My 11-year-old daughter, Dixie, is staring intently at Dolly Parton’s passport photo.
“She looks different.”
“Well, she’s had plastic surgery,” I explain. “She used to look…rounder.”
Dixie leans her face closer to the image, squints.
“She’s pretty both ways. Where are the wigs?”
Our family is visiting the Chasing Rainbows Museum, an exhibit in the Pigeon Forge-based Dollywood theme park that tracks Dolly’s ascension from hillbilly cutie to arguably the best female singer-songwriter of all time.
I have always been drawn to Dolly, a woman who plucked herself by her bra straps from backwoods obscurity and made it to the top with no excuses or embarrassing run-ins on TMZ. Throughout her 66 years, Dolly has kept her dignity and her manners, and it is in Chasing Rainbows, amid the sparkles, sequins, and silver thigh-high boots, that I endeavor to impart Dolly’s life lessons to my girls. First being, have a sense of humor about yourself. (See: thigh-high silver boots. Also: every interview Parton has ever given.)
We examine snapshots of Dolly and her friends. Most have notes taped on top, scribbled by Parton, making self-deprecating comments about her weight and outfits. Upstairs are replicas of rooms from Dolly’s Tennessee Mountain Home, her roots as poor as dirt gets, a reminder that where you start need not be where you end up.
“Look, kids, no iPods. No phones. Dolly had, like, a cup.”
In a nearby Lucite case hangs Parton’s childhood coat of many colors, the very one sewn by her mother from scraps that inspired Parton’s most heartbreaking hit. With the coat is a laundry claim ticket for Porter Wagoner, an early Dolly collaborator. On the back of the ticket, lyrics scribbled, with lines crossed out.
“See, nobody gets it perfect the first time, girls.”
I tell them the story of “I Will Always Love You,” how Parton penned it for Wagoner, to say a gentle goodbye to a partnership she had outgrown. How Elvis wanted to record the song but demanded half the rights, so Dolly refused, believing in herself, in the strength of her song, an act of self-confidence that would reportedly net her millions after Whitney Houston belted it out in a nineties movie.
“The singer who died in a bathtub?” Matilda, 10, asks.
“Yes. Don’t do drugs. Dolly has never done drugs.” I remind my girls how you never know what the future will bring, but if you believe in your abilities, if you trust your instincts, you won’t go wrong.
“Do you think I could be a songwriter, Mama?” Dixie asks.
“You can be anything you want if you work hard enough at it,” I say, tucking her hair behind her ear, knowing soon she will be too old to allow me to. Too old, too, for lectures about Dolly and the power of contradiction and the value of expecting more of yourself than anyone else does. But for now, today, she and her sister are still listening. So I tell them, this life is a tough row for any girl. You may as well tease your hair and wear something shiny.
“Can I wear those thigh-high boots?” Dixie asks.
“Not in this lifetime.”