We have a lot of icons here in the South, but their legacies are not so universally esteemed.
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Rick Bragg and Dolly Parton
Credit: John Cuneo

Somewhere in the South, maybe under a very big rock, lives a person who doesn't like Dolly Parton. You would have to not like sunshine. I love Dolly. You can find the definition of our story in the dictionary under words like "unrequited."

I have never written a fan letter before, mostly because I knew that my mean girl cousins would have made fun of me for it, but I am old now and no longer care. Since I don't actually know her mailing address, I thought I would just explain my devotion here and hope that someone would kindly pass it along to her…or maybe she'd see it sitting on the coffee table at her dentist's office in October 2025.

When I was a boy, I used to watch Dolly perform every week on our black-and-white Philco television, which reduced the whole world to a small, drab, gray hiss. On that little TV, the chariot race in Ben-Hur looked as exciting as a Shoney's parking lot on a Sunday afternoon.

Not Dolly. She was in color before the technology should have allowed it. Porter Wagoner, the country star whose weekly show was Dolly's first entrée into our lives, had more sparkly stuff on his suit than a Shriner's hat, but even he went a little gray standing next to her. I guess, if I am to be truthful, my teenage self would have been mesmerized even if she had sounded like a strangled cat. But Dolly was the whole package. I can still hear her haunting, wounded voice beseeching the mysterious beauty Jolene to please not take her man.

This was before Hollywood Dolly, before Versace Dolly, before Dolly was a worldwide phenomenon. As the years passed and I made thinking about the South my business, I discovered that there was a whole other human story here, one of great heart and generosity, of a woman who hated ignorance and gave out books to fight it, who used her celebrity to do some good in this sorry ole world.

In a time when people once again give you the side-eye when they hear your Southern accent, I have found that Dolly is the antidote. Everyone loves her—prom queens and drag queens, stockbrokers and steelworkers. Simply mention her name on an airplane, and the grandmother in the seat beside you will grab your arm and testify: "I just LOVE her." She'll say it with sparkles and hearts in her eyes.

We have a lot of icons here in the South, but their legacies are not so universally esteemed. I once watched a woman from Louisiana dog-cuss a cardboard cutout of Alabama's Nick Saban outside a Chevron. But I have yet to meet one person—not one—who has had a mean word to say about Dolly. I doubt that even Martina McBride, who is pretty cool her own self, is sitting around somewhere and talking smack.

I have always wanted to interview Dolly. But I don't think I could avoid blushing, and the pencil would probably keep falling from my trembling hand. I did, though, get to talk to her the other day, across the safe distance of a cell phone signal. Her laugh was, as I knew it would be, like a ringing bell.

Well, there it is; I have made a fool of myself before millions.

Still, sometimes I cannot help but wonder…if Dolly was Dolly, what did Jolene look like?