Reviewed by Basil Ransome Davies
Forty years ago I spent some time on the motel strip at Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, to do some hiking in the magnificent Smoky Mountains. At that time the local ‘iconic’ figure was the late Sheriff Buford Pusser, a former wrestler turned gung-ho crimefighting lawman whose wife had been murdered in an attempt on his life. Pusser himself had subsequently been killed in an auto accident (perhaps not stone cold sober) and the ’Death Car’, a Corvette, could be viewed at the Buford Pusser Museum, a piece of Dixie Americana.
I didn’t bother. It appeared to be a slightly desperate offering of small-town tourist bait. But since the 1980s Pigeon Forge, close to Dolly Parton’s birthplace, has become a major tourist magnet – attracting, before Covid struck, three million visitors a year, most lured by the Dollywood theme park which employs a workforce of 4.000. And if anyone deserves such immense popular tribute, Dolly Parton does. Sarah Smarsh’s book is described as a ‘praise song’ in a review quoted on the front cover, and it is undeniably that: a fan letter, a celebration of an accomplished woman, an exceptionally gifted songwriter and performer. It is can also be read as a contemporary replay of the American dream, a luck-and-pluck tale worthy of Horatio Alger.
The Guardian, for which she has contributed a number of reports, describes the author as ‘a journalist and essayist covering socioeconomic class in the US’. Her partly autobiographical Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, was a finalist in the National Book Awards in 2018. Her credentials as a serious writer are secure. She Come By It Natural is therefore thoughtful analysis as well as heartfelt fan mail, assembled and edited from previously published pieces elsewhere, including the Guardian, which, perhaps excuses some of its repetitions.
Smarsh partitions Dolly’s success story into four main phases, each one subdivided by headers for ease of presentation, from embodying ‘the working woman’s fight’ to achieving ‘iconic status’. It’s an impressive ascent, but just as Alger’s Ragged Dick needed a ‘worldly but warmhearted patron’ to assist his rise, so Dolly needed Porter Wagoner. Wagoner’s hugely popular Country-based tv show was a vital step up for a young singer and joining it boosted Dolly’s earnings while giving her wider exposure. Their professional relationship outlasted the initial five-year contract and though there were recurring differences (including litigation) a friendship continued till his death in 2007. Here was a fatherly mentor the value of whose experience and contacts in the Nashville music establishment were always acknowledged by Dolly. She has also referred to him as a ‘male chauvinist pig’.
That is just one of the binaries, or ambivalent situations, adopted by Smarsh to shape her reportage and the questions it raises. How do you balance Wagoner’s control-freakery and often patronising attitude against his opening of the door for Dolly to the big time, indeed world-wide fame, a huge, adoring fan base and great wealth? Equally, how do you reconcile Dolly the trailblazer, achieving woman and role model (she has disavowed the term ‘feminist’) with the opportunist crowd-pleaser who understands that many of her followers are scarcely right-on lefties and stays off politics? Smarsh isn’t afraid to face contradictions, even if she tends to resolve them in Dolly’s favour – sometimes I feel a little too easily, though she’s not writing for the nuanced Guardian here. It can lead to bizarre sentences such as ‘What’s more anti-Trump than a rich seventy-one-year-old woman fantasizing about a sex toy on national television [Dolly’s vibrator joke at the 2017 Emmy Awards] when his name was invoked?’ Thus the trashy look, the wigs and makeup, even the plastic surgery to preserve the image, not usually associated with a progressive, independent female choice, are seen as ‘redeemed’ since they announce Dolly’s loyalty to the poor-white identity of her background.
So be it. The author parallels her own ‘journey’ from rural poverty to an established and successful place in the world with Dolly’s, but also with the generality of women who, as the book’s subtitle puts it, ’lived her songs’. This is bound to be a contentious area, when women resort to coping and self-sacrificial strategies to survive an unliberated existence. Few can expect to be the multimillionaire idols of adoring followers. But the sharing of experience through art has always been a vital feature of human societies. It can be inspiring and revelatory. At the very least it can help people feel less alone. That applies to a musical genre which has been bad-repped as ‘white-trash’ or ‘hillbilly’, as in the old joke which has a broadcaster proclaiming, ’You shouldn’t derogate people who like Country music. And for people who like Country music, “derogate” means “put down”.’
In addressing the disconnect, but potential nexus, between the poor and the unlettered who ‘live’ the often unhappy content of a Country song and the intellectual agendas drafted by feminist academics – who do not speak with a single voice, it must be remembered – Smarsh helps to demystify the gender politics of Country music. It helps that she is an enthusiast, challenging cultural snobbery, as well as an educated cultural diagnostician. If that makes her, at times, gushing, I don’t mind; I’m a Country buff too, in the way I am an aficionado of melodrama. Both prioritise emotion. I like bluesy numbers that tell stories and that credit the darkness and sadness of ordinary, muddled or oppressed lives as well as their deserving moments of joyful pleasure. The so-called ‘white man’s blues’ has always had its female stars – Loretta Lynn, Pasty Cline, Billy Jo Spears, the great Bobby Gentry who withdrew from the scene at forty – and it has performed a significant role in the cross-fertilisation of popular music styles which has proved so wonderfully creative. With the end of the horrific Trump presidency, Dolly’s Country-pop may project a more affirmative social and professional climate for women singers, songwriters and domestic/workplace heavy lifters alike. Let’s hope so. Go, Dolly!
Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.
Sarah Smarsh, She Come By It Natural (Scribner, 2020). 978-1911590514, 187pp., paperback.
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