In this story from July 2004, country music legend Dolly Parton shares her secrets for living a positive life, filled with love, joy and gratitude.
I hear it from folks all the time: “Gosh, Dolly, you seem so happy!” Well, my smile’s pretty hard to miss, considering I’m a gal who likes her lipstick—the redder, the better. Take it from me, though, the fancy makeup is just highlighting what’s for real. And that’s true happiness, the kind that comes from the inside.
Lately I’ve been giving it some thought and I’ve come up with five things that make mine a happy life. Five things that make just about anyone’s life joyous. Yours too, I bet.
1. I love my friends and family.
I grew up poor, so poor my daddy paid the doctor who delivered me with a sack of cornmeal. Yet my family was rich in so many ways too. Each and every one of us 12 kids knew we were precious in the sight of God and cherished by our mother and father.
Maybe you’ve heard my song “Coat of Many Colors,” about a girl who wears her coat of rags proudly. That came right out of my childhood in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. Someone gave us a box of rags, and Mama sewed them together to make a coat for me. The kids at school teased me, but I knew Mama put her love into every stitch. I felt proud to have that coat, and blessed.
Blessed as I felt the day I met Judy Ogle in third grade. My family had just moved to Caton’s Chapel from another town in the Smoky Mountains. I walked into school, the new girl, too shy to make a peep. Until I noticed someone else quietly looking on. A girl with bright green eyes and a copper-colored ponytail. Something told me to go over and say hi.
Almost 50 years later, Judy and I haven’t stopped talking. (Just ask my husband, Carl, who’s always shaking his head at how we tie up the phone line.) If I get an idea for a tune while I’m picking at a guitar, Judy’s there to write everything down before it goes out of my head. Whenever I need a dose of country air, Judy’s there to drive out to the mountains with me.
At the heart of every close friendship I have, there’s what I discovered with Judy back in third grade—the magic of having someone in your life who understands where you’re coming from and where you’re going, who just knows.
2. I love what I do.
My daddy likes to say I was singing before I could talk. That might be a bit of a tall tale, but I can barely remember a time I wasn’t making music. At age six, I was shaking the rafters at church. But our little country church could only fit so many people, and Sunday only came once a week.
Mama said God had put his hand on me and given me my voice, so I decided he must have bigger plans for me.
Boy, did I want to be ready for them. I took up guitar at age seven, making my first instrument out of an old mandolin and two bass strings. I put on concerts right on our porch. To look the part of a glamorous singer, I used Mercurochrome for lipstick, crushed pokeberries for rouge and a burnt match for mascara.
I’d collect my brothers and sisters who were too young to run away, sit them down in the dirt, then get up on the porch and belt out songs into a tin can on a stick like I was at the Grand Ole Opry. If I couldn’t round up any of my brothers and sisters, there were always the pigs and chickens to serenade.
I landed my first professional gig on the Cas Walker Radio Show in Knoxville (I’ll tell you all about it later). I was 10. I’ve been making a living doing what I love ever since. Is it any wonder that I feel incredibly fortunate? Not to mention grateful.
3. I love to laugh.
People often compliment my voice, my songwriting, my business acumen, and yes, my distinctive fashion sense. But I’ve always felt that my greatest gift is my positive attitude and sense of humor (they go together like biscuits and gravy). It’s like the Bible says, “A merry heart doeth good like medicine.”
These past 38 years with Carl have been one fun ride. He should hire himself out as a professional practical joker. I never know what he’s going to pull next, but I do know it’s going to leave me laughing.
I remember one concert in Louisville, Kentucky. My backup singers sounded kind of off. I glanced over my shoulder to see what was the matter. There was Carl at one of the microphones! And he had the audacity to wink at me. I decided to do him one better.
I sauntered over to a policeman working security. “That man back there in the white shirt isn’t part of our group,” I told him. The cops hauled Carl away. It was all I could do not to crack up. (Don’t worry, someone from our crew let the officers know who Carl was before they got too far.)
