In a hotel room at the Sheraton-Nashville, I was surrounded by beautiful photos of musical instruments–Gibson guitars, mandolins, close-ups of frets, strings and Fender guitar picks–all reminders that Nashville is the home of country music. I’ve been in love with country music since I was a girl and I saw Dolly Parton on the “Porter Wagoner Show.” I’ll never forget being in the basement of our home in Bangor, Maine, watching our black-and-white TV and seeing the image of Dolly in rhinestone cowgirl attire, fringe swinging, her hair out to here, her bust not quite as prounounced as it would become later but still, she was a sight to behold. And that voice. So although I was brought up in a household filled with classical music and Broadway hits, I became a C&W fan thanks to Dolly.
Now, decades later, I looked up above my bed in that hotel room in Nashville to a framed print that said, “What Would Dolly Do?” This was, of course, a parody of the popular “WWJD?” bracelets and paraphernalia popular in Christian circles, “What Would Jesus Do?” With no disrespect intended and without any hint of blasphemy, I nodded solemnly to myself. What would Dolly do, indeed?
A brief review of Dolly’s Wikipedia page and some hours watching Dolly on late night talk shows via YouTube provide a breath-taking overview of the career of a woman who once quipped, “I don’t mind when people call me a ‘dumb blonde’ because I’m know I’m not dumb, and I know I’m not a blonde.” Of all her accolades, awards and achievements, the one that stands out for me the most is her estimable writing of 3,000 original songs. She began writing as a child and is purported to have said in an interview with Larry King that she writes something every day, whether it’s a song or an idea.
Another Internet search revealed that Dolly’s net worth is estimated to be $500 million. She just turned 70 in January and she’s been married to the same guy, Carl Dean, for nearly 50 years. She says it’s the first–and the last–marriage for both of them. The secret to their success? “I’m never home,” she answered repeatedly on Carson, Leno and Letterman. Before the untimely death of Whitney Houston, Dolly said she could get over the pain of Whitney’s fame eclipsing her own when Whitney covered Dolly’s song “I Will Always Love You” because the royalties from Whitney’s hit, featured in the movie “The Bodyguard,” made Dolly $6 million. I read another story that said Elvis wanted to sing that same song but his policy was to own half the rights to any song he sang, which Dolly refused to do. That decision alone made her millions.
Yet you don’t get the idea that she’s in it for the money. She certainly could have retired by now but she’s still touring, still singing, still writing. So, as a businesswoman who admires Dolly not only for her artistry but also for her business acumen, I have to ask myself: What would Dolly do? Here’s what I’ve learned from Dolly based on being a fan since 1968 and following her career via radio, talk shows and the media:
- Be completely authentic. That may seem like a paradox: after all, this woman wears costumes, wigs and make-up that have made her almost a caricature. She admits to being enhanced by plastic surgery and I once heard her say on a talk show that “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” Her spirit, though, comes across as completely authentic. She’s built an empire on her backwoods history and country charm.
- Protect and value your brand. The story about not selling the rights to her song to Elvis gave me chills. How would that be, to hold out on “The King?” I get the sense that Dolly knows her value and protects it stubbornly but also with a flash of those famous dimples. Protect and respect the intellectual property of others and your own.
- Honor your friends and your family. While Dolly and Carl never had children, Dolly is surrounded by family (she was born the fourth of twelve children). She made two albums with Linda Ronstadt and Emmy Lou Harris and has done duets and trios that have made Grammy-winning history. When you see her sing with other women, you get the idea that she is the generous matriarch of music, welcoming everyone with their special gifts and talents to the fold.
- Work hard. Three thousand songs?!? I’ve written a few songs in my life, and that is some feat… to have written 3,000 songs. She must be hard-pressed to get those long nails painted, get fitted for those skin-tight dresses and choose those mile-high wigs because it sounds to me like she spends a lot of time cranking out the music. To quote Satchel Paige (and paraphrasing another country song, “Come from the Heart”), “Work like you don’t need the money.”
- Don’t be afraid to try something new. While Dolly’s known as a singer and songwriter, she’s also an actress, an author and a businesswoman whose ventures include Dollywood, the theme park close to her roots in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Under that big wig, it seems, is a brain for business. Improvise. Experiment. Take risks. Just keep working (see above).
It’s good to remember that in business, our inspiration can sometimes come from the unlikeliest of sources. Sometimes, our muse can sound like a songbird and look like a lady of the night. Whatever the packaging, it really does have to come from the heart if you want it to work.
Photos by Vickie Austin. Photo of “What Would Dolly Do?” print used with permission from Chris and Elizabeth Boyette, the designers at Good South. To purchase your own copy of “What Would Dolly Do?” please visit their Etsy page.