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 they triumphed over. Feminist heroines reign supreme!
Selectively, that is.
For what of those who were referred to just recently, and seemingly without too much penalty, as “white trash” females, and their daughters? Using her mother as an example, Smarsh argues that these women brandish wisdom and integrity, and that they obtained them both the hard and unglamorous if not (to resort to a tired phrase) politically incorrect way. “When I was a kid in the 1980s,” living in a trailer, Smarsh writes, “my mom’s long red acrylic fingernails didn’t slow her down driving a UPS truck, dragging and pushing boxes of Christmas presents she and her own family wouldn’t receive.” During her second job—“applying makeup” on upscale women in a Wichita mall—when a male manager would touch her breasts under the guise of adjusting her name tag, “she knew that the only way a woman with no money or connections can beat the game—that is to say, pay the bills for herself and her children—is by playing it.”
Coat of Many Colors
In that same down-is-up way, Smarsh says, Dolly Parton’s stubborn adherence to a synthetic exterior—polyester clothes, over-painted face, “big ol’ pile of hair” (Smarsh loves that phrase)—confirms the internal authenticity of her elegant triumph over the Appalachian-holler shack she grew up in. Though Smarsh, who has three college degrees, calls herself a feminist, she says the “uneducated” women she knows, “right or wrong … don’t give a shit what you call” their fight for survival and dignity. And when Parton was asked about feminism six years ago, keyed to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, she denied knowledge of the media-plastered best-seller, instead cackling, “I’ve leaned over. I’ve leaned forward. I don’t know what ‘leaned in’ is.”
The author uses details from Parton’s life as well as her own female family members’ to show the moving if unsurprising fact that country women’s lives are sad—Parton, one of 12 children, lost an infant sibling likely because of poor nutrition; Smarsh’s grandma Betty was physically or emotionally abused by at least three of her six husbands, and her mother was pregnant with her at 17. Not having been a pre–9 to 5 follower of Parton’s (though I appreciated her spunk and success), I hadn’t realized that her 1970s songs included stirring accounts of women being forced into mental institutions by their husbands and others having stillborn babies for lack of medical help. (That latter song, “Down from Dover,” was also covered by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, and Marianne Faithfull—if that isn’t female universality, I don’t know what is.)
“I’ve leaned forward. I’ve leaned over. I don’t know what ‘leaned in’ is.”
I learned that when Parton’s husband, Carl Dean, married her, in 1966, when she was 18, and discovered she hadn’t been a virgin when they got together (she was clearly a good faker), he “moped” for months; that she had a feisty but subjugated professional relationship for years with “bossy” Porter Wagoner, the Nashville singer who gave her her start on his eponymous TV show in 1967 and was like “her husband, her father, her owner,” until she finally extricated herself, in 1974. One of the book’s most revealing surprises is that Parton turned down a request from Elvis Presley to record her “I Will Always Love You” because Colonel Parker, Elvis’s manager, was insisting on half of the publishing rights. Parton had already made it a hit, but, still, Elvis was … Elvis, and having him cover it might well have given it special cred. Parton subsequently made a big hit of it again in 1982, and it became a monster seller—an anthem—with Whitney Houston’s 1992 interpretation. Kicking Elvis to the curb made the prescient Parton magnificently rich.
As Parton reaches her pinnacle—becoming a massive entertainment player (starting from her co-founding Sandollar Productions with the very un-country Sandy Gallin way back in 1986) and creating Dollywood, her Smoky Mountains theme park, which generated income for locals in the area, and Imagination Library, her books-for-children program, inspired by her stubborn dreams of a good life despite her childhood poverty—the story becomes, perforce, less interesting, dutifully hagiographic, and point-stretching. Yes, Parton was an “ambassador” of unnamed feminism and a hero to the women Smarsh “grew up among in rural Kansas.” But do these Parton-inspired women really still, or did they even then, “not know who Gloria Steinem is”? Interesting fact, though: neither Steinem (who herself had a non-elite, bumpy childhood in East Toledo, Ohio) nor Parton had children. Another interesting point: Parton is still married to Carl Dean. And, she insists, despite having made the 2016 Forbes list of the 100 highest-paid entertainers (ahead of Rihanna and Katy Perry), “I’m still a truck stop girl.”
Smarsh’s early thesis—that Parton and women of her background can teach Ivy League women’s-studies majors a thing or two—turns, by book’s end, into a different lesson. Parton is not only “someone who acts ‘trashy’” yet “has more class than most”—yes, that trick is a big, lovable part of her brand—but she is also someone who is sensible, stable, and shrewd. That she’s spent the vast majority of her life with such apparent equanimity may say something about what she learned from overcoming dirt poverty, but it also has a lot to do with psychological good fortune, which can be, socio-economically, an equal-opportunity provider.
Sheila Weller is a journalist and the author of eight books, including, most recently, Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge