Sad Ass Songs
DOLLY PARTON'S AMERICA - SAD ASS SONGS TRANSCRIPT
JAD: What is Dolly Parton’s America?
DOLLY PARTON: Well, Dolly Parton’s America would be the same as Dolly Parton’s world.
JAD: Hey, I’m Jad Abumrad. Let me explain how I got here to a podcast about Dolly Parton. I grew up in Tennessee, which means I grew up in ...
DOLLY PARTON: Dolly Parton’s world.
JAD: Dolly’s world. She was everywhere. She was looking down at you from billboards, coming out of car radios. She was on commercials. She just infused the air. So as a consequence, I didn’t really think about her a lot. It’s a little bit like that joke, one fish says to another fish, "How’s the water today?" And the other fish says, "What’s water?" I was that second fish. She’d created this world, and I was just swimming through it. But then, a few things happened. 2016. I’m living in New York. Dolly is on tour. And she comes and does a stadium show here in Flushing, Queens. And just the level of excitement of people around me was, like, other-worldly. Everybody around me was like ...
PAMELA FOSTER: Dolly Parton is a goddess.
SUSAN HARLAN: She’s a saint.
FAN: To me, Dolly is a superstar who brings herself to the level of the people.
JAD: I was like, "Whoa, I -- I missed this."
SARAH SMARSH: So I was sitting in my home office, I was on Twitter, and ...
JAD: Writer Sarah Smarsh told me that her "Whoa" moment came around the same time when she was in Austin online, watching people live tweet that same Dolly show.
SARAH SMARSH: The people who were tweeting were all women. And one woman in particular, she said, "That majestic bitch just started playing a goddamn pan flute."
JAD: [laughs] That's the best tweet.
SARAH SMARSH: Pan flute was in all caps, which seemed important.
JAD: And all this was happening, the pan flute, the tweeting, the touring, at exactly the moment when the 2016 election was turning very ugly.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Hillary Clinton: The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic ...]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Donald Trump: How do you lie to the FBI? And now you’re running for president.]
JAD: Like, she tore right through all of that noise. Through the general election and beyond. And I kept bumping into people who would describe the experience of being at a Dolly show as, like, standing in an alternate vision of America than what was unfolding on the TV.
JESSIE WILKERSON: I remember just standing out in the lobby and just people watching, because it was the most diverse place I’ve ever been. I was seeing a multi-racial audience. People wearing cowboy hats and boots. I was seeing people in drag. Church ladies. Lesbians holding hands. Little girls who were there with their families.
WAYNE BLEDSOE: You had a whole audience of people who absolutely their philosophies were in opposition to each other co-mingling, and everybody is polite to each other.
JAD: So that was one thing that caught my attention. That in this very divided moment, Dolly seems to maybe be a kind of unifier. And after doing a little poking around, the data does kind of bear this out. If you look at her global Q Score, this is a measure of how well people think about your brand, globally. What they do is they assemble a very diverse sample of people, they ask them a bunch of questions, and out of all of these different brands that are out there, all these different performers, she is in the top 10 globally in terms of everybody's favorites. But she's almost number one when it comes to lack of negatives, if that makes any sense. Like, people have the least amount of negative things to say about Dolly Parton than anyone besides maybe Adele. And by the way, this Q Score data is fascinating. I haven't dug into it too much so I can't claim to fully understand it, but Beyoncé? Number 52. What? Lady Gaga, number 41. It's wild. Anyhow, the second thing that happened that made this series possible, I'll be honest with you guys, was a strange twist of fate.
[NEWS CLIP: Dolly Parton suffered a few minor injuries in a car crash. The accident happened just after noon in Nashville on Monday.]
JAD: 2013, Dolly Parton gets into a minor car accident, ends up at Vanderbilt Hospital. And one of the people who ends up giving her medical advice is my dad. And they became friends. She shared this with me, by the way, and was totally fine with me sharing it. But it was very unexpected. Like, my dad is not a doctor-to-the-stars kind of person. He’s just a Lebanese guy in Tennessee. But they were friends suddenly. And so when I started getting curious about Dolly as maybe the subject of a story, I was like, "You know what, Dad? I need you to introduce me."
