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Dolly and Me: Dolly Parton’s America Podcast

Abigail and I rarely listen to the same podcasts or read the same books. We watch TV together or movies together but that’s more about sharing the experience—especially in the pandemic. But I like play snooty public radio podcasts and Abigail really likes reading about history and politics.(1)This is my favorite quote ever from This American Life. Ira Glass is giggling that The O.C. calls his program “that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are.” Abigail, coming from East Tennessee, kept trying to get me to listen to Dolly Parton’s America. She told me it’s this amazing podcast about Dollywood and Tenessee, where she grew up.

Then I was looking at the recent Peabody Awards (again, big media nerd). Dolly Parton’s America won a Peabody for excellence in broadcasting. Also it was produced by Jad Abumrad, of Radiolab, one of the best radio producers in the world. Between Abigail and Jad, I had to listen to it and I’m so glad I did.

Growing up in New York, I never understood the appeal of this high pitched singer with absurdly large boobs. We would visit my in-laws in Knoxville, Tennessee a few times a year and about a decade ago, on a lark, I convinced them to take us on a visit. They’d never been, thinking that an Appalacian-themed experience couldn’t be much fun. Appalachia is red-neck moonshine coal country so I don’t blame them. But when we went, we found a magical place and have been making annual pilgrimages ever since. I’d never realized what made Dollywood so special, but after listening to this podcast, I realized it was because of Dolly.

Dolly Parton is one of the most popular celebrities in America. No one has anything bad to say about Dolly. She’s truly cross-generational. 80% of her fans used to be over 55, now 80% of her fans are under 55.(2)Dolly Attributes her young fan base to her on Hannah Montana with her goddaughter Miley Cyrus. They talked about the breadth of Dolly’s fan base:

I remember just standing out in the lobby and just people watching, because it was the most diverse place I’ve ever been. I was seeing a multi-racial audience. People wearing cowboy hats and boots. I was seeing people in drag. Church ladies. Lesbians holding hands. Little girls who were there with their families.

The people who were tweeting were all women. And one woman in particular, she said, “That majestic bitch just started playing a goddamn PAN FLUTE.”

Dolly Parton’s America. Sad Ass Songs.

But why is Dolly so popular. Why do so many people connect with her? If I had to make a recipe of Dolly’s popularity, I’d put in one part authenticity, one part entertainer, and one part charity.

Authenticity

Dolly was authentic before it became a marketing buzzword. She doesn’t like to ascribe to any labels she doesn’t choose to. She’ll describe herself as a Christian, a Southerner, and a Singer but doesn’t link herself to political views. Even in her Christianity, she isn’t dogmatic. She says, “If you try to shove that down people’s throats or you come on goody goody, that ain’t going to work. You live by example. You teach by example, you learn by example, don’t you think?”

She refuses to identify as a feminist even though she worked with Jane Fonda to create one of the world’s great women’s empowerment movies: 9 to 5.(3)The podcast explains that 9 to 5 was a movie that grew out of an organization fighting for women’s rights. Dolly is a feminist closer to the millennials of today than those of her generation. Though Dolly grew up in the 60s and 70s, she wasn’t a feminist of those times, rejecting the traditional feminine roles.

She went, like, in the opposite direction. It was like, “You have a problem with my tits? Then here they are hanging out.”

“My tits hanging out, pushing ’em out there. ‘Course I played it up,” said Dolly.

And you can deal with it while I make you my employee. And there is something about that—that is sort of like, I think a more kind of millennial spirit of approach to feminism.

Dolly Parton’s America. Dollitics.

Entertainer

For that dash of entertainer, Dolly isn’t just a great singer-songwriter, she’s also a great storyteller. In the middle of the Podcast, Jad mentions how Dolly started talking for an hour and a half telling stories and he couldn’t interrupt because he fell into what he called, “The Tennessee Trance.” And Jad is one of the best interviewers on radio but he was so enamored with the stories that he couldn’t speak. Dolly would just tell a story and transport us into the past.

JAD: Do you remember the first time you left home? Or left …

DOLLY: Well, the first trip I ever made about my music, and the first trip I ever made. And I was young, I was little then. 12? 11? Was to go to Lake Charles, Louisiana, from Knoxville. And it was a long trip. They put us on a bus.

JAD: Do you remember how that felt to be on that bus?

