Dolly Parton was born in January ’46 in a cabin on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains – after which her sharecropper father paid the doctor who delivered her with a bag of grain. Sarah Smarsh’s rural Kansas upbringing involved a different kind of poverty, but in She Come By It Natural, it’s a unique lens through which she can examine her favourite country music superstar – for so long a kind of punchline, but now an icon with an assured legacy as a ‘sex symbol, creative genius, and philanthropic juggernaut’.
Smarsh draws on her own childhood, professional life, and relationships – particularly her bond with her ‘seen-it-all’ grandmother Betty, ‘the real life Dolly’ – to tease out the feminist dimensions in Dolly’s songs and in the way she leads her life. The title comes from Betty’s remark that Dolly ‘come by it natural’ – while Dolly has politely eschewed labels and movements, letting feminist wave after feminist wave pass her by, she in fact has always been a self-possessed woman, leading by example.
Any casual fan knows Dolly has never forgotten her ‘dirt poor’ roots, building her career on songs like Coat of Many Colors, but most will find some new wrinkle to admire here – for me, it’s the enormous energy she has poured into charity work since making her fortune. I liked the observation that Dolly’s cartoonish ‘backwoods Barbie’ look (modelled on the ‘town tramp’ she admired as a girl), so often ridiculed, is as much an expression of solidarity with the downtrodden as Johnny Cash’s grizzled ‘Man in Black’ persona was. “That’s the difference between being a man and a woman making a thoughtful statement with their clothes,” notes Smarsh.
The book is lifted from four articles first published in the roots music journal No Depression in 2017. Although a new foreword offers a cursory roll call of how Dolly and the world have moved on since, it made me wish the material had been reshaped and expanded. As it is, it doesn’t flow as well as it might, occasionally reintroducing concepts in a way that shouldn’t be necessary in a seamless book.
Perhaps in a rejigged version there would’ve been more passages like Smarsh’s perceptive analysis of the 1970 masterpiece Down From Dover. That song, the tale of a pregnant teenager abandoned by the baby’s father and then her family, is Dolly reckoning with ‘the ghosts of women’s fates she has escaped’ and comes from a southern Gothic seam in her early songwriting. I’d have liked more of these close readings of key recordings, which can unlock so many of the ideas Smarsh is interested in, including Dolly’s deep empathy and precious connection to her hardscrabble origins.