The word icon, despite its clear religious roots, is generally used in a secular sense these days. A true icon, in this sense—a cultural figure who transcends genres and boundaries to win general adulation—is becoming a rare sight in our increasingly fragmented culture.
Dolly Parton, argues writer Dudley Delffs, is one figure who unquestionably deserves the label. It’s easy to agree with that. The sweet-voiced singer-songwriter from East Tennessee has the powerful gift of creating music that speaks to people of all backgrounds and all tastes. From childhood, she had the ability to hold an audience spellbound with her songs, and at 10 years old she was making her Grand Ole Opry debut.
In a six-decade career, Parton has had a stream of hits that are still widely known and loved, including “Coat of Many Colors,” “9 to 5,” “Jolene,” “Love Is Like a Butterfly,” and “I Will Always Love You,” and won numerous awards, including nine Grammys. Just this year, she won two Guinness World Records (Most Decades with a Top 20 Hit on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart and Most Hits on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart by a Female Artist). She’s also known for providing a warm and lovable presence in movies like Steel Magnolias. As a boundary-crossing artist, Parton is arguably right up there with Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.
More than that, her massive philanthropic efforts have helped people not just in the needy mountain community where she grew up but all over the world. Her talent, generosity, and deliberately gaudy appearance have made her recognizable and beloved everywhere. If iconic in the secular sense fits anyone today, it fits Dolly Parton.
A Dual Biography
However, in his book The Faith of Dolly Parton: Lessons from Her Life to Lift Your Heart, Delffs goes even further, contending that the religious meaning of the word just might apply to Parton as well: “[Christians have long used icons] to remind them of their home, their faith, and their spiritual roots. Which makes the term icon all the more fitting for Dolly Parton.” Delffs, himself a fellow Tennessee native who grew up watching Parton on “The Porter Wagoner Show,” identifies so strongly with the singer and her faith that he’s made this book a sort of dual biography. It intersperses stories about Parton with stories about his own background, belief system, obstacles, and triumphs, and how she helped inspire him through it all.
It’s Parton’s faith, Delffs explains, that has made her both the star and the human being she is. It helped her survive an impoverished childhood and discover a God-given gift for telling stories through music. It also directly inspires the great generosity that led her to create projects like Dolly’s Imagination Library, which sends free books to children whose families sign them up. It helped her forgive and reconcile with people who have betrayed her over the years, such as Porter Wagoner, who sued her for millions of dollars when she left his show. Her faith even saved her, by Parton’s own account, at a moment in her life when she was considering suicide.
Yet Delffs ultimately offers a strangely one-dimensional account of what he sees as the driving force of his subject’s whole life. There’s something about his treatment that seems as light and fluffy as one of Parton’s signature wigs. Dark parts of Parton’s life, not to mention the particulars of her beliefs, are hurried over, so as not to distract from the consistently sunshiny world where God showers blessings on Dolly and Dolly always remembers to say thank you to God. Things like the emotional affair and other marital troubles that led her to suicidal thoughts are dismissed as “tabloid speculation,” even though Parton herself has written and spoken openly about them.
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SOURCE: Christianity Today