Like the laconic wit of the ancient Spartans, American country music and its aesthetic often inspire confusion. The reason for the fringe, stylized leaves, flowers, and animals on the boots, hats, guitars, and epaulettes is at best unclear, and at worst, as my mother would say, tacky. And why would anyone want to sound like that on purpose? The twang, the drawl, the vowels that draw out complicated diphthongs for no apparent reason seem to be a willful commitment to the opposite of smart.
But like the Spartans’ abrupt use of language, and their calculated rejection of the more tendentious aspects of Athenian style, there is a canniness and sophistication to country music’s appeal to simplicity, once you can catch the joke. Few understand this better than Dolly Parton. On the surface, her grand and rhinestone-laden mode of showmanship is almost inexplicable – until you start to notice that almost everyone seems to admire it. On occasion, some do find the eye-catchingly artificial aspect of Dolly off-putting, or the nostalgic orientation of country in general to be not to their taste. But more often, people who have no commitment to country, and know only a single one of her songs (“Jolene”), like the college students in my ethics classes do, are impressed with her persona in a way that radiates outward through the culture at large. In prison, Nelson Mandela would request “Jolene” the better to pace back and forth; my son sings “Jolene” on the way to school. My grandmother, herself a petite woman with a penchant for grandly styled hair, owned a white Cadillac not unlike the one on the cover of Dolly’s 1989 album White Limozeen; my father remembers her playing Dolly’s first album on their blue portable turntable every Saturday morning.
There is an uncanny strength to the spirit with which people praise Dolly Parton. It seems those who love Dolly aren’t just fans, they love her with their whole souls.
The narrowness of musical genre would ordinarily seem to prohibit the kind of universal love Dolly Parton attracts, yet her shows continue to gather people from all sorts of political backgrounds and locales. Americans got a new taste of the magnetism of this emotion when the news of Dolly’s million-dollar donation to vaccine research hit in 2020 – an unusual pleasure, in the midst of the chaos, to have someone so lovable to thank.
There is a canniness and sophistication to country music’s appeal to simplicity, once you can catch the joke.
NPR’s radio series Dolly Parton’s America considers whether the idea that her careful retention of such a broad audience can be ascribed to virtues of showmanship, business acumen, and an ability to deflect political questioning. But I think there’s more to it than that, in a way that sets my philosophical instincts buzzing. Dolly Parton is not simply a good person, or a beautiful poetess; she is both beautiful and good, in a way the philosophy of character strives to explain but can’t always illustrate convincingly. Usually, our heroes disappoint us with flaws or scandal, or our admiration and interest wanes and we move on to the next person to admire. But the more I come to learn about Dolly, the stronger my feelings become. When I told my students the Nelson Mandela story, it made their day.
Dolly parton was born into poverty in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains. There was no electricity; in the winter everyone slept in their clothes. Her father was a Pentecostal preacher and her mother spoke in tongues; everyone sang and played anything that came to hand. Her whole family was musical; she wrote songs with her evangelist aunt, and her uncle drove her to Nashville when she was eighteen. Her voice, a perfectly pitched soprano, seems to leap past her to resonate everywhere at once. Of her sixty-five albums, forty-four have been in the top ten on the country charts. Dolly has written more than three thousand songs. When her early fame seemed in danger of plateauing during the years she worked with television star and singer Porter Wagoner, who behind the scenes was combative, controlling, and just plain jealous, she sang her way out of the situation by composing the song “I Will Always Love You” on the very same day she wrote “Jolene.” That she did love or would always love Porter was not an uncomplicatedly true sentiment, as you can see from her visible discomfort in the 1974 video of her singing the song on Porter’s show. But as musical politesse, it was enough to get her off the hook gracefully, and on to better things.
All this speaks to a great talent. But what she did with her fame and the resulting fortune shows her character. Dolly created a global literacy program in honor of her father, who never learned to read. She has made a substantial investment in her rural community via her theme park, Dollywood (which includes, of all things, a highly successful bald eagle sanctuary). With royalties from Whitney Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You,” Dolly has also invested in a Black neighborhood in Nashville. And then there’s the medical fund in honor of the doctor who delivered her, who worked for their community for almost nothing, among many other acts of generosity and recognition of her roots.
But even as the sum of the parts, these facts and deeds don’t really capture what is so compelling about Dolly. We love her, but usually love isn’t this inarticulate. Being a philosophy professor, my impulse is to turn to the nearest philosopher at hand. But it may be that Dolly can do more to explain the philosophers than the other way around. Let us make a start, however, with Aristotle’s understanding of human character and what he notices about this precise kind of wordlessness of praise. Be warned that Aristotle won’t be entirely able to wrap his head around the idea that a petite woman with a high voice might be a profound moral exemplar.
