I was about five minutes into the first episode of the Dolly Parton’s America podcast when the goosebumps set in.
Little did I know that over the course of nine episodes, the Dolly Parton’s America podcast would take me on an emotional journey that would change not only the way I thought about Dolly, but the way I thought about my own life and my own childhood.
Dolly Parton’s America is hosted by Jad Abumrad and produced and reported by Shima Oliaee.
I, like host Abumrad, grew up in Tennessee. I lived about an hour outside of Dolly Parton’s hometown of Sevierville, meaning the essence of Dolly was pretty much ever-present in my life.
I listened to her music, watched her movies and practically grew up in her theme park. True story — my dad even blew a speaker blasting “9 to 5” on vinyl record.
But the consequence of growing up in Dolly’s world, just as Abumrad says in the podcast, is that you just don’t think about her much, as ironic as that might sound.
It’s like thinking about the air you breathe.
Sure, she was a big part of my world. But my world was small — and what little I did know about the world outside of East Tennessee mostly consisted of my New England cousins making fun of my accent, which, if I am being honest, made my world feel even smaller — and our culture, perhaps something to be ashamed of.
So naturally, I never stopped to think about the global impact of Dolly, or the fact that “Dolly’s World” might just expand far beyond the hills of small-town East Tennessee — which is exactly why this podcast had such an impact on me.
There is so much to unpack about “Saint Dolly”, and the podcast is truly a work of art. It’s hard to sum up everything in just one blog, but here are the biggest life lessons I took away from the series:
Life Lesson #1 — Be your own hero in the fairytale
Dolly grew up poor, often joking that her family didn’t have running water unless they’d “run and get it.”
Looking at her now, it’s impressive to think that she grew up in a tiny home with 11 siblings. But her humble start is a huge part of her story, a story which is ever-present throughout Dolly’s Pigeon Forge-based theme park, Dollywood.
Dollywood encompasses this simple Tennessee mountain dream – the woodsy atmosphere, the butterflies, the bluegrass music and even the coal-fired steam trains. It’s whimsical and fanciful. It’s Disney-esque.
Dolly admits in the podcast that she is “almost like a Cinderella story,” and that people want to picture her sweeping the hearth and wearing the glass slippers.
And the truth is, Dolly is a Cinderella story, but there is one important distinction between her and the classic Disney fairytale. She is her OWN prince AND her OWN fairy godmother. Let that sink in.
At Disney, you know the stories aren’t real. But at Dollywood, it’s less about fantasy, and more about reality. Dolly “rescued” herself, and that’s a story even Walt can’t compete with.
Life Lesson #2 — Learn to forgive
Most Dolly fans know the story about Porter Wagoner. It’s a chapter Dolly doesn’t seem to like to dwell on, but it tells one of the most touching stories of forgiveness in human history.
If you don’t know the story, here’s the short version: Dolly got her start on The Porter Wagoner Show. But she always knew she wanted to be more than his “girl singer” and wanted to leave. Wagoner didn’t want to let her go. She eventually wrote I Will Always Love You and famously sang it to him as a departure gift. It brought Wagoner to tears, and he let her go. However, he let his pride and disappointment get the best of him and began to defame Dolly, telling anyone who would listen that she was a horrible person. He then sued her for a million dollars.
But years later, when Wagoner fell on hard times, Dolly bought his publishing company – only to immediately GIVE it back to him.
She was even by his side when he was on his deathbed. Dolly acknowledges that he helped her start her career, even though he also tried to stifle it. Despite their complicated history, Dolly forgave him for saying those horrible things and for suing her during a vulnerable time in her life.
“Forgiveness is all there is,” she says.
Life Lesson #3 — Refuse to feel shamed
Dolly is always two steps ahead.
There are many examples of this throughout her career, even when she makes jokes at her own expense. To an untrained eye, it could almost make you think she doesn’t take herself seriously, until you realize that she’s just that many steps ahead of you. It’s her way of taking control.
“I know what they’re thinkin’,” she says. “So I’d rather say it before they do, so we get that off our chest.” Pun intended.
If people make a joke about her breasts, she makes a better one. And she does this time and time again.
The cloned sheep “Dolly” was her namesake because it was cloned from a mammary gland. At the time, scientist Ian Wilmut said, “Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell, and we couldn’t think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton’s.” In classic Dolly fashion, she invited the sheep to visit Dollywood.
