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How Dolly Parton became a secular American saint

Why everyone loves Dolly now.

Dolly Parton at the Mill Run Theater in Niles, Illinois, in 1977.
Paul Natkin/Getty Images

“I’m sick of Dolly, ain’t you?” said Dolly Parton to the New York Times Magazine in 2020.

Few people are. Dolly Parton is in the midst of a career revival that has seen her hailed as a kind of secular country-pop saint. And what’s not to love about Dolly?

Dolly is the living legend who sells out arena tours in her 70s. She’s the songwriting genius who wrote “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” on the same day. In recent decades, feminists have begun to reclaim her as a feminist icon. She is an impeccably dressed glamour queen, a business titan whose brand includes her own theme park, a philanthropist whose literacy program has sent free books to millions of children, and on top of all that she helped fund Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine — and then refused to jump the line to get a dose early. She is so beloved that WNYC devoted a full podcast series to investigating how a single figure could be adored by both blue and red states.

Dolly Parton is, as the New York Times put it in 2019, the rare musical icon who is able to “get her victory lap while she’s still around to bask in the glory.”

Dolly Parton arrives in London in 1977.
Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

But Parton knew what she was talking about when she suggested to the New York Times last fall that people were starting to get sick of her. She has now achieved the sort of hysterical and highly trendy adoration that can shade into overexposure in the blink of an eye — even for a legend with a reputation as durable as Dolly Parton’s. The pressure on Dolly Parton to be the single person who can unite a fractured America is so high, there is a slow and uneasy creep of incipient backlash all around her.

There was the discontent after Parton reworked her iconic “9 to 5” worker’s anthem into “5 to 9” to honor the side hustle for a Super Bowl ad. There are the whispers about the dinner show that used to be called Dolly’s Dixie Stampede. There is concern that the labor conditions at Dollywood aren’t ideal.

Dolly Parton is beloved because she has devoted her career to standing for love. And, usefully, she is willing to be ambiguous about what exactly that love means and how much it includes people that those on different sides of the political aisle consider their enemies. But in a post-Trump America, is Dolly Parton’s love enough?

“If I was trying to really impress men or be totally sexy, then I would dress differently”

Dolly Parton wasn’t always so uncontroversially adored. She spent much of her early career worshipped by her country base while the rest of the country treated her as a walking boob joke, or even less than that. In her 2020 study of Parton’s career, She Come By It Natural, Sarah Smarsh notes that in the 1970s and ’80s, during interviews with Barbara Walters and Oprah, both interviewers “asked [Parton] to stand up so they could point out, without humor, that she looked like a tramp.”

But in recent decades, everything that makes Dolly Dolly has swung back into trend. “One reason Parton’s approval rating is so high, though” Lindsay Zoladz posited in the New York Times in 2019, “is that all the attributes that used to set her up for criticism — the outrageous, hyper-femme style; the unapologetic business savvy needed to pull off her late-70s pop crossover; even the so-what acknowledgment of her own cosmetic surgery — are no longer taboo.”

Dolly Parton often explains that she modeled her look after the town tramp, who as a small child she thought was the most beautiful person she’d ever seen, and that she knows straight men don’t find it attractive and doesn’t care. “If I was trying to really impress men or be totally sexy, then I would dress differently,” she told Playboy in 1978. But why bother? “I’m already married and he don’t mind how I look.”

An undated image of Dolly Parton in a fuchsia suit.
Library of Congress, Music Division

For decades, this acknowledgment played as tacky or trashy. But in the 2010s, it came to be seen as empowering, even feminist: Dolly dresses for herself, not the male gaze. And Dolly’s self is a celebration of the artificiality of femininity and glamour, a finding of authenticity in what is fake. That’s downright avant-garde.

Moreover, Parton’s hard-nosed and palpable ambition might have once been seen as cynical. But in today’s rise-and-grind culture, they are aspirational. Dolly knows where the money is, and she follows it. Who can fault her for that?

