Early in her book about Dolly Parton and how her music influenced generations, author Sarah Smarsh remembers taking her grandmother to see the iconic singer on tour in Kansas City.
Smarsh recalls Parton’s showing her virtuosity both musically and as an entertainer during a rousing rendition of “Rocky Top.” Suddenly, Parton commanded a younger cast member dressed as a cowboy to dance a jig to one of the star’s solos.
“She sang the song, played two instruments on the song, and the hot piece of man next to her was on her payroll,” writes Smarsh, a National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestselling author. “When she said ‘dance,’ he danced.”
Simply put, she’s the boss.
Smarsh points out throughout her story the numerous people who made the mistake of underestimating Parton. They ranged from other stars, such as Porter Wagoner, who gave a young singer from the Smoky Mountains her first break, to a soon-to-be dismissed drummer in the band who dared tell the country music legend how to run her show.
It also would be a mistake to view “She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs” as merely a biography. Like Parton herself, Smarsh’s treatment is so much deeper than what appears on the surface.
As Nick Tosches did in “Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams,” in which he paralleled Dean Martin’s life with the rise of Italian culture in America, Smarsh tells Parton’s story through the eyes of women who grew up in rural America struggling to make ends meet.
“They are single mothers in need of welfare and abortions, females without diplomas but possessing strong opinions, complicated people reduced to a ‘backwards’ stereotype in the media,” Smarsh writes. “Long shamed as a moral scourge in the U.S., they have precious few ambassadors to convey their grace.”
Then along came Parton out of the backwoods of Tennessee striking like a bright bolt of white lightning that lit up Nashville with a thunderous jolt, the shockwaves of which are still being felt a half-century later. The world met her as a sidekick to the rhinestone cowboy Wagoner on his massively popular TV show.
She was the “pretty little girl singer,” the dismissive way Nashville’s male-dominated performers referred to the women who were just as, if not more, talented. Indeed, the woman Parton replaced in the Wagoner entourage had been billed for years as “Pretty Miss Norma Jean.”
While the pair recorded some of the most popular and classic duets in country music history, Parton developed a strained relationship with Wagoner. He struggled to contain a superior talent that wasn’t meant to be bottled.
Parton would later say she channeled some of what she experienced with Wagoner in another star-making turn on the big screen as Doralee, the no-nonsense secretary in the movie “9 to 5” co-starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dabney Coleman.
But even as Wagoner proved a difficult ego to wrangle, he helped propel Parton into the spotlight and transcend from a talented singer-songwriter into a savvy performer and businesswoman.
Smarsh’s story puts Parton’s path to becoming a mogul of music, movies and multimedia in the context of the times in which it happened: during the rise of modern feminism.
Parton confronted chauvinism and misogyny head on, literally being reduced at one point to her breasts. Her neckline became a punchline. She underwent what today’s standards would be humiliating TV turns at the hands of Johnny Carson and Barbara Walters.
Yet Parton ended up salvaging her dignity by owning her attributes.
“Parton fashioned herself as a ‘floozie’ not because she sought men’s attention but because sexualizing herself took control from men who otherwise would have done it for her,” Smarsh writes.
She made big hair, high heels and low necklines synonymous with her persona and her brand as much as her songs about teenage pregnancy and domestic violence, recorded long before radio was ready to play them. Smarsh points to comparisons between Parton and current hitmaker Nicki Minaj as women who have embraced their sexuality to empower themselves.
Adds Smarsh: “… Parton has masterfully forced the world to reckon with that which patriarchy has tried to conceal.”
Despite her caricatured persona, Parton created great art, from her lilting ballad of abandoned pregnancy in 1970’s “Down From Dover” through 1987’s classic album “Trio” with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris.
In movies, she made a memorable turn as hairdresser Truvy Jones in “Steel Magnolias.” She kept control of her art, including her own music publishing, ensuring that she earned every dime from the massive success of her farewell song to Wagoner, “I Will Always Love You,” later a massive hit for Whitney Houston in the soundtrack for “The Bodyguard.”
She would keep the royalties of that hit through the decades even at the expense of losing a shot to hear Elvis Presley record it. She created her own world in the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., that last year attracted 3.2 million visitors.
But the greatest strength of “She Come By It Natural” remains the personal stories of Parton’s music and the impact on the author. Smarsh allows us to revisit the family she featured in her National Book Award finalist, “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.”
Parton’s rural Kansas family, kept together by strong-willed single women, lived Parton’s music. They found strength in those songs of women strong enough to leave the men who abused and exploited them.
Back in this book is her grandma Betty and Smarsh’s mother, Jeannie, confident in their miniskirts and boots, cigarettes dangling out the car window as Parton’s music blared from the stereo.
“In my family, country music foremost was a language among women,” Smarsh writes. “It’s how we talked to each other in a place where feelings weren’t discussed.” Yet change is slow.
Despite the venerability of Parton and her contemporary, Loretta Lynn, Smarsh notes women account for only 10% of the “hits” on country radio. An industry that has produced memorable talents such as Janie Fricke, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Lorrie Morgan, Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, Sara Evans and Miranda Lambert still leans toward good ol’ boys in cowboy hats.
Still, Parton has poured her soul and tears into her songs, speaking to fans across political lines, endearing both liberals and conservatives. Parton still sells out arena shows around the world long after radio stopped playing her music.
She’s forged a foundation that has provided free books to millions of children. She’s shared her fortune by giving money to rebuild homes lost to wildfires in her home state and recently to help Vanderbilt University research a cure for COVID-19.
A new generation is just now realizing the power of Parton’s music. Some certainly will find out about it because of Smarsh’s book, which tells Parton’s story and puts it into step with our times.
Because when Parton says “dance,” we all dance.
Ron Sylvester has worked as a journalist for 40 years. His career includes writing about country music in Branson, Mo., where he interviewed legends such as Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire Barbara Mandrell, Tanya Tucker, Brenda Lee, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. He’s also worked for USA Today, the Wichita Eagle, Las Vegas Sun and the Orange County Register. He currently lives in the Kansas town where Sarah Smarsh grew up.
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