Lead book review

Dolly Parton represents all that’s best about America

Dolly Parton is the living embodiment of America’s best values, says Philip Hensher

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs Sarah Smarsh

Pushkin Press, pp.208, 9.99

After the storming of Congress last week, numerous American commentators looked at the Proud Boys, the QAnon Shaman and Trump himself and said, in so many words: ‘This is not who we are.’ Undoubtedly true. It raises, however, an interesting supplementary question: who, in fact, are you?

Looking through the ranks of those who might represent the best values of America, we arrive quite quickly at Dolly Parton. She came from a family in rural Tennessee of both grinding poverty and honest, decent aspiration. Sacrifices on their part, and
a 30-hour bus journey to Louisiana, let her make her first recording in 1959, at 13. Her first LP, in 1967, opened with the still classic song ‘Dumb Blonde’, Dolly both acknowledging and dismissing the initial impression of her appearance.

In the past 53 years she has released 64 studio albums, including 18 with other artists. She has recorded more than 1,000 songs. Early in her career, she successfully shed the usual high degree of control and emerged as a talented songwriter — she is said to have written more than 5,000 songs. A dabbling with Hollywood gave us a small number of classic roles, and I recommend another view of 9 to 5 and the otherwise gruelling tearjerker Steel Magnolias. Everyone else in each movie seems to be acting, rather elaborately; Dolly is wonderfully authentic and truthful without making the slightest apparent effort, and quite irresistible.

The immense riches this has brought have been used by Dolly selflessly and benevolently. In 1986, she bought a struggling theme park in Tennessee and set about developing it as Dollywood. It is a festival of Americana. By all accounts, it is enchanting: ten pleasant minutes on YouTube will convince you that the nine rollercoasters pull off a difficult combination in being both thrilling and charming, wooden tracks plunging and rattling through the Tennessee woods. It is the most successful visitor attraction in the state, and provides employment for thousands — not just as security staff and ticket-punchers, but giving craftsmen an outlet for their work. I long to go there.

Old-fashioned quiet philanthropy finds a place too. When the Smoky Mountains were hit by wildfires and hundreds lost their homes, Dolly set up a fund to give $1,000 dollars a month to those affected for six months. It showed how empathetic she is. It was minimally bureaucratic, understanding how much of a barrier that can be to ordinary people in trouble; it provided a steady series of payments rather than a harder-to-manage lump sum; and it was for a limited period, rather than being an indefinite source that might come to be relied on.

She has, for 25 years, run a literacy programme for children, sending books to different parts of the world without fanfare. The daughter of an illiterate but intelligent father, she set up the Imagination Library, rather than, more obviously, a support for the performing arts. She understands that few people are going to have her route out of grinding poverty but that many who learn to love to read will make a success of their lives.

She has been a supporter of gay, lesbian and trans rights for decades; she stays out of party politics, very wisely not condemning what much of her audience will passionately believe. She is, in short, a living embodiment of the American trust in the transformative effect of hard work and talent. She has done it without losing an iota of her good humour or charm, and never giving the slightest hint of the usual American sanctimoniousness; she is, as everyone agrees, a very good thing indeed.

Dolly has never complained much about the barriers she had to overcome, preferring to bring out some well-worn jokes on the subject. On her villainous collaborator in the early years, Porter Wagoner, she has said: ‘I knew he had balls when he sued me for a million dollars. He was only paying me $30 a week.’ There is no question, however, that these barriers were substantial, and defeated many others. Bobbie Gentry, a similarly determined and intelligent singer of the time, withdrew from public appearances altogether by the end of the 1970s. Dolly has often put these problems down to her sex, and the difficulties of being a woman in a man’s world. I’m not so sure. That is part of it, but the worst humiliations she faced sprang, surely, from something Americans find very hard to discuss: class.

Dolly was, from the start, perfectly sincere in her spectacular look — hair on a scale not glimpsed since Mme de Pompadour, rhinestones, glitter and an unforgettable silhouette which surgery may have contributed to. When the scientists in 1996 succeeded in cloning a sheep with cells taken from the mammary gland, the result was always going to be called ‘Dolly’. We love all these things about her now, of course, but they threw a lot of commentators into a class-driven frenzy that had little to do with her sex. In a television interview in 1977, Barbara Walters thought herself entitled to ask Dolly when she experienced puberty, whether her husband felt obliged to be faithful, and whether her breasts were real. She even submitted her guest to the indignity of standing up and inviting the audience to inspect her body. Would Walters have ever done this to Meryl Streep or Meg Ryan? It was sheer class hostility, and no doubt much more of it took place in private, and in boardrooms.

I have to admit, however, that Dolly is not my favourite country singer. Though there are many highlights — ‘Down from Dover’ is heartrendingly good, and the wonderfully absurd cover of ‘Mule Skinner Blues’ an infallible mood-lifter — she is a bit cautious for my taste. The startling end of ‘The Bridge’ is an oddity; the glamorous little gruppetto at the end of the chorus of ‘Jolene’ about as far as she goes in the direction of folk ornamentation.

Country music has a wonderful vein of absurdity, but despite Dolly’s well-attested sense of humour, it makes its way too rarely into her songs— ‘I’ll Oil Wells Love You’ and the excellent ‘PMS Blues’ are exceptions. I wish Dolly had gone a little more down the route of Jimmy Buffett, the author of ‘Why Don’t We Get Drunk (And Screw)?’, ‘My Head Hurts My Feet Stink And I Don’t Love Jesus’ and ‘Please Take Your Drunken 15-Year-Old Girlfriend Home’. She’s quite saucy enough: ‘Touch Your Woman’ could hardly be franker.

More controversially, I regret the way that the plain style of Dolly’s first lyrics give way by the mid-1970s to rather faded poeticisms, even in her best-loved songs. Country music had always excelled in plain speaking, as in Bobbie Gentry’s deathless ‘And papa said to mama, as he passed around the blackeyed peas/Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense; pass the biscuits, please.’ Dolly goes quite quickly from ‘Well here it is, it’s two o’clock and you’re still not at home/I think there’s something fishy goin’ on’ (‘Something Fishy’) to ‘Your beauty is beyond compare/With flaming locks of auburn hair’ (‘Jolene’). Nevertheless, she is one of the glories of the age, and, for my money, beyond all criticism.

Sarah Smarsh is a fan, and She Come By It Natural sends one off very pleasantly to some Dolly arcana on YouTube, such as the horrifying Barbara Walters interview. I would question its description of itself as a ‘deeply researched work’; almost all its sources are available with a few online searches; there is no interview with its subject or with anyone who knows her; Smarsh has (surprisingly) only very infrequently seen Dolly perform, and there is no discussion of the carefully crafted songwriting. There is a fair amount on Dolly being a strong woman in a man’s world, much piety about some currently fashionable concerns, and a little about the author’s own less than privileged background. (Smarsh’s family had a car and a house, but she took her books to school in a paper bag — that sort of thing.)

No matter. It leaves us thinking none the worse of Dolly, and directs one toa treasure house of joy. The time I spent catching up on Dolly’s films and albums, in concert and being interviewed, before writing this review, was a delight. If the present Pope wants to stretch a rule or two and declare her Saint Dolly tomorrow it would be quite all right with most of us.

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