By Edward Smith
Nashville—If there’s anyone in the world who doesn’t love Dolly Parton, they sure weren’t in Nashville Monday afternoon.
An overflow crowd of more than 4,000 greeted the country legend when she opened the 2019 NCSL Legislative Summit with a discussion about her nearly 25-year-old Imagination Library project that has distributed close to 125 million books to children 5 and younger.
Tennessee Senator Lamar Aexander (R), who spoke just before her appearance, shared his own humbling story of riding with Parton to Dollywood, her amusement park and resort in the Smoky Mountains.
“There is no more incidental role in public life than to be on the stage with Dolly Parton,” he said, recalling one admirer who spotted the senator and the legend riding into the resort: “Get out of the way so I can see Dolly.”
Parton, joined onstage by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee (R), shared some memories of her father, who inspired her to start Imagination Library.
“Dad was intelligent country people, raised in a family with 14 kids,” she said. “My dad never had a chance to go [to school]. He never learned to read or write. But my dad was one of the smartest people you’d ever meet. He was always crippled by the fact that he couldn’t read.
“I got the idea to start a program for children so they could start to read in the early years … and I asked my dad to help me with it.”
The program provides a book a month to children from birth until 5 years old whose parents sign them up.
“We just started in our home county, Sevier County,” she said. “We thought the best we could do is a few more counties. Then it went across the U.S.”
The program now is in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.
“My daddy got to live long enough to see it come to be … [and he] felt like he was part of it."
And with people representing all 50 states in the audience, Parton offered a little encouragement to the crowd.
“We’d like all the states to go statewide with it,” she said. “It’s not just for poor kids, but for all kids, for every child who signs up.”
She added, “I’m prouder of this than anything I’ve done in my whole life.”
That’s saying a lot for someone who is a living legend with 41 career top-10 country albums, who has penned some of the best-known tunes of the past 40 years, and has more awards than a wall can hold.
Lee asked her about the story behind one of her best-known songs, “Coat of Many Colors.”
It’s “my favorite song that I’ve ever written. This song is so personal to me.”
She told the story of how her mom—a mother of 12 living in a cabin with no running water or electricity—patched together a coat for her daughter from a bag of scraps.
“As she was making it, she told me the story of Joseph in the Bible,” Parton said. But when she headed off to school, "the kids didn’t think I looked like Joseph and that hurt me for years.”
Later, after she started in the music business, she turned the experience into a song. And demonstrating her sharp sense of humor, she added, “That hurt just left me when that first royalty check came in.”
Parton demonstrated a similar wit when asked what it was like to grow up in a family of six boys and six girls.
“When I told people we came from a family of 12 they said you must be Catholic. And I said, no, we’re just horny hillbillies.”
Certainly, the highlight of her appearance was when she performed two songs, “Coat of Many Colors” and “Try,” a song she wrote to celebrate her Imagination Library project.
Just before she performed, Lee asked her how she’d like people to think of her.
“I want them to say, ‘Golly, don’t she still look good for her age,” Parton joked.
“Actually, I want them to say I was a person who did care, a person who was ready to give back and make the world a little better than I found it.”
Edward Smith is the director of content for NCSL.
Visit the website for Imagination Library to donate or expand the program in your state.