She Come By It Natural

Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs

by Sarah Smarsh, 2020

Short biography of Dolly Parton written by a young feminist who grew up poor in Kansas and likened her grandmother, Betty, to be the real Dolly Parton. In the acknowledgements, she writes: “Thanks especially to the real Dolly Parton, my grandmother Betty.”

I learned a lot about Dolly. She is a forgiving, generous, kind, loving person with a boatload of talent. She was the fourth of twelve children, born in 1946, on a farm in Tennessee. She loved tight clothes and big hair and performing on her front stoop with a pretend microphone made out of a tin can on a stick. She learned to play from her Uncle Billy who gave her a small guitar when she was aged 8. He’s also the one who took her around to recording studios. She left for Nashville as soon as she graduated from high school (1960s).

She was hired by Porter Wagoner for a mere pittance ($60,000/year – a fortune for her) and become the star of the show. She stayed two years longer than her contract. She had wanted to leave but he made it difficult. She finally did and wrote “I Will Always Love You,” and that song has made her rich many times over. She never sold the rights to it or any of her other songs. When Elvis wanted to record it and they asked for half the publishing, she had to tell them, “I’m really sorry,” and cried all night.

She is so generous with her fortune – giving 900 families who lost homes in the Tennessee wildfires $1000/month ($900,000 a month!) for 6 months and then they each got another $5000 at the end; 900 families received $11,000 each from Dolly ($9.9 million)!

She started the Imagination Library, giving any child who signs up a free book each month from birth to age 5. She gives scholarships to Tennessee high school seniors. She started a health care foundation.

Despite being disrespected and mistreated by male-dominated country music, she’s never been bitter, always been forgiving and generous-hearted and lovely. What a gift you are, Dolly Parton! God bless you!

Here are some interesting tidbits from the book:

The fourth of twelve siblings, 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 maker 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.

from page 7

She has sold well over 100 million albums and is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame; since 1964, she has published more than three thousand songs, from country to pop to bluegrass to gospel…

Meanwhile, her music has gotten almost no radio play since the early nineties, when Nashville’s sound made a dramatic shift away from twang.

from pages 20 and 21

“Our jeans still fit,” Mom said quietly and stared into the distance. “Yep.” She slowly nodded, her smile gone and one eyebrow lifted in knowing.

What she knew was that the shape of a working-class woman’s body has a lot to do with her survival. Not so much because she wants to “catch a man”–the men she has occasion to meet are broke, too, and don’t think she doesn’t know it–but because the significance of the female form as an object in society is one of the few powers she possesses. Unlike expensive college degrees and high-status material possessions, her body is hers, and how it looks will affect the economic course of her life: Whether she looks nice enough to get the job at the makeup counter. Whether the UPS manager, frowning that she’s too small to do the work, can be convinced with a smile in the interview. Whether the banker will approve the shaky loan.

from page 29

Being among them, one sees and feels the power of a woman who truly lives the teachings of Jesus–love all, judge not–in contrast to the hollow Christianity so much of Nashville’s country music machine falsely espouses.

from page 35

As it happens, it was during one of those dedicated autograph sessions that she would have an encounter that paved the way for her to leave Wagoner. A little girl, nine or ten years old, held out a piece of paper to be signed. Parton admired her long, auburn hair.

“You sure are pretty,” Parton would recall saying. “What’s your name?”

“Jolene,” the girl said.

Parton had never heard that name before. She remembered it a year later when, according to her, she sat down to write a song inspired by a flirtatious connection between her husband and an auburn-haired woman who worked at their bank…

The 1973 single “Jolene” went to number one on the country charts, was a crossover pop success, and was nominated for a Grammy. …

Parton was emboldened. She had been patient over her years with Wagoner but never lost her own wild spirit. Despite the big smiles on camera and onstage ,the pair had gone round and round behind the scenes.

“That was not unique to Porter,” Parton wrote. “I had seldom agreed with parents, teachers, anybody who tried to exercise control over me, my talents, and my beliefs.”

from page 79

To mark her departure from the show, Parton wrote the tearjerker goodbye song “I Will Always Love You” and told Wagoner it was for him.

A song that powerful doesn’t get written without truth behind every word. But consider what a goodbye in that form represented. No dummy, Parton had long ago established a song publishing company and retained the rights whenever someone recorded her work. Her bittersweet goodbye, thus, was something she owned and that Wagoner had no claim on. Every penny it earned fell into her account, not his.

…”I Will Always Love You” went to number one again when Parton re-recorded it in 1982, making it the only country song in history to top the charts in two separate decades. The song did it a third time, in 1992, when Whitney Houston made it a pop blockbuster on The Bodyguard soundtrack. Thus, Parton’s parting gift to the man who would have held her down ended up one of the most successful songs in music history. She is still cashing the checks.

“When Whitney’s [version] came out, I made enough money to buy Graceland,” Parton told CMT with a laugh.

The confidence to heed her inner voice and, in doing so, piss off a powerful man is what allowed Parton to leave Wagoner, say no to Elvis, and become not just a successful artist but also a business juggernaut.