Parton’s 21st-century career revival got an extra assist when she brought in internet-savvy new management in 2004. Up to that point, she had no website and little merchandise, and when she toured, her ticket sales were in the low thousands per venue. Then she hired Danny Nozell, who often says in interviews that he strategically charted a new generation of Dolly fans through a combination of targeted touring, TV marketing, and “heavy viral advertising.” (This strategy perhaps explains the number of really very good Dolly Parton memes out there.)

By 2006, Parton’s tours were selling out again. In 2009, she started selling out stadiums. In 2014, she headlined the Glastonbury Festival.

So as the zeitgeist shifted into a mode more receptive to Dolly Parton’s genius than previous decades had been, she was prepared to meet it. The mainstream embraced Dolly Parton, and she embraced it back.

In Come By It Natural, Smarsh describes seeing a bunch of cynical New Yorkers live tweet Dolly’s Pure and Simple concert tour in 2016:

“That majestic bitch just started playing a goddamn PANFLUTE [sic],” one tweeted.

“Dolly Parton, sitting in a pew onstage, just got a stadium full of Nyers to shout ‘Amen,’ ” said another. And then: “Nothing says #Pride like a stadium full of gays singing ‘Here You Come Again’ with Dolly Parton.”

Suddenly two New York acquaintances I didn’t realize knew one another were tweeting an exchange.

“Her voice is perfect.”

“Dolly forever! Who knew she was such a storyteller?”

“About to fling myself at the stage.”

Smarsh, who grew up in rural Kansas — Dolly country — recalls being shocked to see such earnest Dolly Parton worship from these coastal elites. “I guess I figured that Dolly Parton would only be loved ironically in some places,” she writes.

But Dolly Parton forbids irony. That’s part of her magic. And for the past half-decade, coastal America and heartland America alike have loved her fully, earnestly, and unironically.

“Really, who could fail to love Dolly Parton?”

To love Dolly Parton is to love her image, which is simultaneously unchanging and evolving, over-the-top obvious and opaque.

“There is no aura of mystery … about Dolly Parton,” wrote Roger Ebert in 1980, as he interviewed Parton on the 9 to 5 press tour. “What you see is what you get.”

But as the interview continued, Ebert’s sense of who Dolly was shifted. She seemed perfectly authentic, but also somehow fictional. “She speaks in that cornball Southern accent, but with perfect clarity and timing, so that she isn’t just answering a question, she’s presenting a character, she’s onstage,” he wrote. “A fascinating phenomenon took place among the journalists at the table. Only moments ago, they were asking routine questions. Now they’d been enlisted as part of the act. They were falling into the rhythm of the performance, feeding her straight lines.”

Parton’s sense of the character she was playing was so strong that everyone else had to play along, too. What else do you do when faced with Dolly Parton?

It’s not that she’s doing “Dolly Parton” as a bit, exactly. Dolly exudes authenticity. But she does seem to have a clear sense that when wielded strategically, her outrageous public persona can offer plenty of cover to shelter behind.

This contradiction is part of the dance Parton has done throughout her career. She shows up in her teased wigs and plunging necklines, makes a boob joke before anyone else can make it (“Now that we’ve got that off our chest!” is a recurring Dolly-ism), and appears to be entirely straightforward and understandable. It’s only after she’s done talking that you realize how much she’s successfully hidden away.

For example: her husband Carl Thomas Dean, to whom she’s been married since 1966 and who is almost never photographed in public. Her political beliefs, which, outside of a vocal support for LGBTQ rights, remain a mystery (she will not discuss Trump). Her private life.

“Her physical appearance has always seemed to me like a metaphor for her actual person,” wrote Hadley Freeman in the Guardian in 2019: “she gives a lot of good — and distracting — front, but the reality is definitely obscured.”

In the absence of reality, rumors flourish: that Parton’s arms are secretly covered in tattoos. That no one has ever seen her real hair. But as reality remains unknowable, Parton keeps finding new and fascinating angles in her elaborate star image for the public to play with.

“She doesn’t reinvent herself but instead periodically turns her prismatic image so that it reflects a different light,” argued the New York Times Magazine in 2020. At the time, the part of Dolly’s identity that was most in the light was her work as a songwriter, which is why you probably heard often last year that she wrote “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene” in the same day. This year, with Covid-19 vaccines all over the news, it’s her work as a philanthropist that is most often in the headlines.

