America is a divided place these days. People are fighting, politicians are bickering, and you can’t voice an opinion on social media without risking a digital tongue-lashing.
In times like that, there needs to be a unifying voice. Fortunately, thanks to a brand new podcast from NPR, we have that voice. This isn’t Donald Trump’s America or Nancy Pelosi’s America. This is Dolly Parton’s America.
A Hero for Our Times
Often, we think of country music as pretty monotone. By and large, or so the stereotype goes, it appeals to southern, white men and women and almost no one else.
But Dolly Parton is different. When you look at her global “Q” score, a measure about how people feel about someone’s brand, she is near the top of the world. People feel less bad about Dolly than they do about, well, almost anyone. According to Nielsen, she is country music’s most recognizable, marketable, and beloved artists. Or, as one fan put it:
I think Dolly Parton is an angel. I’m not going to say she’s God, but she’s definitely heaven-sent, and I think that she makes the world a better place.
Considering she has a discography that dates back to 1967, it’s not hard to believe that her appeal is multi-generational. But what makes it so impressive is that she crosses gender, ethnic, and racial boundaries as well. In fact, she crosses just about every boundary you can think of. She’s even a big hit with scientists: the first cloned sheep was named “Dolly” after Dolly Parton.
Dolly Parton’s America is an investigation of this popularity. What makes this sweet, slight woman from a one-room cabin in the deep woods of Tennessee such an enduring icon in today’s world?
Host Jad Abumrad wondered the same thing, and he began to explore it thanks to a chance connection with Dolly through his father, a physician in Tennessee. He spent two years with the legendary songwriter, discovering her “America,” an America more hopeful and beautiful than the one we see in the headlines.
Working 9 to 5
Parton is a trailblazer in the music industry, and just as importantly, she is a prolific songwriter. But it was never easy. When she replaced the extraordinarily popular Norma Jean on The Porter Wagoner Show, the audience was angry. She had to win them over.
But over time, she did. In fact, she became extraordinarily successful alongside Porter Wagoner, eventually surpassing the popularity of Wagoner himself. Recognizing that her career was growing too fast to be his sidekick any longer, she knew she had to leave. But it was a troubled relationship, and she wrote perhaps her most famous song, “I Will Always Love You,” as a tribute ot Wagoner at her departure.
She would go on to write other massive hits like “Jolene,” “Love is Like a Butterfly,” and, of course, “9 to 5.” Throughout her career, she is credited with writing an inconceivable 3,000 songs. But she’s so much more than a songwriter and a performer. She is a voice for underrepresented women everywhere.
O.G. Third Wave Feminist
Parton doesn’t brand herself a “feminist,” but she has become one by necessity. She is one of the most prolific and successful female artists of all time. Or, as some of her fans put it:
“She’s the epitome of female power. ”
“I truly think that she is one of the most underrated feminist icons of our time.”
“My vague theory is that she was like the O.G. third-wave feminist.”
Third-wave feminists challenge the hierarchy established by the “second wave,” insisting that women can be whatever they want to be (rather than defining femininity within certain characteristics.) Therefore, a punk-rocking alternative girl from the Pacific Northwest can be every bit the feminist as a bedazzled, seventy-year-old country singer from Tennessee.
And Parton is that. When Abumrad presents to her the difference between “feminists in theory” and “feminists in practice,” Parton perked up:
“That’s the one. That’s me… Yes, that’s a good way to say it… I live it, I work it, and I think there’s power in it for me.”
What is Dolly Parton’s America?
Just three episodes into the podcast, neither Abumrad nor Parton has answered the question for us yet. But it’s a question worth pursuing.
Because Dolly Parton’s America is a happier place than the world we often find ourselves in. It’s a “quivering mass of irreconcilable contradictions,” but it’s also a more hopeful, more musical, more beautiful place than the divided and angry world we live in.