This article is excerpted from She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs by Sarah Smarsh. Copyright © 2020 by Sarah Smarsh. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
The fourth of 12 siblings, Dolly Parton was born on a small farm in 1946; her father, Lee, paid the doctor a bag of grain for the delivery. As those familiar with her music know, growing up wearing dresses made of feed sacks didn’t make her sorrowful but rather grateful—a fact that, paradoxically, has helped make her a very rich woman. The royalties for “Coat of Many Colors,” her enduring 1971 song about cherishing a garment her mother sewed from rags in spite of being shamed for it at school, roll in year after year.
Of her many hits, Parton has described that tribute to her mother, Avie Lee, as the one most special to her. She says she got her musical talent from that side of her family, whom she describes as “dreamers.” During Parton’s childhood, radios, record players, and electricity hadn’t yet reached the rural poor, and they entertained themselves in their own homes with old ways passed down from European country peasantry. Her maternal grandfather, a Pentecostal preacher, played fiddle and wrote songs.
Avie Lee’s brother, Billy, played guitar and noticed young Dolly’s musical talent. He helped get her onto the Knoxville radio and TV show Cas Walker’s Farm and Home Hour. Billy reportedly bought Dolly her first proper guitar, a child-sized acoustic Martin, when she was 8 (replacing the one she’d made from an old mandolin and two found strings). He helped her write her first single, “Puppy Love,” penned when she was 11 and recorded in 1959, when she was 13, after a 30-hour bus ride to Goldband Records in Lake Charles, Louisiana, with her grandma.
By that time, rock and roll—rooted in Southern Black culture—was sweeping white America and infusing country sounds. It showed up in the up-tempo dance beat of “Puppy Love” and in Uncle Billy’s slick Elvis-style pompadour. Parton admired rockabilly pioneer Rose Maddox, the daughter of Alabama sharecroppers. But Appalachia’s ancient melodies, the poor European cousin to slavery’s African blues, were the songs that shaped her first. In one hit from her early career, “Applejack,” which she has said portrays a composite of real people, she tells of visiting a mountain-music man who gifted her his banjo when he died—a bit of Africa that had reached East Tennessee over the centuries.
While Parton’s musicianship and mentorship came from her mother’s family, her business acumen, she says, came from her father—a tenderhearted lifelong laborer who didn’t learn to read and write but nonetheless was savvy with a horse trade and could stretch a bit of money a long way. The sharp business mind that eventually built an empire worth hundreds of millions of dollars was also influenced by the premium her dad put on their humble home.
She described those seemingly conflicting interests—“getting out” and being where you most belong—onstage in Kansas City during her 2016 tour for her latest album, Pure and Simple. That production stripped away the razzle-dazzle of backup bands and big sets featured on so many of her tours, putting Parton on a mostly bare stage with three backup musicians and a few cascades of white fabric. The show started with the sound of crickets and bulbs blinking like lightning bugs.
At one point during the performance, Parton climbed a few steps to sit on a white platform described as a front porch but that turned out to be an elevated position for communing with heaven. Before singing “Smoky Mountain Memories,” her 1978 song about poor workers drawn north during the midcentury factory boom, she paid tribute to her father’s hard work, economic decisions, and commitment to his family.
“Lee, you oughta go up’air, get them kids outta that holler,” she remembered people telling her dad. But after a short stint in Detroit when Dolly was a child, Lee announced that he would die in the East Tennessee mountains. They wouldn’t have much there, he knew, but they’d have food and shelter—and they’d be home.
Parton stood up with a flute to open the number. She couldn’t sit while she performed it, she said, because her dad deserved a standing ovation. In an instant, thousands of people stood up—her audiences would do the Hokey Pokey if she asked—and Parton laughed.
“Not from you!” she said, and the crowd laughed with her.
Then they sat down and cried while she sang.
Turning her attention to Avie Lee, Parton set up “Coat of Many Colors” with analogous tales of her mother’s creativity in the face of deprivation. To boost the kids’ spirits, Parton recalled, Avie would send them outside to pick the best rock for her to cook “stone soup”—always intending to select and praise the child who had the hardest day.
One imagines Parton, who told the crowd her family had running water “if we ran and got it,” absorbed her wit and natural poetry from her mother’s language. “If we had some ham, we’d have ham and eggs—if we had some eggs,” Parton quoted her mom to the crowd.
Parton has repeated such anecdotes for decades—mind you, she spent 18 years in her parents’ cabin, compared with more than half a century in Nashville and beyond, most of which she has lived at the height of fame and fortune. But fans who have heard it a thousand times gladly line up to hear it a thousand and one, maybe because there are so few entertainers who truly own such experiences. You can recognize that ownership by its humor.
