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All hail Dolly Parton: Two new books offer insight into the icon

The music icon has a new book about her songwriting and its inspirations; another book looks at her beloved and complicated image.

Dolly Parton does it all, and does it in towering heels.

An icon of country music and a gem of pop culture for decades, at 74 she’s still a glamorous, glittering whirlwind — writing and performing music, acting, running a thriving business empire and sharing its fruits.

She didn’t just make a new Netflix holiday movie, Christmas on the Square (and write all the songs for it). While on the set, she saved a 9-year-old actor. The girl, Talia Hill, said on NPR this week she felt someone grab her just before she walked into the path of a vehicle. It was Parton. The girl said Parton told her, “‘Well, I am an angel, you know,’ ‘cause she plays an angel in the movie.”

That’s not the only angelic act of Parton’s to come to light lately. Long a generous philanthropist — her Imagination Library has given away 150 million books directly to children — she donated $1 million to development of the Moderna vaccine for the coronavirus.

She’s such a force of creativity and grace that former President Barack Obama was visibly shocked when Stephen Colbert asked him in a recent interview why he hadn’t given her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the national’s highest civilian honor.

“That was a screw-up,” Obama said. “I’m surprised. I think I assumed that she had already got one. That was incorrect. I’m surprised. She deserves one. I’ll call Biden.”

A medal for Dolly Parton: Now there’s something that could bring the country together.

Two new books — one by Parton, one about her — offer insight into the phenomenon that is Dolly.

· · ·

Dolly Parton’s public persona is so over-the-top and so beloved it’s easy to forget that all her success is built upon what she considers her greatest talent: songwriting.

Her new book, Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, is a rich reminder. In it, Parton writes about the inspirations for more than 150 of her songs. Laced with photographs, many from Parton’s personal archives, it adds up to a musical memoir of an extraordinary life, and a treat for her fans.

The book begins with Little Tiny Tasseltop, the first song she ever wrote — at age 6 — about a corncob doll she treasured. Parton describes her mother’s love of music, and notes that Mama was canny enough to save her precocious daughter’s lyrics.

Her charming account of writing Puppy Love, her first record, also includes a pretty amazing performance of it: her first appearance on the stage of the Grand Old Opry, at age 13, introduced by Johnny Cash. “I thought he was the sexiest thing there ever was,” Parton writes. ”It was the first time a man had ever made me feel like a woman.”

She has talked often about the origins of two of her biggest hits, Jolene and I Will Always Love You. Jolene — which has been recorded by more than 400 other musicians (and performed by countless drag queens and bar bands) — grew out of two sources, a meeting with a young fan who had that name and a flirtation Parton’s husband had with a bank teller. Parton won a Grammy for her 2016 version with Pentatonix.

I Will Always Love You was written as a breakup song, not with a lover but with Porter Wagoner, the country music star who gave Parton her big break and with whom she partnered professionally for years. (She writes that he cried the first time she played it for him.)

Parton recalls her regret in turning down an offer for I Will Always Love You from Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s infamous manager. Presley wanted to record the song, but Parker demanded half the publishing rights.

“I cried my eyes out,” she writes, “because I could just hear Elvis singing it. But sometimes you just have to stand your ground. Priscilla (Presley) told me years later that it was the song he sang to her when they were leaving the divorce courtroom. So that touched me even more.”

Parton took the song to the top of the charts herself twice, in 1974 and again in 1982. Then, in 1992, Whitney Houston recorded it. You might have heard that one.

Here is the most astounding thing about those two songs, though, and a testament to Parton’s songwriting genius. She writes, “It’s possible that Jolene and I Will Always Love You were written on the same day. When we were going through all my old tapes to put my songs on hard drives, we found that I Will Always Love You and Jolene were on the same cassette tape, back-to-back. I don’t know; I might have written Jolene later that night. When you write so much, you lose track of time, and I wrote so much back then.”

· · ·

Author Sarah Smarsh brings a triple perspective to her book, She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs. Smarsh is a journalist and scholar of economic inequality; her first book, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Like Parton, she grew up poor, in rural settings. And she is a flat-out Dolly fan.

Even though Parton starred in and wrote the theme song for the banner-waving feminist movie 9 to 5, she has always shimmied away from the label “feminist.” And her carefully contrived, hypersexual appearance — which she frankly says is based on the town prostitute whose looks dazzled her when she was a little girl — might seem at odds with the idea of valuing women for more than their bodies.

Smarsh writes about that in the context of the many women in her own life whose fierce independence and self-reliance embodied feminism — but who wouldn’t have labeled themselves that way, either.

One is the woman the book is dedicated to: “By the time she was thirty-two, my grandma Betty had divorced six men. The first one shot her, the second one kidnapped her son. The third one broke her jaw …”

Grandma Betty didn’t have money, or many other resources. What she had, Smarsh writes, was the power to leave — and that power is a theme she finds in many of Parton’s songs, a reason so many women at the bottom of the economic ladder love her.

Parton’s high hair, tight clothes, spiked heels and those astonishing trademark breasts are, Smarsh argues, a way of taking power, too. Her image answers the male gaze with an exaggeration of feminine sexiness so outrageous that it exposes and pokes fun at the shallowness of sexism.

“She was, perhaps,” Smarsh writes of Parton, “a third-wave feminist born a generation early, simultaneously defying gender norms and reveling in gender performance before that was a political act. Country girls like me were watching.”

[ Chronicle Books ]

Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics

By Dolly Parton with Robert K. Oermann

Chronicle, 380 pages, $50

[ Scribner ]

She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs

By Sarah Smarsh

Scribner, 208 pages, $22

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