What Would Dolly Do?

How to Be a Diamond in a Rhinestone World


By Lauren Marino

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A spirited homage to Dolly Parton that captures the unique humor, no-nonsense wisdom, flash, and sass of one of America’s most iconic stars.

One of twelve children raised in a shack in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Dolly Parton grew to become an international superstar famous for classic songs such as “Jolene,” “9 to 5,” “The Coat of Many Colors,” and “I Will Always Love You.” She is a reflection of the American dream, a role model for the ages, and a mentor to a whole new generation of entertainers. There is much to be learned from her unique brand, her big heart and spirituality, her grit and work ethic.

This lively, illustrated book–part biography, part inspiration, part words of wisdom and life lessons–highlights the very best of the “Dolly Mama,” from her quotable Dollyisms, unrelenting positivity, and powerful spirituality, to her belief in the human ability to overcome adversity. Drawing on Dolly’s two autobiographies, cookbooks and songs; as well as artifacts; books by her family members; biographies; and decades worth of television, print interviews and performances, What Would Dolly Do? shows you how to tap into your Inner Dolly with confidence, faith, and humor.


Author’s Note

When Andy Warhol asked Dolly Parton in Interview magazine if she kept a diary, she said, “I don’t have to. It seems like for the last 40 years my life has been lived in the press.” In 2014, that interview was updated and she added, “I can Google any date in my history and find out what I was doing.” She is highly quotable and well documented.

Dolly says she doesn’t give advice; she just might give you some information that can help you out. She has enough to figure out on her own and is humble enough to resist telling people what to do. I, however, have no such qualms about telling people what to do, especially when I’m using the wisdom of the great Dolly Parton as the basis for that advice. In this book I have tried to distill all the advice she might give based on her stories and life and the countless interviews she has given over the past fifty years. For example, she never wrote down her own rules for a happy marriage or best ways to be creative. These lists are all based on my own research and curating and culling what I can only call the Dolly Parton philosophy, as I see it.

In pulling this book together, I have also drawn on Dolly’s two autobiographies; her cookbooks and songs; books by her family members; biographies; photographs; museums and artifacts; many, many television and print interviews; visits to her hometown and Dollywood; and performances from over the last several decades.

So while Dolly didn’t participate in this book, I sincerely hope that should I be lucky enough to have her become aware of it she will think that I’ve captured her one-of-a-kind way of looking at the world accurately and appreciates how much people can learn from her.


Find out who you are and do it on purpose.

—Dolly Parton

As a skinny, bookish tween, I hitched a ride with neighbors from suburban Cincinnati up to the Ohio State Fair in Columbus to see Dolly Parton just before she became a mainstream star in 9 to 5. Cincinnati was a Midwestern town, but being on the border of Kentucky, it was also a little bit country, and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton were my favorites. Once inside the fairgrounds, I ignored the other amusements (pig races! butter sculpture contests!) and abandoned the people who had driven me, so focused was I on camping out on the grass in front of the stage where Dolly would play. I was an excited ten-year-old whose anticipation, combined with the feeling of camaraderie among the audience, made me feel I was among friends. When she took the stage, there was something in that lilting soprano, the energy of her performance, and how the crowd reacted to her that woke up part of my soul. It committed me forever to a love of live music. One little woman on a big stage could move this entire group of people and bring them to their feet, to tears, or to hoot, to holler, and to sing along with her. It felt like magic to me. And it felt like home.

Decades later, now a jaded New Yorker, I was in the Nederlander Theater on Broadway, starting over both personally, after a drawn-out divorce, and professionally, after a successful and satisfying twenty-five-year career ended somewhat abruptly. I had to reinvent myself, and with two small children, I didn’t have the luxury of taking my time to do it. I needed inspiration. A role model. I sat through Kristin Chenoweth’s one-woman show and listened as she told the audience how, growing up in Arkansas as an aspiring singer and actress, she had very few role models other than Dolly Parton. As a kid, she wanted to be Dolly when she grew up. As Chenoweth burst into a spirited and stirring version of “Little Sparrow,” I burst into tears.

