Dolly Parton: Country Music's Biggest Servant Leader (2023)

Table of Contents
  1. How Dolly Parton Became a Servant Leader
  2. Ways Dolly Parton Exemplifies Servant Leadership
  3. Dolly Parton Impacts Millions of Lives

When Dolly Parton took the stage on the Porter Wagoner Show in 1967, many people in America were exposed to the singer for the first time. Her recognition as a performer grew from there when she became part of a vocal duo until the early 1970s.But anyone who hadn’t heard of Dolly Parton by the late 1960s or early 1970s was surely about to.

She released her most notable album, Coat of Many Colors, in 1971, winning Album of the Year at the 1972 CMA Awards. A year later, “Jolene” was released, becoming an international hit song and topping country music charts in the US, Canada, and the U.K. Parton also penned “I Will Always Love You,” later covered by Whitney Houston in 1992. The song shattered records as a best-selling single and is still recognized as one of the most famous songs ever written.

Her success continued to flourish when in 2005, Parton received the National Medal of Arts. This is the highest medal an artist can receive from the U.S. Government. Throughout her musical career, Parton has also receivedeight Grammy Awards,ten Country Music Association Awards,three American Music Awards, and seven Academy of Country Music Awards.

Parton is an international country music icon and producer of some of the most-covered songs today, but her legacy includes much more. Her upbringing, strong family values, and faith led her to accomplish remarkable things off-stage, leaving lasting impressions for generations to come.

Continue reading to learn more about who Dolly Parton is and how she demonstrates servant leadership to positively impact the lives of others. We’ll look at:

  • How Dolly’s background shaped her to be a servant leader.
  • The specific ways she exemplifies servant leadership.
  • Other philanthropic work Dolly Parton contributes to.

How Dolly Parton Became a Servant Leader

We grew up knowing Jesus loved us and through God all things are possible, so I’ve carried that all the way through my life and gathered a lot of strength from that as well.

dolly parton

Dolly Rebecca Parton, born on January 19, 1946, was the fourth of twelve children. Living in a one-room cabin in East Tennessee, the Parton family of fourteen did their best to make ends meet. Her parents, Avie Lee Parton and Robert Lee Parton, harvested and ate their own crops, worked hard, and lived simply.

Parton’s mom and her mom’s siblings shared a love for music and creativity. Her grandfather, her mom’s father, was the local Pentecostal preacher and played the guitar, the piano, and the fiddle. Growing up, Parton was constantly surrounded by music. Her uncle, Bill Owens, nurtured and encouraged her musical interest and bought Parton her first guitar.Parton’s father and father’s side were hardworking, dedicated, and serious people. Dollyexplainsthat her musical and creative talents combined with her strong work ethic clearly come from both of her parents.

Parton’s hardworking upbringing, simple farm family values, strong faith in God, and musical influence set the stage for her success as aservant leader. Servant leadership, a concept that encourages putting the needs of others before your own, transforms lives and raises leaders. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr; Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A; and Cheryl Bachelder, former CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, are all examples of servant leaders, too.

Dolly Parton always felt called to do more than just music. “I really feel like I have a calling. I always felt I had a mission,”Parton once told The Christian Post.“Don’t know what all it is, but I feel like God had told me early in a feeling that I was supposed to go until He told me to stop.”

Today, she follows her calling to be a servant leader and embodies the core values she was taught by her parents and grandparents—that is, towork hard, give back, appreciate what you have, and love and serve others.Her joyful and generous contributions and other philanthropic pursuits exemplify this.

Ways Dolly Parton Exemplifies Servant Leadership

That’s just instilled in me, and I just do it on a bigger scale now.

dolly parton

Family, education, health care, and career success are causes that Parton feels connected to. Parton calls on her core family values, strong faith, and success to demonstrate servant leadership and strengthen people in these areas.


Once she achieved success, it was important to Parton to honor Sevier County. She wanted East Tennessee’s economy and residents to grow and thrive. She also wanted to provide a place for families to come together, create memories, and fully disconnect from worldly distractions. So, in 1985, she opened Dollywood.

Dollywood, a 160-acre theme park nestled in the quiet Smoky Mountains, created more than 23,000 jobs for Sevier County residents and currently has an economic impact of more than$1.8 billion. Families from all over the world travel to stay at Dollywood. Her namesake park features ground-breaking rides, award-winning shows, multiple seasonal festivals, and more. Despite the attractions, though, the website makes its intention clear. This is to serve others “in a manner consistent with Christian values and ethics.”

