Sarah Smarsh’s latest book is a deep-dive into all things Dolly Parton

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Before she presented observations about life in the Midwest in The Guardian and The New York Times, Sarah Smarsh wrote arts, calendar, and occasional investigative pieces for The Pitch

Today, she’s best known for her memoir and family history Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. It chronicles how her family struggled with economic changes in the 80s and 90s that made getting by challenging despite how diligently her family toiled. The rise of corporate agriculture and changes in labor laws directly affected her family, who lived around the Wichita area. 

Heartland earned her a Best Book of 2018 from The Boston Globe, NPR, The New York Post, and other publications, a nomination for an Audie Award for the audiobook (which she read herself) and a spot as a New York Times bestseller. 

Because of her own modest roots, it shouldn’t be surprising that her new book is She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs. Parton and her music have fans across the globe, but the singer originally hails from Pittman Center, Tennessee, which has a current population of 570. 

Smarsh’s book explains how Parton’s songs like “Coat of Many Colors,” “Jolene”, and “9 to 5” have given voice to the hopes and frustrations of blue-collar women and occasionally coax the listener to look at issues like poverty in a different light.

Parton appearance, with her huge blond wigs and distinctive physique, gained her attention but may have also prevented people from noticing how clever her self-penned songs are. Her 1971 hit “Coat of Many Colors,” for example, refers to a coat her mother made for her out rags that other kids mocked. Parton, however, compares it to Joseph’s grand “Technicolor dream coat” and points out that income and character are two separate things. That’s a formidable feat for a tune that runs slightly past three minutes.

In the book and in a phone conversation from somewhere in her native Sunflower State, Smarsh explains that Parton’s full legacy is much deeper and more rewarding than it might seem from casual listening.

It seems like you, Dolly Parton, and Charlie Chaplin all have something in common in the fact that your fortunes have improved since your childhood. You’ve never forgotten your roots. Would that be the same for Parton?

Well, sure. I mean that that is part of the underlying themes of my book that you know, she sort of paradoxically has become a very wealthy woman by way of staying true to telling stories of the various places that she comes from.

You know for many people Dolly Parton is a cultural figure involving a big glittery persona, but before that and more essentially, she’s a brilliant songwriter. In fact, she’s written a lot of songs that people don’t even know that she wrote (“I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston for one),  and one of my hopes with using her story to explore working class feminism and a whole class of women was to highlight the genius of her creative work as a woman who so often was dismissed because of her appearance.

One of the most chilling passages from your new book is when you recounted the Barbara Walters and Phil Donahue interviews with her, and I felt physically ill reading some of those.

Gosh, when you see kind of media relics like that, those interviews are from the 70s and 80s respectively and I hope that your sinking feeling with what you saw them and mine as well means that we have somehow progressed as a society because in that moment, no one seemed to be noticing the sexism that was in Dolly Parton’s path.

She seemed to make “feminism” safe for people who have trouble uttering the word.

Indeed, she, herself, does not favor the word and has actually stopped short of applying it to herself even, but that’s one of the main points that I’m getting at with the book is that there is a difference between knowing a term, embracing a term or claiming to exemplify that term, and actually living the tenets of its intentions. In Dolly Parton’s case, you know, she walks the walk of feminism better than a lot of women who readily applied the term to themselves.

She has a fascinating paradox in that she’s been open about plastic surgery and wearing wigs, but rarely does anyone question her authenticity.

You know, that’s a great point and I think that at the heart of that paradox is whatever is special and transcendent about Dolly Parton is this over-the-top physical appearance that she has very knowingly and intentionally cultivated.

Simultaneously just by nature of her, I guess, essential goodness, you might say, it has completely overridden it. I would say that her appearance has have caused her to be undervalued in some ways as an artist, but I would absolutely agree that that no one ever claimed she was phony. And that’s just a testament to the power of authenticity. I guess. 

Elton John and Lady Gaga both wear outrageous outfits, but they can sing and play beautifully.

