Say you went to high school in Sevier County, Tennessee. Perhaps you and your old friends would reminisce upon the plights of mid-century Appalachia, or about Friday night football games. Or, maybe you would recall how, on the day of your graduation, one of your less-popular classmates said that she would move to Nashville and become a star. You and your peers roared with laughter at her proclamation on that day in 1964.
Three years later, that classmate joined Porter Wagoner on his weekly television show. Four years later, she signed to the RCA Record Label. Within ten years from being the first in her family to graduate from high school, she had five number one singles. That fateful proclamation had been made by Dolly Parton, Sevier County High School Class of 1964, and it was spot-on.
In the new book “She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs,” Sarah Smarsh provides the seldom acknowledged context in which Parton should always be understood. This context revolves around how Parton was raised, but continues on with the way Parton carried herself for decades in the limelight, and now as she approaches her 75th birthday. Smarsh is a journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times and in the Guardian. Her book “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth,” was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award.
“She Come By It Natural” is a book that zooms in on a woman who not only talks the talk, but also walks the walk. Dolly Parton exemplifies both practices, and has been doing so for over six decades.
Smarsh argues, in thoroughly researched detail, that Parton is the quintessential figure who embodies a specific, yet “unnamed sort of feminism.” This is the first half of Smarsh’s bifold statement — that Parton is a distinct kind of woman never seen without her “eyebrow-raising tight clothes, generosity of heart, and a take-no-crap attitude.” Smarsh’s second point is that Parton’s extended residence in the spotlight has been significant representationally; Parton has proven to underrepresented women that they are worth just as much as anyone through her own rags-to-riches journey.
Back in 1946, the doctor who delivered Parton was paid for his work with a bag of grain, as that was all the baby’s parents had to give him. Here in 2020, Parton’s net worth is estimated to be above $500 million. The odyssey from acute poverty to nearly unfathomable wealth is hard to wrap one’s head around. But as Smarsh writes, Parton has never shied away from her roots. In fact, she is often the one to address her background explicitly, whether it be in her lyrics, in interviews, or in her autobiography.
It is Parton’s unabashed confrontation of who exactly she is representing that Smarsh revels in. Smarsh herself grew up in underserved Appalachia, and she writes about how the lyrics of Parton’s songs allowed her to see, or rather hear, herself on the radio. Smarsh writes how being able to “map” her upbringing on “a soundtrack of declarative statements sung by women in denim and big hair,” carries immeasurable meaning. Not only do White women from rural America feel this meaning, but also several other minority groups; Dolly’s fanbase is surprisingly diverse.
“She Come By It Natural” focuses on this woman’s far-reaching music and inclusive message. Parton has been the butt of countless jokes for decades, but Smarsh puts the attention where it should be: on how Parton was given not even lemons, and yet, she made lemonade. Dolly Parton came from nothing, and has made everyone feel everything.