She is best known as a country music icon, but her philanthropic efforts are just as big.

By Ginger Cowles
Photo by Shannon Finney/Getty Images

Books have a way of bringing people together, and believe it or not, can even help make a family feel like a family. Such was the case in a story David Dotson, president of the Dollywood Foundation, told me this week while I waited in an NYC hotel room to interview his boss, country music icon, Dolly Parton.

“I’ve told that story countless times over years, and it still gets me a little choked up,” Dotson said as he ran a finger across his eye.

Parton’s nonprofit, Imagination Library, provided those books to the little boy in the story, as well as to millions of other little children over the last 20 years: The organization recently donated its 100 millionth book, with the milestone book going to the Library of Congress.

That story set the tone for a poignant, funny, and honest conversation with Parton a few minutes later. We discussed Imagination Library’s huge milestone, her family, her music, spirituality, success, and beauty.

On Her Imagination Library Organization

Congratulations on your huge achievement. I know your dad inspired you to start the Imagination Library. What was the one moment that clicked that made you say, “I must do this”?

My dad never went to school. He came from a family of 14 or 15 children. Most kids back then had to go to work in the fields or take care of other children. I have lots of friends and relatives who didn’t get an education. My dad was so smart that I often wondered what he would’ve done if had gotten one.

I remember when I started [the organization] I was already a pretty big star. I got to start it with my dad in our own county in Tennessee. Back then it was limited to just that area. Later, our then-governor Phil Bredesen sort of evangelized it to all of Tennessee, and it grew from there.

This is something that I can take pride in and watch grow. I give it my time and a lot of my money [she finances the overhead]. It’s been a joy.

On Being Teased

At your Library of Congress event this week, in which they accepted your children’s book, ‘Coat of Many Colors,’ into their archives, you read the book—and sang the famous song of the same name—to the little children in attendance. Even my husband, who is from West Africa knew that song growing up. Why does that story resonate so deeply with people from all walks of life?

We grew up dirt poor… Everyone’s been teased, made fun of, put down, or worse in their lives… But I believe that a man can make money, but money doesn’t make a man. The best part of you is not what you own or what you can buy. And what you just said is a good reminder about our organization: It’s for all people, not just the poor. We give these books away at no expense to parents whatsoever.

On Her Parents' Influence

The story of ‘Coat of Many Colors’ is based on the well-known real-life story of your mom making a coat for you from scraps of fabric. How did your parents influence you? What life lessons did you take from them?

Well, I’m a pretty good mix of both my parents. I got my spirituality and musical abilities from my mother. My dad’s people were very hard-working, so I got that from his side, and my sense of humor from them both. I’m so much like my momma, sometimes I look in the mirror and say, “Hi momma!” But they both gave me basically the same advice, said in different ways:

My momma, who used to read to us from the only book we had growing up in the house (the Bible), would quote the biblical verse, “To thine own self be true.” I grew to understand that’s more real than you think. She would also tell us other lessons like that.

My daddy would say things like, “Stand up for who you are,” and he’d tell us that we’re smart, good, and talented. And that if we ever got into a situation where we needed some help, daddy would come and whoop some ass if he had to. They’d tell us that we could always come back home. It was so comforting to know that they were there for us.

On Her Focus

You’ve won countless awards throughout your career, but recently you earned two Guinness World Records—one for the Most Decades with a Top 20 hit on the US Country Songs chart and the other for hits on the U.S. Hot Country Songs chart by a female artist. How have you done this so well for so long? What are your keys to success?

Know what you want to do and know your limitations. Be sensible. If you ain’t got the talent, you’re going to have to work even harder. You’ve got to be laser focused. Stay on that track and keep rolling right on into the station!

How do you stay so focused?

God. I keep focused on God. I always pray that His will be done. You have to really listen to God and believe in the scripture, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

On Her Long Marriage

You and your husband Carl have been married 52 years in May. What are the keys to a successful marriage?

We said, “’Til death do us part!” Carl and I like each other a lot. We’re good friends. Carl’s interested in what I do, and I’m interested in his work. It helps a lot that we’re not stuck in each other’s faces all the time and not in the same industry. I look at some Hollywood couples, and I see that it’s hard. And we laugh! We make each other laugh so hard. And that’s really important to us. I don’t know that I’d ever marry again if anything happened. I might date, but not marry.

On Beauty

People want to know how you stay so beautiful. What’s your secret?

Dress according to your personality. Do what’s right for you. I mean I like to shine and I’m a little over the top and that might be too much for some, but it’s me.

The main key is in spirit. I try to let God’s love shine through and to radiate his love to others in life. You can paint [put makeup on] anything but if there is no love or happiness within, it will be evident. The secret to true beauty is your happiness. Happiness shines through, and that’s true success: Happiness.

Now that’s the spiritual side. The other side of that answer has three keys: A good doctor, good lighting, and good makeup!