JAD: And he did. I sat down to talk with her, to ask her about this Dolly moment, how she thinks about it. Does she consider herself the grand unifier? Does that include everyone? With all these questions, I thought maybe I would get a story out of it or two. But what ended up happening is, in simply talking with her about her life and then talking with people about her, I fell into so many different rabbit holes. Profound questions of America kind of rabbit holes. And I was like, "You know what? I think we gotta make nine." We're gonna take nine trips into the Dollyverse. This is Dolly Parton's America. I'm Jad Abumrad. Let's start!
JAD: I first spoke to Dolly Parton in November of 2017.
DOLLY PARTON: My chair's squeaking.
ENGINEER: That’s the squeaky one. Right.
DOLLY PARTON: Oh, I know the squeaky chair gets the grease, but we don't have time for a lube job today. We got a show to do.
JAD: We sat down in a studio in Nashville in a squeaky chair in front of a mic that unfortunately had a little bit of a buzz in it. Dolly had just come off of her Pure And Simple Tour.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: She captured the hearts of generations!]
JAD: That was the tour where she famously played the pan flute.
DOLLY PARTON: Oh, yeah. Just for show. I'm not great at any of it, but I can -- I can make a good show. Better take off the jewels before I mess up a good take.
JAD: I had heard you play 20-something instruments. Is that right?
DOLLY PARTON: Well, I play at 'em. [laughs] I don’t play any of them well. The guitar is my best one. But I play a lot of mountain instruments too. Dulcimer, autoharp, banjo, that kind of stuff.
JAD: And you play wind too. You play ...
DOLLY PARTON: Well, that's the penny whistle. We do a little bit of an Appalachian thing just we -- a little woodwind, but not -- it's just the mountain sounds, just not like something you'd learn or play in an orchestra. It's just got that old mountain sound.
JAD: Anyhow ...
DOLLY PARTON: Well, you know me. You just ask and I’ll just tell it as I know it, or as I feel it. What I want you to hear. [laughs]
JAD: So I decided to start the interview by playing her some stuff of hers.
JAD: I'd love to play some of your early stuff.
DOLLY PARTON: Okay.
JAD: This one, just tell me what comes to mind when you hear it.
[SONG: "A Gamble Either Way"]
DOLLY PARTON: [laughs]
JAD: What is that first line?
DOLLY PARTON: Oh, "Being born was the worst mistake I ever made. The doctor didn't spank me, he just slapped me in the face." [laughs] Well, as a writer, you want to come up -- you want to come up with the really good lines if you’re a really good songwriter.
JAD: Where does that come from?
DOLLY PARTON: That was really, really early on in those early, early days. Oh, I used to write a lot of sad ass songs.
JAD: Let me explain the reason I wanted to start with the sad ass songs. Growing up in the early '80s, I -- I mean, one of my main associations with Dolly before this project was that she was sort of a punchline. Or like, she was her own punchline. You know, like, I remember she would go on Leno or Letterman.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, David Letterman: You look terrific. Upstairs earlier today, we were discussing your weight.]
JAD: They’d talk about her weight for a little while, then they'd talk about how she looks. And then inevitably ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dolly Parton: People are always asking if they're real and this and that.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Johnny Carson: Oh I would never.]
JAD: They'd start talking about her breasts.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Johnny Carson: But I would give about a year's pay to peek under there.]
JAD: They'd joke about her breasts. But then she would make an even better joke about her breasts.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dolly Parton: Do you know what's worse than a giraffe with a sore throat? And they say, "No, what?" And the answer is Dolly Parton with a chest cold."]
JAD: Here's another example.
[NEWS CLIP: The headline on the other major news story today, to which we intend to devote some time, is very simple. Hello, Dolly.]
HELEN MORALES: Yes. The first cloned sheep was known as Dolly the sheep.]
JAD: This is Helen Morales, author of the book Pilgrimage to Dollywood.
HELEN MORALES: Scientists managed to clone a cell.
[NEWS CLIP: A single mammary cell from a six year old ewe ...]
HELEN MORALES: Well, and that cell was from a mammary gland. So these men thought it'd be a good idea ...
[NEWS CLIP: I thought it would be a good idea to call it Dolly, after Dolly Parton.]
HELEN MORALES: To call it Dolly.
[NEWS CLIP: I don’t think I need to explain any more than that.]
