When I tell someone that I’m a country music fan, I usually hear one of three different responses. Unless the person is a fan themselves, they either laugh me off completely, contextualize their interest in the genre (“I listen to it in the summer sometimes”) or they mention Dolly Parton. The latter comment is demonstrative of “the great unifier” at work, a term that the WNYC podcast “Dolly Parton’s America” coined for Dolly in its first episode. The podcast’s host, Jad Abumrad, claims that deciphering this universal admiration for Dolly is what sparked the creation of the series in the first place. Which other musical artist can boast crowds of drag queens and red hat wearers alike? Which other musician can do this as a woman over 70 years old? Only Dolly.
My first introduction to the blonde, bedazzled “Backwoods Barbie” was memorably immersive. In the summer of 2013, my family took a trip to Dollywood in Tennessee. The theme park draws its inspiration from the Smoky Mountains that surround it, close to where Dolly actually grew up. In fact, a replica of her childhood home sits tucked away amid roller coasters, carousels and food stands in the center of the park.
Dolly is omnipresent throughout the park’s 150 acres — on lamppost signs, in loudspeakers, etched on the backs of benches. But this two room cabin is undoubtedly the heartbeat of the Dolly-verse. When my family huddled inside, we all spoke in hushed tones. Then another couple entered behind us and simply stared. Although it hit me then that Dolly is somehow sacred, I still didn’t understand why.
At first glance, she’s a walking, talking contradiction. Displaying a tiny cabin in the middle of a commercial theme park and presenting both as authentic is just one instance. Claiming to be “real” underneath her over-the-top appearance is another. But the examples continue. On recent albums like 2014’s Blue Smoke, Parton draws inspiration from a place and lifestyle that she left over 50 years ago. Dolly is a serious songwriter, but in any given interview you’ll find her making a joke about her breasts. Her iconic hit “9 to 5” is a feminist anthem, but Dolly steers clear of making any overtly political statements.
In 2019, artists making a stand is not only encouraged, but expected. Dolly has seemingly already made a stand by penning and singing “9 to 5,” so what would be the harm in weighing in on the politics of today? If anything, my inclination is that not speaking up would be career-damaging. This is what the fifth episode of “Dolly Parton’s America,” titled “Dollitics,” investigates.
As it turns out, Dolly has her own set of rules. “I don’t do politics,” Parton asserts in an interview with Abumrad, “I have too many fans on both sides of the fence. Of course, I have my opinion about everything, but I learned years ago to keep your mouth shut about things.” This was disheartening to hear. As a woman with so much fame, wealth and reach she could a lot of good with her platform politically. “Keeping her mouth shut” sounded more like a business strategy. But as Abumrad points out as the episode continues, Dolly doesn’t actually keep her mouth shut at all. She just doesn’t throw stones.
Her implicit activism spans back to the beginning of her career. Never one to back down from difficult topics in song, “The Bridge” from 1968 is about an unmarried pregnant woman committing suicide. In 1980, an even more popular Parton released the album 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs, which includes several songs advocating for the humanity of marginalized people. In “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” she sings for the migrant workers that are sent back to Mexico and end up dying in a plane crash. “The radio said they were just deportees,” Dolly cries. In “Dark as a Dungeon,” Dolly illuminates the poor working conditions in mines.
And in the sixth episode of “Dolly Parton’s America,” a frustrated present-day Parton admits that “(She hates) those Christians that are so judgemental” toward the LGBTQ+ community. She refuses to go right out and say it, and she refuses to bash anyone, but Dolly is very much her own kind of activist — one that charmingly disarms others by making jokes about her own appearance, one that accepts everyone, but definitely doesn’t always agree with them. Her stance is quiet in interviews, but loud on her albums. This is just one piece of the puzzle that makes Dolly so enchanting, but it’s especially relevant in 2019.
As the election cycle picks up speed this year, I’m curious to see how artists respond. Will more statement songs like “This Is America” be released and become popular? Will pop instead lean away from reality and into otherworldliness or escapism? If one thing is for certain, it’s that Dolly Parton won’t be endorsing anyone. But I still think that her approach to politics is useful. It’s a strategy for starting a dialogue. Acceptance as a means of meeting people where they are, not as a way to let harm continue unnoticed.