Christopher Sloce, socialist writer and co-host of the It Can Be Done podcast reflects on the cult of personality around Dolly Parton. This is the third installment of The Culture Column, a new bi-monthly series criticizing the culture we have so we can create the culture we want
The problem with talking about Dolly Parton has everything to do with the word iconic.
‘Icon’ has never stripped its religious connotations entirely: while the original word just spoke to likeness, that’s not how we use it when we refer to people. Parton isn’t a “likeness” of country music, but one of many country music folk-saints. Sometimes this is literal, like on Etsy where her “costs a lot to look this cheap” fashion sense and decolletage are emblazoned on votive candles. Or you’ve probably seen something said to the effect of, “Dolly Parton could have written The Communist Manifesto, but Karl Marx could never write “9-5”.
In fact, the religious fervor towards Dolly Parton, specifically from Appalachian liberals who use “Appalachian” to escape the fact they’re liberal, reaches a level of absurdity that’s annoying if you’re from the region and criminal if you’re not. A few chestnuts from Sarah Smarsh’s She Comes By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs, a book that reaches the apogee of this absurdity. Not one page into the first chapter, Smarsh breathlessly recounts an acquaintance whose “first words” after the 2016 Gatlinburg wildfires were “Dolly will save ‘em” (she did end up donating a good bit of money, which is good, but personally, I’d have probably said, “Holy shit,” first).
Dolly Parton’s mid-career rough patch, where she had to lay off a good amount of her team, contemplated suicide, and felt like she “died without dying” is likened to “what some cultures call ‘shamanic death’”. At this point, the votive candle is liquified wax, only the slightest smoke dances off the wick, and what remains will be poured into a mold of Parton herself to be sold at overpriced gift shops in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
None of this has to do with music. Something curious happens to art’s most vital practitioners when they’re turned into icons. Wu-Tang Clan may be for the children, but the t-shirts might as well be for Grateful Dead fans and celebrities who don’t dress themselves. A Wu-Tang Clan t-shirt has about as much to do with Wu-Tang Clan as a 2pac hologram has to do with 2pac.
Without the music, 2pac’s hologram would stand there so people could dip handkerchiefs into his holographic sweat. The music has to exist to make the final fact true: iconography is a dress rehearsal for your image to be used beyond the grave, a phantom image flickering in light while “Jolene” plays on a phonograph backstage.
Perhaps these are the wages of the sort of shamanic death only an icon can go through: the zombie existence afterwards.
Of course, Dolly is still alive and well. As of late she recorded an album called Run Rose Run, inspired by her collaboration with James Patterson of the same name. Patterson is an interesting collaborator: more of a brand than a hack. When he has a writer who is actually a writer, James Patterson is mostly on the couch giving a thumbs up. But with a celebrity collaborator, Patterson finds it fit to get into the muck and slug out the composition, with the celebrity’s input in enough key parts that he could lie better about their work.
That’s not to imply Dolly Parton is a bad writer. In fact, quite the opposite. Just as we don’t fault Karl Marx for Scorpio and Felix I don’t think we should fault Dolly for anything other than the ruthless extension of her brand. But we have to recognize that forms are different. Dolly Parton’s lyrical voice is a wonder: the truth in her songs is told as plainly as a child, but the selection of details reveals someone who’s actually presenting a story. Children babble every detail, but storytelling requires curation.
We then have to regard the unfortunate fact that Dolly Parton has a brand that has to expand or die, and the actually interesting prospect of Parton writing a novel is sullied by its status as a relic of an icon. It’s not unnatural for country musicians to be interested in literary endeavors: no giant greater than Johnny Cash wrote a novel about the apostle Paul, and Steve Earle has plenty of literary endeavors.
The excerpts I’ve read of her autobiography are charming enough: it’s not entirely out of the question Dolly Parton could write something akin to Gentleman Prefer Blondes. It’s just that it’s really special when she writes, sings, and plays an instrument. No matter to brands: they must sand every rough edge, remove every whorl, airbrush every beauty mark. I haven’t listened to Run Rose Run, but it’s hard to want to listen to something inspired by an experiment in branding when Dolly Parton’s music is anything but.
But branding is an option only available to someone with the gravity to support it. In country music’s history, the music often sat next to sponsors, legitimate and illegitimate alike. On the X radios around the southwest border, a mix of tonic hawking and raw country brewed in the ever distant, ever present Mexico, close enough to get visions of as far away as Carter Fold, Virginia.
With the early canon’s roots in the medicine show’s bawdy and broad humor acting as an interstitial between love potion displays, advertising and country then progressed to sponsored hayrides, endorsement deals, and now persists in Toby Keith bar and grills. Jimmy Dean got his start somewhere.
Country music is class conscious in that it knows to respect the worker, whose viewpoint the song often takes. There are no Dolly Parton songs about being a magnate. But there are songs about a mother’s love battling poverty by her weaving a coat out of scraps, songs about a vengeful boyfriend locking you up in the mental hospital, being looked at as stupid because you’re an attractive blonde with an accent that takes ten seconds to come out of the bottle.
