Think about the best day of your professional life. Now think about this: Dolly Parton wrote “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” on the same day. Puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?
You don’t need me to tell you Parton is an American treasure, an artist whose trailblazing achievements, peerless artistry, joyous effervescence and universal lovability more than justify her outsized persona. She is one of the world’s few unifying cultural figures, someone who reflects back to us a little bit of the world as we see it.
This is the kind of stuff we tend to say about beloved icons after they die, which is too bad. Fortunately, America seems to be engaging in an overdue Parton renaissance (Dollyssaince?) right as the star, 73, is at the peak of her career’s victory-lap stage, and I’m 1000 percent here for it.
That’s thanks in part to a delightful new podcast series from the producers of “Radiolab.” One of the show’s hosts, Jad Abumrad, interviewed Parton for what he thought would be a single episode of “Radiolab” or some other show. He ended up following her for two years and editing their conversations into its own series of nine hour-long episodes about Parton the secular saint, the “legend at the crossroads of America’s culture wars.” It’s called “Dolly Parton’s America,” as in: we just live in it.
Abumrad launches the series by explaining the concept of Dolly Moments — times when those of us who obviously know Parton’s music, but haven’t thought of her in years, are suddenly overwhelmed by her greatness. For Abumrad, it was attending a random Parton concert in 2016, right as the presidential campaign was becoming nasty, and hearing fans of all generations and political persuasions passionately declaring Dolly as their own.
My Dolly Moment was seeing the video of her showstopping 2014 set at the Glastonbury Festival in the U.K., where she reduced a muddy field of indie-rock fans to gibbering children. She performed impeccable versions of hits like “Islands In the Stream,” “Coat of Many Colors” and “9 to 5,” then did something extraordinary.
Her band vamped while she played fiery licks on a banjo and fiddle, then pulled out a tiny saxophone and ripped through the melody of “Yakety Sax.” She asked the crowd if they wanted to hear her play it backwards. When they roared in approval, she spun around, danced suggestively, and played the melody again. It was the corniest thing, and everybody lost their minds — like, where have we been this entire time?
As “Dolly Parton’s America” explains, Parton — as a person, a concept and a brand — has evolved in the past half-century in ways that parallel American life. She launched her career in the 1960s and ‘70s “Mad Men” era as the perky side performer to a male TV star. In the 1980s and ‘90s, when I grew up, Parton was a walking boob-job punchline who literally lived in a theme park created in her own image.
But now, she’s emerged as something of a pioneering icon, an enduring craftswoman, a sharp entrepreneur, a party crasher at the music industry’s boys’ club. But Parton bristles in the first episode when Abumrad asks if she’s a feminist, a reaction that has more to do with how the idea of feminism has evolved than whether or not she qualifies by today’s terms.
Not that I’m an authority who or who isn’t a feminist, but it’s difficult now to think of Parton as anything but. Here’s a writer whose best early songs were female-focused subversions of traditional country murder ballads. Here’s a woman forced to play along with all the male talk-show hosts eager to score laughs at the expense of her appearance, then outwitted and outlasted them all. And now, finally, here’s a hero basking in the widespread love she’s more than earned.
The only remaining question is whether Dolly Parton’s America deserves her.