It is not the longest journey in miles from the Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, but when Dolly Parton was growing up in a one-room cabin in the woods, it must have looked about as far away as outer space.
For Reuters’ “Life Lessons” series, the iconic 70-year-old country singer, songwriter, actress and businesswoman talked about her unique journey as one of the most honored artists in American history.
Q: Your family didn’t have much growing up. How did that shape your understanding of money?
A: I think being poor has been good for me. I saw how my mom and dad struggled, and how they could stretch a dollar farther than you could begin to imagine. Even now, if I am thinking about spending a lot of money on clothing or furniture, I think ‘I can’t spend so much money on one thing; my poor old Daddy could have raised his family five years on that!’
So I know the struggles of poor people, and have always kept that with me. I often say I had to get rich in order to sing as if I was poor.
Q: What was your first job as a kid?
A: We all had our chores on the farm, but my first money-making job was actually singing, at 10 years old. It was on the Cas Walker show down in Knoxville, Tennessee, and I used to ride the bus to the radio station.
I was on television before we even had one at home. In fact, I bought our first family television with my own money, putting it on credit and then paying it off every week.
Nobody in our area had a TV, so everyone used to come over and watch shows like Woody Woodpecker and Daniel Boone, and then never leave. Finally my Daddy said, ‘That television has got to go!’
Q: Once you had some success, how did you deal with that wealth?
A: It seems like the more I give the more I get, and that is the way it is supposed to go in life. Money is like the tide: It rolls in and it rolls out. If you clutch it, you are not going to keep it. With the first money I ever made I bought my Mommy and Daddy a car, and helped them fix their house up.
Q: When you got the business idea of starting your Dollywood theme park and resort, did people not take you seriously at first?
A: A lot of my businesspeople said: ‘That’s a big mistake, that is a great way to lose all your money.’ But I had a feeling in my stomach that it was the right thing to do, so I went ahead with it. Then I got rid of those lawyers and accountants who didn’t believe in me, and got new ones who did. Needless to say, it’s been the biggest and best investment I ever made.
Q: Any advice for entrepreneurs starting out?
A: Any business you go into, you have to think about how much money you are willing to put into it, and how much you are not. Unless you have spent your life doing something, you are not likely to be successful, so always partner with people who are smarter than you.
I do have a natural sense for business, which I think I get from my Dad. I know when something ain’t right, and I know exactly what I will or won’t tolerate. I can spot a con artist from a mile away.
Q: How do you direct your charitable dollars?
A: One of the things I’m proudest of is the Imagination Library, which gives books to kids from the time they are born to when they start school. So many of my relatives didn’t get a chance to go to school, and my own Daddy couldn’t read or write. It started in my hometown, and now we are all over the world. It gives me real pride because it reminds me of Daddy.
Q: You once gave a commencement speech about life lessons. What did you tell the graduates?
A: I asked them, are you willing to work hard? Because you have to work hard, in order to get anything done. Know that up front. Dreams are of no value if they don’t have wings and feet. You can’t just wish to be a millionaire; you have to figure out how to earn it.