Helen Morales is an unlikely Dolly Parton aficionado. Educated at the University of Cambridge, the UCSB Argyropoulos Professor of Hellenic Studies and author of the book Pilgrimage to Dollywood has nonetheless been dubbed the first “Dollyologist” in the podcast Dolly Parton’s America.
“I think of all the plaudits one could get, that’s probably the one I’m most thrilled about,” Morales said. “You can keep your MacArthur Awards.”
It’s easy to joke about Parton, who’s been making fun of her own appearance since she first stepped onto a stage. But she hasn’t thrived for more than 50 years on her looks, said Morales. Those who underestimate her do so at her own peril.
In her book, Morales tells the story of how Elvis Presley wanted to record Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” in 1974. But his manager demanded that she give them 50 percent of the publishing royalties in perpetuity. Although she was struggling financially at the time, Parton politely refused, explaining that she wanted the money she made from her songs to go to her family after she was gone.
“That was a moment where she showed herself to be really steely,” Morales said.
It was also rather astute: After Whitney Houston recorded the song for The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1997, Parton received more than $6 million in royalties. “When Whitney’s version came out,” Parton said later, “I made enough money to buy Graceland.”
Yes, Parton is rich and the buxom product of Appalachian poverty in Sevier County, Tennessee. But Morales also reveals a woman of depth, intelligence, compassion, and independence — even if Parton calls herself a “backwoods Barbie.”
“I think that’s what I tried to do in the book,” Morales said. “She calls her image ‘keeping her cartoon up.’ I tried to show that there’s much more to that cartoon, much more depth when it comes to songwriting and business savvy — even genius — behind that cartoon.”
Morales also argues that the extraordinarily prolific songwriter has built an enduring career in part by building the sort of diverse coalition any politician would die for. “She’s a figure that emanates positivity and love and understanding for all,” she explained. “She’s got a loyal Christian fan base. She’s got a loyal fan base in the LGBTQ community. Some of the research I did in Tennessee showed how tough, how brave it was to be so inclusive.”
Parton’s appeal, in fact, has long crossed racial and geographical lines. When guards at South Africa’s Robben Island allowed the prisoners to choose music, a former inmate says in the podcast, Nelson Mandela chose Parton’s “Jolene.”
The connections to others and coincidences that enrich our lives often take decades to show up on our doorstep. Morales’s father, a Greek Cypriot who emigrated to southeastern England, loved American country music. “He used to talk about country music as being sort of our music, meaning immigrant music,” she recalled.
Some 40 years and 5,500 miles later, Pilgrimage to Dollywood served as a bridge between the girls of Eastbourne, U.K., and a rough holler in the Great Smoky Mountains. Morales might not have intended to kick off a wave in Dolly Parton studies, but here we are.
This is an edited version of a story originally published by The Current on January 27.