When I took a part-time job as a disc jockey for a country music station in 1984, there were some hard and fast rules. You always time your hour to get in the ads and mark them in the log. Songs in heavy rotation had to cycle through at least once during your shift. And never play songs by women back to back.
You would think, like turntables and album-oriented rock stations, that the rule about women artists would be a relic of the past. But check your local country radio dial and you’re likely to find it’s still true. In 2019 only 10 percent of country radio plays were by female singers.
Sarah Smarsh’s new book mentions that fact, but, like her wonderful 2018 memoir, Heartland, it’s more a celebration of resilient women than a commentary on continuing injustices, (though it is that, too). Smarsh is a overcomer herself, having found a place as a journalist and writer after a childhood of rural Kansas economic hardship. She talks about her story and the women in her life in the new book, but the real embodiment of the working woman’s fight for her is someone I used to play on those old turntables—Dolly Parton.
Dolly is having a moment in the culture right now as she is celebrated as a unifying figure with Oprah-esque levels of approval. Smarsh notes that the love being sent her way by those who might once have dismissed her as an Appalachian novelty act is gratifying. “It’s a magnificent thing to witness — an atonement countless women have deserved but never received, flowering while the woman is alive to see it.” (ix)
Smarsh’s book, She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs, is a reprinting of a four-part magazine series she wrote in 2016, before the latest Dolly revival. You get the highpoints of Parton’s life and career: the Smoky Mountain family that raised her, the long and tumultuous partnership with Porter Wagoner who called her his ‘lady singer,’ the sterling solo career, “Jolene,” 9 to 5, Dollywood. But you also get her resistance to the word ‘feminism’ and her disarming way of turning the tables on those who would set her course for her. “Parton fashioned herself as a ‘floozy’ not because she sought men’s approval but because sexualizing herself took control from men who otherwise would have done it for her,” Smarsh observes. (99)
Smarsh also interlaces her own experiences among working class women who saw their lives reflected in Dolly’s songs and attitude and loved her for it. Smarsh herself has gone on to work in realms with different discourses for female empowerment, but she doesn’t begrudge her Grandma Betty her Dolly cassette tapes. “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.” (171)
There is some hagiography here, but Smarsh is a master at keeping it real. She keeps humanity at the forefront and recognizes the struggle we all have to be real and the ways we fail. Even Dolly Parton. Commenting on Parton’s autobiography, Smarsh says, “In Dolly, she counted three loves that most shaped her: God, music, and sex…Parton, like her creative mother with a box of rags, has refashioned and sewn these themes together to create her own authentic life.” (176-7)
There are women who sing songs about such things. They ought to be heard back to back.