And as Parton’s image shifts, there’s one idea that keeps glittering at the center of her star, almost as constant as her stylized femininity. Throughout her career, in profile after profile, people who talk to Dolly Parton come away talking about an aura of love that surrounds her. This aura is, perhaps, the visceral sense that Parton is being entirely honest when she says, as she often does, that she “loves everybody and wants everybody to love me.”

In 2008, Roger Ebert returned to his 1980 Dolly Parton profile, noting that it had missed something he considered very important: her presence, which he writes “enveloped” him. “This had nothing to do with sex appeal,” he says. “Far from it. It was as if I were being mesmerized by a benevolent power. I left the room in a cloud of good feeling.”

Dolly Parton hugs Mick Jagger backstage after a performance in New York in 1977.
Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images
Emmylou Harris, left, and Linda Ronstadt present Dolly Parton with the MusiCares Person of the Year award in 2018.
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Ebert adds that when he spoke with his writing partner Gene Siskel about Parton the next day, Siskel reported the same feeling: “This will sound crazy,” he said, “but when I was interviewing Dolly Parton, I almost felt like she had healing powers.”

“Really, who could fail to love Dolly Parton?” mused the Guardian in 2011. “Well, aside from the Ku Klux Klan who, as if to confirm that it had a combined IQ in the single digits, has held demonstrations at Parton’s theme park, the inevitably named Dollywood, because of her annual Gay Day.”

“I say this with humility and as someone who is not a believer,” Dolly Parton’s America host Jad Abumrad told Billboard in 2019: “There’s something very Christ-like about her.”

But America in the 21st century is no time for a secular pop saint. And there’s a dark side to Dolly’s ability to appeal, Christ-like, to all people at all times.

“I don’t want to offend anybody. This is a business.”

The first suggestion of a Trump-era backlash to Dolly Parton came in 2017, with the tale of the attraction that was then called Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede.

“Advertised as an ‘extraordinary dinner show … pitting North against South in a friendly and fun rivalry [link removed],’ Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede is the Lost Cause of the Confederacy meets Cirque du Soleil,” wrote Aisha Harris in a viral article for Slate. “It’s a lily-white kitsch extravaganza that play-acts the Civil War but never once mentions slavery.”

In the Dixie Stampede, racing piglets named Robert E. Lee and Scarlett O’Hara faced off against piglets named Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, while the cheering audience was instructed to pick a side. The bathrooms featured a white sign on one door saying “Southerners Only” and a black sign on the other saying “Northerners Only.”

“This was, at best, horrifyingly tone-deaf,” Harris concluded.

Shortly after Harris’s article came out, the attraction changed. While the retitled “Dolly Parton’s Stampede” continues to market itself as a rivalry between North and South, it no longer includes references to the Civil War, and its antebellum nostalgia has been transformed into Gilded Age nostalgia. The restrooms now have a kitschy cowboy theme. (A “history” lesson involving magical Indigenous people, however, remains.)

“There’s such a thing as innocent ignorance, and so many of us are guilty of that,” Parton said to Billboard of the controversy in 2020. “When they said ‘Dixie’ was an offensive word, I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to offend anybody. This is a business. We’ll just call it The Stampede.’ As soon as you realize that [something] is a problem, you should fix it. Don’t be a dumbass. That’s where my heart is. I would never dream of hurting anybody on purpose.”

Parton was speaking to Billboard in July 2020 as the country was engulfed in protests following the police killing of George Floyd. The interviewer asked her what she thought of the movement.

“I understand people having to make themselves known and felt and seen,” Parton said. “And of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No!”

This kind of deft political quasi-answer is the sort of move Parton’s been pulling her entire career. She expresses empathy rather than solidarity — she understands why people have to make themselves known, even if she’s not showing up at a protest herself — and she affirms that she loves everybody. And since she loves everybody, of course their lives matter.

