When Dolly Parton was born on a cold day in January 1946, her family had no way to pay the doctor except with a bag of cornmeal. Nonetheless, an older relative laid her hands on the young child’s head and declared that she was “anointed”, which Ms Parton’s mother took to mean she would do good things in her life.
The wisecracking country chanteuse has lived up to the prophecy. This week it emerged that a $1m donation Ms Parton made to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville at the start of the coronavirus pandemic helped to fund an early-stage trial of one of the most promising Covid-19 vaccines. Tests show that the Moderna mRNA vaccine is 94.5 per cent effective.
“Dolly’s funds helped us develop the test needed to measure if the participants enrolled in the first phase of the Moderna vaccine trial mounted the desired immune response to the vaccine,” says Andrea Pruijssers, a researcher at VUMC’s Denison Lab.
The idea that Ms Parton might have a hand in ending the global pandemic was met with paroxysms of joy online. Comedian Steve Martin joked that he imagined Ms Parton manipulating RNA while writing a hit song. One Twitter user suggested that “dollypartoning” should become shorthand for finding out that someone you already like is an even better person than you thought.
Amid the rising coronavirus death toll and the aftermath of an ugly presidential election, Ms Parton is one of the few subjects that Americans can still agree on. Red state or blue, country or rock, believer or agnostic, her fan base crosses the most divisive lines. Now 74, with more than a half a century of recording behind her, her star is as high as ever. Her latest album debuted at the top of the Billboard country charts, and a Netflix musical based on her songs is about to be released. Her producing partner Sam Haskell says that her music never loses its poignancy: “It appeals to young and old alike because the themes she writes about are timeless.”
These themes — family, faith and love — often centre around ideas of kindness and resilience that trace back to her childhood in the foothills of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. Ms Parton grew up one of 12 children in a small shack without electricity or running water. In summer, the children would bathe in the river using handmade soap. In winter, snow would blow in through cracks in the walls.
She sang as soon as she could talk. As a toddler, Ms Parton says, she made up songs for her corn dollies. By 10 she was getting radio gigs thanks to her uncle, who was also a performer. At 13 she secured a slot at a country music institution, the Grand Ole Opry, introduced on stage by Johnny Cash. Decades of hit songs and movies followed. In 1986, she bought a local theme park in a bid to create more jobs in east Tennessee, renaming it Dollywood.
Her broad popularity is in part down to the contradictions she inhabits. She twins outlandishly big hair and an artificially pneumatic figure with shrewdly self-deprecating quips: “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.” When she left home to seek her fortune after graduating high school, she says, she wasn’t scared about being poor because it would have been impossible to have less money than her family did.
Her heartaches have been used to inform her art and, later, her charity work. When a woman flirted with her husband Carl Dean, whom she married in 1966, she wrote the song “Jolene”, which became one of her biggest hits. Her father’s illiteracy, something he was ashamed of, inspired her to start the Imagination Library, which distributes more than 1m free books each month to children under the age of five.
Kirsty Hill, regional director of Dollywood Foundation UK, says Ms Parton’s contribution to the vaccine makes complete sense. “I see a lot of the work that she does that doesn’t necessarily get talked about,” she says. “Her response to emergencies has always been the same way.”
This philanthropy is resolutely non-political, another factor that may explain her broad appeal. When Hillary Clinton used “9 to 5”, the hymn of wage slaves everywhere, in her 2016 US presidential campaign against Donald Trump, Ms Parton was asked whether she supported Mrs Clinton becoming the first female president. Ms Parton side-stepped the question, joking that America was going to be “plagued with PMS either way — Presidential Mood Swings”. But she has been an outspoken proponent of gay rights and voiced her support for Black Lives Matter this summer in a typically idiosyncratic way, telling Billboard Magazine: “Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No!”
Every few years, a new fan group discovers her music. In the 1990s, Whitney Houston turned Ms Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”, into a blockbuster power ballad. In 2000, garage band The White Stripes made “Jolene” a popular live song. A social media regular, she posts nuggets of wisdom she calls Dollyisms. “Yeah, I flirt,” she says, winking, on Instagram. “I’m not blind and I’m not dead.”
She has accepted the praise for her coronavirus research donation with good humoured humility. “I’m a very proud girl today to know I had anything at all to do with something that’s going to help us through this crazy pandemic,” she told the BBC. She was, she said, looking forward to normality being restored. “When life is good again I’m going to be running just everywhere.”