Joking about poverty is a hallmark of women in poor spaces, while more privileged people tend to regard it with precious sadness—a demonstration of their own sense of guilt, perhaps, or lack of understanding about what brings happiness. Firsthand experience allows for a tale that’s more complex than a somber lament. Those women never had to feign being impressed by things their husbands couldn’t afford to give them, and in that gulf between one’s reality and the middle-class images in magazine advertisements arises a dry humor.
When my grandma recounted my biological grandfather’s proposal to her when she became pregnant with my mother at age 16, for instance, it was with a laugh and a cigarette drag.
“It wasn’t any of this, ‘please be my darling wife.’ Sheeeeit,” she said, and we both cracked up—not at our own family’s misfortunes but at the delusions of women who got a sentimental proposal and a big diamond before they spent a lifetime pushing a vacuum.
If you don’t find that edge in Parton’s work, you haven’t listened to much of it. Recurring motifs of her early songs, in particular, include hypocritical, violent, and even murderous men; women being used, neglected, and shamed; and dying children. (The baby sibling Parton was charged with caring for as a child got sick and died.) Known for her “fake” appearance—the wigs, the synthetic fabrics clinging to a surgically altered body, the acrylic nails in pastel shades—Parton can be a very dark realist when she writes. That darkness in a woman’s voice, plain stories of hell on Earth sung by women who have little to carry them forward but faith, is the divine feminine of American roots music.
“Little Sparrow,” from her 2001 album by the same name, blends the bluegrass, folk, and country gospel sounds of her native home and is sung in the voice of a jilted, devastated woman warning young girls to “never trust the hearts of men.” As haunting as the melody is, Parton—who is given to undercutting serious moments with an endearing bit of nervous humor—sets it up with a joke onstage: “I call it my little sad-ass song.”
Parton says you can’t be from where she’s from and not like woeful melodies. The worst stories she tells of those mountains in her songwriting seem to represent what she saw outside her family’s house. The biggest grievance she has discussed about her childhood is that her father wouldn’t say “I love you”—a common cultural affliction for men of all classes in that period and, perhaps to a lesser degree, still today. But Parton insists that, in practice, her home was so rich in love that every material poverty was mitigated.
After the moving tribute to her musical mother and industrious father, at another stop on the same tour—in Austin, Texas—Parton made her way down the steps of the “porch” before it was wheeled offstage.
“Time to come down from heaven, I reckon,” she said, and a muscular, bare-armed man in a black vest and hat previously introduced as her “sexy cowboy” carried out a new instrument. (By this point, she had played guitar, dulcimer, and flute.) It was white and covered in rhinestones, like all her other instruments, including a grand piano she played for one number.
“Oh, the cowboy brought me a banjo,” Parton said. Soon she was shredding on it with her talon fingernails during “Rocky Top,” a bluegrass song exalting the Tennessee hills. It was written in 1967 by a married pair of innkeepers just up the road from Parton’s hometown in Gatlinburg, the place hardest hit by the recent wildfires.
During the bridge, Parton slung the banjo over her back, and the cowboy handed her a fiddle. While the fast beat pulsed and one of her band members played another banjo, Parton tapped the air with her bow like a conductor. Right before her solo, she pointed the bow at the cowboy and said in time with the rhythm, “You dance.” The sexy cowboy hooked his thumbs into the belt loops of his tight jeans and kicked up his heels in place while she fiddled, and the crowd roared.
Parton spends more time than the average performer onstage deferring to others with what, by all known accounts, is a sincere humility—praising the crowd, thanking her own band, honoring her family and her roots. But at that moment in the show, tears still wet on faces after the poignant songs for mama and daddy, it was Parton’s own delight, desires, and power on display. She sang the song, she played two instruments on the song, and the hot piece of man next to her was on her payroll. When she said “dance,” he danced.
Sex was the third formative pillar of her life alongside music and religion, Parton said in her 1994 autobiography, My Life and Other Unfinished Business. Growing up, she used to haunt an abandoned chapel with broken windows and buckled floorboards where teenagers left condom wrappers under the porch; inside was a defunct piano and “dirty drawings” on the walls. In that space of music, sex, and God, Parton wrote, she experienced a spiritual epiphany that “it was all right for me to be a sexual being.” Indeed, she has described herself as having been hormonally precocious both inside and out.
While famously lifted, nipped, and tucked over the years, her figure was just as improbable as it naturally developed.
