Fueled by her unflappable faith, the country music legend has never been afraid to aim high.
Posted in , May 7, 2020
How did someone like me, born in a cabin on the banks of the Little Pigeon River in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, end up where I have in life? The answer is both complicated and simple. I like the simple part. I dreamed big and I prayed big. Then I worked like the dickens at the opportunities the Lord put before me.
We didn’t have much back then in that one-room cabin with the dirt floor, even less than that most times. Daddy was a sharecropper and later a farmer, a man who worked in the fields until his hands bled to provide for us, his 12 children. He couldn’t read, but he was still one of the smartest men I ever knew.
I was the fourth child in the lineup (you could say almost all of us were middle children!), and when I was trying to make my grand entrance, Mama was having a lot of trouble with the process. Back then in the hills with us rural folk, you didn’t go to the hospital. You had your baby at home. But with me they needed a doctor quick.
Daddy got on a horse and galloped into town, where there was an old church and a Methodist minister who happened to be a doctor. Dr. Robert F. Thomas rode back with Daddy and got to Mama just in time. There’s a good chance I might not be here without him. I’m pretty sure I came out crying big. I bet I could have hit high C even then! Which brings me to my first dream.
I Want to Sing
I wrote my first song at age five. Mama had made me a corn cob doll with beautiful corn silk hair, a dress made of shells and black eyes Daddy had put on with a fire poker. “Little tiny tassel top,” I sang to it, “I love you an awful lot / Hope you never go away / I want you to stay!”
I would take a tin can, put it on a tobacco stake, stick it in a crack on our porch and serenade the pigs and chickens and ducks in the yard. At first my siblings guffawed, but then they noticed something: I could sing. I took notice too.
We Partons sang in church and played our own instruments too. My uncle gave me a guitar when I was eight. I strummed it till my fingernails cracked. I learned to play fiddle, like most everyone in the family did. More and more, music felt like what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It became my first big dream, and naturally I asked God if I was on the right track and if he would help, to make this dream ours together.
I knew I couldn’t just stay in the hills. The minute I graduated from high school, I moved to Nashville, ready to launch my career as a singer and songwriter. I was only 18 years old. Sure, it took a lot of grit and determination, all those qualities I’d learned from growing up where I did.
That hard life—or at least what some might call it—was a blessing. I learned if you didn’t get something the first time you tried again and again until you did or something else came along that you probably were supposed to get in the first place!
Eventually my blessings came in bundles. I wrote and published more than 3,000 songs. Imagine, it all started in a little old country church and singing to a bunch of barnyard critters. Who could have dreamed that it would lead to the Country Music Hall of Fame? Plus Oscar nominations for a couple of movies you might remember.
You know what I found? One dream is just a stepping stone to another.
I Want to Give Back
As I said earlier, my daddy couldn’t read. A lot of his generation in our neck of the woods couldn’t. That didn’t mean they weren’t smart. Heck, they were some of the smartest. But I learned that reading not only opens up new opportunities for folks; it opens up whole new worlds. Reading puts your imagination into hyperdrive, like Spock and Captain Kirk do with the Enterprise. You just go light years!
So what did I do with this dream? Again, I started with prayer, making sure the Lord didn’t think I was off my rocker. Then an idea came. I started something called the Imagination Library.
My wish was for every child who yearned for a book—like me—and didn’t have one or the means to buy one to be able to get a copy of their own. We could give away books all around the world. There is nothing so empowering and liberating as a book given to a child who has none.
I partnered with thousands of local organizations who knew how to get something like this done. In the past 25 years, we’ve given away more than 130 million books all over the world to children who might never have had any. Think of that! Think of the power of a book to fire the imagination. To ignite learning for years to come.
A book can be like a seed leading to a lifetime of growth. Back when I was growing up in the backwoods of Tennessee, a book was a rare commodity for a young ’un. But once I got one and learned to read, I never stopped. To this very day, I’m always in the middle of one book or another, keeping my imagination in hyperdrive. Which leads to my third dream.
I Want to Create Something Wonderful for Families
“How can you use me?” I ask God. “What can I do today?” I’m a light sleeper, and I get up in the wee hours of the morning. That’s my prayer time, the easiest time to reach out to God, in the quiet and calm before everybody has woken up and phones start buzzing and e-mails ding.
I’m alone with God and can ask for his direction. Dreams flood in, dreams so big they seem unattainable. How can I do that? How is that possible? I’ve learned over the years to trust the dreams to God. No telling what will happen. And it will happen if it’s supposed to happen.
Like the crazy idea that I’d build a theme park based on family and fun. Good wholesome fun. You know how it came to me? I was out in Hollywood one day and I looked up at that famous sign in the hills and thought to myself, If I could only change that letter H to a D, I wonder what would happen. Dollywood. That’s what would happen! [Note: Dollywood is currently closed due to the pandemic; for updates, visit Dollywood.com]
There it was, an idea for the girl from the backwoods to go home and build something, a destination for all those folks who come to the Great Smoky Mountains. When I talked to my advisers, they told me I was out of my mind (you can be sure they’re not my advisers anymore).
Somehow we made it happen. I got a lot of encouragement from my husband, Carl, behind the scenes. (In fact, to celebrate our fiftieth anniversary in 2016, my wedding dress and his wedding suit were put on display in the Chasing Rainbows Museum at Dollywood.)
Yes, there are roller coasters, which you won’t ever see me on—I get a little motion sick—and great local food like the funnel cakes and barbecue that I loved as a kid and still do. I have to tell my wardrobe folks to add an inch or two in my costumes when I’m at Dollywood.
By the way, can you guess what one of my favorite places in the park is? It’s a little country church we named for the mountain doctor and preacher who delivered me. We moved pieces of it, like the windows and doors that date to the late 1800s, from the hills of Sevier County, my home county, to Dollywood and built the Robert F. Thomas Chapel.
To my mind, it is the heart of Dollywood. People can come in to write down their prayer requests. They can have some quiet and make sure their prayers are as big as their dreams and most of all to make God a partner in them. I couldn’t have done anything good in my life without God by my side.
It’s been a while since Dr. Thomas brought me into this world, but the dreams don’t stop and neither do the prayers. That’s what keeps me going. To dream big, pray big. No reason why you can’t too.
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