Re-Contextualizing Dolly Parton in Her Full Glory: Talking with Sarah Smarsh

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In She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs, author Sarah Smarsh dissects the decades-long career of a universally beloved but oft misunderstood country icon.

Originally published in a four-part series for No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music, Smarsh writes with a reverence for Dolly’s accomplishments in spite of the rampant sexism she faced from both the country music industry and our culture in general. Smarsh examines Dolly’s childhood in Appalachia and rise on the country music scene from Porter Wagoner’s side entertainer to solo artist, and eventually, established icon. Our culture’s obsession with making Dolly’s feminine image into a sexual punchline unfortunately overshadowed the complexity of her art, a mistake that Smarsh aims to remedy. While analyzing the stories of Dolly’s discography—stories of poor women, struggling mothers, pregnant teenagers, and so on—Smarsh posits that Dolly’s work ultimately exemplifies an issue that mainstream feminism hasn’t always made room for: the plight of the working woman.

Even so, Smarsh also gracefully reckons with more complicated truths; Dolly hasn’t always kept up with the political zeitgeist, as evidenced by her refusal to embrace the label of “feminist” and aspects of her business ventures, like the Dollywood attraction formerly known as the Dixie Stampede. But, as all good writing should, Smarsh is careful to assess within context: Dolly is the product of her experiences and has never been perfect, but she’s always worked to make sure every single one of her fans—no matter where they came from or how they identified—knew they were welcome.

In addition to examining Dolly’s life and career up through 2017, Smarsh deftly weaves in personal anecdotes, drawing comparisons between the subjects of Dolly’s songs and the working women from Smash’s own life. In particular, she talks about her beloved Grandma Betty living an almost parallel childhood to Dolly—both were born in an outhouse eight months apart and grew up in rural poverty; the roads of their lives split at the junction when Dolly went on to sing about the kind of stories Grandma Betty actually lived. She Come By It Natural is an insightful exploration of gender, class, culture, and of course, the legacy of the great Dolly Parton.

Sarah Smarsh is a journalist who has covered socioeconomic class, politics and public policy for The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker, Harper’s and many other publications. Her first book, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, was a finalist for the National Book Award. She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs, was published earlier this month by Scribner. Smarsh lives in Kansas.

It was my pleasure to speak over the phone with Sarah regarding how she came to write about Dolly, addressing the imagined audience, and taking care with writing about loved ones.

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The Rumpus: As noted in the forward, this book was originally a four-part series written as part of a fellowship for No Depression magazine in 2016, but you state you were already doing research on a piece detailing Parton’s reemergence. Can you talk a bit about what led you to start writing on this topic in the first place, especially after you’d just finished your memoir, Heartland?

Sarah Smarsh: Sure. To clarify, I was kind of concurrently under contract for my memoir Heartland and was in the process of delivering that manuscript to my editor. As I say in the forward, it wasn’t very sensible to take on a large writing project but I just had this passion to bring forth an aspect of the rural working class—and you might more specifically say white working class, although the book isn’t heavily about race—by way of Dolly Parton’s life and career. The reason that felt pressing to me in 2016 is we were in the midst of a presidential election, and by the time I applied for this writing fellowship with the intention to write about Dolly Parton, there was already a lot of news obsession and media narratives regarding a very hateful, negative, regressive version of the white rural working class. And I come from that space and demographic and wanted to tell another side of that story; to my mind, Dolly is sort of an exemplar of the best aspects of character of that place and people. And to boot, we were at the dawn of the #MeToo movement; sexism was being both propagated and discussed widely in the media by way of Hillary Clinton’s challenges as a presidential candidate. And so, basically if I could boil it down, frankly, Dolly Parton is the opposite of Donald Trump. [Laughs] And in 2016, I was already sick of seeing him in the headlines and wanted not exactly to write against him but exalt something that is his positive antithesis.

Rumpus: Some authors who’ve had essays collected into a singular work might just include a small note or nod to the previous publications. But in the forward to your book, you give what I found to be an extremely thoughtful mediation on how your work fits within the larger cultural obsession with Dolly Parton, as well as explicit ideas on what you might have done differently were you writing this piece now. From a craft standpoint, I’m wondering what prompted you to include this?

