Once upon a time, I desperately wanted a pair of Lee overalls because all the other girls in Grade 6 wore them. I remember one of my brothers asking the rhetorical question, “If your friends went to school with lollipops stuck to their butts, would you do that, too?” But he clearly knew nothing about fashion.
There was no money in the family budget for name-brand jeans, so my mother asked my saintly grandmother to sew me a pair. I think you see where this is headed: into the darkest bottom of a drawer, where I shoved those homemade overalls rather than bear the burden of no-name shame at school.
Years later, when I first heard Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors, I thought: How did she know? How did a little girl raised in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee have the same experience as a little girl with an Italian last name raised in frosty Toronto? The only difference was that Dolly proudly wore the coat made of rags her mother made for her, even though her classmates taunted her and shoved her in a closet.
I realized then, not for the last time, that Dolly was a better person than I. But I also knew that she probably wouldn’t judge me for my failings because she wasn’t the judgmental sort. It’s clear at this point that she’s a better person than pretty much anyone. I mean, how many us of can write thousands of brilliant songs, play multiple instruments (including acrylic nails), give away millions of books to children, entertain vast audiences, all while wearing five-inch stiletto heels? If those qualifications were included in a job description, only one person could fill it. If there’s a bridge that can span the divides in this world, it’s shaped like Dolly.
That bridge between people and between cultures features in the latest bit of Dolly news, which is as magnificently improbable as the rest of her life. A donation of US$1-million she made to Vanderbilt University was used to develop the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine that may help drag us out of this miserable time. If you told me a year ago that Dolly would be the light at the end of a very dark plague tunnel, I would have said: Weird, but I can see it.
There’s another lesson of unity included within the vaccine story. Dolly made the donation because of her friendship with Naji Abumrad, a doctor and surgery professor she met at Vanderbilt University Medical Center after she’d been in a car crash. As The Washington Post recounts, “after the car crash, the pair found out they were once both poor, mountain kids trying to get by, though they were raised more than 6,000 miles apart.”
The Lebanese doctor and the backwoods Barbie discovered they had much in common, and their friendship inspired the doctor’s son, Jad Abumrad, to create a wonderful, nine-part podcast called Dolly Parton’s America. The theme of the podcast? The wonderful glitter glue that is Dolly. “In this very divided moment, Dolly seems to maybe be a kind of unifier,” Mr. Abumrad says in the first episode of the podcast. A fan notes the diversity in the audience at her concerts – queer folk, church ladies, people in drag, grandmas and little girls.
For decades now she’s maintained this strange coalition of devotees, perhaps singular in the world of entertainment, following her through troughs of relative obscurity and peaks of popularity, such as this one, in which she’s appeared with a new book, Christmas record and vaccine assist all at once. Truly, it’s a (pre) Christmas miracle.
The question is, how can this one person be at the centre of so many Venn diagrams? She’s a down-home girl adored by countless urban snootypants. She’s a style icon who has sung about herself: “I’m just a backwoods Barbie, too much makeup, too much hair / Don’t be fooled by thinkin’ that the goods are not all there.”
Feminists embrace her even though she resolutely refuses to call herself a feminist. (Her friend Jane Fonda pointed out, in the documentary Dolly Parton: Here I Am, that she may shun the word, but as a businesswoman, entrepreneur and songwriting pioneer, she’s lived an entirely feminist life.) The answer perhaps lies in her refusal to judge: In the same way that she loves the flawed characters in her songs, she accepts without criticism the vast diversity of belief and experience among her fans.
A few years ago, I got to see that gloriously scattered array for myself. A group of girlfriends – women I’d danced to Islands in the Stream with at the dreg-end of a party – went to see Dolly at the Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto. The audience, wreathed in a most un-Dolly cloud of weed smoke, greeted her with the reverence fitting a queen visiting one of her distant colonies.
My friends all came away from that night with a sense of magic, but each of us experienced it in a different light. One remembered Dolly’s extraordinary stamina and control, at the age of 70, over her voice and instruments and band. One is still laughing at the story she told about booting her insolent drummer out of the band with her spike heels, “and that’s why we’re using a drum machine tonight.”
I spent much of the evening coveting Dolly’s gorgeous red pantsuit, which was probably handmade at great expense, and not by her mother. I remember that she sang Coat of Many Colors, sending it out to the whole audience even though it felt like she was singing it just to me.
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