As Dolly will tell you, so much of who she is - her creativity, her music, her stance on life - emanates from her faith, but what exactly is that faith? The answer is deeply surprising. In this episode, Dolly tells a story of finding God in an abandoned church filled with X-rated graffiti. And she speaks of her plans for how she'll be remembered after she?s gone?how her voice will live on for the next 50, 100, 200 years.
This episode delves into the controversy surrounding Dolly Parton?s Stampede (formerly known as ?Dolly Parton?s Dixie Stampede?)?a dinner theater that presents the Civil War as a friendly competition between neighbors. In the wake of the Charlottesville Riots in 2017, the Dixie Stampede was called out by the press, and then became embroiled in the larger national conversation about Civil War monuments and the white-washing of history. Dolly?s business conglomerate decided to eliminate ?Dixie? from the name, which caused further uproar.
Dolly embodies ?a quivering mass of irreconcilable contradictions? in a way very few other American figures do? but has America arrived at a place where such contradictions are no longer defensible or tolerable?
At the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, we drop in on a history class called ?Dolly Parton?s America.? (We borrowed the name for our series!) Taught by Dr. Lynn Sacco, the class is filled with college students who grew up in rural Appalachia, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college. Dr Sacco gives the class an assignment: Write an essay that answers the question ?What is Dolly Parton?s America?? Lurking just behind that question are thornier ones about Southern shame and identity and hillbillies and football and...well, Dolly. Is Dolly helping or hurting us? The class splits down the middle.
Editor?s Note: We made two corrections to this podcast, originally released on December 3. In referring to the location of the Battle of Blair Mountain, we changed ?Southwestern Virginia? to ?West Virginia.? And on the origin of the term redneck, we inserted narration that makes clear that the etymology of the term goes back farther than the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Music performed by:
Justin Hiltner (@hiltnerj, http://justinhiltner.com)
Esther Konkara (@esther_konkara)
Steph Jenkins (@slhjenkins, http://www.stephaniejenkins.info)
Stephanie Coleman (@stephiecoleman)
Courtney Hartman (@courthartman, https://www.courtneyhartman.com)
Shelley Washington (@shelleyplaysaxy, http://shelleywashington.com)
Bora Yoon (@borabot, http://borayoon.com)
Caroline Shaw (@caroshawmusic, https://carolineshaw.com)
Recordings from National Sawdust were part of the NationalSawdust+ series: Elena Park is the curator of NationalSawdust+ Special thanks to recording engineer Garth MacAleavey, Jeff Tang, Charles Hagaman, and everyone at National Sawdust. Thanks also to Alex Overington and Jeremy Bloom for mix engineering.
One of Dolly?s most iconic and successful songs is ?Jolene,? a song that, at first listen, is about a romantic rival trying to steal her man: a prime example of the classic ?cheating song.? But some see it as flipping a popular country music trope on its head. This idea takes shape when Nadine Hubbs, a professor at the University of Michigan, writes a fourth verse to ?Jolene," which makes us reimagine Dolly's songs in entirely new ways.
Dolly Parton and politics have always had an interesting relationship. On the one hand, she wrote 9 to 5, the anthem for working women and the theme song for a movie inspired by a new labor union. On the other hand, she refuses to answer questions about President Trump, or any question on politics period. Her nephew calls this ?Dollitics?: Dolly doesn?t take a position because she knows half her fans are on the right, half are on the left. In this moment in history, how should we think of this kind of fiercely apolitical stance? Is it desirable, or even possible?
In this episode, we go back up the mountain to visit Dolly?s actual Tennessee mountain home. But, can you ever go home again? Dolly tells us stories about her first trips out of the holler, and shares with us where she lives now. Back on the mountaintop, standing under the rain by the Little Pigeon River, the trip triggers memories of Jad?s first visit to his father's childhood home, and opens the gateway to dizzying stories of music and migration.
We journey into the Dollyverse dimension: "Tennessee Mountain Home."
Like all law abiding Tennesseans, Jad grew up with the song on a loop. He hadn?t planned to talk with Dolly about it, but much to his surprise, he is drawn into a Tennessee Mountain Trance. The trance opens a portal to many questions about country music, authenticity, nostalgia and belonging. And to a place called Dollywood.
We visit the replica of Dolly?s childhood cabin and find thousands of other pilgrims similarly entranced. Along the way, we meet Wandee Pryor, who lived in a Dolly dreamworld as a girl. And also, halfway around the world, Esther Konkara, the self-proclaimed ?Kenyan Dolly Parton,? who sings "Tennessee Mountain Home" as an ode to the hills of Nairobi - hills she has not yet left. The Tennessee Mountain home begins to seem like part of a Disney fairytale.
But then, Jad and Shima get a call from Dolly?s nephew and head of security Bryan Seaver, who makes an irresistible offer.
Porter Wagoner led the most successful country music television show of its time, and in 1967 he needed a new ?girl singer.? He turned to a 21 year old songwriter named Dolly Parton, who?d just recorded her first hit ?Dumb Blonde.? So began a nearly decade-long partnership that, behind the scenes, was as contentious as it was commercially successful. This episode tells the story of the ?Porter years,? the period during which Dolly arguably discovers her power - both as a performer and songwriter - and then makes the difficult (and radical for its time) decision to strike out on her own. Through interviews with Dolly, country music star Marty Stuart, Wagonmaster Buck Trent, and Porter?s daughter Deborah Wagoner, we explore how Dolly handled what?s sometimes called the great ?hillbilly divorce? with such characteristic grace.
We begin with a simple question: How did the queen of the boob joke become a feminist icon? Helen Morales, author of ?Pilgrimage to Dollywood,? gave us a stern directive ? look at the lyrics! So we dive into Dolly?s discography, starting with the early period of what Dolly calls ?sad ass songs? to find remarkably prescient words of female pain, slut-shaming, domestic violence, and women being locked away in asylums by cheating husbands. We explore how Dolly took the centuries-old tradition of the Appalachian ?murder ballad??an oral tradition of men singing songs about brutally killing women?and flipped the script, singing from the woman?s point of view. And as her career progresses, the songs expand beyond the pain to tell tales of leaving abuse behind.
How can such pro-woman lyrics come from someone who despises the word feminism? Dolly explains.
In this intensely divided moment, one of the few things everyone still seems to agree on is Dolly Parton?but why? That simple question leads to a deeply personal, historical, and musical rethinking of one of America?s great icons.