Smarsh: Well, there are a couple of things. First, after discussing with my editor, we decided that it would be best to very lightly alter the contents from their original form. While I did go in and improve some language here and there, and there are a couple footnotes for particularly sensitive issues that needed updating, by and large the overall time stamp of the writing is frozen in time; I think of it as a sort of snapshot for that moment in terms of gender, class, race, and other issues—certainly feminism. And so when I’m saying “last month, this happened,” I haven’t updated that for the 2020 reader and we’ve included signals to clue the reader into that for easy following.

My addressing what I would’ve added now in the forward was so important to acknowledge that indeed, a great deal has changed in the three or four years since I did the writing. And also, a great deal remains the same—some good, some bad. The forward was really a place for me to say to the reader: “I acknowledge we’re in a different moment but this is sort of a document of a very crucial pivot in United States politics and culture, by way of this seemingly unlikely figure in the icon and celebrity of Dolly Parton.”

Rumpus: That makes sense. When you were writing the series, who was your imagined/ideal audience? What do you hope those readers take away from this?

Smarsh: I love this question. Generally speaking, the way that I work as a writer, I just about never have a specific audience in mind when I write, which is sort of counter to all good or accepted advice about writing. [Laughs] But for whatever reason, something comes forth that I need to say, and I just trust that whoever needs to read it will find their way to it. My voice and intentions, I guess what I’m saying, don’t really change regardless of the project. But I will say that when I was writing for No Depression when this was in serial form, I was very cognizant of the fact that it was a quite niche audience, being that No Depression is a smaller but reputable and specific publication in dealing with roots music. This specific fellowship gave me the charge of exploring roots in country and Americana as it connects to broader culture and society. I knew that folks who read it would not necessarily need some kind of primer about the particular music genre I was dealing in. But that said, good journalism involves being a generalist and never presuming knowledge on the part of the reader; so, there were some calculations I made, I suppose, to that end.

Now, when I had the surprise fortune of it being turned into a book by my publisher, I did consider the extent to whether the hopefully expanded and broader audience would need a little bit more of explanation and context, whether I had in place some sort of shorthand amongst country music fans, and I found that there were very few places in the manuscript that needed any sort of touch-up in terms of that consideration. One of the things I try to do, as a writer who writes about class and is trying to subvert and challenge typical class structures and power paradigms in my work, is that I try to give the language and touchstones of my space and community—whether that’s rural or working class—a normalized treatment, rather than always putting them into some sort of explained context for the person who doesn’t readily understand those things. It’s my job as a writer to guide someone who doesn’t know anything about country music or rural life or working-class life through those spaces, while giving that space the respect inherent in allowing it to speak for itself and stand, without over-explanation with a sort of otherizing treatment.

Rumpus: This book covers so much of Dolly’s life. Can you take us through your research process? Was there anything you learned along the way that ended up surprising you?

Smarsh: I actually wrote this and delivered this as writing over the course of a year; it was a very long time to be steeped in Dolly-ness. My sources included interviews, direct observations, concerts, conversations, and even a touch of memory. There’s a light brush stroke of memoir contained in the pages as it relates to the themes and topic.

The research involved everything from being a sort of spectator on social media and seeing conversations about Dolly Parton unfold, and coming to critique and understand and analyze the kind of sudden—somewhat surprising to me—lionization of Dolly Parton as this beloved icon. I watched a lot of YouTube videos of old interviews with Dolly over the decades, and her performances on shows like The Porter Wagoner Show, also many decades ago. So, my sincerest thanks to the “internet elves” who uploaded all of those videos. And of course, there is some more academic writing and cultural criticism that I consulted about gender and class in country music; there is a bit of that writing out there—it’s not a huge genre of research, but I am also grateful to the thinkers who cited realities that I hadn’t quite previously understood, but also whose work validated what I was already thinking and understanding experientially as someone who… well, I don’t have a lot of things in common with Dolly Parton. [Laughs] One thing I do know is what it is to be poor and a young woman, and the gender conundrums that arise with that experience. And some of the more academic research sources were surprisingly validating in that way, just to see a formal language articulate an experience that isn’t widely discussed.