Dolly’s lyrics transported me back to that state fair and my spunky, free-spirited young self, determined to see my idol. While it was her incredible energy that drew me in as a girl, it was her poignant lyrics and the emotion and life experience behind them that moved me as an adult. The lyrics are simple but the nuances of pain and strength conveyed in them connected with me deeply. I was not that little sparrow, so easily broken. I would bounce back.

After that night, Dolly’s songs seemed to be playing wherever I went. I would be out and hear “Jolene” on a jukebox or being covered by a favorite band. As one who believes in the magic of coincidences, this was becoming difficult to ignore. Yes, I know this sounds crazy, but Dolly even came to me in a dream and told me to buck up and get on with my life and, this time, have the courage to do things the way I wanted to do them, not the way anyone else thought I should. She reminded me I was still that independent-minded girl I had once been.

You could say I became a little obsessed. I started reading everything I could about her, listening to her music, watching her old TV interviews (go watch the 1977 Barbara Walters interview on YouTube—she is fierce!). The more I read, heard, and saw, the more fascinated I became. I was inspired. Not only is there so much more to her than meets the eye, but she is also a role model for the ages—and for all ages.

I went to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, where I had vacationed growing up. I don’t know if it was going back to a place I knew as a child, or having such good, clean family fun with my kids after a rough couple of years, or talking with the friendly, chatty locals, or being turned upside down three times in a row at seventy miles an hour on the Tennessee Tornado roller coaster at Dollywood. Whatever it was, it restored me in some fundamental way.

I realized that if I could learn from and find such inspiration from her, then anyone who was in my shoes could, too. She speaks openly of the hard times of her childhood; she relentlessly pursued her dreams and didn’t let anyone drag her down; she created success on her own terms—as a woman in a male-dominated (are there any that aren’t?) industry. She has a sense of humor and can be silly and childlike; she has good people in her life; she brings positive energy to all that she does; she has a deep spirituality and gives back. She does it all looking fabulous with a big ole smile on her face. I might never—okay, I will never—be as accomplished or exceptional as Dolly, but she has many qualities I can certainly aspire to emulate.

She gave me hope and reminded me what I was made of at a time when I needed it most through both her songs and her example. None of us get out of this life unscathed. We only get one time around, so we need to make the most of it. There’s no better example on how to do this than Ms. Dolly Parton. As a result, I find it helpful when faced with a dilemma to ask the question, “What would Dolly do?” and it makes me stand a little taller.

I’m not the only one asking that question.

The University of Tennessee in Knoxville is now offering a class called “Dolly’s America: From Sevierville to the World,” using the life and legacy of Dolly Parton to teach students about the history and culture of Appalachia. It’s an honors course that associate professor Lynn Sacco says she came up with after hearing Dolly’s U of T commencement speech in 2009. Dr. Sacco told the New York Times that it was a really nerdy class. A nerdy honors history course. About Dolly Parton.

The head of the history department said that she “raises so many fundamental questions worth asking in any humanities course—about how place shapes values, our ideas about success, the relationship between art and celebrity.”

As Dolly tweeted upon hearing about the course: “From the girl voted in High School ‘least likely to succeed’ this sure is a blessing!”

We could all use a little more tolerance, encouragement, and joy right now, as well as a reminder of what it’s like to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, old-school American dream–style. From a whip-smart and talented woman who does things her way. Hopefully she will inspire you and your own dreams, whatever they might be, just as she inspired me.

Chapter One

Put Wings on Your Dreams

Dolly Rebecca Parton was born in 1946 near the Little Pigeon River in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. She was the fourth child of twelve—after Willadeene, David, and Denver and before Bobby, Stella, Cassie, Randy, Larry, Floyd, Freida, and Rachel—born in a two-room wooden cabin with no toilet, shower, or electricity. When the doctor came to deliver her, he was paid with a bag of cornmeal because her parents had no money.

So began the journey of one of the world’s most enduring, successful, and beloved singers, a self-described “Cinderella story, the rags-to-riches kind.” Her father was a sharecropper and sometimes construction worker or coal miner, and her mother, as Dolly says, was pregnant so much she always had one baby on her and one in her. The children had many chores and minimal entertainment, other than an old battery-operated radio that, when it was working, would occasionally bring The Lone Ranger or the music of Hank Williams and the Carter Family singing at the Grand Ole Opry into their house.