…Gone she was, and Wagoner responded with a bitter lawsuit. He claimed that, having played such a big role in her development, he was owed a cut of every profit she’d make for the rest of her life as an entertainer. That might seem like a losing claim today, but Parton had fair reason for concern as a woman facing the prospect of a courtroom with a male judge. Rather than fight Wagoner in court, Parton offered to settle for a reported $1 million. Wagoner took the deal.

According to Parton’s book, she didn’t yet have that amount lying around and paid it off painstakingly over time. Meanwhile, Wagoner was slandering her any chance he could get.

…”I will always be grateful to Porter, because I learned a lot,” she told Rolling Stone in 2003. “But he got as much out of me as I got out of him, let’s put it that way. Porter was very much like my dad and my brothers and the men I grew up with. They were just manly men, and a woman’s place was where you told her to be. And so I would always stand up to him. …And we fought like hell, and he showed his ass about it, rather than just letting life flow. He had to sue me. And, of course, that broke both our hears. And, you know, looking back on it now, he hated that he did that and has said so.”

from pages 83 to 86

“There was Patsy Cline and Loretta and Tammy and me,” Parton told Rolling Stone. “There were just very few of us, and they were all under the direction of men.”

from page 91

In the early 1980s, when Parton was in her thirties, she experienced her darkest period. a physical and emotional breakdown during which she pondered suicide.

…She didn’t need to kill herself, she wrote in her book, because she’d experienced what some cultures call a shamanic death. “By the grace of God,” she wrote, “I had [died] without experiencing it in the actual physical sense.”

from page 114 and 115

She told Reuters that Dollywood, which celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in 2016, is the most lucrative investment she ever made…

…Dollywood’s annual economic impact on East Tennessee, according to the researchers, is $1.5 billion….

Amid the launch of that venture, Parton managed to record one of the greatest collaborative albums of all time, 1987’s Trio, with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. Trio, which features incredible harmonies and defiantly country sound, won a Grammy and topped the Billboard country albums chart.

from page 117

Talking about Steel Magnolias:

…co-star Shirley MacLaine remembered Parton as a heroically easygoing presence in spite of stresses on set.

“It was really hot,” MacLaine said. “There was Dolly with a waist cincher no more than sixteen inches around and heels about two feet high and a wig that must have weighed twenty-three pounds. And she’s the only one who didn’t sweat. She never complained about anything. Never. The rest of us were always complaining.”

from page 130

And here, Dolly is talking about co-star, Daryl Hannah:

“Daryl Hannah was the big surprise to me. She’s beautiful and sweet as anything, but lord, what an actress,” Parton said. “. . . I had no idea what a great talent that girl had, ’cause I’d always thought of her as the pretty, long-legged blonde, y’know, getting my head into the same kind of stereotyped thinking that annoys me when it happens to me. Daryl takes her acting very seriously and has a curious intelligence and intuition about her. Rare.”

from page 131

Parton’s late-career decisions have revealed a commitment to authenticity over hit-making. Since going rogue with her own label in the early nineties, Parton has put out more than a dozen solo albums of new material. Some of it–released just as slick pop country acts like Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts were taking over the airwaves–is thoroughly blue-grass, including a 2001 cover of Collective Soul’s rock hit “Shine” that won her a Grammy.

from page 145

Dolly talking about her Dollywood:

…Parton’s impulse was to highlight the natural setting and working people that shaped her — keeping it local before local was cool. “I’m keen to maintain the soul of the place,” Parton told Bellows. “To celebrate God’s beauty–that means go for a nice walk, smell that air, feel the temperature, hold on to the sense of the moment, take a drift on a trail, look deeply into the stream. That means so much more than all the artifice in the world.”

from page 154

One truly problematic rhinestone in Parton’s business crown is Dixie Stampede, a dinner-theater experience that will celebrate its thirtieth year in 2018.

from page 158 (They dropped “Dixie” and it’s called “Stampede” after criticism in 2018 but still has a North vs. South theme.)

“…But, no, I don’t consider myself a feminist, not in the term that some people do, because I–I just think we all should be treated with respect.”

Her answer might break your heart if, like me, you speak the language of college-educated activists…

…In the context of her native class, Parton’s gift to young women is not a statement but an example. One wishes for both from a hero. But, if I could only have one of the two, I’d pick the latter.

from page 171

“Sometimes I like to run naked in the moonlight and the wind, on the little trail behind our house, when the honeysuckle blooms,” Parton wrote. “It’s a feeling of freedom, so close to God and nature.”

…”The full moon is my best time,” Parton wrote. “It’s a good feeling to have no makeup, no wig, no high heels, must my little stubby self. Just God’s little Dolly Parton again.”

…In Dolly, she counted three loves that most shaped her: God, music, and sex.

from page 176

Someday, I hope to see Dollywood. Natasha (former neighbor from Tennessee who also loves Dolly Parton) said I must go to Dollywood someday.

Fun little book about Dolly Parton. Dolly, you are a gift! Thank you! And thank you, Sarah Smarsh, for bringing a most remarkable woman, Dolly Parton, to life in your book.