The fight between have and have nots has influenced any era, and it’s an animating tension here as well. Like in real life, this fight has latches onto gender and sexuality to create bosses and workers in all situations, exploiter and exploitee.
Dolly’s music stops short of the conclusion a system causes this, as does a great deal of country music, but workers have lives, and don’t always sit around thinking about work.
Country music has always had its roots in joyous dancing, romance, and crackling sexuality. Dolly’s depiction of sexuality is one of the best in the pop canon: a lived and felt tumult of contradictory impulses.
Perhaps it’s the friction of tensions in her music, which undergird country music at large. Temptation, in the conservative Protestant view, is more about shortcuts to and country music is distinctly Protestant. The world of desire is in direct opposition to the supposed hallowed end this music espouses, though some country music hints that this is a possibility through excess.
Hank Williams saw the light coming down off of amphetamines and George Jones’s “White Lightning” treats moonshine like ambrosia. Dolly’s music, directly from the viewpoint of the ingenue, retains a specific power. While she may have become something of a sex symbol, it’s in her music about sex, implicitly or otherwise, that is cannot be so cynically marketed, Playboy cover be damned.
“Jolene” treats its titular character as a red headed Lilith and Dolly’s pleading casts her less as a prude and more as a person facing an existential threat. If you’re wondering why Jolene is such a threat, it might be worth considering that in her music, Dolly rarely casts herself as a girlboss, but rather as an Appalachian woman, and where Appalachia exists, so does poverty, and an errant man might wind up putting you in the poorhouse.
Jolene’s fiery sexuality, idealized in Dolly’s narrator, is likely an economic threat as well.
This mixture continues throughout the catalog. In “Traveling Man”, the door to door salesman who Dolly finds herself lusting for provides commercialized access to the outside world. The “traveling man” of times before “country” music was commercialized often sold goods that seemed wondrous and may have sold many of rural Americans their first guitar; this figure’s access to places in America that felt like other countries in the rural imagination gave them an earthy exoticism.
And nothing, for people whose agency and choices are often under attack, could be such an object of desire as the traveler. In the conclusion of the song, Dolly realizes the traveling man is spending time with her mother, who is now abandoning her daughter. These two generations of women found comfort in the arms of the worldly salesman, who walked away with a new, ribald story of the road and a new companion.
The duplicitous travelin’ man is a cousin of the wooden leg stealing, perverted Bible salesman of Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People”. He is both an agent of the world and of capital, which doesn’t see people living lives in the region but opportunities for plunder.
Of course “Travelin’ Man” is sung as a bit of a joke, where the punchline is the mother’s unexpected desires in the eyes of her daughter. But the traveling man remains an instructive figure: someone from the commercialized world coming to the rural one with something exciting to sell.
Dolly Parton, now pushed towards making herself a commercial icon, takes on more qualities of the traveling man with her connection to the world of capital, available to her through the necessary expansion that is offered to anyone who has something rare to sell. In her case, it’s her very real talent. “Traveling Man” becomes a miniature of the warring impulses in Dolly: the need to sell versus want of items, status, and romantic fulfillment.
Her music is not the brand, but the brand doesn’t exist without the music.
To prove this, all it takes is one look at Dollywood. An amusement park doesn’t exist without workers or money. The money has come from her music’s ability to lovingly depict the lives of Appalachians, and now multiplies itself through the operation of her bevy of entertainment interests.
Growing up in Appalachia, Dollywood was posited as another example of her charity, as a reminder Dolly never abandoned any of the region’s children. But like all theme parks, it is an example of both cynicism and wonder: the need to sell thrills.
In Dollywood’s Rivertown Junction, there’s a replica of Dolly Parton’s small cabin. To Sarah Smarsh, liberal critics, and other Appalachia boosters it means this, from Smarsh’s She Comes By It Natural:
“By employing people of the region, one could argue Dollywood demands those people make a performance of their authentic lives…But the difference with Dollywood is that Parton was and is of the place. Parton sometimes jokes about being “white trash”…[a term] she earned the right to reclaim. Directly oppose degradation or seize its means– two valid approaches, the latter being Parton’s preferred method. To fight the dehumanization of the rural poor, she got rich, went home, and turned Appalachia into a performance before rich, urban developers could.”
But Appalachia never needed to be turned into a performance. You could claim Dolly always has, but the musical performance came from an authentic place, through learned craft, and through folkways that have always existed in American music. A theme park is just a theme park.
Today’s Dolly Parton is in some small Gatlinburg apartment, raised by a mother who is a hostess at the park, burnt by the sun and the promise that fulfilling customers will fulfill the employee. Dolly’s music may clarify the experience of being poor, but Dolly the Icon is something to sell or be sold, and that can’t save anybody.