Dolly grew up in poverty and she speaks of it openly: “We didn’t have the things we wanted but we didn’t starve… we were hungry for a variety of things but as far as going hungry with our bellies empty, we never had to do that. We just had simple things. Like for breakfast we always had just gravy and biscuits. For dinner and supper we had beans and potatoes. We were lucky to have it.” Much of what they ate they grew or shot themselves.

Her father labored so hard his hands and feet would bleed. Her mother prepared and cooked meals, made their clothes, and did countless other chores. In her song “In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad),” she writes about getting up before the sun to work in the fields only to watch a hailstorm destroy those crops, or waking up with ice and snow on the floor and watching her parents suffer through overwork and illness. She says that there is no amount of money that would be enough to make her go back and live through those times again.

Given her parents’ never-ending responsibilities, little Dolly was alone a lot. They had no TV or movies and very limited reading material, so she learned to entertain herself. She would find quiet spaces to sit and just stare at the clouds for hours at a time, dreaming and making up stories, playing out fantasies in her mind. The perfect escape for a child who didn’t like school and did whatever she could to get out of working in the fields was “fairy stories, fairy tales. I used to just live in them.” They used old newspapers as wallpaper in their two-room cabin and so she would read the walls. Her imagination was so active that she would create lives and stories around the people and things she read about.

Soon she moved on to creating fairy tales with herself at the center of them. She began imagining and planning a better life for herself. She loved writing songs and performing from a young age and realized that her talent and passion could help her achieve the big life she wanted. The difference between Dolly and the majority of people is that she not only believed deep down in her soul that her vision would come true, but she also did everything in her power to make it happen. She says, “I’m a dreamer, but I’m a doer, too.” She took those hard times and created music from them. She was a self-taught singer, musician, and songwriter with minimal education, but her ambition, drive, and relentless work ethic made her a star.

Young Dolly had plenty of time to run wild, to dream, and to gain admiration by making up little songs. Her first, “Little Tiny Tassel Top,” composed at age five, was an ode to her corncob doll with corn-silk hair that her father had made for her. She had her mother write down the lyrics. She says that “when people would come around, Mama’d say, ‘You gotta hear this little song Dolly wrote!’ I loved it, of course, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll stay with it.’” She would stand on the porch, pretending she was onstage, and sing to the chickens and younger children with a tin can on a tobacco stick as a microphone.

By the age of eight, she was performing at the Church of God, where her grandfather preached, and went around singing in other churches with her siblings as the Parton Sisters. Her entire family was musical and she claims she wasn’t the most talented but she was “the one with the dreams and the confidence. From the time I was little I always loved music.”

She was determined to get out and see the world beyond her own hills. “I learned there was this place you could go to become a star. It was called Nashville.” She tells the story of having a semireligious experience as a young child: “I didn’t hear a voice, but it was a knowing that came to me and it said, ‘Run. Run until I tell you to stop.’”

She’s been running toward her dreams ever since.

She taught herself to play chords by making herself a homemade instrument from old musical parts. Her mother’s brother, Bill Owens, was the first person to recognize her talent and gave her a real guitar and taught her chords. He appreciated her determination to learn and her ability to go beyond just chords to coming up with little melodies. When she was just ten, he took her to Knoxville to audition for the Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour, an early-morning variety show, which was her initial break into show business. She was on television before her family even had one.

As a songwriter himself, Uncle Bill knew Nashville a bit, and when Dolly was old enough, they would drive there in his beat-up old car and try to get people to listen to their songs. “We used to come down in his rickety car any time we could beg, borrow, or steal enough money for gas. We’d clean up in service stations. I’d wash my hair in those old, cold sinks and put my makeup on in the mirrors in the car.” She would stand outside the Country Music Hall of Fame and look at all the famous names written on the pavement and vow to herself that someday her name, too, would be there. (It is.) Through it all, she says, “There wasn’t ever a time I thought I wasn’t going to make it.”

