Ideas

The 'Backwoods Barbie' and The 'Hardcore Troubadour'

Dolly Parton and Steve Earle would seem to have almost nothing in common. One was born and raised in poverty, but became a pop culture superstar. The other has lived defiantly outside the mainstream and became a dogged champion of the marginalized. This month on the Enright Files, how artists as different as Steve Earle and Dolly Parton capture the essence of American roots music and speak to the cultural and political currents of the past few decades in the United States.
Dolly Parton and Steve Earle (Leon Neal/Getty Images/Cindy Ord/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:59

Dolly Parton and Steve Earle would seem to have almost nothing in common. One was born and raised in poverty, but became a pop culture superstar. The other has lived defiantly outside the mainstream and became a dogged champion of the marginalized. They're also two of the most prolific and influential songwriters working in the American roots tradition. This month's edition of The Enright Files explores how artists as different as Steve Earle and Dolly Parton capture the essence of American roots music and speak to the cultural and political currents of the past few decades in the United States.
 

The 'Hardcore Troubadour'

Steve Earle was not a kid when he released his debut album, Guitar Town, in 1986. He was 31-years-old. He'd kicked around Nashville and the Texas music scene for more than a decade, his career stuck in neutral.

MCA Records reluctantly released Guitar Town and was shocked to see it become a huge hit, commercially and critically. It was a bracing blast of twang and grit — honest, raw and totally out of step with the slick countrified pop music dominated the country charts.

Guitar Town was a founding document of what some called alternative country and what many others still call Americana music — a rough-hewn aesthetic that revered pioneers of country, folk, bluegrass and country-rock. It also rejected the more suburban, conservative values that defined contemporary popular country music. 

The past three decades have seen Steve Earle record 18 albums, slide into the abyss of heroin addiction, homelessness and prison — and become revered, and reviled, as an activist who takes up unpopular causes. And who shows compassion for the marginalized, the unloved and the unredeemable, whether they be confessed murderers on death row, or Americans who joined the Taliban. 

Steve Earle visited The Sunday Edition in October 2016, when he was in Toronto as part of a tour called Lampedusa: Concerts for Refugees. 
 

The 'Backwoods Barbie'

At first glance, Dolly Parton would seem to be the antithesis of Steve Earle. If Earle is a scruffy critic of the American mainstream and a thorn in the side of the music, Dolly Party is an icon of the country music establishment and all its glitz, rhinestones and big hair. 'The Backwoods Barbie,' as she styles herself. 

And she's a megastar. She's worth half a billion dollars, with more than 40 albums and 4,000 songs to her credit, not to mention a theme park. 

And yet, she has cachet well beyond the big concert halls of Nashville. Four years ago, she headlined the Glastonbury Music Festival in England — one of the most influential rock, pop and alternative music festival events in the world and one attended primarily by teens and twenty-somethings. 

Fans enjoy the music as Dolly Parton performs on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival in 2014. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

During her set, the 68-year-old woman on stage in a white suit sang songs extolling the traditional country music values of family, god and simple pastoral pleasures. And she had complete command over the tattooed, be-pierced concertgoers.

Michael Enright was baffled by Dolly Parton's appeal, particularly over such a young generation that would seem to have little in common with her values, aesthetics and life story. Robert Harris joined Michael in the studio in October 2014 to explain the Dolly Parton phenomenon.


Music featured in this episode:

  • Ellis Unit One by Steve Earle. 
  • My Tennessee Mountain Home (live in Prague, 2010) by Dolly Parton.
  • I Will Always Love You performed by Whitney Houston. 
  • I Will Always Love You performed by Dolly Parton. 
  • Jolene performed by Miley Cyrus. 
  • Jolene (live at 2014 Glastonbury Music Festival) performed by Dolly Parton.  
  • Dumb Blonde (live on Porter Wagoner Show, 1967) performed by Dolly Parton.
  • I Will Always Love You (live on Porter Wagoner Show, 1974) performed by Dolly Parton.
  • Coat of Many Colours performed by Dolly Parton.


**The Enright Files is produced by Chris Wodskou.

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