wrote a whole album for it called Run, Rose, Run and we’ll be premiering it on Songteller Radio along with the book. I’m really excited for it.

You’ve touched so many people’s lives with your philanthropy — especially in helping the development of the Moderna vaccine. With vaccines being our best protection against this new Omicron variant — do you have a message for those who still don’t believe in the vaccine?

I’m not one to get in the middle of controversy. When I first donated my money to help with it, and I got my shot, I thought everybody was waiting in line to get their shot. I didn’t realize there were people not wanting to do it whether for religious reasons, health reasons, personal reasons whatever it be. I’m not one to tell people what to do. But I was just happy to be part of that, and I think we all certainly need to do our part in being careful. Whether you get the shot or not, you need to be mindful. And I don’t think it’d kill anybody to wear their mask and to do their social distancing, especially now that we have new variants of the pandemic going around. So I really think people should just be very cautious, and careful and mindful, and like I said I’m not one to bother around in people’s lives, I just try to do my part the best I can.

You’ve always been a proponent of inclusion and love, especially with the LGBTQ community. What do you say to people who don’t seem to understand that message?

People, especially people who claim to be good people, Christian people and people of faith…They need to see the good in everybody — I accept what I don’t understand and leave that up to God. To me God is love, and God is good. God made us all. We’re all God’s children. I don’t think we have the right to judge one another. I think we can love each other as we are. People can’t be different than who they are, and what they are. I’m all about thinking we should be free to be ourselves.

We ran a piece recently on the greatness of your film 9 to 5, and how a lot of its themes still haven’t been realized — like equal pay and representation in the workplace. What are your thoughts on the current state of women’s rights?

At the time we did 9 to 5, which has been over 40 years now — we did a lot of good with that, but there’s a lot of work to be done. I still think that we’re making progress. And I’m hoping that one of these days, women will be able to be paid and recognized and treated with respect in the places that they should be. It doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl, or whatever color you are, if you do the work, you should be paid and respected for it. I’ve been blessed that in my work I’ve never had a lot of those problems that a lot of women have to face every day. But I’m all about being behind women. In fact even Run, Rose, Run, it’s about very strong women, and I’ll possibly be working with strong women in the production of the movie we’re hoping to put out. One of the songs on the album is called “Woman Up And Take It Like A Man,” it’s all about being good as or better than. I’m not one to protest or march in the streets, although different things need to be done to draw the attention, and I’m one of the ones who do it in song. Live as an example. Everybody has to deal with things in their own way according to their own personalities and whatever their beliefs are. I’m all about doing good for women and trying to be the best woman I can be. And do the best work I can. And believe everybody should have the right to do that too. We’re all people. We should all be respected for who we are.

As someone who has been a staunch supporter of women's rights throughout her career, have you been following the Mississippi abortion case in the Supreme Court? I'm curious if you have thoughts on that, or, more broadly, what would happen if Roe V. Wade ends up being overturned?

I steer away from controversial issues. Of course I have my own thoughts and my own opinions, but I don’t voice those publicly. I don’t address those kinds of things so we can move on from that.

You have achieved such iconic success, while still staying true to yourself — even when it came to hard decisions like leaving the Porter Wagoner show in 1974 and transitioning to more pop stylings and working in Hollywood when you signed with Sandy Gallin in 1978. How do you handle making hard creative decisions that are right for you, but others might criticize or don’t understand?

Well there’s a saying, I don’t know if it’s scripture or a saying, my mother used to always say it, “To Thyne Own Self Be True.” I know who I am. Like I say, I may not be much, but I’m a very professional Dolly Parton. And hopefully I know what’s best for me. I try not to get in other people’s business. I try to love, and I look beyond people’s thoughts and just pray for guidance every day. I’m a very spiritual person. I just try to look to a higher wisdom and pray to be a better person and be light in the world, and that’s exactly what I hope to do. I try my best to mean something to somebody. I ask God every day to let me do something to uplift mankind and go up by Him, and what else are we all about. Even if you don’t believe in God, you still have to believe in bigger and better things, higher wisdom and smarter things than you.

If you had to give one piece of advice to young people in this increasingly crazy world we’re living in, what would it be?

Just try to hold on. Be true to yourself. Find out who you are. Do it on purpose and with purpose. Try to stay in your lane. Don’t get too scattered, don’t follow other people around. Try to know who you are. Go inside your own self. Find out what is right for you and your personality. And try to think about making the world a better place, and not just your world but the whole world.