HELEN MORALES: But the sting in that story is -- and characteristically Dolly Parton, is that when she heard about this, she invited the sheep when it had served its scientific purpose to come and live at Dollywood.
JAD: So when you go on these shows and they make a joke about you, and you double the joke, what is that?
DOLLY PARTON: [laughs]
JAD: Part of me thinks -- part of me loves that, but part of me thinks, "Why wouldn't you just tell these people like, 'Come on. I have written 5,000 songs. Ask me about my songs.'" So I -- I don’t know. I have two thoughts at once.
DOLLY PARTON: Well, why would I go out with my tits hanging out, showing 'em, pushing 'em out there, and not expect somebody to make some kind of a comment on it? And I know what they're thinking. So I'd rather say it before they do. And then we get that off our chest, so to speak right up front.
JAD: That's a good pun, by the way.
DOLLY PARTON: Yeah, I know. I've said it before. [laughs] But I really do -- like, I just think, "Well you know, I mean, this is how I look. Of course you're gonna notice it."
DOLLY PARTON: See, I do that too, for the public. I mean, it's like a little comedy thing.
JAD: In that last sentence by the way, Dolly was actually referencing something she'd once told Barbara Walters, like, years ago.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dolly Parton: Show business is a money-making joke, and I’ve always liked telling jokes.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Barbara Walters: But do you ever feel that you’re a joke? That people make fun of you?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dolly Parton: Oh, I know they make fun of me. But actually all these years, the people has thought the joke was on me, but it’s actually been on the public.]
JAD: So yeah, growing up -- and I think I speak for many people of my generation when i say this, at least many men, Dolly Parton was seen as this kind of joke maker. This cloud of jokes always swirling around her. You know, jokes people would make about her, that she would make about herself, maybe on the public. I don’t know. But her persona was so big that often it was the only thing that got noticed. But then, I’ll be honest. One of the first bits of guidance that we got as we were embarking on this series -- and by 'we' I mean myself and producer Shima Oliaee, is Shima was talking with writer Helen Morales, who you heard earlier. Helen was basically telling Shima, "Look. You can talk about the persona and the jokes ...
HELEN MORALES: But -- but, it would be a pity if somewhere in your series, there wasn’t something about her songwriting. The only other thing I would say is treat her lyrics seriously in a way that Johnny Cash has had books written about his lyrics, Hank Williams has been taken seriously, but Dolly Parton hasn’t.
JAD: Which brings us back to ...
DOLLY PARTON: Well, I used to write a lot of sad ass songs.
JAD: That's what was really surprising. There's some darkness in those early songs.
DOLLY PARTON: Well, you -- as a songwriter, and so you gotta remember too, that's how I grew up.
JAD: Now hardcore Dolly fans will know this, but Dolly’s discography goes back all the way to 1967. And the songs on those first four albums, it’s an ocean of pain.
HELEN MORALES: Those songs which are -- which many people don't know about. They're not the ones that have made the charts. They provide an insistent witnessing of women's lives.
JAD: That’s how Helen Morales, puts it.
HELEN MORALES: Women being treated really badly by men.
JAD: Let me just play you another one.
[SONG: "Daddy Come And Get Me"]
[LYRICS: “In this mental institution, lookin' out through these iron bars.”]
JAD: Do you remember this one?
DOLLY PARTON: That was Daddy Come And Get Me. That was actually a song I wrote that was based on something that really happened in our family.
DOLLY PARTON: Mm-hmm.
[LYRICS: “Yes, I need help but nothing’s come”]
DOLLY PARTON: I had an aunt. Loved this man. And he just drove her crazy.
[LYRICS: "But it’s not my mind that’s broken, it’s my heart."]
JAD: What did he do?
DOLLY PARTON: Cheating and all that. put her in an insane -- well, I can’t say who.
JAD: No, no. I don’t -- I don’t need to know who, but ...
DOLLY PARTON: I thought you said who! [laughs] I can’t call names! But it was a relative. And she would beg her -- her -- she was begging her daddy, trying to get a message to her daddy to come and get her out of the insane asylum.
JAD: Wait. So she ...
DOLLY PARTON: That her husband had put her in there.
JAD: Wait. So he was cheating on her. And then what happened?
