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Is Dolly Parton the Voice of America?

The curious appeal of the country legend in a divided nation


On July 5, 1996, the world’s first cloned mammal was born in a lab at the University of Edinburgh. The lamb, carried to term by one ewe and carrying the cloned genetic code of another, represented an epoch-shifting scientific breakthrough. The scientists named her Dolly. She had been cloned using DNA harvested from a mammary cell, and, as the embryologist Sir Ian Wilmut put it when the news was announced, “we couldn’t think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton’s.” So thorough was the country singer’s punch line status at the time—so strong was the association between her curvy physique and the very concept of breast tissue—that not even a scientist announcing the crowning achievement of his own career could resist a little verbal squeeze.

She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs
by Sarah Smarsh
Scribner, 208 pp., $22.00

Sometime in the years since, Parton’s place in the cultural approval matrix has undergone a dramatic transformation. Instead of a walking, talking boob joke with a hillbilly accent, she has become an icon of sex positivity, business bravado, and flamboyantly feminine self-presentation, with talent and savvy as big as her hair. Her image adorns prayer candles for the secular, a halo surrounding her blonde bouffant. Fans speak of her in terms that border on the astral: goddess, priestess, fairy godmother. It’s hard to pinpoint the start of this transformation, but I recall very clearly the moment I became aware that a shift was underway: In the early years of the Obama administration, a friend of mine, a queer woman born and raised in Northern California, fresh out of Smith College with a degree in women’s and gender studies, talked glowingly about Parton’s spangly brand of feminism. Was she kidding, I asked? Was she really talking about the same person, the one I knew for her ditzy talk-show giggle and surgical enhancements? My friend looked me square in the eye and said, with gravity that made it clear I had some rethinking to do: “Gender is a performance, and nobody understands that better than Dolly Parton. Not Judith Butler—nobody.”

In the last year or so, the Dolly renaissance has reached a peak. A podcast hosted by Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad declared her a great unifying force in American culture, a figure equally beloved by liberals and conservatives at a time of great division; a Netflix series has adapted story lines from her songs into hour-long episodes that cast sex workers and mountain women in a heartwarming glow; Nicki Minaj celebrates her (“Double D up, hoes, Dolly Parton”) in Drake’s anthem “Make Me Proud”; the University of Tennessee dedicated an honors history course to the study of her life. In November, promising news about a Covid-19 vaccine mentioned Parton, who had partially funded the research. Into this mix comes Sarah Smarsh’s She Come by It Natural, an ambitious book that explores what Parton represents for the rural poor women often left out of social justice movements. Drawing on the experience of her own Kansas family, Smarsh uses Parton’s life to show what women’s empowerment can look like in slices of society where “feminism” is a dirty word, and how Parton—like many women outside of wealthy, college-educated circles—practices a brand of “implicit feminism.”

Beneath these discoveries of Parton’s uniquely resonant position in American culture, there’s an indication of the country’s long-standing struggles to understand itself. Along with a heightened appreciation for Dolly, the last five years have seen a wave of books that attempt with varying degrees of success to explain rural America, and particularly Appalachia, to the rest of the country: J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy painted the region as a crisis of poverty and addiction; Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow traced a centuries-long pattern of dispossession; Eliza Griswold’s Amity and Prosperity followed a rural family’s battle against the ill effects of fracking; Elizabeth Catte’s What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia confronted the idea “that Appalachia is fundamentally not part of the United States”; and Smarsh’s study of Dolly, like her earlier book, Heartland, narrates a cultural schism between America’s urban and rural places.

The idea that Parton can bridge these gaps starts with her very real talent for talking—and singing—about the place she is from. As Smarsh puts it, country music like Dolly’s showed her that her own rural home, which was “invisible or ridiculed elsewhere in news and popular culture—deserved to be known, and that it was complicated and good.” Yet to act both as the representative for a misunderstood region and as a balm for political division is a heavy burden for any public figure. And it may be especially incongruous for one like Parton who maintains a carefully apolitical stance.

Smarsh tells the story of Parton’s early life with a fan’s loving eye—and it’s easy to see why. Parton was born in a cabin in the mountains of east Tennessee, where her father was a sharecropper. Her parents married when they were 15 and 17, and she was one of 12 children. The family’s material struggles feature prominently in Parton’s understanding of herself. She likes to joke in her stage patter that “Mama always said we had running water—if we’d run and get it.” She always points out that growing up poor didn’t mean growing up sad. She writes in her 1994 memoir, Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business, that her family was “poor as Job’s turkey,” but her childhood memories are free and fond: singing into tin cans she imagined as microphones, running around in the woods with her siblings and dying themselves purple with berries, getting a warm feeling when her mother used a rock she brought in to make “stone soup.” Smarsh expresses a similar message, with a more feral edge, in Heartland: “If you’re wild enough to enjoy it, poverty can contain a sort of freedom … if there was a car that ran and a little bit of gas money, we could just leave.”