I spend a fair amount of time looking for ways to make the philosophy of character interesting to undergraduates. This is surprisingly difficult, or perhaps unsurprisingly, since we often think of goodness as something pedestrian, tired, a bit of a burden. My students would rather die than admit this to me, however, and so we often find ourselves at loggerheads, I myself struggling to explain why this foundational aspect of our lives is relevant at all, while they remain constitutionally committed to remaining cheery and upbeat about something they obviously find boring.
For Aristotle, kalos describes something that is good but also lovely, perfectly beautiful while astonishingly good; never merely a duty but always a pleasure.
I usually save Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for the end of the semester, in part because it allows students to discover with relief that he’s more sensible than many of the other people we read. But I also do this because of what he adds to the conversation: a single untranslatable word, kalos, which in English we can only weakly translate as “noble” or “fine” or with the better but still not adequate “beautiful.” Kalos describes something that is good but also lovely, perfectly beautiful while astonishingly good, the kind of thing to aim for in word and deed that would never be boring, tired, or pedestrian; never merely a duty but always a pleasure.
Whenever we humans manage to act really excellently – in a sense not at all unlike the Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure sense of “excellent” – we do so only when the reason why we do the thing we do is because it is beautiful; in this way we catch at something like happiness, at least according to Aristotle – not to mention his biggest fan, Thomas Aquinas. But if we, stuck in the language of twenty-first-century America, don’t happen to have a familiar word for the goal our actions ought to aim for, we are likely to have trouble figuring out what to do with ourselves and our lives, as we obviously do. And so, when someone proposes that Aristotle’s philosophy has something to tell us that later thinkers in other languages lack, we find his suggestion that in order to be happy we ought to act more “virtuously” rather hollow. Fortunately for us, this is where Dolly Parton comes in.
From the very beginning, Dolly had a natural sort of relation to her talent and the ambition that carried her into stardom. She wrote her first song when she was six, performed publicly at age ten. She talks about always knowing she could make a rhyme whenever she wanted. Her grandmother took her on the bus to Lake Charles, Louisiana (my hometown, and the hometown of my own grandmother) to make her first record; they got a bit lost and almost didn’t make it, but people gave them food to keep them going, and Dolly worked up the courage to ask for directions. In all this, Dolly displays a quality Aristotle describes as seriousness: not some kind of already-achieved perfection, but the kind of commitment to one’s desire that it takes to keep walking toward the beautiful. Our human relation to virtue or excellence, Aristotle contends, is our proper serious work, much like the way serious harp players work hard and well at their music. Reading too quickly, sometimes this argument sounds like he’s saying the work of the human is to be good at their career. But our work at our job, even a job we have a genius for, pales in comparison to the human work we must do on behalf of our souls; and Dolly’s tenacity does not stop at her ambition.
While no one works harder at prudential care for her musical legacy than Dolly (she already has an album ready to be released the year after her death), the work of her heart is more magnificent still. Per Aristotle, magnificent acts must be aimed at the common good, not the individual’s own luxury or aura of power, and this is the hallmark of all of Dolly’s projects, from vaccines to bald eagles; and unlike the Carnegies with their libraries, or the Rockefellers with their ice-skating rink, there is no large-scale rapaciousness to make up for, either.
When her colleagues in music and entertainment start to talk about Dolly, they acknowledge without reservation not only her talent and business sense, but also her possession of genuine human decency, her kindness, justice, and sweetness. But there’s also a piquancy to the way Dolly tells the truth that does not cut corners. In her ballads, taking on the personae of hundreds of women, she tells about murder (“J. J. Sneed”), suicide (“The Bridge”), madness (“Where Beauty Lives in Memory”), adultery (“You’re the One Who Taught Me How to Swing”), starving children (“Little Andy”) – all the anguish of things that people in her town and in her family experienced. In her 2020 memoir Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, she speaks of her ability to articulate what people in these situations might want to explain but cannot. Her song about retirement homes is called “House of Shame.” But this honesty also arrives in the ordinary moments of any given day. In the 2019 documentary Here I Am, Dolly recounts to an audience of rapt Londoners in 1983 how she responded in kind to someone who’d flipped her off earlier in the day, asking with wicked innocence, “Did I do that right?” While Loretta Lynn had her 1966 hit with the all-too-understandable title “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” Dolly’s account of the man-stealing Jolene is based on admiration of Jolene’s own beauty and virtues, rather than jealousy. And if there can be said to be a virtue of the erotic, Dolly has that too: married with real faithfulness to her husband, Carl Dean, for more than fifty-five years, she nevertheless manages to express human appreciation for the opposite sex, even as an older woman. As seen in the glorious 1989 music video of “Why’d You Come in Here Looking Like That” from White Limozeen, a song my grandmother and I listened to on the radio, Dolly’s narration jokingly critiques the choice of cowboy men to dress too attractively; in the music video, she makes clear with a well-timed wolf whistle her universal appreciation, with, nevertheless, a certain restraint.