DOLLY PARTON: Well, she had a nervous breakdown. So he just called and had her put away.
JAD: This is something by the way that if you Google it, you will fall down a rabbit hole. Well into the 20th century, this was a common thing. Husbands would commit their wives for things like quote, "Nagging, excitement, disagreeing with their husband’s religious beliefs."
DOLLY PARTON: So he wanted her out of his life. So that's -- I grew up with that. And I was very impressionable.
JAD: Another theme that is impossible to miss from Dolly’s sad ass song period is -- well, this next song basically captures it.
[SONG: "The Bridge"]
JAD: This is a song that she wrote in 1967 called The Bridge.
[LYRICS: "The bridge so high. The bridge so tall. Here is where it started, on the bridge."]
JAD: It tells the story of a woman falling in love with a man. They have their first kiss under the full moon on a bridge. He gets her pregnant. Then he bolts. And months later as she’s pregnant, she returns to that bridge.
[LYRICS: "Tonight, while standing on the bridge my heart is beating wild. To think that you could leave me here with our unborn child. My feet are moving slowly closer to the edge. Here is where it started, and here is where I'll end it."]
JAD: Damn, that ending.
DOLLY PARTON: [laughs]
JAD: A couple of your songs in this period deal with suicide. Is that something that you thought about ever?
DOLLY PARTON: Years ago. I don't think I got to that place, but I -- I understood exactly how people do. I was -- this was back in the -- oh, I don't know, many years ago. Early '80s, I think I was.
JAD: She was in her late-30s at this point. She'd just done a movie which caused her a ton of stress. And she was having health problems.
DOLLY PARTON: I was -- I got overweight. And I was going through the change of life. I was having a lot of female problems. I had been going through a whole lot of family things, just the stress with a heartache. And there was just several things going on at that time. And I was just broken down. You know, I really was having some serious conversations with God during that time.
JAD: What were those conversations?
DOLLY PARTON: Well, I just said things like, "Look, this is just ridiculous. I am not happy." Arguing about what -- you know, why we can't -- when they say you shouldn't commit suicide because that's a sin you can't get forgiven for, but then it was this all -- everything was just confusing to me. And I was just angry and I was hurt and I was unhappy. And so I just said, "You're gonna have to give me some answers or I'm getting out of here. And then we'll both deal with it."
JAD: How close did you get when you ...?
DOLLY PARTON: I don't know. I don't know how close I got.
JAD: She says there was a moment sort of at the low point when she was sitting on her bed. And her dog jumped up on the bed. It felt to her like a sign.
DOLLY PARTON: My little dog Popeye at that time, he jumped up on the bed, about the time I was writing my, you know -- so God, G-O-D. D-O-G, G-O-D. Dog. God spelled backwards. So I always thought, you know, that might have been the very thing that kind of ...
JAD: You were writing your suicide note? Or ...
DOLLY PARTON: I was thinking about it.
JAD: Wow. You said heartache. I mean, was it -- what was the heartache?
DOLLY PARTON: Well, it was personal.
JAD: Fair enough.
JAD: We started talking about how a lot of her early songs are about women losing children.
DOLLY PARTON: I never lost a baby. I’ve never been pregnant in my life. But I’ve seen a lot of people that have, and have had to go through that. I’ve seen it. I've seen the -- you know, like I always say, there's two kind of women in the mountains: the kind that get married and have a lot of kids and the kind that stay single and have a lot of kids. [laughs] But I would also write things about people’s lives and topics that I knew that mattered. I was writing about abortion, I was writing about adoption. I was writing about all sorts of things back before it was -- when I even wrote a song called Down From Dover. About a girl that got pregnant and got sent away from home because she was pregnant, because they wouldn’t accept it.
[SONG: "Down From Dover"]
[LYRICS: “I know this dress I'm wearing doesn't hide the secret I have tried concealing.”]
JAD: This song is written from the perspective of a young teenager who's pregnant, trying to conceal it and waiting for her man to return.
[LYRICS: "Oh, he’ll be coming down from Dover."]
JAD: If he comes back in time, she basically won’t be shamed by her community. But of course ...
[LYRICS: "My body aches, the time is here, it's lonely in this place where I'm lying."]
JAD: He doesn't. She's ostracized from her family.
DOLLY PARTON: And then the baby's born.
