Rock and Roll Book Club: Dolly Parton's own story, and a fan's appreciation

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Two new books about Dolly Parton.
Two new books about Dolly Parton. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

"I think if there's any person who can still bring this country together," my aunt said on a recent family Zoom, "it's Dolly Parton."

She's not alone in that opinion. At a time when Americans are, by some measures, more polarized than at any time since the Civil War, Dolly Parton remains a subject of affection and fascination across state and party lines. There are at least three major new books about her, but although Parton's now a subject of academic fascination, she remains a country girl: Bing search data suggest she's still most popular in rural states like North Dakota, West Virginia, Wyoming, and of course her beloved home state of Tennessee.

While Lydia R. Hamessley's Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton is reportedly fantastic, I had to draw the line at only two titles for this week's Rock and Roll Book Club, and so I went with Dolly's own new book (Songteller: My Life in Lyrics) and a well-informed fan tribute (She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs). The two make a great pair, and if your mind is starting to formulate a joke about another "great pair," Parton's way ahead of you.

In She Come By It Natural, author Sarah Smarsh reminds readers of just how objectified Parton was even at the height of her pop-culture clout. Television interviewers ranging from Phil Donahue to Barbara Walters to — wait for it — Oprah Winfrey repeatedly exhorted Parton to stand up and display her figure for viewers' benefit, just like Dabney Coleman's "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical" boss in 9 to 5. Smarsh cites what all of us gen-X kids remember, that for '80s schoolkids "Dolly Parton" was a punchline for boob jokes.

Again and again, for decades and decades, Dolly's been up there laughing along with the haters; the way she's so firmly claimed Appalachian painted lady as her public persona is one of the reasons she's so revered by feminists today. At a time when pop culture is just starting to change its notions and vocabulary around sex work, Parton's spent her career proudly telling the story of how she based her appearance on a local prostitute, defying her community's scorn.

Smarsh, who was raised poor in Kansas and is best known as the author of Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country On Earth, emphasizes how subversive Parton's persona was in every quarter. For her hardscrabble family, painted nails and styled hair were tacky indulgences. The country music establishment gave her the song "Dumb Blonde" (written by Curly Putman) as an early hit, then wasn't sure what to do with her when she repeatedly proved she was anything but. In the country's urban centers, she gained notoriety but not appreciation.

Eventually, everyone came around. Her Smoky Mountain neighbors revere her not just for her artistry but for her investment: her Dollywood theme park is a major economic engine for eastern Tennessee, and she personally gave financial support to families displaced by wildfires in 2016. Her Imagination Library has put thousands of books in kids' hands, and she even donated a million dollars to help develop a successful COVID-19 vaccine. Meanwhile, city folk — as well as many rural fans — have been hooked on the WNYC podcast Dolly Parton's America. They appreciate her support for the GLBT community ("if I hadn't been a woman, I'd have been a drag queen for sure") and her statement that "of course Black lives matter!"

As for country music...well, that's a more complicated story. Parton's persistence in that genre may have caused her more headaches and heartache than anything else she's done, but she's pure country, and the country music establishment is just going to have to catch up with her if it wants to remain relevant. Both She Come By It Natural and Songteller follow the arc of Parton's career through a series of phases that Smarsh concisely divides into four: coming of age, the Porter Wagoner years, pop-country stardom, and icon status.

Parton was a musical prodigy, as was quickly apparent to her most musically-inclined relatives — notably including her uncle Bill Owens and her aunt Dorothy Jo, who both became key collaborators. Owens took her into a recording studio and onto the radio, and she was on her way up as a teenage singer-songwriter when she was tapped by Wagoner. Then a major star, Wagoner would be destined to be best-remembered for his thorny but foundational role in Parton's career. The patriarchal Wagoner hired Parton to be ear candy, eye candy, and a secret songwriting weapon...but the secret was out before long, and Parton's star rose as Wagoner's fell. Even so, he kept so tight a rein on Parton that when she finally split with him in the mid-1970s, she was astonished to learn that RCA saw her as the big star of the duo.

