The United States of Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton is loved for many reasons—the songwriting, the singing, the industry smarts, the cheeky cracks, the homey manner, the beaut...

Dolly Parton is loved for many reasons—the songwriting, the singing, the industry smarts, the cheeky cracks, the homey manner, the beauty, the verve, the hits. She is also loved for being loved, and loved transcendentally. During a red-hot summer marked in part by toppled monuments to slavery and genocide, a petition arose, directed at Tennessee lawmakers, calling for Parton to be pedestalled instead. “Let’s replace the statues of men who sought to tear this country apart with a monument to the woman who has worked her entire life to bring us closer together,” the petition proposed, soon gaining some twenty-three thousand signatories.

The country-music establishment can be about as partisan as they come, a rope line of old-school apple-pie values and unquestioning patriotism. But Parton is a true diplomat. A word like “crossover” scarcely encompasses a singer admired by Vanna White (who says Parton is her role model because she “hasn’t been affected by show business”), Björk (who has called Parton’s twanged crystal timbre “immaculate”), and Nicki Minaj (who nods Parton’s way in a guest verse on Drake’s “Make Me Proud”). A Dolly Parton concert is like a local census, bringing together peoples across lines of race, gender, sexuality, and, miraculously, political affiliation.

Parton’s politics, in the two-party sense, are a secret so well kept that her reticence on this score has become as integral to the living monument of her as her blond coiffure. In 1980, she had a starring role in the movie “9 to 5,” a hit comedy about mutinous women office workers which was further buoyed by her Oscar-nominated song of that title, but she carefully disavowed any “women’s lib”: “Not that I’m not for rights for everybody,” she told Rolling Stone. “I’m just sayin’ I didn’t want to get involved in a political thing. It’s just a funny, funny show.” In 2014, an interviewer brought up the famous girl-boss manual by the Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, and asked whether Parton had ever “leaned in.” Parton deflected the veiled test of feminist cred with a laugh: “I’ve leaned over. I’ve leaned forward. I don’t know what ‘leaned in’ is. Lean in to God.” In the summer of 2016, she caused a small stir among her fans when she expressed her willingness, in an interview with the Times, to throw in her lot with Hillary Clinton “if she gets it.” But those who were either pleased or incensed by this answer had assumed too much. Parton clarified that she hadn’t decided whom she was voting for, and she said that if she ever found an interest in politics she’d run herself: “I’ve got the hair for it, it’s huge, and they could always use more boobs in the race.”

Humor indelibly choreographs Dolly’s two-step around the sort of culturally warred-over topics that trip up so many celebrities. If the shtick is slick, it doesn’t feel so, only polished, with a whiff of old-fashioned etiquette concerning the subjects one doesn’t talk about with company present. Another word for this is “grace,” helpfully supplied by Sarah Smarsh, the author of “She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs” (Scribner). It’s an appropriately evangelic interpretation of Parton’s seemingly apolitical poise. In lieu of taking a stand, Parton walks the walk, binding the country’s disparate passions with a better politics—good works and the call of homecoming.

Parton was born in 1946, the fourth child of twelve, on her family’s small farm in a “holler” (country for “hollow”), in Sevier County, Tennessee. Her father, Lee, worked as a sharecropper but acquired his own land when Dolly turned five; alongside his wife, Avie Lee, he raised tobacco and livestock. In the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, the Partons’ poverty was acute but unremarkable. Luxuries—electricity, plumbing, store-bought anything—were nonexistent or scarce. Still, the family took care of its own. This period would become the source of anecdotes one could call Dollyisms, spangled throughout concerts and interviews, committed to memory by fans and followers. “I have often joked that we had ‘two rooms and a path, and running water, if you were willing to run to get it,’ ” Parton wrote in her 1994 autobiography, “Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business.”

Some of these stories are sad (the death of a newborn brother), some harrowing (her mother’s bout with spinal meningitis); others are joyful or funny. Not a few are all of these things. One day, Dolly, a small child at the time, trailed a monarch butterfly off the family property and into unknown territory, dreaming of flight. Lost for hours, she returned home by way of the family milk cow, Bessie. Holding on to Bessie’s collar, Dolly was dragged through the forest, arriving home bloodied and bruised. She was greeted by her mother’s sobs, which kept rhythm with her mother’s switch.

Parton divides her extended family into two categories: toilers and wastrels. Her father’s family, the Partons, were of the usual farming stock; they worked hard and patiently, knowing that their planning and providence would pay off, as with Aesop’s industrious ant. Her maternal family, the Owenses, were mostly grasshoppers, keener on making music than on making a living—Avie Lee excluded. Parton, blending these legacies, dreamed up a dazzling future that only sweat, effort, and determination could yield.

