The country icon has turned down a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but it doesn’t matter – she’s already royalty in the court of public opinion
Over the course of her decade-spanning career, Dolly Parton has sold more than 100 million records (a milestone she passed all the way back in 2014), written close to 3,000 songs and several books, opened a theme park, secretly produced Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and touched thousands of lives with her philanthropy. She’s broken hearts with “Jolene” and protected lungs with her coronavirus vaccines. Nevertheless, the country music icon decided to “respectfully bow out” of a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination earlier this week, writing in an Instagram statement: “Even though I am extremely flattered and grateful to be nominated… I don’t feel that I have earned that right.”
In the same statement, Parton suggests that she’s exiting the awards race because she doesn’t believe she’s “worthy” of the title (though she does hint that her great rock ‘n’ roll album will arrive “at some point in the future”, with famed rock producer Steve Albini offering to pitch in). “I do hope that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame will understand and be willing to consider me again,” she adds. “If I’m ever worthy.”
Ironically, Parton’s comments have prompted a bigger outpouring of appreciation from fans and fellow artists than any awards show appearance ever could. “Dolly Parton respectfully rejecting a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame nomination because she feels she hasn’t made a rock ‘n’ roll record and thereby isn’t ‘worthy’ of the nom?!? Absolute humble queen,” tweets punk band Mannequin Pussy. Others responding to the news call Parton a “class act”, a “damn legend”, and – for the true, stars-and-stripes country stans out there – a “truly beautiful American”.
This kind of praise is reserved for a select few. Joaquin Phoenix, Stormzy, and Keanu Reeves spring to mind as similar figures – humble royalty, if you will – whose willingness to put aside their egos has garnered praise both online and IRL. Footballer and activist Marcus Rashford inhabits a similar space in sport, largely thanks to his pioneering charity work and modest public persona.
What separates these figures from other celebrities though? We’re not talking about the Kims and Kanyes and Madonnas of the world here – they cast off any claims to humility long ago – but those who actually try to generate a similar sense of goodwill, only to be met with a barrage of public disapproval. Well, perhaps trying is part of the problem: as we all know, it’s painfully obvious when a celebrity stoops to our level, seeking approval in a desperately public way (we’re looking at you, Gal Gadot’s John Lennon cover band).
This distortion of the pop hierarchy is only amplified as many celebrities move away from the strained attempts at relatability that plagued the 2010s, toward a chaotic new form of elevated celebrity culture. The likes of Dolly Parton and Joaquin Phoenix, on the other hand, remain pretty much untouchable. They know that they exist on a higher plane of existence to you and I, with the wealth, talent, and superhuman aura that entails, and they refuse to bask in it nevertheless.
Maybe Dolly does truly care about rock ‘n’ roll genre distinctions (overlooking the fact that her 16 fellow Hall of Fame nominees include Eminem, Lionel Richie, and A Tribe Called Quest), but her refusal of the honour also follows a precedent set by the singer in recent years. In 2021, for example, she discouraged a Tennessee lawmaker’s plans to erect a statue in her honour on the grounds of her home state’s Capitol. “Given all that is going on in the world, I don’t think putting me on a pedestal is appropriate at this time,” she explained. During Donald Trump’s administration, she also turned down the presidential medal of freedom, twice, and suggested that she’d do the same if Joe Biden came knocking.
This is another distinction between the humble queen (or king) and their pretenders: putting their money – either literally or figuratively – where their mouths are. Admittedly, Forbes places Parton’s net worth at an estimated $350 million, but her donations often put those of comparatively wealthy celebrities to shame, while years of her life have been spent on her charitable Dollywood Foundation and child literacy programme, Dolly Parton's Imagination Library. Oh, and if you work at Dollywood itself, any tuition fees involved in pursuing higher education will be paid in full.
Similarly, Stormzy’s #Merky Foundation has funded scholarships for dozens of Black students, and Rashford has helped feed thousands of schoolchildren. After 9/11, award-winning actor Steve Buscemi – another bonafide humble king – famously worked 12-hour days with his former NYC Fire Department colleagues to search the rubble, literally putting his body on the line. At this point, we’re pretty far from celebs sitting in their mansions, imagining all the people livin’ life in peace.
Of course, turning down a legacy award like induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame isn’t on a par with acts of charity and selfless heroism, but it’s doubtful that fans would be so quick to call Dolly Parton a legend if she didn’t have the credibility to back it up. Maybe that’s the difference between the ones who pass muster in the court of public opinion, and those that don’t: the former respect their fans enough to know that they’ll see right through attempts at fake modesty. After all, being a humble queen isn’t just about acting down-to-earth on social media – it’s a way of life.