Book review: Dolly Parton bio details life of a Renaissance woman

Dolly Parton is the subject of a new biography by Sarah Smarsh.
AJC File
Dolly Parton is the subject of a new biography by Sarah Smarsh. AJC File

‘She Come By It Natural’ portrays musician as a feminist of her own design

Siren of Appalachian enchantment, now in her seventh decade, Dolly Parton still holds to the Old World shaman’s way. On a recent “Late Show,” she disarmed the normally cynical Steven Colbert with an a cappella version of “Bury Me Beneath the Willow.” At once, Colbert fell into tears — unfeigned, flowing freely — as Dolly eased him through a portal to the swirling oils of prehistoric wonder, retrieving him just in time for the next commercial break: This is what the greatest singers in every epoch do, and they do so effortlessly.

As if such a voice weren’t enough, Parton is a Renaissance woman of dazzling scope. An adventurous musician who plays everything from banjo to pan pipes, she’s written thousands of songs; plenty have topped the charts. She’s both an endearing screen actor and a television and film producer.

As an entrepreneur, she famously created the Dollywood theme park that injects $1.5 billion annually into East Tennessee’s economy. An unstoppable philanthropic force, she cut monthly checks of $1,000 for victims of the 2016 Great Smoky Mountain wildfires. This year, she casually slipped a cool million to Vanderbilt University for COVID-19 research. Dolly Parton takes care of her people, so why should it be a joke when folks say they want to replace those moldy Confederate statues with her dignified likeness in bronze?

Courtesy of Scribner
Courtesy of Scribner

These accomplishments are thoroughly detailed in Sarah Smarsh’s wonderful appreciation, “She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs.” It’s a power-packed little book, a scrappy working woman’s manifesto that hails Parton as a feminist icon, even as the singer has yet to identify herself with the adjective. That’s just fine with Smarsh, who writes, “we must give women the freedom to do feminism however they please, whether it strikes us as correct or not.” Speaking for herself, Dolly cuts straight through the wood: “I just think we all should be treated with respect.”

The legend that is Dolly Parton was born in 1946 in Sevierville, then a poor East Tennessee hamlet north of Gatlinburg. Her musical talent presented itself early. “Parton made a mock microphone from a tin can and sang for the hogs,” writes Smarsh. She was cultivated by her uncle, Bill Owens, who gave her a small Martin guitar. The day after high school graduation in 1964, she hopped a Greyhound bus for Nashville, stuffing everything she owned into a set of matching luggage: “three paper bags from the same grocery store.”

In Music City, Parton was so penniless that she roamed “hotel hallways in search of room service trays left outside the door for pickup.” It was humiliating, but plainly resourceful. Within two years, she co-wrote the 1966 BMI Country Single of the Year “Dumb Blonde,” delivered with knowing ironic cheek. Her success and undeniable charm caught the attention of vocalist Porter Wagoner, the flamboyant host of America’s top syndicated television show at the time.

During her seven years on “The Porter Wagoner Show,” she designed her enduring persona of an opulent cowgirl Liberace. With Dolly dishing out the passion and the sass, complementing Porter’s stoic delivery, it may have been a winning combination, but their professional relationship was turbulent. Porter was possessive and manipulative, a convenient villain were it not that Parton was a paragon of forgiveness. She fulfilled her contractual obligations to him, but Wagoner sued anyway, demanding a piece of the action for the rest of Dolly’s career. She paid him off with money she didn’t have and later bailed him out with the IRS.

Author Sarah Smarsh
Courtesy of Paul Andrews
Author Sarah Smarsh Courtesy of Paul Andrews

Credit: Paul Andrews

Credit: Paul Andrews

Smarsh emphasizes that Dolly’s leap to the first-tier of country songwriting coincided with the advent of second-wave feminism, which created opportunities for women to explore the challenges of life in unprecedented ways that were revealing, sometimes raunchy, possibly even “revolutionary.”

Her best compositions were stories that had the craft and empathy of Chekhov’s short fiction, all perfectly evident in her eerie 1970 masterpiece, “Down from Dover.” With its subject matter of adolescent pregnancy and abandonment, “Down from Dover” proved too much for the good old boys of country radio, who moved to suppress it. The “fact that men decided her song shouldn’t be heard tells you exactly what it was,” Smarsh observes.

At some point in the early ’80s, Dolly entered the Dark Wood, which Smarsh describes as a near suicidal breakdown. When she came out of it, she made the dramatic decision to “Burn it all down and rebuild … to create her own damn world.” By the end of the decade she had transitioned into a “smart business shark with a hyper-sexualized physical presentation curated for her own power and delight.”

Dolly’s biography has been remarkably free of scandal, though she once drank a glass of white wine with Andy Warhol. Her phantomic spouse, Carl, has wisely kept, or been kept, out of the public eye. She’s become an “auspiciously progressive voice in conservative spaces.” Her gay, lesbian and trans following is immense: “What her LGBTQ fans respond to, she says, is not her own sexuality but her nonjudgmental embrace of theirs.”

The British poet Philip Larkin said, “The golden rule of any art is: once you have made your name, keep in there punching,” i.e. continue doing the same thing over and over. Dolly’s answer would be — paradoxically— yes and no. She’ll return to Appalachia’s wilderness as she pleases (see her 2016 album, “Pure and Simple”), but don’t be shocked if she burns the whole thing down again. Either course of action would be emphatically correct.

NONFICTION

‘She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs’

by Sarah Smarsh

Scribner

208 pages, $22

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