meIn 1977, Dolly Parton was interviewed by Barbara Walters on a television special. The singer was 31 years old and, having not long since freed herself from a professional association with country singer Porter Wagoner, had conquered the charts with the album. Here you come again. Walters asked if puberty came early for Parton and, gesturing to her breasts, asked, “Is that all of you?” She then invited Parton to stand up so viewers could inspect her figure and asked why she was bothering with makeup, wigs, and clothes. “You don’t have to see yourself like this,” Walters said, pointing a finger.
Walters isn’t the only one who has treated Parton like a prize cow. Oprah Winfrey once made her stand up and invited everyone to take a closer look, as did talk show host Phil Donahue, who added, “I know guys who won’t let you leave the house.” Johnny Carson looked at his chest on national television and said, “I’d give a year’s pay to watch there.”
Parton has endured all of this with unassailable grace and humor, often fighting insults by beating people to the end. “It costs a lot of money to look so cheap,” he has said repeatedly. Lately, however, we’ve seen a reassessment of Parton thankfully disconnected from his appearance. In 2014, he played at the place of legends at Glastonbury, sparking a wave of joy and affection from all generations and drawing one of the largest crowds in festival history. Two years later, Parton gave a concert in Queens, New York, as part of his Pure and Simple tour. In a year characterized by division and intolerance, critics and fans observed a multiracial audience in which drag queens and devout LGBT + Dolly stood alongside church-going families and country fans wearing Stetson. .
In 2019, the successful podcast Dolly Parton’s America portrayed the singer as a social unifier, musical pioneer, and business genius. Among the contributors was author and scholar Sarah Smarsh, whose thoughtful and well-observed book now joins the chorus of approval in recent days and provides a counterpoint to the image of Parton as a surgically enhanced object of amusement. She comes for the natural looks at the singer through the lens of class and gender, and reveals how Parton’s typecasting as a “dumb blonde” was a far cry from the mark.
The book also comes with an autobiographical stitching. Retelling Parton’s famously impoverished childhood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and his subsequent move to Nashville to make his fortune, Smarsh weaves stories about his own experience in a Kansas trailer park and his desire for a better life. It includes stories of his mother, who was a single mother, and his grandmother, Betty, who was born the same year as Parton, and who was married and divorced six times. The author delves into Parton’s lyrical concerns that portray the darker side of the working-class female experience: “Daddy Come and Get Me” is about a woman who has been institutionalized by her husband so that he can continue her infidelity without be disturbed; in “Down from Dover,” a pregnant girl is kicked out of her parents’ home and gives birth to a dead daughter alone. Parton’s early songs are, says Smarsh, “the southern Gothic defenses of poor women.”
In recent years there has been much talk about whether it is feasible to call Parton a feminist. Parton herself rejects the term, but her actions and her life story show a woman who has fought against controlling men and won, and who has subverted stereotypes about women and the female body. Smarsh undoes all of this with a graceful mix of exasperation and common sense. Noting the “class gulf” that runs through any political movement, watch as Parton’s career took off just as the second wave of feminism was gathering steam. Parton thus provided “a revealing contrast between feminism as a political concept and feminism embodied in the world. Like most women in poverty, Parton knew little about the former, but excelled at the latter. “
In addition, it shows how Parton’s refusal to nail his political colors to the mast is a reflection of his business sense and unwavering diplomacy. However, his actions speak loudly. Parton, a renowned philanthropist, funds the Library of Imagination, a charity that provides free books to children; It also provided $ 1,000 a month to those affected by the Tennessee wildfires in 2016. While the US president was busy underestimating the risks of Covid-19, it turned out that Parton had donated $ 1 million to the development of the Modern vaccine, which so far is proven to be 95% successful. Not in vain does Smarsh describe her as “not just a cheerleader, but a spiritual godmother.” Right now, you can see Parton in the Netflix movie, Christmas in the square, in which he literally plays a guardian angel.
Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics it falls short of presenting the singer as a living, breathing angel, but nonetheless bursts with a homely warmth and goodness. Parton offers snapshots of his life through lyrics sheets (175 songs are detailed here, though he has written nearly 3,000), family photographs, illustrated artifacts, and song notes. There are anecdotes about her biggest hits: “Jolene” was inspired by a bank clerk who looked at her husband, Carl; “Coat of Many Colors” was based on the coat she wore to school, which was made from old rags, all delivered with the charming, folkloric romance for which she is famous.
It’s all very on-brand, but the book is also testament to the fact that Parton has never forgotten its roots or its community: the downtrodden and disenfranchised remain the inspiration for its composition, while its Dollywood theme park maintains employed in much of eastern Tennessee. . Near the end, there is a song about the coronavirus that poignantly tells us: “Darkness fades when faced with light / And everything will be fine.” Next to him, a perfectly groomed Parton poses with a mask decorated with many tiny guitars.
• She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs by Sarah Smarsh is published by One (£ 9.99); Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics by Dolly Parton and Robert K Oermann is a Hodder & Stoughton publication (£ 35). To order copies, visit guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.
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