Parton’s account of her life is short on judgment but long on lessons. In retrospect, regular clobberings by her brother Denver evince “a sort of male chauvinism mountain boys don’t necessarily grow out of,” she wrote in her memoir. (“They do tend to subdue it somewhat after two or three divorces,” she adds.) Granted, there’s a special tone that arises when your hardships have been spun into gold. Her song “Coat of Many Colors,” a fan favorite, is based on the true tale of a school-aged Dolly parading about on a too warm day in a homemade coat whose magic no one else saw. (“I recall a box of rags that someone gave us / And how my momma put the rags to use.”) Resourceful women crop up in many lyrics, their ingenuity dramatized by the deadbeats who depend on them. Parton’s 1969 song “He’s a Go Getter” puns on the type of man whose giddyup is confined to going to his wife’s place of work—and collecting her paycheck—in lieu of holding a job. “I know that most of you will know the kind I’m talkin’ about,” Parton sings.

Who’s the “you” who understands the deep, unelaborated truths of her songs? That’s the subject of “She Come by It Natural.” Smarsh’s first book, “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth,” a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award, shares with its successor a concern for America’s white country folk, especially the women. A hardscrabble childhood on a Kansas farm and three university degrees—in English and journalism from the University of Kansas, and an M.F.A. from Columbia—make Smarsh a bridge of sorts between the jargon-addled theory of high feminism and the women whom such theory is routinely said to forget. In the course of “She Come by It Natural,” the particulars of Parton’s life story are grafted onto those of white working-class women, usually matriarchs within Smarsh’s own family—women who, like Parton, might never see themselves in feminist discourse but have been “living feminism” all along. These are women tested by poverty and patriarchy, who do what needs to get done and escape when it’s time, even if the fleeing lands them in another bad situation that they’ll soon need to escape. They’re women who are wronged (“Dagger Through the Heart”) or possibly doing wrong (“I Can’t Be True”), finding a soundtrack to their own loves in “Love Is Like a Butterfly.” They are, in Smarsh’s view, Parton’s muses, with lives resembling the main characters of her jubilant and sad-ass tunes. Parton is a genius, but all those stories come from somewhere. And, though Parton left and made a mint, the women she might’ve been kept on living. They understand Parton like few can, and, for the most part, their contributions to progressive consciousness have gone unsung except by Parton.

Those songs started early. When she was five, she came up with “Little Tiny Tasseltop,” a pair of sung couplets about a corncob doll with corn-silk tassels for hair. “Since I have been able to form words, I have been able to rhyme them,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I could catch on to anything that had a rhythm”—peas snapping, honking geese—“and make a song to go with it.” Out of so many children, it was Dolly who was given an uncle’s guitar; another of Avie Lee’s brothers introduced her to the local entrepreneur-slash-radio-personality who gave Parton her first broadcast gig, at the age of ten, on “The Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour,” in Knoxville. Young as she was, she had for years already done the amateur circuit—on the porch or atop a woodpile or at Sunday service, strumming somebody’s banjo or a mandolin fashioned with piano strings.

Her adolescence was spent being driven back and forth to Knoxville, occasionally busking for “nickels and dimes,” or so goes a song of that name which she co-wrote with her brother Floyd years later. Her first swings at Nashville landed her, at age thirteen, a slot at the Grand Ole Opry, courtesy of the Cajun artist Jimmy C. Newman, a friend of friends. Money saved from the Cas Walker show and other spots was spent on the customary teen-age fare—clothes, makeup, and peroxide—and local celebrity attracted envy at school, where she was sometimes bullied. The morning after graduation, Parton boarded a Greyhound in hot pursuit of the usual dream.

By the time she was nineteen, she had a record deal; she recorded a number of singles, and wrote songs that better-known musicians recorded. At twenty, she got married to Carl Dean, who had a road-paving business. (They’re still married; he’s out of the road-paving business.) Parton credits her uncle Bill Owens, the same maternal uncle who ushered her into her first radio gig, with her big break in Nashville. It was Uncle Bill who haunted promoters and publishers, who drove the miles and knocked on the doors that led to the string of singles that landed her in the orbit of Porter Wagoner.

Wagoner, another farmer’s kid turned musician, had become the host of a syndicated weekly TV show, and signed her on as a singing sidekick, for an eye-popping sixty thousand dollars a year. Lean and glittering in his Nudie suits (likely designed by the quietly iconic Manuel Cuevas), and two decades her elder, Wagoner became, in the singsong language of a country duet, the sometime father, sometime lover of his partner. Parton has likened their seven-year working relationship to a marriage—affectionate, contentious, heated, volatile, maddening—but neither of them ever confirmed rumors that the relationship actually had a romantic dimension.

Cartoon by Brendan Loper

Smarsh gives no such quarter, likening Wagoner’s control and possessiveness (he argued with Parton about everything from what she sang to what she published and how) to the dynamics of domestic abuse, particularly in the later years, when his disdain erupted on air during “The Porter Wagoner Show,” as though he’d sensed that Parton had one foot out the door. In a 1972 episode, he could be seen telling Parton, who was offstage, to “shut up,” losing his trusty smile. Over the years, he pushed out other male business partners, including Uncle Bill, reluctant to see another wagon attached to her rising stardom. Parton herself writes that this period was like indentured servitude—seven years in exchange for the freedom she now enjoys.

