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DOLLY BELIEVES IN KIDS

Few things other than a handful of Ritalin can maintain calm and quiet among 60+ children under six. But leave it to Dolly Parton, resplendent in pink, liquid-velvet capri pants and a matching fitted jacket, to enthrall a roomful of little kids with her high-wattage smile and unfettered charm. While she directed her comments to both “the little kids” and “the grown-ups,” it was clear that the children took precedence in her heart as she announced I Believe In You. Her first children’s album arrives digitally on 9/29 and physically on 10/13 from RCA Nashville/Dolly Records. The project grew out of Parton’s Imagination Library, a charity the Country Music Hall of Famer began in 1997 to provide a book every month to the children around Pigeon Forge.

“I am proud to say this year, we crossed the 100 million mark for books delivered to children from birth to five years of age,” Parton told the assembled faithful. Explaining that the title track was inspired by The Little Engine That Could, she showed the children where and how to make their own train-whistle noise and encouraged them to jump in when the chorus rolled around. The Imagination Library now reaches across the state of Tennessee, as well as Canada and Australia. Each month—with the help of Random House and Penguin-Putnam—1.1 million children receive a book. With two generations already encouraged to read through the program, the audience for I Believe in You is already built in. Reading from last year’s book made from her song “Coat of Many Colors,” Parton looked like the pink Peter Pan. Smiling at the children’s response to the tale of the patchwork jacket her mother made for her first day of school and the way the other children made fun of it, the wide-eyed the multiple Grammy winner announced, “I didn’t like bullying. Do you like bullies? I don’t either.”

That set up “Making Fun Ain’t Funny,” an anti-bullying song that skips along. A perfect children’s song with a message that seems more urgent than ever. Addressing the reasoning behind releasing this album now—after a sold-out, six-month global tour and a #1 Country Album debut for Pure & Simple—Parton couldn’t have been clearer: “For all you children, and the parents, too, this record is to help you be better friends and better kids.”

Being childless herself, Parton marvels, “makes every child my own.” She brings the inspiration of her father, who never learned to read or write, to this project. “He was the smartest person I ever knew, but he came from a large family, too, and didn’t get to go to school. He’s passed on now, but he got to see people call me ‘The Book Lady,’ and that made him so happy.”

“For all you children, and the parents, too, this record is to help you be better friends and better kids.”

Parton downplays her charitable works, including spearheading the charity drive after last year’s flash fires in the Smokey Mountains, but the imprint of her home is clearly on her music and her business. Inspired in part by her many nieces and nephews in Nashville and East Tennessee, I Believe in You is designed to inspire, encourage and offer lessons to children in an increasingly busy, fraught world without preaching or being heavy-handed. Closing with “Brave Little Soldier,” a song to encourage kids in tough times, she urged the little girls with hair bows and little boys with back-to-school haircuts to sing the drummer’s part. There are few energy fields like Parton’s, and in a warehouse out by an abandoned prison, the press event produced a moment of genuine love between the superstar and the awestruck children.

For Sony Nashville’s John Zarling, Steve Hodges and Jim Catino, manager Danny Nozell, PR stalwarts Kirt Webster and Jeremy Westby and Parton, the gathering demonstrated something more than her dazzling star power. It showed the way music can set children up to feel safe and capable.

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