The resulting attention from males clued her in to her own sexual power at a young age, and she embraced it, dyeing her lips with iodine from the family medicine cabinet for lack of lipstick. This zeal for sexy behavior did not, in the eyes of her people’s strict patriarchal religion, honor her father and her mother.
In a 2003 Rolling Stone interview, she described her father punishing her for making herself up. “ ‘This is my natural color!’ ” she remembered insisting. “The more Daddy tried to rub it off, the redder it was. It’s like, ‘This red ass of yours after a whipping, is that your natural color?’ Oh, I got lots of whippin’s over makeup.”
Her mom and preacher grandpa shuddered, too, worried that the devil had led Dolly down Jezebel’s path. During her 1983 television special Dolly in London, Parton called herself “the original punk rocker.” In the early ’60s, as a teen, she pierced her own ears to hang feathers from them and ratted her hair. When her mother suggested she’d been possessed, Parton told her to give credit where it was due—not to Satan but to Dolly herself.
“I couldn’t get my hair big enough or ‘yaller’ enough, couldn’t get my skirt tight enough, my blouses low enough,” she recalled in her autobiography. “… Of course, I had to get away from home to really put on the dog. I’d go into the four-for-a-quarter picture booth at Woolworth’s, unbutton my blouse, push my headlights up with my arms and take pictures.”
What women who didn’t grow up on a farm might miss is that, where Parton was from, this common act of female adolescent rebellion wasn’t just about attracting boys. It was about claiming her femininity in a place where everyone, male and female alike, summoned “masculine” attributes and downplayed “feminine” ones in order to survive.
“My sisters and I used to cling desperately to anything halfway feminine,” Parton wrote. “We could see the pictures of the models in the newspapers that lined the walls of our house and the occasional glimpse we would get at a magazine. We wanted to look like them. They didn’t look at all like they had to work in the fields. They didn’t look like they had to take a spit bath in a dishpan.”
For Parton, lipstick and store-bought clothing represented not just a life beyond backbreaking labor but also a level of economic agency that might protect a woman from assault. Indeed, research indicates that impoverished women are at higher risk of experiencing severe male violence.
“Womanhood was a difficult thing to get a grip on in those hills, unless you were a man,” Parton wrote. “[Glamorous women in magazines] didn’t look as if men and boys could just put their hands on them anytime they felt like it, and with any degree of roughness they chose. The way they looked, if a man wanted to touch them, he’d better be damned nice to them.”
Women of all classes suffer male violence. Still, there’s a hard truth to Parton’s view. In the social climb to come, she had white skin, good health, and loads of talent on her side. But something the world values even less than a girl is a poor one.
My family’s poverty was nothing like Parton’s, but it was enough that I knew shame. We lived in rural Kansas, so I didn’t feel it until I started school, where other children’s clothes and lives were there for me to see and contrast with my own.
That reckoning began even before I reached the school on the first day: The bus pulled up to our long dirt driveway, and I climbed on with a paper grocery sack full of supplies. I had been in a state of bliss as my mother checked off the teacher-provided list she had in her purse with a small calculator and her plastic coupon organizer. But I was the only child on the bus whose supplies weren’t in a backpack, and by the time we reached the school—nearly an hour-long drive after all the necessary stops, winding along dirt roads and ruts—I was embarrassed when I unloaded the new crayons and pencils I prized from a paper sack.
If you’re a peaceful child, as I was—not given to throwing tantrums to process frustration—in such moments you have two choices: hang your head and cry or tilt your chin up and let the tears inside you turn into a salty form of power. The women I knew had taught me the latter skill—a particular strength for a female in that she will be called upon throughout her life to not only care for herself but also to care for others. Little room is left in such a life for one’s own complaints.
The transmutation of pain into power is a feature of all musical genres and indeed all forms of art. For women in poverty, though, it is not just a song but a way of life, not just a performance but a necessity. As with Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Patsy Cline, and so many female country performers before and since, Parton’s music expresses this.
Her special twist, unlike most of the rest, is that she conveys it with palpable positivity and a smile—understanding so deeply the connection between a difficult past and a blessed present that her mission on stage and in life is to honor that tension in other people’s lives.
She reminds her audiences that, no matter where they came from, everyone can identify with being shamed one way or another, and no one deserves it. Never be ashamed of your home, your family, yourself, your religion, she says, and adoring crowds applaud. One need look no further than her immense LGBTQ following to know that Parton’s transformation from a slut-shamed, talented teenage bumpkin to entertainment superstar contains a universal struggle that has less to do with being Appalachian than with being human. If her presence and the appreciation it instills in people could be whittled to a phrase, it’s “be what you are.”
By Sarah Smarsh. Scribner.