Dolly Parton’s no stranger to attention, and she’s been in the news a lot lately.
She recently released a holiday special on Netflix. She has a new book out. She … [checks notes] … might have helped us move closer to the end of the coronavirus pandemic.
Parton’s everywhere, and I don’t hear many people complaining about it.
As Sarah Smarsh writes in her own new book, “She Come by It Natural,” Parton is a “universally beloved icon recognized as a creative genius with a goddess-sized heart.” Smarsh’s book follows Parton’s rise to iconic status through the context of the singer’s roots, and of the working-class, rural roots of many of her fans. Below, Smarsh discusses the book’s genesis in 2016, what surprised her at a concert of Parton’s that same year, an actor who has inspired her and more.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
During the election year of 2016, I was writing a lot of commentary challenging the narrative that the white working class is somehow monolithically right-wing. At that same moment, there was a lot of misogyny in the air, in part because we had a female presidential candidate. I was thinking a lot about the intersection of gender, class and place. Dolly Parton was doing a big arena tour for the first time in many years, and I could see that she was a unifying and universally beloved figure in the midst of this divisive climate.
My first book, “Heartland,” is very much about that same intersection, and I guess I was shifting gears to a more journalistic approach to those same themes. I wasn’t a Dolly superfan and didn’t grow up that way, but country music was definitely a cultural pillar of my formative years — and still, in my life today. So Dolly felt like a very familiar figure to serve as a springboard for a larger discussion of society.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
A pleasant research task was attending a couple of shows on the 2016 tour. I saw her in Austin and Kansas City. In the latter instance, I took along my grandmother, who figures in the book as a similarly quick-witted woman who was born just a few months apart from Parton in similar circumstances. She lived many of the stories Parton told in her early songwriting, about poor women who are vulnerable to abuse, sexism, unsupported pregnancies.
This was the first time either of us had seen Parton live. I was surprised by the crowd at those shows; not the size, obviously, but the diversity in just about every way you can imagine. I already knew that Parton is an icon in the L.G.B.T.Q. community, and within the crowd a group of Dolly drag queens were leading the audience in swaying together to some slow song. I was amazed to see, among the people swaying, old men in cowboy hats, goth-looking teenagers, some dude wearing muddy boots with a T-shirt that said “Proud Redneck.” Witnessing this in 2016 made me even more suspicious of the political tropes that are still out there today. There was something simultaneously surprising and heartening: If we’re divided at the ballot box but not at a Dolly Parton concert, then maybe there’s hope if we find the right language for communicating.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
The most obvious way is that I didn’t intend for it to be a book at all. The music magazine No Depression was offering a new fellowship for a writer to basically go deep on the sociocultural significance of the roots music genre, and that opportunity lit me up because country music is rarely given consideration as a sophisticated art form. The country music written and sung by women like Dolly was the formative feminist text of my life. So I applied and pitched Dolly as an exemplar of an overlooked, under-articulated version of working-class feminism.
I wrote a four-part series over the course of 2017 — No Depression is a quarterly. It’s a great magazine, but it’s niche in its readership. And then last winter, my publisher suggested making it into a book. I wrote a foreword and lightly updated the content, but ultimately the book is a snapshot of when it was written, when the Women’s March was new and we had an opportunity — and I would say an imperative — to redefine feminism as a more inclusive movement.
What creative person (not a writer) has influenced you and your work?
It would make sense to talk about a musician, I think, and there are many that would fit the bill, but I’m actually going to say Jodie Foster. When I was a kid and a teenager, she played so many characters who I deeply identified with. They were often self-possessed and tough by necessity; they were usually happily obsessed with their work, maybe struggling for a sense of belonging in some world where they didn’t quite fit because of their gender or their class or their ambitions. There’s a scene in “The Silence of the Lambs” when Hannibal Lecter tries and fails to crack Clarice Starling, the F.B.I. agent played by Foster, by basically calling her white trash. And there were so few moments outside country music where I saw a woman who shared many of the admirable attributes of the women who raised me portrayed with such dignity as Starling is in that scene. I just think so many of her performances in the ’80s and ’90s were a real gift to females and aspiring creators coming of age at that time.
Persuade someone to read “She Come by It Natural” in 50 words or less.
Dolly Parton, daughter of the rural white working class, is the opposite of Donald Trump.
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