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14 November 2022

The soft power of Dolly Parton

The country singer and philanthropist has been given $100m by Jeff Bezos for her charities. What might she do with it?

By Kate Mossman

On seeing a poster for Dolly Parton’s literacy programme in my local library I briefly assumed that she was coming there to read to the children herself. It was not entirely improbable, since Dolly has the kind of philanthropy that seems to put her everywhere at once, a bit like Santa. That she gives 11,000 free books a month not just to children at home in Sevier County, Tennessee, but in the London borough of Islington is evidence of the reach of her long philanthropic arms. And in her eighth decade she continues to graduate from local to global do-gooding. Last night she became the recipient of Jeff Bezos’s annual Courage and Civility Award – $100m bestowed upon “leaders who aim high, find solutions and who always do it with civility”, as Bezos’s partner Lauren Sanchez puts it. In the same month that Elon Musk, the richest man on earth, fired his new employees by email, it was nice to see recognition of people who give away lots of money politely.

“Did you say a hundred million dollars?!” Dolly replied, comically aghast. She is fond of quoting Luke 12:48: “To whom much is given, much is required.” It bloody well is. $100m dollars is an enormous amount of money. You’ve got to hire people to manage the funds. Do due diligence on the organisations you’re giving to. And while Dolly has done all this before, does that really mean she wants to do it for other people? Bezos is outsourcing the work: he wants the money to go to good causes, but can’t figure out how best to do that – so he’s calling in the experts. He launched the award shortly after he went into space.

In Dollywood, her economic engine room in the Smoky mountains, and her other 25 amusement parks and attractions Parton employs 11,000 people and offers to finance 100 per cent of their tuition fees, should they have their eyes set on greater things than working in a theme park (there is also onsite health care). Dollywood’s roller coasters orbit a small mock-up of the log cabin she was raised in in the 1940s, a reminder of poverty, luck and determination, and in an onsite theatre members of her real extended family perform her back catalogue to visitors on the hour, sometimes rather grim-faced (she is not the best musician in her family, she once said, she is just the one who became famous).

Parton did much charity work for years far from the headlines in her home state. In the early 1990s she promised to give children in Sevier County $500 dollars each if they could graduate high school (it worked). She provided band and choir uniforms for pupils, gave tonnes of money to hospitals and even worked to save the bald eagle, a species with whom she claims to have an affinity. She earned $10m in royalties from Whitney Houston’s version of her original song “I Will Always Love You” and invested it in a failing strip mall in a predominantly black area of Nashville in her honour, saying, “This is the house that Whitney built.” (Whitney was not actually from Nashville.)

Now in her mid-70s, Parton can use her soft power in political directions. Half way through the pandemic she gave $1m to Vanderbilt University in Nashville to help finance the early trials of the Moderna vaccine. She even re-recorded the words to “Jolene”.

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Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine
I’m begging of you please don’t hesitate
Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine
‘Cos once you’re dead, then that’s a bit too late.

Her home state had – still has – one of the lowest vaccination uptake rates in America but Parton worked on, with her usual delight, and her unfailing ability to appear surprised and humble when thanked for her efforts. She could do great things with Bezos’s money – if she can get past all the admin.

[See also: The high-art cabaret of Christine and the Queens’ Redcar]

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