I also went to a couple installments of her 2016 concert tour and had a lot of conversations with people about Dolly Parton; a great deal has been written about her and her life, of course, and my mission in this modern piece of writing was to re-contextualize her in the full glory of what she represents today, which also kind of sheds some light on a lot of things that people missed about her when she was an oversexualized young woman.

Rumpus: One thing you do really well is to weave in your own personal anecdotes as a connection with Dolly. You’ve written about family before, in your memoir Heartland, and even note in the forward that Grandma Betty has become a kind of fan favorite. I’m wondering if you could talk about challenges that came along with writing such intimate stories from real people in your life.

Smarsh: Oh yeah, certainly. I was trained as a journalist. In the early years of my career I was striving for what classic journalism training would call—and I would put this in quotes—“objectivity.” That meant keeping the first person out, and certainly anything about my story or my family out of whatever I was covering. And while I do find that an important and valid news form of news and information, ultimately my strengths as a writer, for whatever reason, proved to be more valuable to a hybrid genre where I am simultaneously delivering facts and folding in personal and intimate narratives.

And so, the challenge of doing both of those things simultaneously—well, there are many. One is just structural, finding a way to weave those two sometimes very different perspectives or voices into a whole that strikes the right balance. And in the case of my memoir Heartland of course, it was driven by personal narrative and then I wove in, to a lesser degree, cultural critique, social analysis, and a lot of research about socioeconomic class in American history. With this book, the much heavier component is my relaying facts and information; even though it’s voice driven, my own personal story or family memories definitely take a backseat.

That’s the story of structural considerations and the craft process. The other equally challenging aspect of bringing forth personal stories is emotional and psychological. It’s of course a vulnerable act for any writer to bear her family’s or her own most difficult moments, and those tend to be the moments that we dwell on to write about—and for good reason; they are instructive, passages of our lives. And for this book in particular, it is dedicated to my grandmother, who you mentioned and who appears in the pages, and I think that—and this was true with my memoir, too—the last challenge I would mention would be a sense of wanting to do right by people who have given me their blessing to tell some version of their story the best that I can. And what I mean by that is if I’m saying “ I… I… I..” that’s one thing, I’m accountable to my own words and my truth is my truth. If someone I love is, for the purposes of a book, being transformed into a character of sorts, I carry that responsibility with grave reverence.

I’m always aiming to not tell my vantage on them but rather, evoke something about them that has nothing to do with me, if that makes sense. So, in asking my grandma questions or remembering shared moments for this book, I felt a sense of duty to get it right. And not just because I’m a journalist but because I love the subject.

Rumpus: For my last and most important question, I’ve just got to ask—what’s your favorite Dolly Parton album/era/song? And why?

Smarsh: Oh my gosh, okay, give me like twenty seconds to think about this because this is major, this is an important question.

I would say—oh gosh, this is so hard—my favorite song by Dolly Parton would be “The Bargain Store,” and I guess I should then accordingly choose the album by the same title as my favorite Dolly Parton album. It’s a 1975 record and to my mind, “The Bargain Store”—which I should say, for all the kind of peripheral Dolly Parton fans who just know a few songs: If you love the song “Jolene,” you’ll love “The Bargain Store.” It has that similar sort of minor key and darkness about it. And in this song, Dolly Parton is embodying through a first-person story a woman who has been “used” in a romantic sense, and she’s likening this to used objects that working-class people can afford to buy at thrift stores, bargain stores, and garage sales, and so on. It’s an incredible commentary simultaneously on gender and class, and she sings the song not as a victim, but with a sort of clever power. To my mind, everything you need to understand about Dolly Parton’s intellect and worldview is contained in that song.

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Photograph of Sarah Smarsh by Paul Andrews.


A. Malone lives and writes in Georgia. She holds an MFA from Minnesota State University-Mankato and currently serves as an assistant interviews editor for The Rumpus. Her fiction can be found in CHEAP POP, Wyvern Lit, and Stirring Lit, among others. More from this author →