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25 November 2020updated 15 Apr 2021 11:34am

How Dolly Parton helped fund a Covid-19 vaccine – and unify a nation

The country singer and all-American icon donated $1m to coronavirus vaccine research, but it's only the latest initiative in a lifetime of philanthropy. 

By Sophie McBain

When the American pharmaceutical company Moderna announced its Covid-19 vaccine could be 95 per cent effective, keen-eyed readers noticed that “the Dolly Parton Covid-19 Research Fund” was listed as a financial backer. In April, the country music star and all-American icon donated $1m to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, after an old friend of hers, a surgeon named Naji Abumrad, told her that the institution was conducting promising research. 

Parton and Abumrad formed an unlikely friendship when he treated her following a minor car crash in 2013 and they bonded over their shared experiences of childhood poverty, his in Lebanon, hers in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, a few hundred miles from Nashville. “I’m just happy that anything I do can help somebody else,” she said on the TV show Today not long after the announcement, her Southern twang as warming and familiar as apple pie, her jewels and bright red fingernails glinting. It hadn’t seemed possible that Parton could be any more loved – and yet.

To attend a Dolly Parton show is like “standing in an alternate vision of America”, Abumrad’s son, the journalist Jad Abumrad, observes at the beginning of his nine-episode podcast, Dolly Parton’s America. In a divided country, she remains a “unifier”. Where else but at a Parton show could you find Americans of all races and genders and ages and political  affiliations singing the same tune, cowboys and drag queens, lesbians and church mums, teenagers and their grandparents?

Parton is “loved for being loved, and loved transcendently”, Lauren Michele Jackson recently wrote in the New Yorker. She is the only musician to have had a top 20 hit in the American Billboard charts in every decade since the Sixties, and has written 3,000 songs and released more than 50 studio albums. She believes she wrote the hits “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” on the same day, or at least in the same week. She has written “sad-ass” songs, about her family and her hardscrabble childhood, and she has written defiant ones, such as “9 to 5”, an anthem for anyone stuck with an employer who’s “all takin’ and no givin’”.

[see also: Why Covid-19 vaccines offer cause for hope and concern]

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Parton, 74, was the fourth of 12 children and grew up on a small farm with, in her words, “two rooms and a path and running water, if you were willing to run to get it”. She has been singing as long as she can remember. First, she sang at the church at which her grandfather was a preacher; at ten she sang in her first radio broadcast; at 13 she secured her first slot at the legendary country music venue, the Grand Ole Opry, and, by 19, she had her first record deal and had moved full-time to Nashville. She released her first album, Hello Dolly, in 1967. “This dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool,” she sang on “Dumb Blonde”, a warning that caught the attention of the TV star Porter Wagoner, who invited her to become the co-star of The Porter Wagoner Show and propelled her into the limelight. After seven years, she went solo. She kept writing songs, started her own TV show in 1976 and starred in films, too, beginning in 1980 with the comedy 9 to 5

Yet she never strayed far from Tennessee, where she now lives with her husband of 54 years, Carl Dean. “I used to think… if I ever get to be the star I want to be, I want to do something great for my people,” she recently told Vanity Fair.

In 1986, Parton opened Dollywood, a theme park close to where she grew up and now the largest employer in Sevier County. In 1995, she launched the Imagination Library, which has since distributed 140 million books to children. When hundreds of Tennessee families lost their homes in wildfires in 2016, Parton set up a fund giving them each $6,000 over six months to help them rebuild. She has written five books and has a TV production company, which co-produced Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She has just released a festive bakeware line. “I ain’t ever gonna be old because I ain’t got time to be old,” she told Oprah Winfrey this month.  

Parton has always avoided party politics and rejects ideological labels (she is, for many women, a feminist icon, but refuses to define herself as one). She usually deflects political questions with a wisecrack, but this summer, as anti-racism protests spread across the US, she weighed in. “Of course black lives matter. Do you think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No!” she told Billboard magazine. More than 24,000 people signed a petition calling on Tennessee legislators to replace all confederate statues with monuments to Dolly.  

During the pandemic, she has served as the “comforter-in-chief”, Billboard observed. She shared folksy, uplifting truisms – “Dollyisms” – on her Instagram, and streamed bedtime stories for children. “Hello. It’s me, I’m all comfy and cosy,” she trills from bed, wearing reading glasses and patterned pyjamas. “Remember me? Dolly? The book lady?” As well as her Christmas album, she has just released a book, Storyteller: My Life in Lyrics, and a film, Christmas on the Square. She told Today she was doing it all for us, saying: “We’ve just tried to add a little more fun this year.” 

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This article appears in the 25 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump