Given the things we have long known her by—the bosom-accentuating clothes and, until very recently, the repeated refusal to be called a feminist—it’s the sneaky contrast between appearance and essence that defines Dolly Parton. In She Come By It Natural, Sarah Smarsh, who grew up on a farm in Kansas and earned great praise for her empathic debut memoir on life in America’s working class, Heartland (2018), makes this case for Dolly and, as the subtitle puts it, “the women who lived her songs,” in the first half of her passionate, smart, and earnest new book. The occasional repetitiveness and meandering—though She Come By It Natural tracks Parton’s life, it’s more musing and cheerleading than linear biography—may derive from the book’s origin as a four-part essay in the quarterly roots-music journal No Depression. Or from Smarsh’s leitmotifs: that “even if feminism is not in [white working-class women’s] talk, it’s in their walk,” she writes, and privileged, liberal women owe a debt to their poorer red-state sisters.
That’s a very good thesis, and a needed one now. Why? First of all, despite Ken Burns’s 2019 documentary paean to the genre, it’s not a violation of wokeness for self-presumed enlightened people to say they like every kind of music except country. Then there’s the ever escalating female-empowerment and ethnic-pride wave. The number of tweets, posts, columns, books, plays, movies, TV spots, celebrity-brand-burnishing nonprofits, and conferences trumpeting highest-barred #MeToo brio over the past few years could, end to end, reach to Jupiter and back (after renaming that planet for a female Roman god, that is). Black women are, deservedly, having their moment. As are L.G.B.T.Q. women. And, now, with Kamala Harris’s nomination, South Asian–American, Caribbean-American, and immigrant-parented women are writing about what theytriumphed over. Feminist heroines reign supreme!