Day 6·Q&A

New book, She Come By It Natural, celebrates Dolly Parton as an 'exemplar' of working-class feminism

In her new book, She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs, author Sarah Smarsh writes about the women who have inspired Dolly Parton's career — and the look is key to staying connected with her rural, American upbringing.

'Darned if Dolly Parton doesn't represent the best of rural America,' says author Sarah Smarsh

Dolly Parton performs on the Pyramid Stage during Day 3 of the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on June 29, 2014 in Glastonbury, England. (Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

Originally published Oct. 30, 2020.

There's much to learn from Dolly Parton's "cheap" look, according to writer Sarah Smarsh.

Early in her career, Parton's style — patterned after what she has called the "town trollop" — was almost always referenced in interviews and TV appearances. 

In She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs, Smarsh writes that Parton's look is key to staying connected with her rural, American upbringing.

She spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about the country icon's look. 

Here is part of that conversation.

You dedicate this book to your grandma, Betty. What does she have in common with Dolly Parton and the women Dolly sings about?

My grandmother — who had a large hand in raising me, actually — she and Dolly are almost precise contemporaries. They were born just a few months apart, both born to poor, rural families. And Dolly Parton's early songs, many of which are very dark, haunting stories about adversities faced by poor, rural women, really describe the literal hardships of my grandmother's youth.

That's something that I came to understand as a kid in the 1980s, witnessing a really deep connection between grandma Betty and Dolly Parton on a cassette tape or a record. 

Sarah Smarsh is the author of She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Live Her Songs. (Simon & Schuster, Paul Andrews)

Dolly has told this joke many times: It takes a lot of money to look this cheap. And given the kind of ribbing that she's endured for her appearance, why do you think she has maintained her look over five decades?

This really gets at the heart of what I think Dolly Parton is all about. So she leaves East Tennessee — and this poor holler that she came from and very much loved and still loves — in the 1960s, and she set off to become a star in Nashville and then eventually conquered the whole world as a crossover in so many ways in popular culture. 

Over the course of all of those decades, of course, she had the money and the smarts and all the other resources that would be required to sort of transform herself if she so chose — by transform herself, I mean, class herself up, if you will. Quit with the too-tight clothes and the too-low neckline and the too-high hair and the too much makeup and the too-twangy voice. But instead she really kind of dug her heels in — doubled down even. 

She not only continued to do all of those things, which are sort of trappings of home for her, but did it to such an extreme effect that to some folks she almost represents a caricature. And so there is a kind of performance going on there, and yet the paradox therein is that while she is at the height of fame and fortune, she's continually returning to home, in a sense, in the way that she presents herself physically and in the cadence of her voice, in the stories that she tells in her songs — all amount to what in some places would be deemed "trash." 

And the mission, I think — and I would add mission accomplished — is that in her doing so, she forces the listener or the viewer to reconcile whatever negative stereotypes that they have about the place that she comes from: dumb, ignorant, bigoted, foolish. And while walking around with that sort of physical shell, immediately, just by being herself in the deep ways and the real ways that are down underneath all of those layers, just kind of obliterates all of those negative stereotypes.

Let's listen to one of her songs … Dolly Parton's first hit. The song's called Dumb Blonde and a lot of people thought the song was a joke about Dolly herself. But that's not what's going on here. What's the real message of that song?

The real message — and it just gave me goosebumps even thinking about it, really — is that she is in that song saying, 'Don't underestimate me because of what you see.' It's just delicious that that first big hit for her really sums up what would be the narrative of her life and career in a man's world, which is a woman who indeed was underestimated and whose creative genius indeed was under-discussed while people were perhaps discussing the size of her breasts. 

Ultimately, the joke would be on them. And indeed, she's decades later finally receiving, I think, the multifaceted adulation and admiration for all of her realest parts and the pieces of herself that don't have anything to do with gender stereotypes or being a sexual object.

But definitely her creative output was connected to her understanding of feminism as a woman in the world of country music in the 1960s. And when you look at her early songs — Just Because I'm a Woman, The Bargain Store, Down from Dover — these songs are classics and timeless, but they were not played on the radio. Why not?

She was an incredibly radical songwriter in her time. You know, you've got to figure the 1960s and into the '70s, the women's movement as we refer to it today ... was nascent and then gaining steam through the '70s. And at that moment, Dolly Parton is coming from a place where there isn't what my family would call book learning. 

She was never on a college campus in a classroom discussing feminist theory or reading the transformative feminist texts of the day. And yet she just deeply understood in an organic way the extent to which it is indeed of a man's world, and along the way, the very realist stories that she could tell were therefore stories of rebellion against that sort of patriarchy. 

Why didn't it get played here? Well, because radio stations were run by men who felt threatened and offended by her words. 

Dolly Parton arrives at the 61st annual Grammy Awards at the Staples Center on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

You started writing elements of this book at the time of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Why did you feel compelled to write about working-class women in relation to that election?

In 2016, amid that fraught political climate that's not so unlike the one that we're experiencing right now in 2020, I was dismayed by the extent to which headlines over and over were telling a story about the rural place that I come from that suggested that everything that for me represents the wrong direction for our country, politically and ideologically, supposedly was rooted in and to be blamed on my people, if you will. 

I knew that that wasn't the complete story. I am from a white, working-class family and none of them hold the political views that they were being made synonymous with in national headlines. 

And that same moment, Dolly Parton emerges with her first album in a long time and her first big arena tour in many years, and I was seeing how people from all walks of life were kind of gravitating around her as a figure in popular culture, loving her. She was really just kind of unifying all these groups of people that were supposed to hate each other.

I saw it in those arenas on that concert tour, I saw it on social media, and it occurred to me, darned if Dolly Parton doesn't represent the best of rural America, you know. And so I wanted to help round out the story about what that space can and does produce, and this got me thinking about really the intersection between class, which I always write about, and gender. And that's how I landed on really wanting to look at Dolly Parton as an exemplar of what I call working-class feminism, which is a brand of feminism that I think has been largely overlooked.

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Laurie Allan.