The word icon, despite its clear religious roots, is generally used in a secular sense these days. A true icon, in this sense—a cultural figure who transcends genres and boundaries to win general adulation—is becoming a rare sight in our increasingly fragmented culture.
Dolly Parton, argues writer Dudley Delffs, is one figure who unquestionably deserves the label. It’s easy to agree with that. The sweet-voiced singer-songwriter from East Tennessee has the powerful gift of creating music that speaks to people of all backgrounds and all tastes. From childhood, she had the ability to hold an audience spellbound with her songs, and at 10 years old she was making her Grand Ole Opry debut.
In a six-decade career, Parton has had a stream of hits that are still widely known and loved, including “Coat of Many Colors,” “9 to 5,” “Jolene,” “Love Is Like a Butterfly,” and “I Will Always Love You,” and won numerous awards, including nine Grammys. Just this year, she won two Guinness World Records (Most Decades with a Top 20 Hit on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart and Most Hits on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart by a Female Artist). She’s also known for providing a warm and lovable presence in movies like Steel Magnolias. As a boundary-crossing artist, Parton is arguably right up there with Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.
More than that, her massive philanthropic efforts have helped people not just in the needy mountain community where she grew up but all over the world. Her talent, generosity, and deliberately gaudy appearance have made her recognizable and beloved everywhere. If iconic in the secular sense fits anyone today, it fits Dolly Parton.
A Dual Biography
However, in his book The Faith of Dolly Parton: Lessons from Her Life to Lift Your Heart, Delffs goes even further, contending that the religious meaning of the word just might apply to Parton as well: “[Christians have long used icons] to remind them of their home, their faith, and their spiritual roots. Which makes the term icon all the more fitting for Dolly Parton.” Delffs, himself a fellow Tennessee native who grew up watching Parton on “The Porter Wagoner Show,” identifies so strongly with the singer and her faith that he’s made this book a sort of dual biography. It intersperses stories about Parton with stories about his own background, belief system, obstacles, and triumphs, and how she helped inspire him through it all.
It’s Parton’s faith, Delffs explains, that has made her both the star and the human being she is. It helped her survive an impoverished childhood and discover a God-given gift for telling stories through music. It also directly inspires the great generosity that led her to create projects like Dolly’s Imagination Library, which sends free books to children whose families sign them up. It helped her forgive and reconcile with people who have betrayed her over the years, such as Porter Wagoner, who sued her for millions of dollars when she left his show. Her faith even saved her, by Parton’s own account, at a moment in her life when she was considering suicide.
Yet Delffs ultimately offers a strangely one-dimensional account of what he sees as the driving force of his subject’s whole life. There’s something about his treatment that seems as light and fluffy as one of Parton’s signature wigs. Dark parts of Parton’s life, not to mention the particulars of her beliefs, are hurried over, so as not to distract from the consistently sunshiny world where God showers blessings on Dolly and Dolly always remembers to say thank you to God. Things like the emotional affair and other marital troubles that led her to suicidal thoughts are dismissed as “tabloid speculation,” even though Parton herself has written and spoken openly about them.
In this telling, there seems to be little more to Parton’s faith than “Remember God loves you, and be nice.” Granted, she’s very good at both. And Delffs is hardly to blame for the individualistic and informal aspects of Parton’s belief system. Parton herself describes her conversion experience as a teenager as strongly personal and private, something apart from her experiences with organized Christianity. Like many other Americans, she likes to concentrate on God as “friend” and “Father” without thinking too hard about any spiritual or moral claims he might make. Again, Delffs relates to her:
Like Dolly, I rejected much of what I grew up experiencing in my local church and school and found my own personal path to God, with help from so many godly people over the years. I take to heart Paul’s words to believers in the church at Philippi to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12, KJV). I suspect Dolly would too.
And yet, Parton’s music hints at something more. One of her songs that Delffs recommends listening to while reading this book is “The Seeker,” but I was left wondering whether he actually took to heart this poignant reflection on human imperfection and divine help. In the song, he acknowledges, Parton expresses an unmistakable sense of sin and a need for redemption:
I am a seeker
A poor sinful creature
There is no weaker than I am
I am a seeker
You are a teacher
You are a reacher
So reach down
Won't you reach out and lead me
Guide me and keep me, Lord
In the shelter of your care each day
These lyrics hit a note unlike almost anything else in this book’s perpetually positive depiction, and they could have offered an opportunity for a deeper dive. Yet what Delffs takes from them is mainly this: “Dolly never wanted to appear self-righteous, holier-than-thou, or spiritually perfect in any way.” A confession of sin turns into one more opportunity to push her back onto her pedestal, high above the theological and moral questions, problems, and issues the rest of us have to deal with.
There are times when Delffs acknowledges problems, besides poverty, that Parton faced during her upbringing and throughout her career: things like the racism of her first boss and the sexism she experienced that made “9 to 5” (both the song and the movie) so authentic. And he makes a good point when he quotes Leigh H. Edwards on Parton’s ability to combine “two opposing stereotypes—the innocent mountain girl and the voluptuous sex symbol”—to create her unique image. But he misses the opportunity to connect her faith, the very subject of this book, with these things—to show how it affected her thinking about them and the way she handled them.
Where Delffs does do a great job is explaining the lasting appeal of his subject—her talent, her kindness, her ability to reach people. He relates a hilarious story of a tourist in Parton’s old tour bus:
One woman in a floral sweatshirt took a picture of the tiny bathroom with her phone camera before turning to her husband and giggling, “That’s where Dolly used to pee!”
Her companion, a very tall gentleman with a tanned face and silver crewcut, rolled his eyes, clearly unamused, and said, “Dolly has to go just like the rest of us.”
“That’s what I love about her,” the woman said. “Dolly is not afraid to be just like the rest of us.”
Delffs calls this anecdote “very telling.” It may be a little more telling than he realizes.
The famously outspoken and earthy star probably would love that story. But I couldn’t help thinking that with his insistence on glossing over some of the earthiest parts of her own story—the very parts where faith would have played a crucial role—Delffs may have done his beloved Dolly a disservice. Rather than making the case for her as a genuine religious icon—someone who points us to God—he fails her by treating her, however unwittingly, as a godlike figure herself.
Gina Dalfonzo is associate features editor at Christianity Today.