When I moved from the UK to the American South, there were plenty of things that were new and unfamiliar. You might be surprised to learn that country music and Dolly Parton weren’t among them. There’s a close connection between country and the traditional music of Ireland and Scotland. (Glasgow, where I lived and worked for many years, has its own Grand Ole Opry!) And Dolly herself is just as well known across the pond as she is here in the states.
Ms. Parton is an actress, a businesswoman, and a philanthropist, but of course she’s best known as a musician. She’s a peerless star and a respected songwriter, with hits so diverse and enduring they’ve been covered by everyone from Whitney Houston to Jack White. Just the other day I heard my friend’s kid sing every word of “Jolene” from start to finish—a great example of how Dolly’s appeal crosses lines of age, genre, and geography.
Back in the UK, I connected to her story on a personal level. Dolly famously grew up poor in a family with 12 children, and the hardship (and joy) I’ve heard her describe resonates with my own experience in a family of refugees who came to England with only the shirts on their backs. She overcame a lot of hardship with hard work, humility, and a sense of humor, but she didn’t just stop with her own self-betterment. After she had “made it,” Dolly incited countless others to follow their own dreams. People listened, because there’s something about her story that touches people.
Now that I live in East Tennessee, I appreciate her work on a whole new level. Not content to just reach individuals, Dolly works hard to bring people together. Her community-building efforts started early and grew fast, including national programs like her Imagination Library. Almost single-handedly, she put East Tennessee on the map as a tourist destination, and the jobs she created and the goodwill she’s engendered across the region and around the world have built bridges both here and far away.
Every step of the way, Dolly has been a living example of how to use stories to bring joy to your life and help build a better world. In my work in peace building and storytelling, I have only come across a few people with that kind of power to inspire and ignite change. Her reach and her message reminds me of great peacemakers like Desmond Tutu and Gandhi. I suppose they sound like an unlikely trio, but they actually have a lot in common.
Here at ISC, we recently embarked on an exciting series of projects with Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort. It turns out that Dolly’s still dreaming, and her most recent dream has been to build a beautiful hotel that will create even more opportunities for our region. Our collaboration is based on the shared values of using storytelling to bring families together, to promote positive change, and to inspire. Together, we’re making sure that stories of the region, future guests, and Dolly herself will all be part of the resort’s DNA.
Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort will open this summer. Watch this space for further details.