When Parton happens to offend, as she did with the Dixie Stampede, it’s an accident. And when she rebranded the Stampede, she presented it both as a decision in keeping with good Southern manners (she doesn’t want to offend) and a practical business decision that no one should take personally. Her actual thoughts on the antebellum nostalgia in which the original attraction trafficked she kept to herself.

“I’ve got as many Republican friends as I’ve got Democrat friends and I just don’t like voicing my opinion on things,” she told the Guardian in 2019. “I’ve seen things before, like the Dixie Chicks. You can ruin a career for speaking out.”

Parton meets any attempt to force her hand at a political statement with a quick and charming two-step. At the 2017 Emmy Awards, she reunited with her 9 to 5 co-stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin to present the award for Best Supporting Actor, only to find Fonda and Tomlin united in speaking out against Donald Trump.

Jane Fonda, left, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin seen together promoting 9 to 5 in 1980.
Wally Fong/AP

“Back in 1980, when we made that movie, we refused to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot,” Fonda said, quoting one of the repeated lines of 9 to 5.

“And it’s true in 2017 we still refuse to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot,” Tomlin said, to vociferous applause.

Parton, between Tomlin and Fonda, went wide-eyed and took a step back from the microphone, although she continued smiling gamely. Fonda threw an arm around Parton’s shoulders as she went on with award show patter about best supporting actors, and then Parton stepped forward with her go-to deflection move: a boob joke.

“Well, I know about support,” she cracked, gesturing to her chest. “Hadn’t been for good support, Shock and Awe here would be more like Flopsy and Droopsy!” Then she informed the crowd that she was sure Tomlin had been referring to the villainous 9 to 5 boss Mr. Hart with that little quip. “How about a shoutout for [Hart actor] Dabney Coleman out there?” And finally, just for good measure, she threw in a sex joke, too. “I’m just hoping that I’m going to get one of those Grace and Frankie vibrators in my swag bag tonight.”

“I just did not want everybody to think that whatever they think is what I think,” Parton told the Guardian of the incident in 2019. “I don’t really like getting up on TV and saying political things. I don’t even want to make a deal out of it, but I want people to know I’m my own individual self. Even though [Fonda, Tomlin, and I] may agree on a whole lot of things — and they may have more agreement [between] themselves because they’ve been together for longer — I still have my own thoughts and my own way of doing things. It’s not a matter of being disrespectful, it’s just, OK, that’s what they said, I’m not getting involved in it.”

Parton’s response to Tomlin and Fonda’s anti-Trump statement functions as a sort of Rorschach test for the viewer: You can read whatever you like into it.

“First off, Dolly Parton didn’t do anything wrong. I guess some wanted her to spit in Lily’s Tomlin’s face for disrespect, but guess what, that’s not Dolly’s style,” read a blog post on Saving Country Music arguing that Trump-supporting Dolly fans had nothing to be angry about. “So you know, get the hell over it. Dolly Parton is a gift bestowed to us otherwise downtrodden and depressed apes moving about the crust of the godforsaken earth with slumped shoulders, looking for meaning and respite from boredom, and I’ll be damned if a bunch of tight asses will run her down for something she didn’t do.”

Meanwhile, in She Come By It Natural, Smarsh reads Parton’s vibrator joke as subversively feminist, and subliminally anti-Trump in its own way. “Hers was the least directly political comment of the three,” Smarsh writes. “It was also the one most assured to vex a man like Donald Trump — in whose eyes women exist for his pleasure, diminish in value as they age, and need a man to achieve sexual pleasure. What’s more anti-Trump than a rich seventy-one-year-old woman fantasizing about a sex toy on national television after his name was invoked?”

Parton’s refusal to take any explicit public political stance has served her well for most of her career. Unlike younger stars, like Taylor Swift, she took little heat for refusing to endorse Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in the 2016 election. When she said she’d be happy to stand behind Clinton “if she gets it” before Clinton had officially clinched the Democratic nomination, Parton was quick to clarify herself: She meant that if Clinton became president, Parton would support her whole-heartedly. Then she threw in another boob joke.