To all this, Dolly adds bravado. Recounting her reasons for not being scared to perform live even at a very young age, or to begin a career in the knives-out, male-dominated space of Nashville, Dolly remarks, “And I didn’t care. I wasn’t scared of anybody. I mean, what was you gonna do to me, kill me? And if you kill me, what you gonna do, eat me?” In the 1980 film 9 to 5, we see Dolly’s character, based on herself, confronting and threatening with castration the boss who’d tried to make a move on her; she’s quite convincing. The song she wrote after she finally broke with the abusive Porter, “Light of a Clear Blue Morning,” speaks to a similar triumph; hitting the stamp-clap downbeat in gospel style, she compares herself to an eagle ready for the sky. The chorus keeps repeating again in stronger, tighter, faster loops, that “everything’s going to be all right / everything’s going to be OK.” Dolly offers her own courage to us as well, in a way that leaps out past the record to encourage the heart.
Listening to Whitney Houston, Dolly felt joy that her song had become more than it started out as, and that it had lifted up another woman.
Finally, there is the sort of heroic generosity it takes to recognize outstanding virtue in other people. Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” first came out in November 1992, when I was eleven. For a few months, it was as though no other song existed. One heard it everywhere – on the radio, people singing it to each other in the hallways of school – and not a soul felt it was overplayed. At an intrastate competition in Lafayette, Louisiana, no fewer than three young girls sang it as their competition piece, and one of them won. When Dolly first heard it on the radio, she recounts that she had to pull the car off the road and stop until it was done. Whitney has the treble register no less than Dolly but resonates from even more of her frame, and the power of her whole soul transforms the careful détente of Dolly’s duplicitous version from eighteen years before into an extraordinary testament of love and renunciation at its full cost. The independence that Dolly bought the hard way with the song is transformed by Whitney into an anthem that contains more human beauty than Dolly could initially let herself express on stage, even though that power was present in the songwriting from the beginning. While some songwriters might be envious at this contrast, what Dolly felt was joy that her song had become more than it started out as, and that it had lifted up another woman. She feels this way about many of her creations; as she reflects in Songteller, she can think of song after song that could one day be a bigger hit for someone else.
One perennial human obstacle to virtue, Aristotle observes, is that most of us think rather less of ourselves than we ought – a surprising sentiment to hear from the otherwise solidly self-loving pagan world. For if the pagans can’t appreciate themselves, how on earth will we? We are capable of more than we give ourselves credit for, he says, and when we decide with much grinding of soul to stand aside from the sorts of projects and honors we are more than capable of carrying off, we are, as he puts it, small-souled. Of course, people who overestimate what they can do or have done are vain. But there are those who are capable of great things and know it, and it would be wiser of humanity, flirting not so much with proper humility but with self-humiliation, to aim toward something more like this state of greatness, toward largeness, toward expansiveness of being. To do so is to have megalopsychia – to have, literally, a large soul.
Now, who ever ran across a person more capable of great things, and who knew this capability, than Dolly Parton? Here is goodness that one could never accuse of being pedestrian. Her very hair is explicable on these grounds. Larger than life, it announces her before she arrives, and signals that someone has at last understood the proper task of the human, to reach out with all our hearts toward the divine in the ways that we humanly can.
Being a star, as Dolly points out, is not so much about the existence of a large number of fans as it is a state of mind, a feeling in one’s own heart about one’s self. This is exactly the sort of graceful and accurate reckoning of one’s self and one’s great deeds that Aristotle describes. Of course, Dolly will speak humbly of her talents, or of her business sense, to let us know that being great-souled hasn’t gone to her head. Properly speaking, there’s always an element of what we would call humility in great-souledness, since one’s estimation of one’s self has to be perfectly calibrated; even a smidgeon of overestimation would spoil the whole.
Even for the pagan Aristotle, there has to be a sense that as great as one is, one is nevertheless not a god. A Christian must take it a step further to recognize that she is, like anyone else, “a poor sinful creature,” as Dolly put it in her 1975 song “The Seeker.” Aquinas remarks that the great-souled Christian deems himself worthy of great things in consideration of the gifts he holds from God; and while humility reminds us to honor the way others live up to their own great gifts, magnanimity reminds us that not to live up to greatness is to disrespect what has been given. Although Dolly’s theological sense would never please a Thomist, there’s a charity present in all her works that vivifies the notion that such love is the mother and the root of all virtues, the very sort of love that magnanimity reaches out towards and attempts to perfect, as much as is humanly possible.