The act of leaving is a big part of Parton’s early life. After graduating from high school—she was the first in her family to do so—she left for Nashville on the Greyhound bus with her old guitar and her belongings in paper grocery sacks. (She called this “matching luggage.”) In her first years there, she was so broke that she would sometimes walk the hallways of a local hotel looking for scraps of food left on room-service trays. The gig that brought her to a wider audience was as the “girl singer” on the variety show hosted by Porter Wagoner, a singer-songwriter who had grown up the son of a southern Missouri farmer. He had made precisely the transformation that Parton envisioned for herself, down to the outfits: Having worked as a meatcutter in Missouri, Wagoner had left behind a gritty rural existence and embraced full-on glitz, with his signature whirl-of-blond pompadour and colorful, rhinestone-studded suits.

It’s hard to fathom, given her musical talent and her preternatural charm, but when Parton began appearing on Wagoner’s show in 1967, the audience greeted her coolly. She was replacing another girl singer, Norma Jean, who had been widely adored. But Dolly won them over. In an episode from 1970, the pair sings a duet—“we’ve had a lot of folks write in and ask us to do more of these,” Wagoner explains, maybe a little grudgingly. Parton has a little gap in her front teeth, an acoustic guitar with pink flowers painted on it, and a gravity-defying bouffant—both a monument to the power of Aqua Net and a sign of the habit she would develop in the future of not just embracing the symbols of femininity but blowing them up to fantastical proportions. She makes a self-deprecating comment about her guitar-picking skills, and Wagoner gives her a patronizing compliment, then rolls his eyes dramatically. Watching it, you can hardly wait for her to emerge from the chrysalis of these years, bold and self-possessed. “People always ask me how do you play the guitar with them long fingernails,” she’ll later joke. “And I always tell ’em—pretty good!”

Working for Wagoner was the first time Parton made real money—when he offered her $60,000 a year, she was “dumbfounded.” She also characterizes this stint as one of the hardest and worst periods in her life. Parton and Wagoner were both phenomenally stubborn, and the two often clashed. Parton wanted to be her own boss, and wasn’t going to be anyone’s sidekick for long. She had promised Wagoner to stay on his show for five years, and wound up staying for seven. (“Looking back, it seems appropriate,” she wrote in her memoir. “The indentured servants who came to the New World had to work seven years for their freedom. Seven years is traditional.”) After she left the show in 1974, Wagoner sued her—claiming that she literally owed him her career, and that he should get a cut of her future profits. Parton settled the suit for $1 million.

This break marked the beginning of her career as a solo artist and businesswoman, in which owning the songs she wrote and controlling her own image were paramount. The song she wrote about leaving him, “I Will Always Love You,” became a number one hit three times—first on the Billboard Country 100, on its initial release in 1974; then when Parton rerecorded it in 1982; and then on the Billboard Hot 100, in 1992, when it was performed by Whitney Houston for the soundtrack to The Bodyguard. Even Elvis Presley wanted to record it, but when his manager told Parton that they would require her to sell him 50 percent of the rights to the song, she refused. She cried all night over the decision, but, Smarsh writes, “in the end she went with her gut. And it has been one of the most lucrative decisions of her life.” A common theme in Parton’s life is the difference between the softness and sparkle of her appearance and her hard business sense. She would later write, with a sharecropper’s daughter’s sensitivity to the importance of ownership: “Nobody goes prospecting in my gold mine without first buying the mineral rights.”

In Smarsh’s telling, these acts of leaving—first from her Tennessee mountain home for Nashville, then from the employ of a man who wanted to control her creative career—represent not just turning points in Parton’s own life, but a strong point of connection with the lives of poor women. “Most poor women’s risks don’t pay off with fame and fortune,” Smarsh writes, but the life stories of the women she grew up around share a common element: “dramatic, self-preserving departures.” Leaving is, she writes, a way out of a bad situation that requires minimal capital.