“I try not to get political,” she said, “but if I am, I might as well just run myself ’cause I’ve got the hair for it, it’s huge, and they could always use more boobs in the race.”

“Both-sides-ism rarely feels as benevolent as it does when coming from Parton,” mused the New York Times in 2019.

But as Parton’s 21st-century career revival continues, viewers are willing to see more sinister undertones in her “both-sides-ism.” After all, what do we do when “both sides” includes neo-Nazis and armed insurrectionists waving Confederate flags at the Capitol?

In a close reading of Parton’s career on Longreads in 2018, Jessica Wilkerson grapples with her own lifelong Dolly fandom, and specifically with the way the idea of whiteness underlies Dolly’s image. “She’s embraced by feminists and queer folks at the same time she is declared a queen by Confederate apologists,” Wilkerson writes. “Dolly-as-mountain-girl anchors her to an ancestral white home in the imaginations of white people, while her class-conscious and gender-transgressive performance of whiteness becomes a signifier for white progressives who embrace gender fluidity and working-class iconolatry.”

In Wilkerson’s reading, Dolly is able to flirt with both sides of the political aisle — but at a cost. “Dolly Parton has built her empire on and with the debris of old, racist amusements and wrapped it in working-class signifiers and feminist politics,” Wilkerson concludes, nodding to Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. “I ignored that fact for a long time because it didn’t fit the script of the feminist, working-class heroine I had conjured. But I also ignored how others’ attachment to Dolly is exactly because of her embrace of Dixie and her complex celebration of whiteness. And I have ignored how whiteness clings.”

Elsewhere in the article, Wilkerson investigates labor conditions at Dollywood, which Parton established in her hometown to bring jobs back to the area. Labor conditions there, Wilkerson finds, are not Edenic: It’s hard work, low pay (although above minimum wage), and patchy benefits.

“Dolly Parton promised jobs to her community; she did not promise well-paying jobs,” Wilkerson writes. “And while Dollywood does not pay the worst wages in Sevier County or in the theme park industry, the wages are significantly lower than those they replaced as the economy shifted from manufacturing to tourism.”

The idea that Parton’s theme park is not a labor paradise is probably not enough to get Dolly Parton canceled. Neither is the idea that she refuses to talk politics in public, or that she allows racists to like her, or that she rewrote her labor rights anthem to help sell Squarespace. But it is the sort of thing that makes the reflexively trendy worship of Dolly — like a recent petition to replace all Confederate monuments in Tennessee with statues of Dolly, “the ‘Jesus of Appalachia’” — start to feel a little lazy, even cartoonish.

Dolly Parton in 1978.
Chris Walter/WireImage via Getty Images

Dolly Parton is a brilliant artist, and she also seems to be a nice lady who is doubtless doing her best for all her many fans. But asking her to solve America’s fractured social landscape and calling her Jesus is putting a lot on her. It’s putting a lot on anyone. And Parton knows it.

Parton’s internet-savvy management is well aware of the potential damage it might do even to a living legend of Dolly’s stature for her to court overexposure. Last November, Novell told the New York Times that Parton’s team planned to pull back from the public eye in 2021, “to avoid oversaturating the market.”

Not long after, the news broke that Parton had helped fund Moderna’s Covid vaccine. Dolly Parton, it seems, just can’t help but keep giving us all what we want.

In January, the Tennessee state legislature considered a bill to put up a statue of Parton on the Capitol grounds. “At this point in history, is there a better example, not just in America but in the world, of a leader that is [a] kind, decent, passionate human being?” posited Democratic Rep. John Mark Windle. ”[She’s] a passionate person who loves everyone, and everyone loves her.”

Parton asked the legislature to remove the bill from consideration. “Given all that is going on in the world,” she said in a statement, “I don’t think putting me on a pedestal is appropriate at this time.”

So perhaps it’s up to the public, after all, to let Dolly take a break, and to let her leave us alone long enough for us to stop worshipping her and start missing her.

But will we? Or will we keep craving ever more Dolly Parton? Will we always keep asking her to come back to heal our wounds?

Correction, March 3: An earlier version of this story misstated the cause of George Floyd’s death.

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