Dolly Parton’s new book, Dream More, was inspired by a commencement speech she gave at the University of Tennessee three years ago.
The country singer, known for No. 1 hits like Jolene, I Will Always Love You and Islands in the Stream, recounted her early days growing up in Tennessee, living in a shack at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Though her family was poor, she was inspired by fairy tales read by her mother and listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio with her father.
Parton — who went on to sell more than 100 million records and has been an active philanthropist for literacy — revisits her background again in Dream More, which shares the personal philosophy that has helped her find success over the years.
In an interview with CBC’s Q cultural affairs show, Parton recalled how, as a girl, she performed on her front porch, with a tin can representing the microphone.
'I kept that good feeling: that through God all things are possible. I just felt "There are people more talented than me, but no one willing to work harder"' —Dolly Parton
"I just pictured myself singing to a bunch of people I don’t even know," she said from New York.
"Daddy loved Grand Ole Opry and used to listen to that. I was picturing that I was going to be on the Grand Ole Opry and my Daddy and Mom was going to hear me singing on the radio, and eventually they did."
According to Parton, faith also had something to do with it. Her grandfather was a preacher and the singer-songwriter believes she picked up some of her positive attitude from the church.
"I kept that good feeling: that through God all things are possible. I just felt 'There are people more talented than me, but no one willing to work harder,'" Parton said.
Still, when she declared at her own high school commencement she was headed to Nashville to be a country star, her classmates laughed.
"I was embarrassed and hurt," she said. "It took me years to realize it was just because I was dreaming big and they’re not used to that."
Parton also achieved fame on film, with roles in movies like 9 to 5 and Steel Magnolias, and has a namesake theme park, Dollywood. A savvy businesswoman throughout her career, she believes her ultra-feminine image was often an advantage, as men tended to underestimate her.
"A lot of people say they think I would have done so much better, been taken more serious if I didn’t look the way I do. Well, you know what? I have to enjoy my own life, no matter how anybody else thinks," she said.
Parton noted that she adopted her signature pile of blonde curls, bright makeup and clothing from her idea of beauty developed as a teenager.
"I think all country girls have an idea of what glamour is and they might get that from movie magazines or from the movies. We didn’t get to go to the movies and we lived well back. My look was inspired by the town tramp in our town," she said.
"I thought she was absolutely beautiful because she looked like a movie star to me. I tell it as a joke, but I liked how she looked."
Parton talked to Q about how she’s maintained her marriage, using her temper and why it’s important to keep dreaming big as one gets older.