A Little of Why We Love Dolly

She Come By It Natural collects author Sarah Smarsh’s four long-form essays about Dolly Parton and the beloved singer’s connections to feminism through her roots in rural poverty in Tennessee (it’s better than I’m setting it up, but that’s the basic premise).

These essays were the result of a Freshgrass Foundation journalism fellowship Smarsh won, and were published by No Depression over the course of 2017. Here they’re collected together in “slightly revised” form.

When Parton was born into rural poverty in 1946, women’s suffrage had been assured by constitutional amendment for just twenty-six years. They’d recently made economic strides amid a wartime economy but still were widely abused by a system in which the female body had few protections from assault, unwanted pregnancy, or undervalued labor. Women in poverty and women of color fared the worst, on the losing end of societal structures favoring wealth and whiteness.

Smarsh has written eloquently about her own family’s poverty and the strength of the working women in her lineage in 2018’s Heartland, so her bonafides on this subject are clear. Each essay looks at different elements of Parton’s public persona and personal identity alongside her enormously generous charitable works, and relates them to her upbringing and the influence of her early life on her values. And of course, how she forged her career, including her role as a woman in male-dominated country music, despite the men who threw obstacles in her way.

Right off the bat, one topic cropping up repeatedly is Parton’s striking, instantly recognizable appearance. As Smarsh notes, “she is a woman whose appearance provokes people to demand an explanation,” with her “signature Parton trifecta — eyebrow-raising tight clothes, generosity of heart, and a take-no-crap attitude.” Her penchant for plastic surgery and cosmetic enhancements are addressed in a way that felt more unapologetic and sensible than elsewhere.

Because of her vibrant, over-the-top look, “she received a fame laced with ridicule; during interviews in the 1970s and 1980s, both Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey asked her to stand up so they could point out, without humor, that she looked like a tramp.” (Et tu, Oprah?!) Smarsh draws a comparison to Johnny Cash wearing black “as a statement of rebellion against the status quo and on behalf of the downtrodden” and how he was “lauded,” but Parton’s body and fashion preferences were and remain targets for negative attention.

None of what’s covered here is particularly groundbreaking, but I found it compelling. Dolly is apparently experiencing a renaissance with a younger generation, with a saintly-styled image of the singer plastered on products celebrating strength and a general badassery, with nods at the glowing goodness that Parton evinces through holy imagery.

Smarsh relates Parton’s own anecdotes, some of which, she notes, Parton has told and retold many times over the years, and parses from them how truly revolutionary her actions were in the zeitgeist, plus the influence of her childhood in a loving family, but also in an impoverished, economically troubled region that she still seems to feel a lingering responsibility for.

All of this still feels pertinent even as far as things have come, advanced as we are now into fourth-wave feminism; for one, Smarsh notes in discussing Parton’s most iconic acting role in 9 to 5, that the movie is “still, painfully relevant” not least because “the US presidency is occupied by a man who embodies the disgusting male boss.” UGH YES. That’s exactly what he is. A soulless corporate business demon straight out of the gross money-obsessed ’80s in a bad suit. “In these times, 9 to 5 feels so radical that one wonders whether it would be greenlighted by a major studio today.”

I loved learning more about Dolly, and the tear-jerking good deeds she’s done, but at the same time there’s something upsetting about it all. In 2016 Parton and her foundation spent millions helping families after the devastating wildfires in her home region, the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. What she’s done is moving; it’s also messed up that she has to step in and fill the gaps of a system that can’t or won’t adequately take care of citizens during their hardest times. She’s so well known for doing this to boost Tennessee that Smarsh notes that the essay in its current form is already outdated.

I was less enamored with the elements around the subtitle, “the women who lived her songs.” These were Smarsh using the women in her family to illustrate similar socioeconomic conditions and how women from this background worked and fought for themselves similarly, as best they could — the women who continued to live the life that Parton no longer did but still sang about. Some of these felt shoehorned in, and Smarsh writes about her family much better in Heartland.

Of course, these were meant to be briefer, and it helps that there’s a wider cultural context for all of Dolly’s behavior and accomplishments, but the combination of the two felt thin. I was always left with the feeling that if this had been an actual polished book focused more on Parton’s biography instead of a series of essays blending concepts, it could have been incredible.

More than anything it made me want to read Dolly’s own memoir, although Smarsh’s description of it sounds like it’s guarded and carefully crafted. But what a fascinating trailblazer she is. I’ve adored her since childhood in that way it seems a lot of children do, especially now as she runs Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, mailing millions of books to kids throughout their childhoods — and she’s quoted here laughingly as saying it’s because she’s a Mother Goose-type figure.

But to what must be the widest age range of fans, she’s remained an uplifting and iconic figure even though her music (43 albums!) doesn’t regularly get radio airplay, and in 2016 she had her first album in 25 years top the Billboard charts. Despite odds often against her, she’s enjoyed a massive and consistent popularity, still selling out tours and accruing new generations of fans.

This isn’t the definitive book on Dolly’s particular brand of magic, but it’s a well written, uplifting, and very informative look into it, and at the significance of some of the gutsy things she’s done in her life.

She Come By It Natural:
Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs
by Sarah Smarsh
published October 13, 2020 by Scribner

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

9 thoughts on “A Little of Why We Love Dolly

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  1. I’ve been enjoying all the reviews and comments I’ve heard about this book. That’s an important point you make about the fact that big acts of philanthropy from individual stars are kind of depressing, because it means that the government is failing its citizens. In the UK a footballer called Marcus Rashford has been making headlines for months after he managed to a) raise money for and b) shame the government into improving the situation for children on free school meals during the pandemic. He’s rightly got a lot of praise and acclaim for it, but I’ve found the coverage quite depressing because he shouldn’t have needed to do it. What you write about Dolly sounds pretty similar.

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    1. Yes, exactly! It’s reassuring to know that certain celebrities use their money and power for so much good, but heartbreaking that it’s even so necessary for them to do this. There’s a line in the book, and I’m paraphrasing as the digital review copy is expired, but after one of the natural disasters in Tennessee people were openly saying something like “wait and see what Dolly does.” And of course she raised money through her foundation and donated and organized and everything else, but she’s not the head of FEMA. Why do we depend on this kind of philanthropy instead of a government that manages disasters and ensuing needs with adequate funds and support? It’s reprehensible!

      I hadn’t heard that story about the footballer raising money for school lunches. It’s wonderful that he’s doing it but again, exactly, it shouldn’t have to be done. I’m glad he’s also throwing some shame towards the government as well, maybe it’s the only way to make a difference at this point. It’s so disheartening.

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      1. Me too! I put in a library hold for her memoir, My Life and Other Unfinished Business, although the author here makes it seem like it’s not as revealing or transparent as we might prefer, and elsewhere I read that it’s a bit churchy. And she has this coming out in a few weeks: https://dollyparton.com/life-and-career/books/dolly-parton-songteller-my-life-in-lyrics/17644

        Which alleges to be more candid? It seems worth a read regardless. This book made me realize even more what a fascinating and accomplished character she is and I want to know so much more about it. I just admire her so much.

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