Author Sarah Smarsh Discusses Her New Book On 'The Great Unifier:' Dolly Parton

Oct 18, 2020
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOLLY PARTON SONG, "TOGETHER YOU AND I")

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Dolly - at a time with so much division, writer Sarah Smarsh says Dolly Parton might just be the great unifier.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOGETHER YOU AND I")

DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Together, you and I can stop the rain and make the sun shine, paint a pretty rainbow brushed with love across the sky.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In a new book of essays about the singer, the bestselling author of "Heartland," Sarah Smarsh, looks at how Dolly, though she says she's no feminist, embodies the working woman's fight. The book is called "She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton And The Women Who Lived Her Songs." Sarah Smarsh joins me now. Hi there.

SARAH SMARSH: Hey, Lulu. It's so good to be back with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's so great to have you back. Why did you write about Dolly?

SMARSH: Well, the origin story of this book involves the election of 2016. You know, I come from a poor, rural background. I wrote in "Heartland" about my upbringing on a small Kansas wheat farm. And in 2016, every headline I saw was correlating a particular brand of conservative politics with the space that I'm native to. And while those headlines, you know - no doubt - had some truth to them, they didn't tell the whole story of my place or my people. Dolly Parton that year had a new album. And I was seeing how people were kind of gathering around her and just loving on her. And it occurred to me, you know, Dolly, of course, very famously comes from a poor rural background. And I thought, you know, she represents the best of that space. But I thought, you know, I'd love to write about how she exemplifies kind of a working-class feminism, if you will. And I ended up writing over the course of 2017 in a kind of serialized magazine form that now happily is in book form in another election year.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. You write that she stands for the poor woman, the working-class woman whose feminine sexuality is often an essential device for survival yet whose tough presence may be considered masculine in the corners of society where women haven't always worked. Explain that woman that you see embodied here.

SMARSH: Well, that woman raised me, that sort of woman who has very little cultural or social capital, very few economic resources and must sort of rely on her own wits and yes, indeed, sometimes on her own sexual objectification to get by in a man's world. Those sorts of women don't often get much credit in discussion about feminism with a capital F, you know, feminist theory movement that tends to kind of swirl around university campuses and spaces where the women I know and love never got to set foot.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. You posed this question in the book. What role has she played in the lives of economically disenfranchised women used to being shamed and cast as victims? Because Dolly isn't a victim. She upends that that stereotype.

SMARSH: Sure enough. She was quite radical in her decision to, let's say, objectify herself before someone else had a chance to do so. You know what I mean? She kind of subverted the power paradigm. She made a joke about her large breasts before the interviewer had a chance to make the joke. She embraced a persona and a physical presentation that a sexist culture would deem, quote, unquote, "trashy."

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. She molded herself into the town trollop, as she says.

SMARSH: Yes. She tells a story about seeing this woman who had, you know, dyed hair piled up high and was - you know, tight clothing. And she grew up in a very patriarchal religion. And this was the sort of woman that her folks frowned on. And yet Dolly associated those kind of stereotypical symbols of some sort of femininity with power. And when folks called that woman trash, Dolly jokes today and says, and then I thought, well, that's what I'm going to be when I grow up then - trash.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) She has written 3,000 songs, which is just extraordinary. And you mentioned many of them. But I'd like to play "Little Sparrow," which she calls her sad song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE SPARROW")

PARTON: (Singing) Little sparrow, little sparrow flies so high and feels no pain.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me why you cited that song in the book. Where does that fit into her canon?

SMARSH: Well, in 2016, in the course of researching this writing, I went to a couple of those shows. And "Little Sparrow" was part of her reliable set list. And it's very much a kind of return to the dark, haunting Appalachian melodies that she grew up on. But she's today known for this sort of bubbly persona and just as a kind of indelibly positive force. But there's a real darkness to her early work, which tends to document the trials of women in poor, rural spaces. And "Little Sparrow," while that came later in her career, felt sort of like a return to that sound. And, by the way, when she sings it live, wow. She's got some pipes. And that song really shows them off.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm going to quote something here that you wrote. "A fractured thing craves wholeness." And you say that is what Dolly Parton offers right now, that we are the fractured thing and she is the everything. I mean, you started writing this in 2016. And we are now in 2020. And this is part of her icon status right now - that she kind of crosses all these lines.

SMARSH: Yes, there is some real kairos, I think, to just the almost divine timing of her being, you know, in her full glory as a realized icon, receiving attention she should have received a long time ago for her creative genius and big heart, precisely at a moment when we are somewhat lacking in national figures and certainly public leaders who we might say embody grace. And I think if there is one word that sums up Dolly, that would be it. And we could all use a little bit of that right now.

PARTON: That Sarah Smarsh. Her new book is "She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton And The Women Who Lived Her Songs." Thank you very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thanks, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EAGLE WHEN SHE FLIES")

PARTON: (Singing) Gentle as the sweet magnolia, strong as steel, her faith and pride. She's an everlasting shoulder. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.