In Parton’s songs, Smarsh points out, poor rural women could recognize their own experience defiantly transformed. The ballad “Coat of Many Colors” describes cherishing the patchwork coat her mother sewed for her even though other kids made fun of her at school, while “The Bargain Store” turns on its head the idea of a woman with a reputation of being “damaged goods.” Perhaps even more powerful than her lyrics is the way Parton carries herself: “This signature Parton trifecta—eyebrow-raising tight clothes, generosity of heart, and a take-no-crap attitude—is an overlooked, unnamed sort of feminism I recognize in the hard-luck women who raised me,” Smarsh writes. “There was no feminist literature or theory in our lives. There was only life, in which we were women—economically disenfranchised, working on our feet in restaurants and factories, and hopelessly sexualized.”

One recurring woman in Smarsh’s story is her own grandmother, Grandma Betty, who serves as a kind of foil to Parton, living through many of the same hard circumstances. She’s not a singer or a glamour queen, but in several ways Grandma Betty’s experiences of hardship and her attitude toward life’s knocks parallel Parton’s. By the time Betty was 32, Smarsh writes, she had divorced six men. If Parton’s art form is the soulful country song, Betty’s is straight talk with the glint of prairie-dry wit: “This was a gift from one of my sweethearts,” she tells Smarsh about her clicking jaw, broken by an abusive partner before one of the times she lit out of town.

A cornerstone of Smarsh’s book is the tracing of Parton’s career alongside the victories and setbacks of the feminist movement. Parton gained professional independence amid the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and she has built her career on deftly navigating the mixed messages America sends to working women about sex and power. Her 1968 song “Just Because I’m a Woman” sends up the sexual double standard; “Daddy Come and Get Me,” released in 1970, tells the story of a woman whose cheating husband has had her institutionalized. She doesn’t call herself a feminist—in fact she has publicly forsworn the label. But in Smarsh’s reading, Parton’s feminism is implicit, embodied in her actions.

One obvious piece of evidence in favor of this reading is Parton’s role in the 1980 film 9 to 5, in which three secretaries accidentally kidnap their harassing, chauvinist boss and play out revenge fantasies against him that skitter between the sinister and the slapstick. Jane Fonda cast herself and Lily Tomlin in two of the three lead roles; hearing Parton’s hit “Two Doors Down” on the radio inspired her to offer Parton the third. Parton agreed to sign on, provided that she could write the theme song for the movie, and she joined the cast for her first acting job, playing Doralee Rhodes, a character who rejects the boss’s unwanted advances, only to find out he’s told everyone he is sleeping with her anyway. For Smarsh, Parton’s acceptance of this role is revealing. Although she “never leveraged her celebrity at feminist marches,” she chose to play “a character who lassoes her abusive boss and shoves a pistol in his face.”

The movie’s theme song—both radical and broadly relatable—has also encouraged people to think of Parton as a politically engaged figure. “9 to 5” is the song that first made me love Dolly Parton, and made me curious about who she was, beyond the punch lines I remembered from my youth. I’m not alone in this—on its release in 1980, it became her first number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and Adult Contemporary charts: an official mark of her crossover. With its quick, witty lyrics, the song presents a rare combination of clear-eyed class critiques and a cocky optimism, at a tempo “so bouncy” that, as one reviewer put it, “its complaints become self-assertions.” Is there a more succinct description of the worker under American capitalism, playing a rigged game in which the wealth gap grows and grows, even as the culture insists on the story of meritocracy, than her lyric: “it’s a rich man’s game, no matter what they call it / and you spend your life putting money in his wallet”?

Yet “9 to 5” is an outlier in Parton’s oeuvre—it has a quality that is notably lacking from her self-presentation and musical storytelling: a sense of grievance. Before “9 to 5,” Parton had written plenty about tragedy and hardship, but the message was always one of forgiveness, transcendence. Much more representative is the B-side of the “9 to 5” single, “Sing for the Common Man,” which praises the workingman with a soaring melody that wouldn’t be out of place in a choir booth, and promises that “with the sweat of his brow,” he will survive. If “9 to 5” is more direct and confrontational in its style, it may be the influence of the other cast members’ strong activist sentiments. Parton wrote the song on set, drafting over a hundred verses, which she winnowed down with help from Fonda and Tomlin. It makes sense that this piece, composed to match a story line that’s light on redemption and heavy on revenge, and written with input from the firebrand Fonda, engages with an angrier mode of politics. Certainly it is part of Parton’s makeup, but it’s one streak in a much more complicated worldview.

In her life and work, it’s striking how seldom Parton seems to be aggrieved. She has endured more than her fair share of harassment and belittling, not just from her Sevierville classmates who spread a rumor that she had been gang-raped and speculated that her mother’s youngest child was actually Dolly’s, but also from countless TV interviewers—David Letterman, Johnny Carson, Barbara Walters, and Oprah Winfrey among them—who snarkily interrogated her about her weight and her figure, and from business associates like Wagoner who sought to exploit her talents. Her public response to these trials has been consistently good-natured, gracious, and even self-deprecating.

