Peter Cooper The Tennessean
Don't ask Dolly Parton for advice.
"People say, 'Could you give me advice?' " says Parton, who seems as good a candidate as any for the recommendations business, having risen from rural poverty to become a wealthy country music star, a singer for the ages, a wondrous songwriter, an eight-time Grammy winner and a philanthropist who has given away more than 40 million books to children through her Imagination Library.
So it's natural for those of us who haven't managed such successes to ask Parton what she thinks we should do. She seems to be something of a sage, and her friends call her "The Dolly Mama."
"I tell them, 'I don't give advice,' " she continues. "I might give you some information. I often want to say, 'Hell, I don't know what you should do. I've got (stuff) to figure out in my own life.' "
I don't know exactly what Parton has left to figure out in her own life, but I have a feeling it's less than I have to figure out in mine. Anyway, Parton's new "Dream More" book looks like a self-help tome, but it's not full of advice. It's full of stories, and of information. What we do with the information is up to us. It's not going to make us into Dolly approximations, because individuality is at the center of every Parton example.
"I've never tried to be like anybody but myself," she says. "As a singer, I've never wanted to sound like anybody else. God knows, I couldn't, anyway. I just always felt I was responsible for my own personality and gifts."
When Parton was a teenager, she told folks in her native East Tennessee that she wanted to come to Nashville and be a singer. Told she would starve in Nashville, she said, "I'm starving here. What's the difference?"
She didn't starve in Nashville. At first, she visited area motels and hotels just after dinnertime, walking the halls and dining off of whatever people left uneaten from their room service meals.
"Some people left a lot of good stuff," she says. "They'd leave half a hamburger, or they'd leave bananas or whatever else. If you're hungry, you do what you've got to do."
While she hadn't yet articulated it as such, the leftover burger and bananas diet was part of Parton's "Dream More" philosophy.
Her new book began with a 2009 commencement address she gave at the University of Tennessee, an address that thrilled graduating seniors but somehow sent the football program into a tailspin. In her speech, she talked about the ways she had looked beyond her immediate environs and sought something larger and more fulfilling.
She also told some boob jokes, and those went over well, too.
Parton's high school classmates chuckled when she said she was going to Nashville to become a country music star. But at 18, she headed to Music City, to make her way in the music industry and to scrounge for food.
"I used to go to Couser's restaurant on Nolensville Road, and say, 'I'll clean these tables and keep the mustard and ketchup done up if you'll feel me a hot meal,' " she says. "I got to be friends with those people, and then I'd bring my guitar and entertain them in between meal times."
Parton soon made her way into the country music mainstream and fulfilled her dream. So she re-set her goals, envisioned more for herself and wound up in Iconville. She starred in movies, crossed into pop music, wrote and published mega-hit "I Will Always Love You," turned East Tennessee into a tourist attraction, became a Country Music Hall of Famer and received a Kennedy Center Honor and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
How'd she do all that?
She's not exactly sure.
"I look back on it, and it could have gone as terribly wrong as it's gone terribly right," she says. "I don't think you ever really know what all you're doing, so you have to act on faith. I'm sure I've made a lot of crazy moves, but I tried to do what was right. I just felt my way through."
In "Dream More," Parton offers up scenes from her life, in hopes that some of those scenes might be of use to readers. She elaborates on her "Dream More" philosophy, which is essentially an open-minded, open-ended, "there's no finding without the seeking" approach to life and learning.
And she tells some boob jokes.
"It's not a book about how to be successful," she says. "It's just an insight into how I've lived my life and how I conduct my work."
Raised in a religious family, and in an environment where judgment and faith often went hand-in-hand, Parton has held fast to an unyielding refusal to judge others. She writes in the book about her commitments to be fair, generous and compassionate, as if to suggest that those qualities might be of service to the rest of us.
"My mother was a bit of a religious fanatic, and a lot of my people were," she says. "I'm not that religious, but I'm very spiritual. I always took the parts of the Bible that I could deal with and understand, like 'Judge not, lest you be judged.' I try to accept and love people, and that's what we're supposed to do."
Sounds like good advice, but she swears it isn't. Just some information.