[LYRICS: "Our baby has been born, but something's wrong. It's much too still, I hear no crying."]
DOLLY PARTON: And the baby died.
[LYRICS: "I guess in some strange way she knew she'd never have a father's arms to hold her. And dying was her way of tellin' me he wasn't coming down from Dover.]
DOLLY PARTON: And so she felt like that God had done her a favor. God had taken the baby back. In my mind, the baby was better off back with God than it would have been with me. And they wouldn’t play it on the radio back at that time. It’s one of my best songs ever.
JAD: They wouldn’t play it on the radio because of the con ...
DOLLY PARTON: They wouldn’t play it on the radio, not because the kid died, but because she got pregnant. Because she -- it was an illegitimate. At that time, see that was -- when I first wrote that, that was in my early days of my career and I wanted to put it out as a single and RCA wouldn’t do it.
JAD: Keep in mind, this song was written five years before Roe V. Wade. But I suggested to Dolly that maybe one of the reasons RCA didn't want to put it out is that it's just too dark?
DOLLY PARTON: Well, you -- as a songwriter, and so you gotta remember too that’s how I grew up. All those old mountain songs and all those old songs from the old world. All those old English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh ballads about the Knoxville girl getting killed and throwed in the Knoxville River. And I was very, you know, impressionable.
JAD: Okay. Okay. Okay. Let me just take a digression here, because that song that Dolly just mentioned sent me down another rabbit hole. In the interview, I didn't catch it, when she said ...
DOLLY PARTON: The Knoxville girl getting killed and throwed in the Knoxville River.
JAD: But listening back I was like, "Wait, what? A Knoxville girl thrown in a river?" It turns out this is a very old Appalachian ballad that is sung from the perspective of a man who goes to meet his young wife or girlfriend, I guess. And they're taking a walk along river. And then all of a sudden ...
[LYRICS: "I picked a stick up off of the ground and knocked that fair girl down."]
JAD: Picks up a stick. Beats her ...
[LYRICS: "She fell down on her bended knees, for mercy she did cry."]
JAD: She begs for mercy. This is in the song. She begs for mercy but he keeps beating her with the stick until she's unconscious, and then ...
[LYRICS: "I taken her by her golden curls, I drug her round and round.”]
JAD: Drags her by her hair.
[LYRICS: "Throwing her into the river that flows through Knoxville town."]
JAD: And then he throws her in the river. And I was like, "Wait. This is what she was talking about?"
DOLLY PARTON: I grew up with that.
JAD: What is this twisted song? Who's the girl? Why does the guy murder her?
So I ended up calling this journalist.
PAUL SLADE: Hello?
JAD: Can I speak to Paul please?
PAUL SLADE: You're doing so. Hi, Jad.
JAD: His name is Paul Slade. He’s a music writer based in London. And he recently wrote a book all about this.
PAUL SLADE: Called Unprepared To Die, which looks at the real murder stories behind Knoxville Girl and a range of other American murder ballads.
JAD: First thing he told me is that there are tons of these songs.
[LYRICS: "Stabbed her with my knife."]
JAD: So many. Always about a man ...
[LYRICS: "I shot her through the head."]
JAD: ... killing a woman, often his wife, by shooting her, or ...
[LYRICS: "My mind is to drown you and leave you behind."]
JAD: ... drowning her. That’s a big one. But with the Knoxville girl song, what Paul did was he traced it back from East Tennessee where Dolly would have heard it, back to England.
PAUL SLADE: The first version of the song I've seen was 1685 or thereabouts. We can't be precisely sure about that.
JAD: The song was originally called The Bloody Miller.
PAUL SLADE: So I went looking for surviving copies of The Bloody Miller's ballad sheet.
JAD: Now obviously, there are no original recordings of this song, but he did manage to find a copy of the sheet music from the original printing, 330-ish years ago. And at the top of that sheet music, there was like a little intro.
PAUL SLADE: And it says this. "A true, and just account of one Francis Cooper of Hogstow near Shrewsbury ..."
PAUL SLADE: "... who kept company with one Anne Nichols for the space of two years. And being urged by her father to marry her, he most wickedly and barbarously murdered her."
JAD: Oh, wow. So it lays it all out right there.
