This article is a part of the Arts b-side on Icons. For a full look at our b-side pieces exploring this theme, click this link.

If you asked any American to draw a picture of Dolly Parton, they’d probably scribble the same thing down. Big lipsticked smile, big blonde hair, big gaudy heels and, of course, her iconic big boobs. She is the image of camp in a way that only someone with her sass, confidence and incredible charisma could pull off, much less trademark in the way she has. She may have made her mark on the music industry with a song called “Dumb Blonde,” but Parton is nowhere near it. 

She knows what she’s doing at every moment — building her legacy step by step with a vigor which mirrors that of competitive cheerleaders and pageant Pomeranians. In Dolly’s words, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” Her sparkling individuality (and rhinestones) may have set Parton out at the beginning of her career, but it is what has kept her on the map as times have changed.

The enduring image that Parton has created over her long career has permeated every era, surprisingly even this one, as her star rises with those who grew up listening to her and those who follow her on Twitter alike. For someone so brash and unapologetic, it is impressive that Parton has maintained this universal appeal throughout the years, especially given the polarizing nature of celebrity today. 

She’s a classic American icon with an even more American story: from the one-room cabin she was born in to a multimillion-dollar empire including theme parks and cookware, she’s the poster child for working your way up, no matter the obstacles. Everyone loves Dolly, and if her track record means anything, they will continue to love her forever. 

On the heels of her recent holiday release, A Holly Dolly Christmas, Parton has been on a lot of minds lately. It’s the first Christmas album she’s recorded in 30 years and reminds us of the overwhelming warmth that her clear, beautiful voice brings to listeners. The songwriter began her career as country musician Porter Wagoner’s “girl singer” on his variety show, developing a working relationship that lasted decades, but soon found her own path and eventually split to build her career as a solo artist. In fact, Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You” after leaving Wagoner’s side, reportedly during the same session that “Jolene” was also thought up. 

Parton shows up like this constantly in the history of country and pop music, permeating the industry with her charm and sass, no matter the occasion. She has  hundreds of compositions that bring in millions of dollars a year, a theme park called Dollywood in the Smoky Mountains for family fun and classic Southern hospitality, a spa, a deal for personalized greeting cards with American Greetings and, soon, a cookware and home decor line with Williams Sonoma. The woman does everything, and her personality has eclipsed her music in some ways, despite its legacy and importance in the development of American country. Her singing voice may have established Parton in the public eye, but now her speaking voice is what keeps her there. Dolly Parton is a person, sure, but she is also an image, a feeling and a brand.

These business ventures and Parton’s hold on the public sphere have spurred somewhat of a Dolly renaissance in the past few years, even as the singer hit 74. For an older woman to keep that kind of relevance in the increasingly sexist and ageist world of celebrity is quite a feat, and her popularity doesn’t seem to be waning anytime soon. A popular podcast titled “Dolly Parton’s America,” produced by NPR station WNYC, explores this phenomenon deeply. It wonders out loud about how a woman born on the banks of Tennessee’s Little Pigeon River to illiterate parents and 11 siblings became, and still exists as, such an American fixture. 

Parton is the definition of an icon in the classic sense, as her talent kicked off her career, her personality kept it going and now it transcends both into a space of pure influence. If she were any other person, some may say that she has sold out. But Parton has never made herself out to be a serious or purely artistic person — she just wants to make people feel good and put away enough to keep her family going long after she’s gone. 

In a lot of ways, Parton’s icon status is different from that of many other divas that we know and love. She is not famous for being mean or catty to others, not for her money, not for her sex appeal or her pandering to an audience. No, Dolly Parton is an enigma of her own making, a mix of musical ingenuity, a brutally honest and hilarious take on life and a joie de vivre that has endured many heartbreaks and deep sadness in the seven decades she’s been kicking. Parton doesn’t have to say controversial things or take political stances to maintain her place in the realm of significance, she just has to be herself. And that is a hell of a person to be. 

 

Daily Arts Writer Clara Scott can be reached at clascott@umich.edu.

 

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