Bibliophile | ‘She Come By It Natural’ is a love letter to Dolly Parton

She Come By It Natural
by Sarah Smarsh
Pushkin Press

Sarah Smarsh has written a love letter to Dolly Parton that thanks her for her unique cultural presence. Raised by her mother and her grandmother, Smarsh looks her life, and the lives of her mother and grandmother, using Parton’s insights about class, gender and place. Parton’s songs communicated directly to their experiences and validated their lives.

Parton was the first in her family to graduate from high school and her classmates laughed at her when she said that she was going to Nashville to become a star – but she caught the bus the next day anyway, with everything she owned in matching luggage in the form of bags from the local supermarket.

Born into rural poverty in 1946, Parton was the fourth of twelve children. She envied the glamorous women in magazines who didn’t look as if they worked in the fields or have to take a ‘spit bah’ in a dishpan, or experience male violence. She escaped the physical labour of the land but arrived in a male-dominated world that had few protections.

Although she was short on book learning, she was long on smarts. Smarsh points out that, as a singer/songwriter who is known more for her physical assets, Parton has been woefully underestimated and undervalued but now well into her seventies, Dolly Parton is a “universally recognised as a creative genius with a goddess-sized heart”.

By the mid eighties, Parton has conquered a man’s world the best way a woman could but she found it “a place that would treat her like dirt even when she was on top”. The only thing left to do was to create her own world. At a time when most rural women didn’t know who Gloria Steinman was, they knew the lyrics to Parton’s songs.

While women of privilege spoke about equality, Parton sang about women stuck in places of cultural and economic subjugation and leaving impossible situations. She sang to poor women, Black women, gay women, transgender women and three generations of women in Smarsh’s family who recognised themselves.

Parton has kept her “poor country vision of glamour” style and, after more than 50 years in the music business, publishing more than three thousand songs and selling over 100 million albums, Smarsh reveals that there is so much more to this cultural icon. Her book is a chance to fall even more in love with Dolly Parton.

Lezly Herbert

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