PAUL SLADE: Well, yeah. We've got the name of the killer, his victim, and we've got a location, which is Shrewsbury.
JAD: Paul goes to Shrewsbury, digs around in the archives, finds a copy of a diary from a shoekeeper at the time. Confirms that, yes, there was a murder that happened right at the time that the song was written. He visits the grave of the murder victim, confirms that, yes, she was a real person. He checks the burial records to confirm that yes, her death was actually very violent. And it was the age-old story. The woman, Anne Nichols was pregnant. And the guy, Francis Cooper ...
PAUL SLADE: He's got this girl pregnant, and he doesn't want to marry her.
PAUL SLADE: So that's why he's killed her.
[LYRICS: "She never spoke one other word, I only beat her more."]
JAD: As for how it ended up in a song, Paul says what likely happened is that this guy Francis Cooper, the killer, gets caught. And on the day of his execution, a songwriter showed up to witness the hanging, and then immediately documented it in song, which was a common practice at the time.
PAUL SLADE: Very often, the sheets themselves were actually sold at public hangings while the condemned man was still swinging.
PAUL SLADE: There'd be people wandering around selling ballad sheets telling the story of that particular crime.
JAD: So it really was like almost journalism.
PAUL SLADE: Yeah, yeah. That's a big part of it.
JAD: And are these songs usually sung from the perspective of the murderer?
PAUL SLADE: Yeah. It's much more common to tell them in the words of the murderer.
JAD: Paul says these songs were actually pretty big business. Songwriters would go to the hangings and then travel from town to town singing the songs for money. They would change the name of the song to match the town that they were in. And that’s probably what happened. At some point, one of the songwriters hopped on a boat, came to East Tennessee, changed the song to Knoxville Girl, and that was the song that got sung to little Dolly Parton on her porch. Perhaps one way to see Dolly’s early sad ass songs period, is that she was taking these songs that she heard as a girl, you know, these pulpy ballads of men brutally killing nameless women, sung almost always from the perspective of the men, and she was flipping it so that you finally heard from the victim.
JAD: Now Dolly was not the only person to do this, to sing from the victim's point of view. When we spoke with longtime journalist and historian Robert Orman, he told us you gotta add that caveat.
ROBERT ORMAN: It's not that she's the only one, it's that she's better than anybody else.
JAD: He said she just had a knack for imagining lives that weren't being seen. Like, what's it like to be that woman at the bottom of the river? Let me tell her story.
ROBERT ORMAN: There are few finer songwriters, male or female.
JAD: Mind you, she’s writing all these songs when she’s 21.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dolly Parton: I’m 21 years old now. And I started singing -- mama said I was squalling when I was born. And I'm still squalling. But i started singing in church. My grandfather was a preacher, and I started singing in church when I was, oh, as far back as I can remember. I would imagine five, six years old.]
JAD: I believe this is the earliest recorded interview that exists of Dolly Parton. It’s 1967, Nashville. She's being interviewed by a guy named Everett Corbin from the Music City News.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Everett Corbin: Dolly? I suppose it'd help me if we just go back to the beginning.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dolly Parton: I was born -- let’s start with when i was born, okay? I was born on January the 19th in 1946 in Sevier County, in Sevier, Tennessee. It's a little town between Knoxville, Tennessee, and Gatlinburg, Tennessee. And you might shorten it by saying the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.]
JAD: She talks about her family. How there were 12 kids.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dolly Parton: There's six girls and six boys.]
JAD: How they grew up in this little cabin in the mountains, worked the fields, piled into the same bed at night.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Everett Corbin: What type of songs do you prefer?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dolly Parton: I like ballads. Real strong pitiful, sad, crying ballads. I love sad songs, and I just write about things that maybe I've seen happen or things that have been in the family. And I have a new album out, I didn't mention, too. Or it's not out, but this'll be out -- it should be out by the end of this month. But it's called Hello, I'm Dolly.]
JAD: Now there's no earth-shattering information on that tape, but what I take from it is just, like, wow, that's a very different human being coming to us from a very different world. That interview is 52 years ago and Dolly Parton is still making music. So I think it would be a disservice to her to just focus on the sad ass songs. And one of the things you see over the next couple decades is a really interesting shift.
HELEN MORALES: Hello?
JAD: And for this, I want to bring back Helen Morales.
