National Press Club

"Book Lady" Dolly Parton Wows Crowd, Makes Plea for Tenn. Nat'l Park

February 11, 2009 | By Richard Lee

Dolly Parton addresses the luncheon as NPC President Donna Leinwand and Tennessee's commissioner of tourism, Susan Whittacre, look on.

Dolly Parton addresses the luncheon as NPC President Donna Leinwand and Tennessee's commissioner of tourism, Susan Whittacre, look on.

Photo/Image: Rex A. Stucky

"I'm thrilled to be called the book lady," singer-songwriter Dolly Parton told her sold-out Press Club luncheon audience on Tuesday. And she wasn’t kidding.

Parton, platinum blonde, hyper-folksy, and very glitzy in a form-fitting maroon you-notice-me-y’hear mini-suit, was there to call attention to two pet projects: A program that provides a book a month to pre-schoolers and her new post as ambassador from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Imagination Library started as a program to reduce illiteracy by providing a book of the month to children in her home county, Sevier County, Tenn. At a 2000 NPC luncheon, Parton announced the program had expanded to two other U.S. communities. It's grown since then.

"We are in 1,000 communities, three countries now. And I think we will have mailed out approximately 20 million books. So that’s a pretty good start," she said.

Parton is also a very vocal spokeswoman for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, now in its 75th anniversary. “The Smokies are a part of my DNA," she said.

In honor of the park's history and heritage, Parton has written and recorded an eight-song album, "Sha-Kon-o-Hey!" The proceeds will be donated to the park during its 75th anniversary year.

A show business empire of her own at this point, she also told of growing up very poor in rural Tennessee, which fueled her determination to be rich and successful. "I was one of 12 children—six girls and six boys," she said. "My daddy worked like a dog to make sure he fed us" she said. "He couldn’t read and write." She was performing at a very early age.

She’s been awarded every honor bestowed on country-to-mainstream singing ladies. She rattles them off, and it’s an impressive list, but the Kennedy Center Honors seems to mean the most. "All those big people there…I felt like I was one of them" she said. She’s a shrewd combination of singing star-songwriter and business whiz.

And she’s anything but resting on her laurels. She has a children’s book, "I Am A Rainbow," coming out in June, and another career first—a Broadway musical version of her first movie and 1980 comedy hit, "9 to 5," for which she has written the score. It got good reviews in Los Angeles, she says, and will open in New York this spring, if the economy allows.

She interspersed her story-telling and question-answering with three songs, including a favorite, "because it made the most money," her mega-hit (and also Whitney Houston’s), "I Will Always Love You." Just the last couple of lyrics on that one, but it was enough to get her another standing ovation.

And as for those 6-foot-4 male drag queens who dress like her to win contests (which she has attended, by the way) "I think they look more like me than I do," she said, in her distinctive Tennessee drawl.