“She Come by It Natural” finds a feminist origin story in 1973, when Parton cut the cords between her and Wagoner. By then, Parton had recorded and released twenty-four studio albums: thirteen solo records, including “Coat of Many Colors,” and eleven with Wagoner. That totalled about a hundred and fifty songs written by Parton for her own projects, another fifty featuring duos with Wagoner. After nine years of near-non-stop hustle in Nashville, seven by Wagoner’s side, the “girl singer” on Wagoner’s show had come to outshine her host.

By leaving, she entered the symbolic frequency shared by any woman who has broken free from a chauvinist, whether once tied by a ring, a child, or a contract. It’s a story retold like myth. One day, Parton walked into Wagoner’s office and sang him a song—a parting gift that turned out to be a gift to herself. He teared up and let her go, though not without a hell of a legal fight. The song was “I Will Always Love You,” written the day before. (“Bittersweet memories / That is all I’m taking with me.”) The same songwriting session also produced “Jolene,” which reached No. 1 on the country-music charts, and so one legend curled into another.

While Parton played the less than dutiful li’l lady, the second wave of feminism was happening all around her. Smarsh imagines the Parton tour bus rolling past marches, sit-ins, and other signs of protest, the sexual revolution like one big orgy outside the window. Parton surely wasn’t unaffected by the cultural politics of her times, stepping out from the shadows with songs like “Just Because I’m a Woman,” “A Little at a Time,” and “The Bargain Store.” (The last was deemed overly risqué by a division of country radio that didn’t like her beckoning listeners to “come inside” at any price.) But Smarsh doesn’t pretend that Parton was ever a spokesperson for the movement. She was something more meaningful: not a mouthpiece but a model. And the chronology of Parton’s life, regarded from a certain angle, can be seen to dovetail with the moments of the movement. She left her home town in 1964, the year that landmark legislation outlawing workplace discrimination on the basis of sex (among other protected categories) was enacted. She quit Wagoner in the year of Roe v. Wade. Her Hollywood début, in 1980, had her sharing the screen with two notorious women, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, and involved a revenge fantasy against a piggish male boss. In all these syncopations, Smarsh hears the echoing footfalls of a woman walking her walk.

Parton never lost her ability to hear the beat, and to make something of it. In a delightful clip that has recently been making the rounds online, from an episode of the short-lived nineteen-eighties variety show “Dolly,” Parton leads Patti LaBelle in “a little rhythm” sounded, washboard style, from the clacking of their acrylic nails. Wearing similar puff-sleeved, sparkling black gowns, the two luminaries briefly harmonize a rendition of “Shortnin’ Bread,” the slave folk song, before collapsing into giggles. The moment can feel silly, but no doubt Smarsh would see its serious feminine brilliance. Acrylic nails, disparaged when seen on the hands of performers like Parton or Cardi B, may very well be responsible for some spectacular feats of songwriting.

Not long after the success of “9 to 5,” Parton became depressed and suicidal. This period coincided with demoralizing professional experiences—filming the 1982 movie “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” she was made to feel too fat for her role opposite Burt Reynolds—along with family problems and health issues. God pulled her up, with Parton’s help. She trimmed her band and fired her accounting firm; she had a partial hysterectomy, after being diagnosed with endometriosis. And she cleared ground for her grandest vision yet, an amusement park of near-Disneyland proportions, situated right in Sevier County. The year Dollywood opened, 1986, she was voted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Whatever the ups and downs, the songs never ceased. “Even when I was sick, I was always writing,” she recalls in a forthcoming songbook, co-written with Robert K. Oermann. “Yellow Roses,” from her 1989 album “White Limozeen,” released the same year that she had a featured role in “Steel Magnolias,” became her tenth No. 1 hit of the decade, the fourth by her own pen—the yellow flower of her first romance has long since “turned to blue,” but her love endures.

The eighties and nineties were a time for Parton to renegotiate the place of craft in fame. She moved from RCA to Columbia Records, sticking around for several albums—including “Honky Tonk Angels,” with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette—before switching labels again and starting her own, Blue Eye Records. (A second label, Dolly Records, was launched in 2007.) She gave mountain music the most earnest try of her career with her 1999 solo album, “The Grass Is Blue,” a pared-down project that won the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, and its 2001 follow-up, “Little Sparrow.” Fans had apparently been begging for these albums for years, she told Billboard in 1999. “Since I manage myself now and have my own label and can do what I want, why not do it?” she said. In 2005, when she recorded “Travelin’ Thru,” the theme song for “Transamerica,” a film about a trans woman’s drive across the country with her son, she courted controversy with a certain segment of her fan base, and received another Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.

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Newsrust: The United States of Dolly Parton
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