HELEN MORALES: Hi, Jad.
JAD: If you recall, she was the one who wrote the book Pilgrimage To Dollywood, she was the one who urged us don’t focus on the boob jokes, look at the lyrics. And one of the things that you do see, she said, if you look at the lyrics from the sad ass songs of '67, '68, '69, '70, up until now, you see a progression that is the progression of women in America.
HELEN MORALES: You know, her lyrics go from songs like ...
[LYRICS: “The only way out ...”]
HELEN MORALES: “The only out is to walk over me.”
[LYRICS: “... is to walk over me.”]
HELEN MORALES: "Just to prove that I love you, I'll crawl at your feet."
[LYRICS: “And just to prove that I love you, I’ll crawl at your feet.”]
HELEN MORALES: I still can't believe those.
JAD: That's a little BDSM actually.
HELEN MORALES: Well, exactly. The pleasure is in being treated badly. And then -- then she moves on to songs that really are calling men out for cheating on women, for behaving badly.
[LYRICS: “Your attitude stinks and I hate it. You're arrogant, cocky and rude."]
HELEN MORALES: You don't know love from shinola.
[LYRICS: “You don’t know love from shinola.”]
HELEN MORALES: One of the great lyrics.
[LYRICS: And you ain't worth the salt in my tears."]
HELEN MORALES: “You ain't worth the salt in my tears.” Women are angry about where the pleasure is in leaving men or in -- in being angry. And then in the final one, she moves onto songs where men are less important and it's just -- it's just about women improving their lives.
JAD: And what's a good example of that phase?
HELEN MORALES: Well, things like, you know, some of her most recent music, Changes.
[LYRICS: "Hello. I know you've got a world ..."]
HELEN MORALES: “I know you've got a world of problems, and you think you can't do anything to solve them. But I'm here to tell you that you can. Something got you down, got you chained and bound, well, break it. If you've built a wall and now it needs to fall, then shake it.”
[LYRICS: "Replace it. Something that you know is damming up the flow, tear the dam down. Let me explain it. If you don't take the reins, it’s gonna stay the same. Nothing's gonna change if you don’t change it. Let’s do this!"]
JAD: So the progression is basically from these very vivid portraits of misery to fight songs to this third phase which is -- are songs that maybe they're a little more self-help-y. They're certainly not just about men and women anymore. Oftentimes, there's no men involved. And sometimes you don't get the vivid detail of the sad ass songs, but what you get instead is a kind of relentless optimism. A relentless hope that you can't bring me down. You can joke about me all you want to, but I'm gonna keep going. And it’s partly for this reason that Helen Morales refers to Dolly’s music in her book as not just music, but as a toolkit for living.
HELEN MORALES: I mean, her song Light of a Clear Blue Morning has really helped me out of many a blue period.
JAD: And what is it about that song?
HELEN MORALES: The lyrics just convey a sense of being very confident that things are not okay now but they will be okay.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Can you describe a moment or the time in your life where that song served you or helped you?
JAD: That’s producer Shima Oliaee, by the way.
HELEN MORALES: You want me to go back to my worst moments?
SHIMA: Yes, please!
HELEN MORALES: That's very un-Dolly Parton-like.
SHIMA: That's very Dolly Parton-like.
HELEN MORALES: So yeah, there was a -- yes, I'm not sure I want to talk about that on the radio. I'm not going to give you a specific example, actually. I do in the book. I talk about when my sister was caught cheating at Oxford, and I just played that song on a loop. I'm not sure that that's going to go down. That didn't go down very well in the book, I'm not sure I want to talk about that on the radio.
JAD: Sure. Okay. Okay, yeah, yeah. Fair enough.
HELEN MORALES: I'd be happy to read some out of the book if you wanted a snapshot of where I used her lyrics.
JAD: Do you mind? I mean ...
HELEN MORALES: I don't mind. If you want that, I'm happy to do that. Which one would you like?
JAD: You mentioned your sister. So maybe that one?
