Review: How Dolly Parton became an unsung icon of the feminist working class

The cover of "She Come by It Natural," by Sarah Smarsh.

On the Shelf

She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs

By Sarah Smarsh
Scribner: 208 pages, $22

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Sarah Smarsh grew up in Kansas, and in her 2018 memoir, “Heartland,” she gave voice to the working-class and poor community in which she had come of age. It was a sharp rebuke to a cadre of journalists and pundits who had pushed a popular media narrative during the 2016 presidential election: that “working-class” voters had turned to Trump out of “economic anxiety.” The story soon resembled a perpetual motion machine as college-educated reporters undertook expeditions into heartland diners in search of those who fit the preconceived narrative — a practice that continues to this day.

Smarsh pushed back against such condescending characterizations throughout the 2016 campaign, and against the blame-the-poor focus of books such as “Hillbilly Elegy.” In “Heartland,” she detailed the daily struggle of those working service or farm jobs to not only put food on the table but also access basic medical care. She herself had worked many of those jobs, so knew what she wrote about firsthand.

The author’s follow-up is both surprising and completely of a piece. “She Come by It Natural” is a paean to cultural icon Dolly Parton, who emerged from her poverty-stricken upbringing in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., to become a country superstar and philanthropist. Smarsh argues that the mischaracterizations of poor people that plagued campaign coverage had also slighted the country singer, with the added insult of typecasting her as “a dumb blonde.”

She is not the first fan to reassess Parton’s reputation. In recent years, the LGTBQ community has embraced her as an ally, and not only for her public statements of support. She once entered a “Dolly Parton lookalike” drag contest and lost. She has inspired doctoral dissertations documenting her views on race and gender. What sets Smarsh’s project apart is her focus on class, as well as the personal experiences she brings.


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This book is a kind of reclamation project, beginning with that typecast persona. In Parton’s trademark presentation as a tiny woman with enormous breasts and a pile of blond hair, Smarsh sees a type of feminism formed outside the halls of academia: “This signature Parton trifecta — eyebrow-raising tight clothes, generosity of heart, and a take-no-crap attitude — is an overlooked, unnamed sort of feminism I recognize in the hard-luck women who raised me.”

Parton was one of 12 siblings on a small farm in Tennessee, surrounded by her mother’s family, whom she has called the “dreamers.” Her Uncle Billy bought the 8-year-old Parton her first guitar and then helped find her an audience. Parton wrote her first song at age 13; now 74, she has published well over 3,000. Those songs show that “Parton can be a very dark realist when she writes. That darkness in a woman’s voice, plain stories of hell on earth sung by women who have little to carry them forward but faith, is the divine feminine of American roots music.”

Sarah Smarsh, the author of "She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs."
(Paul Andrews)

Next on Smarsh’s reclamation list is country music itself, typecast as solely the province of dogs, booze and trucks. On the contrary, Smarsh says, it empowered her. She declares it a great blessing to have been raised “against a backdrop of declarative statements sung by women in denim and big hair.” The female songwriters in country performed the “transmutation of pain into power.” Smarsh ties the media’s diminishment of that power to the same impulse that drove its 2016 narrative; they focus on the “precious sadness” and poverty of rural life, missing the joy.

Dolly Parton embodies that joy, not only joking about her poor origins but also embracing her outré appearance, embellishing it with outrageous fashion and makeup. In a world that relies on heavy physical labor, Smarsh argues, masculine values are often privileged above the feminine. Women harden themselves in response. Parton, for her part, embraced a type of countervailing hyper-femininity that could be difficult for outsiders to read.


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Undeniably, Parton is a boss. The Dollywood theme park and entertainment complex employs thousands in eastern Tennessee and brings over $1 billion a year into the local economy. After wildfires devastated much of Sevier County in 2016, the Dollywood Foundation pledged $1,000 per month to each affected family for six months, supporting 900 families. Her Imagination Library provides a free book each month to children from birth to age 5. So far, it has distributed over 145 million books. This isn’t some vanity celebrity charity project; it’s real change for real people.

Parton sees her philanthropy as an expression of her Christian faith. But Smarsh isn’t shy about critiquing some of her other business ventures, including the dinner theaters formerly known as “Dixie Stampede.” While Parton has dropped “Dixie” from the name, Smarsh still finds that the chain offers a “squarely patriotic event with a heavy dose of white-washed nostalgia for the Antebellum South.”

The singer’s success can also make it difficult to understand why she has repeatedly refused to call herself a feminist. Here, Smarsh splits the difference. She argues that in a divided culture lacking common definitions for basic words, deeds matter. “Like any transcendent storyteller, her politics occur at the human level,” she writes, examined as experience rather than abstract concepts and lived directly rather than bandied in academic terms. There is an important place for both the story that speaks for itself and the didactic argument.” In both her storytelling and her work, Parton’s actions demonstrate rather than declare her philosophies.

Smarsh’s book went to press in June, before Parton made uncharacteristically political statements about the killing of George Floyd. In an interview with Billboard magazine, she criticized Christians who “judge others,” arguing that God should be the only judge. But it was her declaration of solidarity with Black Lives Matter that surprised many of her fans. “I understand people having to make themselves known and felt and seen,” she said. “And of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No!” The statement led to right-wing calls to “cancel” her, but it further endeared her to the younger, increasingly diverse audience that has embraced her in recent years.

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“She Come by It Natural” is a praise song for the cultural icon, but what emerges from an examination of Parton’s life and work is just how much relevance her lyrics have had — for Smarsh and for other women — and why so much of the writing in the book is deeply personal. “Dolly’s music and life contained what I wanted to say about class, gender, and my female forebears: That country music by women was the formative feminist text of my life.” The fruit of that devotion is a tribute to the woman who continues to demonstrate that feminism comes in coats of many colors.

Berry writes for a number of publications and tweets @BerryFLW.