Not bad for a girl voted "Least Likely To Succeed" in high school.
While much has been made over the years about Dolly Parton's warm personality and, in particular, her diminutive frame and physical assets - she stands just shy of five feet tall without her high heeled footwear - it is her strong business acumen and narrative songwriting style that has allowed people a greater understanding of this entertainer, and of the America she's grown up in.
The University of Tennessee is certainly aware of Parton's appeal; the institution bestowed Parton with an honorary doctorate in 2009 and is now establishing a course entitled "Dolly's America." Designed for honors history students, the course is one of three seminars thesis students will have to take.
As is fairly well known, Parton grew up in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, and was one of 12 children. Her song "Coat Of Many Colors" describes the patchwork coat that her mother had made for her and became one of her many beloved hits over the course of her 50-plus year career. When she recorded "I Will Always Love You" - perhaps one of the biggest hits of her career, one that has been covered by everyone from Whitney Houston to Kenny Rogers - in 1973, none other than the King himself, Elvis Presley, wanted to do a cover of the song. Colonel Tom Parker, then Presley's manager, told Parton that part of the deal with Elvis recording the song would be that she would have to give up half the publishing rights, something she was unwilling to do.
"As soon as I could, I started my own publishing company, got my own record label," she said of the early days of her career. "I think it's important, if you can, to keep all of your goods close to home where you can control them and know what's happening with them."
Of her conversation about her dealings with Colonel Parker, she said, "And I said well, 'I am really sorry to hear that because I already told everybody Elvis was doing my song' but I thought you know, I can't do it. And I didn't. So I thought: 'Well, it was just one of those first really hard business decisions I had to make.'"
In addition to her strong business acumen, Parton is very well known for her wide-ranging narratives in her songs, whether it's "Jolene" - a song written by Parton about a statuesque redhead who was flirting with then-new husband Carl Dean - or "I Will Always Love You" - written about her split with then-singing partner Porter Wagoner, who passed in 2007 with Parton at his side. Her songs have been lauded for their relatability to the human condition, in addition to telling listeners volumes about the landscape she's writing about.
Parton is also not the only entertainer to have a course based on their life or music. OutKast and hiphop make up a course at Armstrong State University in the group's native Georgia, and students at the University of Texas in San Antonio have the opportunity to take a course entitled "Black Women, Beyoncé and Popular Culture." There has also been a hiphop course focused on Tupac Shakur at UC Berkeley since 2008.
At 71, Parton appears to still be an unstoppable force in the entertainment world, tackling both music and acting with equal zeal. Of her seemingly universal appeal, she's said, “I think that I’ve been at this so long that [my audience has] come to know me, they know I’m not judgmental. They know I like everybody. I want to be accepted myself, and I not only accept, but celebrate, the difference in everyone.”