Parton’s serenity is remarkably consistent. Her ability to hang back is not limited to her personal life; when prompted to comment on political issues, she refuses to be lured into taking a position. Abumrad has observed Parton’s skill at “verbal judo” when it comes to skirting political hot buttons. On his podcast, he recounts a moment at the 2017 Emmys when Parton’s 9 to 5 costars Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda criticized Donald Trump. Parton had told them ahead of time that she wouldn’t do political content. She tells Abumrad that, in that moment at the podium, she wishes they could have prayed for the president instead.

There’s an itchiness around Parton’s apolitical stance and constant graciousness. It’s beautiful that she can see hardship through the rose-tinted glass of her own profoundly triumphant life experience. But several decades of extreme wealth and celebrity will affect the perspective of anyone who makes art about real life. As a representative of a rural, impoverished area, Parton has been a source of pride and a cultural ambassador, reclaiming the harmful labels of “hillbilly” and “white trash.” A wonderful moment in those decades of degrading TV interviews is when Barbara Walters asks Parton if she would have called the younger version of her a hillbilly. Parton answers that if she had, “I would’ve probably kicked your shins.” The typically cheerful tone of her reply misses something: There are many stories of the place where Dolly Parton is from, a place whose joys and sorrows she chronicles beautifully—that can’t be told apolitically, or without grievance.

In his 2018 history of Appalachia, Ramp Hollow, Steven Stoll writes about the series of dispossessions that separated people in America’s Southern mountains from their land, and from the prospect of earning a good living from it. The region’s history is rife with land grabs and extractive industry: From the 1800s through today, coal-mining and timber-logging interests have carted away the mountains’ natural resources. The effect was that the local people not only lost out on the wealth of the land they lived on, but were caricatured as backward and incapable of progress—a familiar process of dehumanizing that often accompanies the seizure of a group’s property or rights. In her memoir, Parton writes frequently of her feelings about growing up very poor, but she devotes only one brief passage to the situation that created her family’s poverty:

Daddy was a sharecropper. That means we didn’t own the land we lived on. We farmed it for somebody else in return for a share of the crop. In a hard land that is stingy about giving up much of a crop, that share doesn’t come to a whole lot.

You cannot talk about sharecropping without talking about politics, and to say more would not be her style. She was not shy about her desire to sell books or to present her life as a fairy tale, and you sell a fairy tale by focusing on the romance and adventures of the rising princess, not the conditions that made her a scullery maid.

By keeping mostly mum about politics, Parton makes it easy enough for fans from across the political spectrum to project their pet viewpoints and narratives onto her. She is, like the rainbows and butterflies she loves to sing about, hard to pin down. She loves God and gay rights. She is happily married in her seventies and flaunts her sexuality. She talks sweetly and succeeds in business. She is extravagantly wealthy and quietly generous. How compelling to grasp at the idea of having some common ground rooted in her image, of being able to enjoy the same song as your conservative uncle, even if you like its radical lyrics and he likes its hill-country bop.

But our current culture wars are not about taste. They can seem to be: American political division is so thorough at the moment that it has recruited aesthetics—it’s easy to imagine that someone’s entire worldview can be understood through their choice of dress, or music. But the differences driving the schism are about how society ought to work, and they cannot be solved without real reckonings. There cannot be “unity” without addressing underlying inequalities and harms, whether based on gender or the urban-rural divide, or the axes of race or wealth. If anything has been made clear in the past year, it is the limit of the artful sidestepping of politics—what Abumrad calls “Dollitics.” Our political divisions—over how women should be treated in the workplace, how police ought to operate, how much caution or inconvenience we owe one another to keep one another safe—require tough talk and more. Without it, the closest thing we get to unity is fondness for the same country star.

On a 2016 visit to Dollywood, I reached one of the final rooms in the Chasing Rainbows museum, an exhibition about Parton’s life and career. On a wooden stage, edges cluttered with farm tools and other Tennessee Mountain Home memorabilia, a hologram of Dolly twinkled in ghostly blue-and-white light, delivering an encouraging speech about following dreams. There was one other person in the room—a man several decades older than me, kitted out in Harley-Davidson gear. We gave each other a wide berth, but I could hear him sniffing back tears, and then crying outright, and I’m sure he heard me doing the same. I was there to worship at the altar of a woman who had created her own unique, patriarchy-bamboozling power through her determination and creative genius. I don’t know what my fellow worshipper saw—we said nothing to each other as we stood, moved by the sweet words from the flickering projection.