DOLLY: Yeah, it felt—I liked the wheels. I remember loving the motion. So there was this studio there, and so Uncle Bill thought I should come down there and make a record. And oh, I saw Spanish moss for the first time. I thought it was the strangest, most wonderful, mysterious thing I’d ever seen because it was so different. You know, that swamp and the cypress trees and the drive. I just remember that’s the first time I ever seen like, the sand and the beach and the ocean. First true love, too. It was my first record, and I got a crush on Johnny. Little Johnny. His daddy owned the Gold Band Records and that studio. And he was so pretty and brown. Never seen a boy so pretty. And that’s the first time I also had a banana, and I loved them. Then I wanted a whole bunch of them. Then I got sick on them. It’s like it was just a whole bunch of feelings that I still remember like it—you know, just like it was yesterday.

Dolly Parton’s America. Neon Moss.

Charity

In her commencement speech at the University of Tennessee, where she received the Unversity’s second-ever honorary degree, Dolly encouraged the students to dream more. She says that she got her imagination from her mother who read to her as a small child. Illiteracy became a cause near and dear to her as her father never learned to read. So Dolly created the Imagination Library, a charity that gives one book a month to all children before they reach kindergarten. In 2018, after expanding well beyond Tennessee, the Imagination Library donated its 100 millionth book which was placed into the Library of Congress.

Dolly grew up poor like much of the rest of East Tennessee. She and her 10 brothers and sisters grew up in a two-room home. My wife Abigail says that when she grew up in the 1980s, the area had single lane roads. Dolly said “I always thought that if I made it big or got successful at what I had started out to do, that I wanted to come back to my part of the country and do something great, something that would bring a lot of jobs into this area.”

Bringing It All Together at Dollywood

All three parts of Dolly, authenticity, storytelling, and charity come together in Dollywood, a physical embodiment of Dolly. It even has a replica of her childhood Tennessee Mountain Home. It’s a celebration of Appalachian culture but it’s also a huge employer in the area. It employs 4,000 people to serve 4 million visitors a year. It’s the largest employer in the area and the biggest tourist attraction in Tennessee.

Dollywood is a theme park like Disney World but more genuine. The original idea of Disney World was to re-create the feeling of Walt’s home town of Marceline Missouri. I remember visiting Disney World in the 1980s and buying magic tricks from the store on Main Street. There was a magic store and a watch store on Main Street. Today it’s been replaced by a giant souvenir store. That’s not to say that Disney World is a bad place but it’s a far cry from Walt’s childhood.

Dollywood is that hometown fantasy. It’s the fantasy of backwoods Appalachia and America. It’s built in the same mountains where Dolly grew up. It isn’t about kids spending a semester in college to play Minnie Mouse. Almost all the employees are local from the local county, a poor Appalachian area. If you want to have authentic Appalachia, you have to hire a blacksmith. I remember asking the Dollywood blacksmith about his background and he said he’s been a blacksmith at Dollywood for 25 years. I once got a Fast Pass at Dollywood from a 65-years-old woman in a blue checked dress who needed to put her reading glasses on to show me how it worked.

In one episode, Jad goes to a University of Tennessee class called Dolly Parton’s America (where he borrowed the name for his show.) A couple of the students talked about how Dolly was unapologetically … well … Dolly.

Student 1: There are all these different things. We were having to choose between two things all the time and I was watching her just say forget that I’m going to be both. I’m going to be both things. I’m going to be adored by church ladies and the gays. It’s like such a wild concept that I still can’t wrap my mind around how exactly she does it. But I think it was really important to me to have a role model who is unapologetically where she was from and also like she was not apologizing for where she was going either.

Student 2: For me, Dolly has always been sort of a validation of the Appalachian identity, if that makes sense. Because to see a woman be so ambitious and so unapologetically Appalachian, and see her rise to such heights, it just made it feel better to be Appalachian

Dolly Parton’s America. Dolly Parton’s America.

To me, Dolly Parton’s America is about living up to the values that Dolly believes in. On the surface, it’s about authenticity, entertaining, and charity, but three’s a deeper Dolly. She believes that we all can come together, love our neighbors, and appreciate the differences between us. Instead of fighting about politics and getting increasingly divisive, we can put our (physical and verbal) guns away and have a civil meal. I’m reminded that I don’t have to express and defend my politics in every interaction. I don’t need to help “change the world” by aggressively reading about politics and thinking about things I have little control over. Dolly’s America is about being good to your neighbor, coming together, and changing minds through what you do, rather than what you say.

Footnotes

1 This is my favorite quote ever from This American Life. Ira Glass is giggling that The O.C. calls his program “that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are.”
2 Dolly Attributes her young fan base to her on Hannah Montana with her goddaughter Miley Cyrus.
3 The podcast explains that 9 to 5 was a movie that grew out of an organization fighting for women’s rights.