If anyone ever figured out the American dream and made it work, it’s Dolly Parton. Her ability to imagine a better future for herself, as well as her hard work and determination, got her out of the holler. How did she achieve her dreams against all odds?

“I wake up with new dreams every day. And the more you do, when you’re a dreamer, the more everything creates other arenas you can go into. It’s like a tree with many branches, and branches with many leaves.”

If You Don’t Like the Road You’re On, Start Paving a New One

Even though she had her family and their love, and despite the somewhat romanticized view of her past that she presents now, Dolly craved to see the world beyond the foothills of the Smoky Mountains: “I had my songs to sing. I had an ambition and it burned inside me. It was something I knew would take me out of the mountains.”

What is a dreamer except a person who believes that the impossible can become possible? As children, we daydream and imagine who or what we will be when we grow up. But once we are adults, the challenges of day-to-day reality can impinge on that ability to dream, to our detriment. Especially when we’re going through challenging times, it’s important to be able to imagine a brighter future. Call it hope or optimism or faith, dreaming is the belief that you can make your own life better. In Dolly’s own words, “You can think yourself rich or you can think yourself poor.” While it’s certainly more complicated than that, her point is that your thoughts and aspirations are powerful and that being able to imagine yourself being successful is the first step to getting there. Whatever success you might have, it all starts with a vision of what is possible.

She is a big believer in using and exercising her own mind’s power to make things happen for herself and carves out time and space to dream. At a young age, she started paving a new road for herself, saying, “I dreamed of the time that I’d have money and I’d be rich and I would have pretty clothes and makeup and jewelry and houses and cars—big cars and houses. I just dreamed of all the things that I would have. And I dreamed of singin’ and I dreamed of bein’ famous and loved.”

But dreaming doesn’t happen if you are operating on autopilot. Sometimes you need to take a time-out just to let yourself think on what it is that you want. It may seem easier said than done, but having that solitude and relaxation where you can just let your mind go on adventures is sometimes the best way to restore yourself and come up with your best ideas. As an adult, Dolly says she does her best dreaming on the front porch, and she schedules specific time to sit there alone in contemplation. Dolly’s version of dreaming is songwriting or setting goals for herself. It could start with the unimaginable or what may not seem possible. But you have to start somewhere. If you want to build a business, you have to imagine it first. If you have an idea for an invention, you have to dream it up first and then map it out. If you want to be an actress, a writer, an artist, a musician, you have to picture in your mind where you want to go with it and then learn the skills required to help you get there.

Be a Dreamer, But Be a Doer, Too

It’s one thing to dream of being in a fairy tale, like so many children do, but it’s another to turn your life into one. You can’t just sit around wishing things would happen; you have to go out there and get stuff done. Or as Dolly says, “If you never try, you ain’t never going to win.” Having a strong vision puts a fire in your belly that provides conviction, which, in turn, provides motivation to do the hard work required. That will sustain you, not just on your way up, but when you are beaten down and challenged, which you most certainly will be at some point.

When journalist Chet Flippo did his first Rolling Stone interview with Dolly back in 1977, he mentioned that she was known for setting goals and writing them down, which, he wrote, “set her off on a 45-minute discussion on achieving and how to do it.” She then said she has always created elaborate and specific lists along with detailed plans on how to get things done, and then hides them away, where no one can see them. In doing so, she takes what she imagines and makes it a little more concrete, a little bit closer to reality, planting the seeds in the back of her mind. When she goes back years later and reads through these lists, she is often amazed to see that most of what she wrote down has come true: “I think, boy, if that ain’t proof that positive thinkin’ is a marvelous thing.”

Stating your intentions and writing down your goals and dreams makes you think them through and sends a message to the universe. Dolly’s list-making methods include a combination of positive thinking and visualization. If there is something that she really wants, she will “write it down on a piece of paper and I look at the list and I concentrate real hard on it, try to visualize it happening, and I just go through all the motions as if it’s already been done.”