Having a live-in personal humor trainer like Carl is a big help. There are things I do on my own too, to keep my attitude in shape. I close my eyes and picture angels surrounding me. I tell them whatever’s troubling me, then I envision them trampling those burdens to powder.
If my attitude needs more adjusting, I visualize God holding me upside down and shaking all the negative stuff—fears, doubts, insecurities—right out of me. Try it. Ask God to turn you upside down! It’s a surefire pick-me-up.
4. I love to pray.
Getting up close and personal with God is something I learned in his house. Not the way you’d expect, though. I used to explore the old church my town, Caton’s Chapel, was named after. It was a ruin—shattered windows, buckled floor, graffiti-splattered walls. Saturday nights teenagers partied there.
Mama was aware of the not-so-wholesome goings-on and warned us to steer clear of the place. But for some reason I was drawn to it, during daylight hours anyway. I’d hunt for doodlebugs in the cool earth under the floorboards, daydream at the broken piano in the corner.
And I’d pray. I would tell God how I wanted to see the world that lay beyond the Smoky Mountains. To make it as a country music star and have a whole building full of folks to sing to. To do Mama and Daddy proud.
Was God listening? I couldn’t quite tell. Then one day I was sitting in a pew, talking to him, when suddenly, something changed in the very air around me. Something changed inside me too. I felt like I would bust with happiness.
God was right there with me. I was absolutely sure. I didn’t have to jump up and down or shout or even sing to get his attention. I could just whisper. He heard every word.
Something I would have done well to remember in the early 1980s, when I was going through the darkest time. Not that I had any real reason to be unhappy. I had a strong marriage, tons of family and friends, a well-established career. But a movie I’d made hadn’t turned out well. I had some serious medical issues.
Judy was going through a crisis of her own, so I couldn’t lean on her like usual. And poor Carl was so worried about my health I didn’t want to put any more on him. For the first time in my life, I felt all alone. Like no one was listening, not even God.
It was more an act of desperation than inspiration, but I grabbed for the only lifeline I could think of. The Bible. I sat down and read it cover to cover, a little every day. Pretty soon verses jumped out at me. Like that line in I Thessalonians that always had me stumped: “Pray without ceasing.” How on earth was anyone going to do that?
Coming out of that dark time, that’s when I finally got what those words meant. No matter where I go or what I’m doing, a part of me is talking to God. And a part of God is listening.
5. I love you.
I believe God put the dream in my heart to become a country music performer so I could share the love he poured into my life with as many people as possible. I know you might think, That’s just Dolly being outrageous again, but why else would God have let me discover what I did the first time I sang in front of an audience?
This gets back to that first gig I mentioned. I landed it thanks to my uncle, Bill Owens. I was 10, and he took me to Knoxville to meet Cas Walker, the host of a live music radio show. Cas said hello and stared down at me like he expected me to say something back. Well, I did. I said, “Mr. Walker, I want to work for you.”
He shook my hand and said, “You’re hired. A lot of people come to me and say, ‘Mr. Walker, I want a job,’ but you’re the first one that ever said, ‘I want to work.’”
The show was recorded in an auditorium that seated maybe 60 people. I walked up to the microphone and looked out at the audience. All those strangers! Whoa, this was a whole lot different from getting up in front of the pigs and chickens on our farm. The first notes were kinda squeaky. Pretty soon, though, the sheer joy of singing took over.
I finished with a flourish. Everyone clapped and stomped their feet. They wanted an encore, but I didn’t have one. I looked over at Uncle Bill, and he mouthed, “Sing it again.” So I did—and they cheered all over again, even louder. I never knew I could feel so close, so connected, to a bunch of strangers.
That was the moment I fell in love with the people I sing for. With you. I’ve loved y’all ever since.
I am a happy person. That is my greatest blessing. It can be yours too. Think about it. Friends and family, work, laughter, prayer, love. They add up to joy. For you, for me, for anyone.
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