"I Will Always Love You" was her parting song to Wagoner, who replied by suing her for the money he might have made if they'd remained a duo. Although the settlement was financially and emotionally painful, Parton got the last laugh by owning the narrative of their partnership. To his dying day Wagoner insisted that he didn't sing with Parton, "she sang with me." Parton and her fans knew the truth was otherwise, and she's repeatedly spoken that truth even as she's continued to give him credit for his early support. Angel that she is, she appeared at Wagoner's deathbed to make peace.

By the '70s and '80s, mass culture was as ready for Parton as, perhaps, it was ever going to be. Defying country purists by embracing a pop aesthetic, she became one of the biggest stars of an era when country stars embraced glamour and started to fill arenas. Her new go-to duet partner was a much better match for the mature Parton: Kenny Rogers, a smooth and affable singer who radiated warmth but also shared Parton's fondness for a good gothic story-song. Smarsh notes indignantly that Rogers earned the Country Music Awards' Lifetime Achievement honor before Parton, despite being a far less skilled and prolific songwriter, but Parton didn't hold it against him; the two remained affectionate friends until Rogers's death in March of this year, with the unapologetically altered Parton even good-humoredly supporting Rogers through his own misadventures in plastic surgery. ("Look, ol' Kenny's been to Jiffy Suck again.")

Now 74, Parton has finally lived to be properly appreciated for her gifts as a songwriter. In Songteller, she shares the stories behind over 175 of her songs and allows that yes, it might be true that she wrote "I Will Always Love You" and "Jolene" on the same day. The latter took its title from the distinctive name of a young fan, and its narrative from a bank employee who flirted with Parton's husband of 54 years, Carl Dean. Dean is a somewhat enigmatic figure in Parton's life; he's long shunned the spotlight and professed contentment at home, and their partnership has weathered what must have been extraordinary stresses. "We don't complicate our lives, and we don't overthink things," she writes in a note accompanying the lyrics of a 2016 song for Dean ("Say Forever You'll Be Mine"). "Being great friends is the secret of happiness."

Despite Parton's latter-day reputation as an uncontroversial figure, Songteller makes clear that she's repeatedly risked discomfiting her audience by broaching topics like the feminine mystique ("Your Ole Handy Man," 1967), the Vietnam War ("Daddy Won't Be Home Anymore," 1967), suicide ("The Bridge," 1968), alcoholism ("Mommie, Ain't That Daddy?", 1968), and extramarital pregnancy ("Down from Dover," 1969) — not to mention dozens upon dozens of songs about heartbreak and love, including the frankly lustful "Touch Your Woman" (1972).

Much of Songteller pays tribute to inspirations and collaborators, both familial and musical — including the likes of Emmylou Harris, to whom Parton insisted on giving the surefire hit "To Daddy" (1975). She writes about writing "9 to 5" during down time on the movie set, about writing Rhinestone songs for Sylvester Stallone ("he really didn't execute them very well," she admits, "but they were so far out of his realm"), and about her Transamerica song "Travelin' Thru" ("'It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp,'" she writes about the Three 6 Mafia song that beat her out for an Oscar, "and it's hard out here for a country singer, too.")

Parton's still here for us, with not just a financial donation but also a new song composed in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. "Be safe, be respectful, wear your mask, lead with love," said Parton as she released "When Life Is Good Again." In a photo accompanying the lyrics in Songteller, Parton poses with her own face covering. "If I'm gonna wear a mask," she writes, "it's gotta have guitars on it, right?"

Songteller concludes with a photo of a box at Dollywood containing a secret song. As a promotional gimmick, she writes, the resort staff asked her to write a song to be encased in a chestnut-wood box until 30 years after the 2015 opening of the DreamMore Resort. She's promised not to play the song publicly until then, and she writes that she refuses to assume she won't be alive at 99 for the track's debut. "The song is on CD," she notes uncomfortably. "Hopefully, it will play and the whole thing ain't rotted." If there's anyone who can outlast a format, it's certainly Dolly Parton.

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Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

December 10: Can't Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop's Blockbuster Year by Michelangelo Matos (buy now)

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December 24: My Name Is Love by Darlene Love (buy now)

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