With all the trials 2020 has dealt, one bright spot was (and always has been) Dolly Parton. The legendary country singer, actor, philanthropist and entrepreneur released a top selling Christmas album, donated a million dollars to help fund a COVID vaccine, and produced a new documentary which tells the story of her charitable initiative “Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.”

You may recall Dolly graced the stage the last time a Folk Festival was held in Newport (2019), where she joked about our state – “Rhode Island, you’re a lot like me … we’re little but we do big things,” a sentiment that also describes her “Imagination Library,” the focus of the film.

Parton is at the center of that film, The Library That Dolly Built, which tells the story of her Foundation that distributes over a million books a month. There’s not much in the film about her music career (there are other docs for that), other than as touchpoints that lead to her philanthropy.

Her main charity began in the late 1980’s with the establishment of the Dolly Parton Foundation. Initially, the Foundation awarded college scholarships to students in Parton’s hometown in Sevierville, Tennessee.

By 1994, the Foundation had established the book gifting program, which has now spread to all 50 states and several countries. Parton and her staff believed “the program had to feel more like a gift than a charity or a social service.” The books should be new and there should be lots of them – every child who enrolls gets a book a month from birth to age 5. Parton also insisted the books be addressed directly to the child, and delivered through the US Postal Service, to better cement ownership.

The first book in the program, The Little Engine That Could, went to local Tennessee children. Since then, the Foundation has worked with publishers and distributors to send out 1.7 million books per month. They recently passed the 100 million mark, and a Library of Congress ceremony in 2018 honored Parton for the achievement.

No doubt, Dolly Parton is a larger than life figure. The story is inspiring, but the movie is nothing special, as documentary films go. At times, it feels like an infomercial, or a warm “60 Minutes” story, albeit for a product you can believe in.

As she approaches her 75th birthday, Parton’s appeal has gone beyond her traditional country music fan base. She’s authentic in her positivity, and sincere in her commitment. No doubt, we could listen to Dolly read to kids all day.

Parton’s buoyant optimism, even in these difficult times, is refreshing … and contagious. With a world tour in the works for 2021, let’s hope her vision continues to spread.

Click here to watch the film and support the Jane Pickens Theatre virtual cinema.  

Ken Abrams

Lifestyle Editor Ken Abrams writes about music for What'sUpNewp, SO RI, Folk Radio UK and more. He's also a DJ Tuesday night 6-9PM on WRIU 90.3 FM.