Once you’ve written down your own list of dreams, you need to do things that will make them happen, using whatever it is you’ve got. The Partons were nothing if not creative in their ability to be innovative by making the most of what they had. When Dolly used to sit on the woodpile in her potato-sack dresses pretending she was onstage in sequins and silk, she played on an old mandolin she had repurposed with piano strings. “Waste not, want not” was a motto in her household, so old newspapers became wallpaper, corn husks became dolls, old scraps of cloth and rags became clothes and blankets. They made their own toys, cut down their own Christmas trees, and decorated them their way without any real ornaments. They used their imaginations. Not just in making things but in finding ways to get around things. That kind of resourcefulness and ingenuity served her well throughout her life and career and is something we can all keep in mind as we try to find our way around obstacles.

The first time Dolly was set to appear on Cas Walker’s show, she happened to be there the day of Cas’s greasy pole contest. Cas would grease a fifty-foot pole and put $250 at the top of it. Whoever could climb the pole and retrieve the prize money without slipping down got to keep it. Dolly watched one person after another slip down the pole. So she got an idea. She poured water on herself to get all wet, then went outside and rolled around in the dirt and sand. When her turn came, she scooted right up the pole and got the money. People were angry that she won and thought the contest had been “fixed.” Cas had watched the whole thing and said, “How could a greasy pole be fixed? This girl has taught me something today and that in itself is worth $250.” Dolly took the money and bought her family their very first television set, the only one in her neck of the woods. When Dolly got a spot singing on his show every Saturday, her family could now watch her on TV.

Upon arriving in Nashville she had nowhere to live or money for food, she bartered babysitting in exchange for a place to stay and filled salt and pepper shakers at a diner in return for free food. All the while she kept writing songs, knocking on doors, learning the ins and outs of the music business, and distributing demos of her songs.

Let Your Determination Be Greater than Your Fear

Dolly has said, “I always had more guts than talent.” When Dolly was ten years old, she sang a song on the radio for the first time. She said she was scared to death but she did it anyway, despite her lack of experience and not knowing how to work a microphone. The crowd roared with approval and not because she was good but “just because I had the nerve to do it.” Focusing on negative thoughts or fear can keep you where you are. Or you can choose to turn things around and forge ahead. One small courageous act can provide the confidence you need to climb the next step.

After her first radio appearance Dolly’s confidence grew and she went on and fulfilled her first “big” dream of singing at the Grand Ole Opry at age thirteen. From there the dreams just kept getting bigger and bigger. She has said, “I’ve felt like my dreams were the foundation of my drive to accomplish all the things I love.”

Not everyone understands that power or has the imagination to believe in a better life or future. Throughout her life, other people underestimated her; they even laughed at her. When she graduated from high school and everyone had to stand up in front of the class and say what they planned on doing, she said, “I’m going to Nashville and I’m going to become a star.” There was a pause and then the whole room started snickering and laughing. She was embarrassed but she didn’t let that deter her. She was on a Greyhound bus to Nashville the next morning and she told herself she wasn’t going back until she made it. She didn’t let the doubters drag her down. Like Dolly has said over and over, don’t limit yourself just because people won’t accept the fact that you can do something else or do more. Their limited imaginations are their problem, not yours. So show them what you’re made of.

Dolly’s drive is pretty intense but you don’t get to where she is by being wishy-washy. “I’ve always loved what I do, and try to just do my best work. I don’t try to outdo somebody else—I try to outdo me. I try to make and break my own records. I try to do better at something than I was last year.”

Once you know what it is you want, never stray from it. Like Dolly says, “You can do anything you want to as long as you keep a good attitude and keep working at it. But the second you give up you’re screwed.” In other words, keep your mind on your business despite the inevitable bumps on the journey. Have laserlike focus. When you really know yourself and your strengths and talents and are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to get what you want, to be who you want, well, you almost can’t lose.


  • "This illustrated read highlights the best of Dolly's wisdom, positivity, and spirituality...this book helped me tap into my 'Inner Dolly' - her lessons made me feel inspired and confident!"—First For Women

On Sale
Apr 24, 2018
Page Count
256 pages

Lauren Marino

About the Author

Lauren Marino is the former founding editor and editorial director of Gotham Books, where she published multiple bestsellers and award-winning books. She is the author of Jackie and Cassini and has collaborated with celebrities, doctors, and psychologists on their books. She lives in New York City.

Learn more about this author