| Jun 8, 2023

Saying No to Elvis: The Business Savvy Behind Dolly Parton’s Stunning Success

The adored American icon has established a brand that goes well beyond her music legacy.

A TV anchor posed the question to Dolly Parton during a television appearance to promote her latest children’s book: “Is there anything you aren’t good at?” It doesn’t seem like it. At 77, Parton is busier than ever, juggling multiple projects, and has never been more popular.

Growing up in a family of 12 children in rural Tennessee, Parton dreamed of moving to Nashville and becoming a star. When she announced her plans to her high school classmates, they laughed. But Parton had the last laugh. Today, she is more successful than she had dreamed.

However, Parton is more than just a talented musician and beloved entertainer — she is a highly successful businesswoman with a multimillion-dollar empire that ranges from entertainment and hospitality to retail.

Most of Parton’s wealth comes from non-musical ventures, including Dollywood, the theme park she built to provide jobs and economic opportunities for residents in the rural community where she grew up. When asked about the main reason for her success, Parton points to her self-belief.

“I’ve got more confidence than I do talent, I think,” she said. “I think confidence is the main achiever of success, I really do. Just believin’ you can do it. You can imagine it to the point where it can become reality.”

While it would be impossible to encapsulate everything responsible for Parton’s success, some key traits and achievements stand out.

Remarkable Talent and Versatility

Parton’s extraordinary talent as a singer-songwriter is at the heart of her success. She debuted at Grand Ole Opry in 1959 when she was 13 and released her first album in 1964, shortly after arriving in Nashville, and has captivated audiences since. Parton received numerous honors for her music, including eight Grammy Awards, 10 Country Music Association Awards, and seven Academy of Country Music Awards. 

She branched out into acting and is among the select few with an Emmy, Tony, Grammy, and Oscar. Parton also received the National Medal of Arts in 2005, the highest medal an artist can receive from the U.S. Government. 

While she carved a niche in country music, Parton has evolved with the changing music landscape, spanning genres from country, pop, and gospel to bluegrass. Her music collaborations have included performers such as Kenny Rogers, Linda Ronstadt,  Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and Miley Cyrus.


Even Elvis Couldn’t Sell Dolly Short

It was rare for anyone to say no to Elvis Presley, let alone a relative newcomer to the music world, but Dolly Parton did. In the mid-70s, the King of Rock ‘n’ roll wanted to record Parton’s 1974 hit, “I Will Always Love You,” but there was a catch. Elvis’s manager wanted Parton to sign over half of the song’s rights.

The then 22-year-old Parton feared that giving up even a piece of what she regarded as her legacy would be a mistake. Recalling advice her mother gave her about “keeping something back for you,” Parton refused the offer. 

“I had to keep that copyright in my pocket,” Parton said. “Everybody’s going to use you if they can. These are my songs. They’re like my children.”

With Parton’s permission, Whitney Houston recorded the song for the soundtrack of “The Bodyguard” in 1992. The song set records and sold 20 million copies worldwide. It also made Parton a very rich woman. “When Whitney came out, I made enough money to buy Graceland,” she joked. Instead, she used the royalties to purchase a strip mall in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Nashville in Houston’s honor.

Today, the publishing rights for Dolly’s music are estimated to be worth $150 million, but Parton isn’t selling. Parton’s library of more than 3,000 song credits, including hits like “9 to 5” and “Jolene,” reportedly brings in between $6 million and $8 million in royalty payments yearly. 

Establishing Her Brand 

Beyond her musical talent, Dolly Parton has proven to be a shrewd entrepreneur with a keen eye for business collaborations and licensing deals. 

Parton has established a brand of warmth, inclusivity and relatability that resonates with a broad audience and helps her connect with her fans and promote her businesses. Her distinctive style, sense of humor, and larger-than-life personality are instantly recognizable and iconic. 

Parton expands her reach through her website, social media, brand licensing and partnerships with other brands, including Duncan Hines, Solitaire Cruise, and her Christmas collection with William Sonoma. 

Giving Back

Parton is a passionate philanthropist whose generosity is as legendary as her music. She received headlines for her $1 million donation for research that created the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Through her Dollywood Foundation, she has provided funds for disaster-relief, healthcare initiatives, and educational programs. 

Parton doesn’t have a strategy for her donations. “I just give from my heart,” she said. “I never know what I’m going to do or why I’m gonna do it. I just see a need, and if I can fill it, then I will.”

Of all her initiatives, she is most proud of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, launched in 1995 in East Tennessee to foster a love of reading among preschool children by providing free books every month to children from birth until they start school.

Parton was inspired to start the program by her father’s illiteracy. “My father could not read and write, and I saw how crippling that could be,” she recalled. Today, the Imagination Library spans five countries and gifts over 206 million free books monthly to over two million children. 

Work Ethic and Perseverance

Despite her superstar status, Parton remains actively involved in all her ventures. Parton’s unwavering work ethic comes from watching her father doing several jobs to support his family, adding: “I always say, ‘I’m not a genius, but I’m smart in other ways.’ And one of those ways is I know how to work.”

While music remains her core interest, Parton invested in many industries, including theme parks, film and television production, publishing, and merchandise. Even when she hits a roadblock, Parton keeps going. She faced financial setbacks, health issues, and depression. But she did her own promotion and worked her way back. “The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain!”

Sherry Keyles
Sherry Keyles

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Sherry is a writer, editor, and podcast producer with over 25 years of experience creating impactful content for the financial, technology, compliance, and healthcare industries. view profile


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