It’s the same with Dolly. You can’t call it a gimmick. A gimmick is for someone who is hollow or shallow to lean on. She doesn’t need the wigs or plastic surgery to be an incredible musician. Instead, it seems to be just generally something she seems to have fun with.

Even though the new book focuses on Parton and her cultural impact, you also give readers an update about what has happened with some of the relatives you wrote about in Heartland.

I’m hoping that for readers of my first book there will be some moments that while the book is very much examining Dolly Parton’s life as a sort of exemplar of a sort of blue-collar woman. I’ve got some women like that from my own family that Heartland readers will remember and appreciate seeing in the pages. 

Both of your books force people to rethink what poverty entails. They seem to be giant middle finger to University of Chicago-style economics.

One of the great tragedies of modern journalism being skewed toward a more privileged pool of reporters and writers is that even a well-intentioned journalist, who statistically speaking likely has not experienced poverty firsthand, will have a hard-time conveying its complexities due to the inherent class biases that shape us in this country.

Another way to say that is we have a lot of poverty porn, you might say, in our media coverage as well as books and films, and what I find that represents rather than the reality of poverty is the guilt, maybe or at the very least blinders, of a middle or upper-middle-class writer-filmmaker0journalist. 

So, someone like Dolly Parton knows that being “poor”—a term that I don’t really even care for actually for a lot of reasons, but that we can easily use a shorthand—she knows that that experience isn’t just you know, misery and wretchedness. There is a lot of humor and fun and beauty and love in the storytelling of her music, and I hope that my book about growing up in working poor Kansas reflects the same sort of nuance. Because when we reduce a group of people to the misery lens, we might say that we’re caring about their problems, but we’re really doing is dehumanizing them and enabling culture and society to continue underserving them. 

A town near where I grew up has had no grocery store for three years. I’ve got a buddy who grew up in KCMO and KCK, some of the neighborhoods she grew up in have a similar lack of facilities. People in rural and urban areas are going through the same difficulties, but they don’t seem to be able to recognize it.

When I went on a speaking tour for my first book, I had a lot of readers who grew up in urban centers. The contours of our lives looked different and in the way that poverty was manifested, but there were way more similarities than differences, for sure. 

Speaking of nuances, one of the things that comes through Parton’s music is that if you lack resources you often have to be more creative to get by when some people can just buy their way out of problems.

Absolutely. Parton is now known in part for her famously over-the-top appearance. She had those impulses toward self-expression and fashion when she was a kid in a family that couldn’t afford the resources for what most young women were doing in terms of feminine presentation in those decades. She has joked before that she was punk rock before it was a thing because she would very creatively take feathers and fasten them to hooks that she hooked her ears. She would use a burnt matchstick as eyeliner. Of course, her very religious family didn’t look kindly on making oneself up in that way.

They say necessity is the mother of invention. That’s true not just for surviving but for making art and even seemingly silly things like makeup.

You’ve also lamented that while Parton can sell out venues like the T-Mobile Center, radio stations no longer play her. You’ve got some really exciting music coming from Margo Price and Kacey Musgraves, but the stations won’t play them. It’s sad because women have built country music with Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn.

Absolutely, last year Ken Burns did a documentary on the genre for PBS. While I was excited that country music was getting that kind of attention, he mentioned way too few women by my count. It’s the growing divide between commercial country radio and what’s really happening in the genre with the sexism the music industry and, in particular, Nashville.

Meanwhile, as you say, there is this incredible music at least half of which is by women. Many younger stars who are working on the legacies of people like Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, and Patsy Cline. They are, speaking of creativity, finding ways in this digital era to connect with audiences, and doing fine by a lot of measures. They’re certainly not getting any favors from country radio. Sometimes, I think we’re almost in a better place with people who care about good music. The current (digital) model for how we receive it really diversifies what we’re exposed to.

But this conundrum of the disparate ways that female and male artists are handled on country radio is almost a discussion that’s more important society, capitalism, and business than it is about music. I doubt Kacey Musgraves or even Dolly Parton wants to go back to a world and time when an artist’s exposure is completely beholden to the decisions of DJs and radio executives.

