Dolly Parton is an American icon. For more than fifty years, she’s been a gleaming fixture on the country and pop charts—almost literally, given her predilection for rhinestone-encrusted everything—as well as a larger-than-life personality. She’s in on every joke about her; she made up most of them herself. Behind the big wigs and heavy makeup has always lived a talented songwriter and businesswoman.
Along the way, Parton has maintained her magnificently sharp sense of humor, donated millions to nonprofit causes near to her heart, advocated for the LGBTQIA community, and made herself a wholly inimitable part of pop culture. On the occasion of her birthday—and a Friday night dance party at The Pinhook to celebrate it—here are some life lessons Parton has imparted over the years.
POUR YOURSELF A CUP OF AMBITION
Parton hasn’t had a half-century career for nothing—take her advice in the first few lines of “9 to 5.” Or, “Find out who you are and do it on purpose,” as she also says. That “do it on purpose” requires some ambition and bravery, but as Parton has proved over and over again, the rewards for that can be immensely fulfilling. Do you want to wear outrageous ensembles and tease your hair to the clouds? Do you want to make it to the top of your chosen field? Go for it—just make sure to stay kind along the way.
BUT ALSO, CAPITALISM SUCKS
“9 to 5” is all about how, despite your hard work and dreaming of making a better life for yourself, your bosses take advantage of you, and all of your toiling goes to fatten the pockets of rich men anyway. “9 to 5” is an anti-capitalist anthem! Scream it from the rooftops! Kidnap and hogtie your bo—actually, maybe don’t do that.
KNOW YOUR WORTH
After Parton released “I Will Always Love You” in 1974, Elvis Presley expressed interest in recording and releasing his own cover of it. The tradeoff, though, was that Parton would have to sign away half of all of the song’s publishing royalties to Presley. Parton refused. It was her song, after all, so why should someone else get half of her publishing in perpetuity? Though everyone told her she was making a huge mistake, Parton got the last laugh several years later, when Whitney Houston’s cover of it for The Bodyguard became a super-duper-mega-smash-hit. Both women made a boatload of money. This is all to say: Trust your gut and don’t let some man take your money for your hard work.
READ MORE BOOKS
Inspired by the comfort books offered her throughout her impoverished childhood, Parton founded her Imagination Library nonprofit. Through the program, parents can sign up their child to receive a free book every month from birth to age five. She’s since distributed over a hundred million books in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. By dedicating more of your leisure time to books, you can take a break from our present reality of unending chaos while appreciating your privilege of literacy.
LOOK OUT FOR YOUR PEOPLE
Beyond her Imagination Library initiative, Parton has maintained a dedication to her home state of Tennessee and the people who live there. When fires ripped through the Great Smoky Mountains in the fall of 2016, Parton distributed nearly nine million dollars to families whose homes had been destroyed, in monthly installments of a thousand dollars. Has someone had a significant influence on your growth? Consider writing them a sweet note to let them know what they mean to you. And, in general, make an effort to show up for your friends and family when you see they need it most.
In addition to a stunning career as songwriter and performer, Parton’s stardom also includes several big-screen roles (Steel Magnolias! The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas!), a short-lived variety show, an amusement park, and a generous handful of TV specials and movies. Not that you have to do all of that, but maybe you could try challenging yourself from time to time with things that seem like they might be impossible.
MY BODY, MY CHOICE
Cosmetic surgery gets a not-entirely-undeserved bad rap, but women who dare to alter their appearance often face outsize criticism for their choices. But Parton has never been shy about ’fessing up to the work she’s had done, nor does she have any time for those who write off her sparkles-and-sequins wardrobe as “trashy” (“It costs a lot of money to look this cheap,” she’s said). Also: Dolly Parton has secret tattoos. She’s confirmed a couple of them, saying they’re “mostly for her husband,” (spicy!) but there are rumors she has many more. She looks and dresses however she wants, and that’s great! Your body is yours alone, and anyone who tries to give you a hard time about your appearance can go pound sand.
BE A DIAMOND
“It’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world,” goes one Dollyism that carries a double-dose of wisdom. Being a diamond means being the real deal, the most genuine version of yourself in a world full of fakes and phonies. But being yourself and projecting that to the outside world requires consistent, thoughtful introspection, a dose of confidence, and yes, even making yourself vulnerable to others. That is hard! But by being your true self, it makes it easier for everyone else to see your shine, too.