Dolly confounds and yet fulfills Aristotle’s ideal in more ways than one. In Aristotle’s description of great-souledness, he gets surprisingly specific about the physical attributes of the human being in possession of this sort of singular virtue. It becomes explicit that the person he’s imagining is a very male sort of man. Arguing that nothing small can be beautiful, Aristotle concludes that the great-souled man will need to be tall, to walk slowly in his dignity, and possess a deep or heavy voice. Now, it’s odd to place such weight on external qualities when, after all, this virtue is explicitly about the soul and the soul’s relation to its invisible qualities. Some readers have argued that there’s even a humorous aspect to his description, since the great-souled man begins his life in search of honor and respect from others, and ends by having such a low opinion for the lesser souls he encounters as to be comically contemptuous. On these grounds, it would be hard to imagine such a man having many friends, since for Aristotle friends are necessarily analogous to each other in excellence, and this man would be without equals. But a life without friends, as Aristotle reminds us, seems hardly worth living, and so one has to ask how good a life such a great man would really have.
Initially great-souledness seems reasonable enough, insofar as knowledge of one’s abilities is always useful; but on consideration it seems to put its possessor in an impossible, even ridiculous place in relation to other people – and in relation to one’s unalterable personal proportions. One might ask what one is to do if one wishes for greatness while being short, female, with a high sort of voice, and a propensity for moving quickly. Possibly put on a wig and high heels, for starts, but also figure out how to reconcile oneself toward other human beings in light of the friendly love that even pagan Aristotle thinks we can’t help having toward any given member of the human species.
In fact, the humorous grandeur of Dolly’s ever-so-slightly trashy aesthetic both elevates and humanizes her. When asked point-blank by Barbara Walters if the goofiness of her hair, makeup, and costumes make her into a joke, Dolly fired back:
I’ve often made the statement that I would never stoop so low as to be fashionable; that’s the easiest thing in the world to do. So I just decided that I would do something that would at least get the attention. Once they got past the shock of the ridiculous way I looked and all that, then they would see that there was parts of me to be appreciated. And show business is a money-making joke. And I’ve just always liked telling jokes, you know.
To stay afloat so gracefully amid the commercialism of such a performing life, one might well find it necessary to feel a sort of great-souled contempt for certain aspects of it. But Dolly has transcended the need for contempt by means of a certain kind of irony. As she points out, her costuming is a very specific kind of joke about the awkwardness of such a relation to the public, made because it allows her to set others at ease.
Casual critics might at first assume there must not be much in the head of a human being with such a busty flamboyance of style. But once they are moved past this reaction to notice the real goodness of her performance and indeed her soul, their estimation can rise to a more accurate level, and participate in the joke at the expense of their confusion. In this way, with a sort of Socratic irony of wigs, Dolly dissembles her greatness while also showing it off. It’s a masterpiece of showmanship and of excellence that Aristotle’s slow-moving man simply could not achieve. It also illustrates Aristotle’s contention that great-souledness ornaments the virtues: Dolly ornaments herself with a dash of irony in order to render her virtues visible, and in this way her great-souledness gathers not our envy but our love.
When we turn in the twenty-first century to Aristotle’s description of what it would take to make real human happiness for ourselves, we know we need to recover the kalos thing that thinkers like Aquinas and even Augustine had more graceful access to. But one thing we tend to get immediately wrong is that we translate Aristotle’s careful, open-ended dialectic into firm pronouncements on virtue, where if we work hard and have good habits, we’ll perforce be happy. Aristotle’s philosophy is smarter than that: we remain at the mercy of chance for many of the things that make up not just happiness but our ability to make our way toward excellence in the first place. We are at the mercy of the family who raises us, having enough food, and the trust in having food enough for tomorrow that allows the mind to deliberate and choose. Aristotle therefore asks us to see the difference between a life of blessedness, where someone has an abundance of the good things of life and the virtue to manage them well, and the more precarious happiness where most of us land, the place where we hope for more food, more courage, and more ability to love tomorrow.
And when we do run across the human being who has achieved a sort of escape velocity from the toil of being almost virtuous but not yet, we remain in an odd sort of position toward her, once we try to reckon with the sheer magnitude of her life in relation to ours.
With a sort of Socratic irony of wigs, Dolly dissembles her greatness while also showing it off.
There are simply some people, Aristotle insists, who exceed our ability to praise them, to articulate what their extraordinary virtue would mean to ourselves.
This is the truth of Dolly Parton’s magnificence. We can’t simply praise her. But we can, as Aristotle puts it, bless her – sort of raise our eyes in astonishment, wonder, and gratitude that a human being could be so beautifully good. It’s our luck that this human being is not tucked away in some distant estate or time, but a living performer whose records and music we can turn to any time we need a human example of virtue to pick us up. Dolly’s goodness is beautiful. You could never for a second suspect it of being boring. What is virtue, what is the good, what is the beautiful? It looks a little like Dolly Parton. The joke’s on us if we miss the point of her remarkable life.