Women like them have actually gained a lot of power in the 21st-century music industry where there is a much more direct connection between the artist and consumers. But there are very powerful factions that are left that are dragging them down.

Parton has spoken in favor of Black Lives Matter, and she’s LGBT-friendly, which is unusual in the genre.

I don’t know whether those things are unusual among artists so much as they are unusual within the presentation of the artist. If someone is reluctant to take a vocal stand for justice for business reasons, I’m not cutting them any slack, but I do think that part of the puzzle is Nashville’s calculations about their demographics that they claim to understand and actually might not understand as well as they think because I have a lot of LGBTQ friends who are big country music fans, just to start with one marginalized group. Actually. I believe the first out lesbian in mainstream country music hails from the great state of Kansas, Chely Wright.

I was thrilled with that big Billboard cover story that you’re referencing where Dolly Parton very directly cited Black Lives Matter and made an unequivocal statement in support of that movement. One theme in my book is her shying away from politics in her public messaging. Here I think we see that what Dolly Parton is telling people is black lives matter isn’t a political matter. It’s a moral matter, and I guess she may be one of the folks in Nashville who really is a Christian.

The politics of country music is a lot more complicated than it initially appears. Merle Haggard, for example, did a song about interracial relationships (“Irma Jackson”) as well as his songs criticizing anti-Vietnam War protestors (“The Fightin’ Side of Me”), and Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears album dealt with the mistreatment of American Indians.

Oh, absolutely, and there’s a great tradition of good country music-making a political statement whether or not it’s in an overt way. An overt manner would be Loretta Lynn’s song “The Pill.” A less overt manner would be, let’s say, the roles that Dolly Parton has chosen to play in movies when she was doing her Hollywood career, say with the iconic movie 9 to 5 (in which Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin play three office workers who plot revenge against their sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical, bigot” of a boss, played by Dabney Coleman). 

The tradition is there. It just seems that for whatever reason the genre has been appropriated by more conservative groups. Unfortunately, that link whether it is valid or not is a trope in American culture.

Your book also deals with her missteps. She’s a brilliant entrepreneur, but her appearance on Queen Latifah’s show didn’t quite click. 

While I make no bones about being an admirer of the subject of the book, I certainly didn’t want it to be a hagiography, so I looked at moments like that or her longstanding dinner theater enterprise that used to be called “Dixie Stampede” and had a very problematic performance framework concerning the Civil War. 

The great thing about Parton, though, is that she evolves and listens, apparently, because when a great black female journalist (Aisha Harris) wrote about the problems with Dixie Stampede for Slate several years ago, it was within a few months that Parton dropped the name “Dixie” from the show. Whether it’s still problematic is another discussion, with the Dixie Chicks changing their name in 2020. Parton did it several years ago to very little fanfare.

Would it be fair to say that Dolly Parton is as much a part of your life as the people you talked about in the first book?

I would not go that far. In fact, readers of the book might be surprised to know that when I was growing up, Dolly Parton wasn’t necessarily one of my favorite artists. It was more that as a child of the 80s and coming of age in the 90s, she was part of the omnipresent culture, with her music and listening to the radio. It was only decades later, really, around the time of the #MeToo movement and Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency that, concurrently, Parton was touring with a new album (Pure & Simple). Seeing her in the light of that moment revealed to me a lot of things I hadn’t understood or comprehended about her previously: her feminism, her progressive values, her incredible business savvy as a decent person rather than a con artist like Trump. 

So it was that moment of clarification that made me want to write about her. Then I applied for and won a fellowship through No Depression magazine, which covers roots music, to basically explore her career and life as a springboard to talk about social issues. I did that over the course of a year. 

What I found is that her deep significance had been there all along and is better understood today since she’s sort of a universally beloved icon. But I was just struck by remembering a little girl playing on a playground and having people make Dolly Parton jokes about having big boobs. 

There’s a big gulf between the reality of the woman and the clichés about her that says something about our society that I wanted to dig into.

Categories: Culture