Culture

The ‘Dolly Parton’s America’ Podcast Proves We’re All Living In Dolly Parton’s World

In these bitter, divided times, Dolly Parton appears to be something we can all agree on.

Dolly Parton's America Dolly Parton 'Dolly Parton's America'

There’s a moment in Dolly Parton’s America, the new 9-part podcast from WNYC, when academic Dr Helen Morales talks about her father, a Greek immigrant to the UK — playing Dolly Parton and telling her “This is our music,” meaning, “This is immigrant music.”

In another episode, gay bluegrass musician Justin Hiltner talks about how for him, Parton’s ‘Why’d You Come In Here Looking Like That’ is about “every time he’s fallen in love with a straight man.”

But, aren’t we talking about country music? The music of the white, conservative South?  Well, of course, Dolly Parton is popular with that group too.

The overall thesis of Dolly Parton’s America is pretty simple: how is it that in these bitter, divided times, Dolly Parton appears to be something we can all agree on.

We’re All In Dolly Parton’s America

Jad Abumrad, who hosts and produces the show with Shima Oliaee, says it wasn’t always like this.

Growing up in Tennessee, Dolly was kind of a religion, but “as the scrawny shy Arab kid that hit high school during Gulf War One, I kind of felt on the outside of all that.”

On his regular school trips to Dollywood — the Dolly Parton theme park in east Tennessee (google it, plan a trip), Jad says the other visitors were “sort of the Tennessee pride crowd.” But returning today, he is amazed by the diversity.

Professor Jessie Wilkerson says Dolly Parton concerts are “the most diverse place I’ve ever been. I was seeing a multi-racial audience. People wearing cowboy hats and boots. I was seeing people in drag. Church ladies. Lesbians holding hands. Little girls who were there with their families.”

What’s more, Dolly’s fanbase has shifted in the last decade from eighty per cent over the age of 55, to eighty per cent under the age of 55.

Over the course of the podcast we hear stories of people who connect with Dolly Parton — from the mountains of Lebanon, to the farms of Kenya. Everyone has their own “Tennessee Mountain Home” to sing about, even if they’ve never been anywhere near Tennessee.

We learn that whilst imprisoned on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela would play Dolly Parton for his fellow inmates — and also for the guards.

In episode four Country singer Rhiannon Giddens talks about hearing the bluegrass jam at the end of Parton’s ‘Marry Me’ and being inspired to take up the banjo, but as a black woman feeling like she had to “ask permission” to play, because it felt like a white person’s instrument.

As an adult, Giddens has been instrumental in furthering a new understanding of the history of the banjo and country music more generally. Giddens shows how the instrument came to North America from West Africa via the Caribbean, and how the style developed on plantations, especially by such pioneers as ex-slave Frank Johnson, a near-forgotten fiddle player who may be the most influential country musician of all time.

Giddens has worked to re-establish his place in a history that has traditionally demarcated country music as “white.”

Don’t Underestimate Dolly

On the one hand Dolly Parton’s America tells the story of someone who is universally adored — but it also tells the story of someone who has been underestimated.

Beyond the sequins, beyond the endless boob jokes — the funniest of which are always quipped by Dolly herself — is undoubtedly one of the greatest songwriters of the century. Especially in her early years, Dolly’s writing deals with serious subjects — abortion, suicide — what she calls “sad ass songs.”

1970’s ‘Down from Dover’ tells the story of a young woman hoping the father of her unborn child will return before her pregnancy starts showing. When he doesn’t, she is ostracised, and the child is stillborn. It is a devastating song, written with grit, insight and compassion. Dolly’s says “it’s one of my best songs ever.” The radio wouldn’t play it.

Indeed, historically country songs by women that deal with sex outside of marriage, or even sex within a marriage not aimed at having children, had a tendency to get sidelined, or censored, or banned, by an industry dominated by male bosses.

Loretta Lynn’s ‘The Pill,’ in which a wife celebrates that the pill allows her to enjoy her and her husband’s sex life without worrying about being pregnant all the time, was banned by country radio. As Tyler Mahan Coe, the host of country music podcast ‘Cocaine and Rhinestones’ observes, songs about contraception, or abortion, or sex outside of marriage, that are by men, do not get the same treatment as those by women.

In episode one writer Sarah Smarsh offers her theory that Dolly is “the OG third wave feminist.” Despite Dolly coming up during the second wave, “a moment when women who had her business ambitions were being encouraged to sort of downplay their own quote, unquote, ‘femininity,’” Dolly, says Smarsh, did the opposite, exhibiting “a more kind of millennial spirit of approach to feminism.”

Basically, be whatever the fuck kind of woman you want to be. If you wanna cover yourself in sequins and get plastic surgery and flaunt your boobs — go for it.

Country Music Is Changing

For her part, Dolly doesn’t necessarily like to call herself a feminist, but does agree she’s a “feminist in practice.” Episode Two tells of Dolly’s stint as the “pretty little” sidekick of star Porter Wagoner. Wagoner’s jealousy of Parton’s star eclipsing his results in their split, after which Dolly writes ‘I Will Always Love You,’ the biggest selling song by a woman in history.

Wagoner’s treatment of Dolly is shocking, and demonstrates the imbalance of power between men and women in the industry, even when Parton’s is by far the greater talent. That
imbalance is still there.

A study earlier this year found country stations played female artists a dismal 11.3% of the time. Just last week at the CMA awards — despite a ceremony which honoured legendary women in country music, including, of course, Dolly Parton — the top awards themselves largely went to men.

In 53 years, only seven women have won the prestigious Entertainer of the Year, and many were shocked this year that Garth Brooks took it out over Carrie Underwood.

For years Charley Pride was the only non-white country singer most people had heard of — today there are many.

Queer country is rising, in artists such as Justin Hiltner, Orville Peck, or Amythyst Kiah, who at the recent AmericanaFest performed a spell-binding cover of Parton’s ‘Jolene’, a song which gets a queer reading in the podcast.

And even though there’s a long way to go towards equality, leaps are being made for women in country. All-female supergroup The Highwomen’s debut album rocketed to number 1 on the country charts, and number 10 on the Billboard 200.

Dolly Parton’s America tells the story of an often misjudged, complicated artist — but also an often misjudged, complicated genre. Country music is immigrant music, country music is black music, country music is queer music, country music is anyone’s music.

That diversity has always been there — among fans and practitioners – but those voices have been drowned out. Today, it is increasingly being recognised.

As the great woman herself says to introduce episode one: Dolly Parton’s America would be the same as Dolly Parton’s world.


Mark Sutton is a Sydney based writer, producer and crossword compiler. He has a doctorate in English from the University of Sydney, and has previously had roles on such TV shows as The Checkout, The Drum and Huey’s Cooking Adventures (the last one only as an avid viewer). You can follow him @mrmsutton.