12 of ’19: Dolly Parton’s America

Jad Abumrad, the host of Dolly Parton’s America podcast, grew up in East Tennessee and describes Dolly’s presence when he was a child there as like a fact of life. He had no opinion about her, only that he always was aware that she was there, like a life force that you don’t even think twice to acknowledge, but could never imagine an existence without it. Though not as strong as in her native region, this wasn’t much different for those of us growing up in East Texas in the early 80’s.

The thing about living in that time, and in a family that listened primarily to country music, is that I have access to almost all the iterations of Dolly. I knew about Porter Wagner and The Grand Ole Opry, but my childhood was marked by Dolly’s emergence into the wider world of entertainment, beyond Nashville. I was six when 9 to 5 was released, and can vaguely remember knowing how it made my mom feel. I was 8 when The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was released, and can clearly remember how I felt about it, even though I never saw anything beyond movie posters. And I’ve never known a time when I didn’t know I Will Always Love You, Jolene, and Dolly’s cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ Mule Skinner Blues.

In Dolly Parton’s America, Abumrad explores the phenomenon of Dolly, particularly the part about how EVERYONE loves her. I’ve heard it said that Dolly and Mr. Rogers are basically the only universally beloved people in our culture, and I think I agree. Yet the podcast doesn’t shy away from challenging questions raised by Dolly’s prominence– Race, sex, and politics all play a role, and the podcast exposes how she has miraculously thread the needle of all those subjects and has come out, essentially, not just unscathed, but revered almost as a saint. I’m not an avid podcast listener, but this one was worth my time. I especially loved the episode on Jolene, and the description of Dolly’s “Sad Ass Songs” period.

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