Dolly Parton and the spiritual quest for common ground

by | ART+MUSIC

Country music icon Dolly Parton is a national treasure. But when you move beyond the boob jokes and her down-home charm, you find a woman with a sophisticated understanding of the world — and a savvy guide on the spiritual quest to find common ground.

 The Dolly Parton paradox

True to her brand, Dolly was born in a one-room cabin in rural Tennessee. Over a career spanning seven decades, she’s written more than 3,000 songs and racked up an impressive list of achievements:

  • Over the course of her career, Dolly has recorded 25 #1 hits.
  • She holds the record for the most top 10 albums (43).
  • She’s built a $500M+ empire that includes a theme park (Dollywood), publishing rights, fashion, jewelry, home goods and more.
  • An active philanthropist, at the start of coronavirus pandemic Dolly helped fund research on the Moderna vaccine with a $1 million contribution to Vanderbilt University.

Dolly also has a reputation as a world-class interviewee. Tapping into her self-deprecating sense of humor and aw-shucks personality, she disarms interviewers with her ability to duck controversial topics.

One of the reasons Dolly interviews so well is that she simply refuses to be nailed down to a label. For example, she is fiercely apolitical. Although she admits to having political opinions, she won’t share them. Instead, she says she doesn’t do politics and points to her need to respect fans on both sides of the aisle. It’s a winning strategy for a celebrity who is as much a businesswoman as a singer/songwriter.

But beneath the surface of her country girl appeal, there’s a very different Dolly than the one her conservative, red-state fans might expect.

Regarded by many as a feminist hero, her songs often speak about female empowerment (e.g., “Jolene”). And don’t forget that she played a starring role in the 1980 feminist film, “9 to 5.”

Dolly is also recognized as an LGBTQ ally and a supporter of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement — communities and causes that aren’t usually associated with a country music fanbase.

The tension between Dolly’s popular persona and her social commitments would kill the careers of other celebrities faster than a sneeze through a screen door. But not Dolly. Her ability to navigate these opposing forces — even in today’s polarized social climate — points to her genius and spiritual maturity.

What Dolly Parton teaches us about finding common ground

Fans love that Dolly has never abandoned her roots. Although her background and life story are part of her schtick, there’s something bigger going on here. Unlike celebrities who change their identities whenever they release a new album, Dolly never tries to be something she’s not. She knows who she is and where she comes from.

And because she knows who she is, Dolly doesn’t feel the need to engage in the rampant tribalism that divides American society. Rooted in her self-identity, Dolly engages in a sort of practical spirituality — a common sense spirituality grounded in her personal values rather than the values of a political party or social/ideological tribe.

If you look closely, Dolly’s practical spirituality emerges when she talks about controversial subjects:

Dolly on being an LGBTQ ally:

“If people want to pass judgment, they’re already sinning. The sin of judging is just as bad as any other sin they might say somebody else is committing. I try to love everybody … [My LGBTQ fans] know that I completely love and accept them, as I do all people. I’ve struggled enough in my life to be appreciated and understood. I’ve had to go against all kinds of people through the years just to be myself. I think everybody should be allowed to be who they are, and to love who they love. I don’t think we should be judgmental. Lord, I’ve got enough problems of my own to pass judgment on somebody else.Billboard, 2014

Dolly on the Black Lives Matter movement:

“I understand people having to make themselves known and felt and seen. Of course, Black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No!”Billboard, 2020

Dolly on renaming her Dixie Stampede attraction:

“When they said ‘Dixie’ was an offensive word, I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to offend anybody. This is a business. We’ll just call it The Stampede.’ As soon as you realize that [something] is a problem, you should fix it. Don’t be a dumbass. That’s where my heart is. I would never dream of hurting anybody on purpose.”Billboard, 2020 

Dolly’s perspectives on LGBTQ, Black Lives Matter and other divisive social issues make sense to most of us. Truth be told, most of her fans probably feel the same way. But they would never dream of saying it out loud, let alone in public. To do so would risk the wrath of their tribes.

In this era of identity politics, we need people who are willing to speak and act from their own spiritual center. We need people who will risk banishment from their tribes and find common ground with people who are different than them.

Basically, we need more people like Dolly Parton.

Dolly doesn’t claim to be perfect. Like all of us, she has flaws and blind spots. But she knows who she is and what she believes. And from that understanding, she’s bridging the divisions that separate us and inviting us to take a fresh look at what it means to find common ground.

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