And it goes beyond her appearance. For example, look at her song “Coat of Many Colors,” a song about a young Dolly being made fun of for her ratty clothes. But instead of feeling ashamed, Dolly chose to take pride in the coat that her mother worked so hard to make her, saying that she feels rich in love and wears it proudly. It’s a song about a young girl who is being told to feel shame, yet she simply refuses.
Dolly embraces everything about herself — from her strong Southern accent to her “trollop”-inspired look. She makes no apologies for who she is.
Personal note, since listening to the podcast, I don’t worry as much about hiding my own Southern accent. I have the same accent as Dolly, and that makes me feel proud.
Life Lesson #4 — Accept everyone, withhold judgement
Dolly is very open about her relationship with God. She also fully embraces her LGBTQ fans.
“God made us as we are,” Dolly says in the podcast. “Who we are is who we are. Whether you’re gay, straight, black, white, green or alien gray. We are who we are. I would just bow out if I wasn’t allowed to be me.”
She continues, “I hate the Christians that are so judgemental. … If we’re different, that’s fine. We’re still His.”
What’s also interesting is that she seems to take the high road in almost all aspects of life.
The podcast dissects her hit song “Jolene” and compares it to traditional “other woman” songs that we are used to hearing.
While female country artists singing about a cheating man is nothing new, Dolly takes that category and flips it on its head. Other artists refer to the “other woman” as a “bleached-blond tramp” (Carrie Underwood), a “no good, white trash ho” (Joey and Rory), or say that she better detour if she doesn’t want to go to “fist city” (Loretta Lynn). Dolly instead sings a beautiful ballad to the other woman. She calls her by name and describes her own vulnerability.
Your beauty is beyond compare
With flaming locks of auburn hair
With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green
Your smile is like a breath of spring
Your voice is soft like summer rain
And I cannot compete with you
It’s a genius way of writing this all-too-familiar story. It’s haunting, beautiful, and it brings a whole new level of poetry to one of my already-favorite Dolly songs.
Life Lesson #5 — Stay above the noise
When Dolly wrote “9-5,” she created a political anthem for the decades. And then she stayed out of the politics behind it. She says the music was the most important aspect to her.
“I don’t do politics,” Dolly says. “I have too many fans on both sides of the fence. Of course, I have my opinion about everything. But I learned years ago to keep your mouth shut about things.”
So, she stays above any conflict. She knows she has fans on both sides of the aisle, and she simply refuses to cast anybody out. “I’m an entertainer,” she says. “I’m not here to play that game.”
And if she’s caught in a sticky situation? Usually, she’ll insert a boob joke.
“When all else fails, be funny. Or try to be funny.”
Sometimes, she gets criticism for her silence, too. But at the end of the day, she simply refuses to cast anyone out. This is probably one of the reasons that her global “Q score” ranks Dolly as almost number one in the category of least negative comments. Globally.
Another personal note, at this year’s family Christmas get-together, when my dad started to bring up politics, my sister was able to completely change the subject by talking about Dolly, saying, “Did you know Dolly doesn’t DO politics?” Dollytics works my friends.
Life Lesson #6 — The best kind of feminist is not a feminist at all
It’s ironic that the boob joke queen became a sort of icon for feminists. It’s also ironic because Dolly doesn’t seem to even like that label.
In the podcast, they describe Dolly as the “OG third-wave feminist.”
The first wave was women fighting for their rights in the early 1900s. The second wave came around the 70s and 80s, when women began rejecting traditional roles and downplaying their “femininity.” And it was during this time that Dolly was playing up her big boobs, big hair and rhinestone-encrusted dresses.
She seemed to take this attitude of: Oh, you have a problem with my tits? Here they are, hanging out, and you can deal with it while I make you my employee. The podcast describes it as more of a millennial-approach to feminism.
And that basically brings us to where we are today. True feminism is whatever you want it to be and supports all kinds of women — even if that means pushing up your boobs a little.
When asked if she’s a feminist, Dolly says no, and that she thinks of herself as “a woman in business.” But at the end of the day, there are feminists in theory and feminists in practice.
“That’s a good way of saying it,” Dolly says. “I live it.”
Dolly Parton’s America is hosted by Jad Abumrad and produced and reported by Shima Oliaee. Dolly Parton’s America is a co-production with OSM Audio and can be found wherever you get your podcasts. For more information, visit www.dollypartonsamerica.org. To support the podcast, go to www.dollypartonsamerica.org/donate.