But the positive intentions behind the theme park’s mission don’t end there. Dolly Parton recentlyannouncedthat Dollywood will begin paying for its employees’ college expenses. The program covers tuition, textbooks, and other school-related fees for full-time, part-time, and seasonal employees.

Further, Dollywood’s 30,000-square-foot Eagle Mountain Sanctuary is home to the largest collection of non-releasable bald eagles, which are under the care of the American Eagle Foundation. Parton’s support for bald eagle protection and conservation earned her the distinguished Partnership Award from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Dollywood Foundation

Driven to help the children in her home county achieve educational success, Dolly Parton created the Dollywood Foundation. The Foundation, which began in 1988, hosts several education scholarships and special funds to support the people of Sevier County.

One of the first programs under the Dollywood Foundation was the Buddy Program. The Buddy Program promised 7th- and 8th-grade students who graduated from high school $500 from Dolly Parton personally. As a result, the high school dropout rate decreased from 35 percent to just 6 percent within the first year.

The Foundation’s five educational scholarships also make a tremendous impact on families in this area. The Foundation offers Sevier County high school students with a specific dream a chance to receive$15,000to help them reach their goals.

Imagination Library

Dolly Parton’sImagination Librarymay be the most recognized of the programs under the Dollywood Foundation. Inspired by her father’s struggles with reading and writing and the scripture that says, “Honor your father and mother,” Dolly Parton created theImagination Libraryprogram in 1995. The program is a way for Parton to thank her father for all he had done for their family and to bring honor to his name by promoting literacy.

Under the Dollywood Foundation, theImagination Libraryprogram provides children access to books and literacy. The program gives one free book each month, every year, to children until they reach the age of five. Originally funded for the children in Sevier County, Tennessee, the program’s popularity quickly grew to national and even international levels.

To celebrate the one-million-books-per-month milestone, Parton gave a$30,000scholarship to a two-year-old in 2016. Today, the program has distributed100 million booksall over Sevier County, the U.S., Canada, England, and Australia.

“I Believe in You” Children’s Album

While Parton had been writing songs for children for years, the Imagination Library’s distribution of its 100-millionth book called for a special celebration. So, to recognize the program’s success and to raise money for more books, Dolly recorded the “I Believe in You” children’s album. Upon its release, she gave$1 millionto Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital in honor of her niece, who had been treated there for leukemia.

With a title inspired by “The Little Engine that Could,” the uplifting, sing-able album features songs based on the themes in the books from the Imagination Library. The songs are for children, but Parton feels parents and grandparents will also appreciate the music and messaging. All sales from the album support theImagination Library.

My People Fund

Many families in Sevier County lost their homes to massive wildfires that took place on November 28, 2016. To help, the Dollywood Foundation instituted the My People Fund. This fund raised and gave$1,000 per month for six monthsto the Sevier County families displaced due to the fires. As the program ended, affected residents received an increased check of $5,000 from the My People Fund. A total of $8.9 millionwas donated directly to those in need.

Further contributions to the My People Fund helped establish the Wildfire Scholarship Fund. This fund ensured that each junior and senior high school student affected by the wildfires would receive a$4,500 scholarship.

The LeConte Medical Center

When the $115 million project to build a new, high-quality medical care facility began, Dolly Parton was a natural local benefactor. The project included the building of a Sevier County branch of the Thompson Cancer Survival Center and an emergency department expansion, the building of private patient rooms, and an intensive sleep center and step-down unit. Home to the 30,000-square-foot “Dolly Parton Center for Women’s Services,” the LeConte Medical Center today provides the residents of Sevier County with the highest level of quality care possible.

Dolly Parton donated$500,000to the project and then performed a benefit concert to raise an additional$500,000. She also donated books from theImagination Libraryprogram to the new hospital’s pediatric department.

Dolly Parton Impacts Millions of Lives

I think when you get in a position to help, you should help.

dolly parton

In addition to building a theme park, funding scholarships, and leading an international literacy program, Dolly Parton supports several organizations. She’s donated millions of dollars to causes like the United Way, the Save the Music Foundation, and the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes. Parton also meets privately with children and adults through the Make-A-Wish program.

A statement made by American singer and musician Kenny Rogers may sum up Dolly Parton’s life story pretty well. He said,“I am impressed that Dolly doesn’t do anything that doesn’t grow to have a widespread impact—it may start locally, but because of her focus and determination, whatever it may be, grows to have influence in a much larger way.”

Dolly Parton will always be a country music icon. Her real legacy, however, will come from transforming millions of lives through her philanthropic efforts and servant leadership.

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