'She's such a huge presence': Jad Abumrad explores the unifying power of Dolly Parton in his new podcast
'Dolly Parton's America is just a place where we behave a little bit differently,' says Radiolab's Abumrad
by Brent Bambury
Around the time Lyndon Johnson was U.S. president, a young woman came down from her tiny town in the Great Smoky Mountains and launched a career in showbiz that, 50 years later, would unite a country that is more divided than it's been since the Civil War.
That's the thesis of Dolly Parton's America, a new podcast by Radiolab creator and host Jad Abumrad who says he realized in 2016, as the U.S. election severely polarized Americans, that Dolly Parton was bringing them together.
"We, as Americans, were in the middle of this incredibly divisive campaign and she was this other example," Abumrad said on Day 6.
"I mean, you go to a Dolly show and, very famously, you will see every single kind of person sitting there. You'll see men in drag standing next to evangelical church ladies." Abumrad said.
"And everybody's singing I Will Always Love You."
Dolly Parton creates an America that offers a communion to people otherwise divided, and Abumrad is fascinated by that conundrum.
"I can't say that space makes sense," he said. "But it exists."
The Dollyverse and beyond
Abumrad grew up in Nashville, so Dolly Parton always loomed large in his world.
"She's such a huge presence for all of us," he said. "She was everywhere — coming out of cars; on billboards. She's literally on every billboard on every street corner. We would go to Dollywood every year for class trips."
A generation younger than Parton, Abumrad had other interests culturally.
"I was this kind of scrawny Arab kid with a funny name and I listened to a whole mishmash of really bad music," he said.
"Dolly wasn't really in my orbit."
That changed when he saw Parton's reach and influence in the rest of the world.
"It took me leaving and then seeing how much impact she has for people outside of the south. That really got me curious again about who she is and how she's done it."
As he drilled down on Parton's songwriting, performances and persona, he became aware of how rich her work really is.
"You start to look at Dolly and her body of work for five minutes and it just — it's endless. I mean you fall into a million rabbit holes," he said.
"And that's really where the series came from."
Conversations with a legend
Abumrad spent 12 hours with Parton during the making of Dolly Parton's America.
In episode one, we hear their first meeting. Abumrad sounds nervous as their conversation begins.
"It took me an entire interview-and-a-half to really feel like I could ask her sensible questions," he said.
Parton removes her jewellery so it won't interfere with the microphone, and this process takes a couple of minutes as Abumrad reflects on reconciling a human body with a legend.
"It was really strange to just see her walk in the room and to have a body and to be as simultaneously charismatic as I knew her to be from all her television appearances, but also — she's really a very small person," he recalled.
"So, there is that weird kind of disconnect of seeing a very small human with a gigantic persona walk into the room."
Parton is variously described in the podcast as a superstar, a saint, a goddess and a superhero.
But she doesn't entirely buy into Abumrad's idea that her power to unify is uncanny.
"Every time I would try one of these sort of highfalutin theories about how she's a symbolically important thing in American this and that and the other, she would be like, 'Dude you're overthinking it.'"
"But I'm convinced I'm not," Abumrad said. "There's so many people who are starting to think really deeply about Dolly."
"But if you talk to Dolly herself, she's very kind of matter of fact about it. She's just like, 'I've just been here a long time and I'm doing my thing and for some reason America seems to be ready for me in a different way than they used to [be].'"
Contradictions and idiosyncrasies
Abumrad says that in recent years Parton has ascended from global pop star to icon to saint.
"She sort of … took those last few steps up the ladder at a time when our political universe was just bursting into a full-on garbage fire," he said.
From that position, Parton has found an equilibrium that lets her embrace contradictions.
Though her songs empower women, Parton avoids politics and being labelled as a feminist. A matriarchal icon, she's never given birth or been pregnant. She doesn't go to church, but professes a deep faith.
"There does seem to me [to be] a very 'Thou shalt not judge' stance that she brings to almost every interaction," Abumrad said. "And we're just in a moment in America where that is deeply refreshing,"
"Dolly Parton's America is a space of bewildering contradictions that somehow hold," Abumrad said.
"It's an America that is able to tolerate its own contradictions and not resolve those contradictions. Dolly Parton's America is just a place where we behave a little bit differently but we're no less confusing."
To hear the full interview with Jad Abumrad, download our podcast or click Listen above.