Wyoming Arts Council

Parton presented National Medal of the Arts at annual NASAA Conference

On Thursday, Dolly Parton became the first person from Pigeon Forge, Tenn., to be awarded the National Medal of Arts.

She also became the first person to ever receive the nation’s highest medal for artistic achievement out of the annual White House ceremony in D.C.

Parton couldn’t attend the D.C. ceremony because she’s extremely busy with a few small projects, such as a new album and a Broadway musical. So NEA Chair Dana Gioia flew from D.C. to Chattanooga to present her the medal personally at the annual gathering of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, an organization that represents those that work at 56 state (and territorial) arts agencies. That includes the Wyoming Arts Council (and your intrepid correspondent, wyomingarts).

Parton’s dress sparkled in the spotlights. She was pretty sparkly herself, wearing one of her “Book Lady” dresses, more modest than her well-known low-cut attire. She talked about her favorite subject — free books for young children.

“I’ve been trying for a long time to get this medal,” she said after an introduction by Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen. “I just flew in from Los Angeles because they’re making a musical of ‘9-to-5’ and I’m writing all of the music.”

“9-to-5” was one of the most successful movies of the 1980s. It featured Parton and other working women being stepped on by an overbearing boss. Her title song was a top-ten hit the year the movie came out. It also won a Grammy.

She said that someone asked her if she was reprising her role in the musical. “I said no — it’s called ‘9-to-5′ not ’95’.”

She’s most energized about her “Imagination Library.” It began as a county-wide project to give free books to every child from birth to five years old. It’s expanded all across Tennessee, the U.S. and into the U.K.

“We’ve mailed out 15 million books since it started,” Parton said. “Call us greedy or crazy, but we do whatever it takes to help a child read more, learn more and be more.”

The project has garnered a lot of partners along the way, including the Tennessee Arts Commission and United Way.

Parton’s inspiration came from her father who couldn’t read or write. He went to work as a young boy and kept on working to feed his own 12 kids in backwoods Tennessee.

“He’s the smartest man I ever knew,” she said. “My dad was still alive when I started this program. He’s the one who started calling me Book Lady.”

Fifteen million volumes later, the Book Lady is still at it.

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