HELEN MORALES: Okay. Okay. "It's true that one of the reasons Dolly Parton matters so much to me is that her songs have underscored special moments or heightened episodes in my life. One snapshot is of a weekend in July, 1998. Newspaper journalists are laying siege outside my mother's home. One of my younger sisters has been caught cheating in her final exams at Oxford University, and because she's also president-elect of the student union on a free education-for-all ticket, the press is out for blood. My mother is not taking it well and insists that this scandal will devastate my brother, her youngest child. My brother is sitting at the computer enthusiastically looking up famous alleged exam cheats and announcing them in thrilled tones. 'Jeffery Archer!' We open the newspapers. One has a photo of our mum's house, which in reality is a nice three bedroom Victorian terraced house. The photo has the adjoining houses edited out so that it looks like a mansion. The spin in the accompanying article is 'How the mighty have fallen.' The photograph in the next paper makes our house look like a slum. The spin of this article is, 'Look what happens when you let Greek Cypriot immigrants into the country.' 'Richard Branson!' yells my brother. It's not a calm summer. My mother develops agoraphobia. I put Light Of A Clear Blue Morning on my stereo and wear out the cassette tape playing it over and over."
[LYRICS: "Because I can see the light of a clear, blue morning. I can see the light of a brand new day. I can see the light of a clear, blue morning. Oh, and everything's gonna be all right, it's gonna be okay."]
JAD: Oh, my God. That sounds horrible.
HELEN MORALES: Oh yeah. It was -- sometimes having a song that you can play over and over is really helpful.
JAD: Coming up, we meet someone who not only listened to the sad ass songs but lived them, and turned out to be a real-life Dolly doppelganger. I'm Jad Abumrad. Dolly Parton's America will continue in a moment.
[CHALMERS: Hello. Chalmers here. Portland, Oregon. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]
SHIMA: You know, one beautiful thing that happened to me in Nashville is one of my Uber drivers gave me a charger for my phone. Portable. And she had a Wonder Woman sticker on it. And it was just a beautiful moment. And she's like, "Take it." And I'm like, "Really? No!" She's like, "It's yours."
JAD: Wow. That's Dolly Parton's America right there.
JAD: Okay. This is Dolly Parton's America. I'm Jad Abumrad, here with producer Shima Oliaee. We're at the beginning of a nine-part series where we dive into the life and music of the one and only Dolly Parton. What can she tell us about America? That's sort of the question. I know we started this episode by saying that a lot of people of my generation, men mostly, tended to see Dolly Parton one way.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Johnny Carson: But I would give about a year's pay to peek under there.]
JAD: And one of the reasons I wanted to do this series, and by the way, Shima is gonna help me narrate this segment.
JAD: Hello! So one of the reasons we wanted to do this is -- well, maybe you should just take it from here.
SHIMA: Well, yeah. One of the big things that first got us thinking about Dolly Parton to begin with is that in the last couple of years she seems to have gone from this thing that you described, from this idea you described to mean something much deeper and much more hopeful for a new generation of women.
WOMAN #1: I think Dolly Parton is an angel. I'm not gonna say she's God, but she's definitely heaven-sent. And I think that she makes the world a better place.
WOMAN #2: She just exudes amazingness.
WOMAN #1: We don't deserve her.
WOMAN #2: Is that -- I don’t even know if that’s a word.
WOMAN #3: Dolly for me is like, when I see her and I think of her, I feel more confident in myself.
WOMAN #1: She's like the epitome of female power.
WOMAN #2: She's everything.
WOMAN #3: Well, she's just the greatest person on Earth.
WOMAN #2: I truly think that she is one of the most underrated feminist icons of
SHIMA: So one of the big questions for us was, how do we even start to explain the shift?
SARAH SMARSH: Well, I have a little bit of a theory.
SHIMA: This is Sarah Smarsh. She wrote a book called Heartland and she's written a lot about Dolly, a lot about class.
JAD: And just to add, Sarah has been kind of a spirit guide for us in our journeys into the Dollyverse.
SARAH SMARSH: My vague theory is that she was like the OG third-wave feminist.
SHIMA: Let me give some context to that.
SHIMA: First wave feminism, when people talk about that they usually mean this group of women in the 1800s and early 1900s who were fighting for their rights. Second-wave feminism ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Welcome to the new wave of feminism! Welcome to each other! Welcome home!]
SHIMA: This was sort of Dolly’s era. It was the feminism of the 1970s and '80s. It's where you had a lot of women start rejecting traditional roles in both the workplace and the home.
SARAH SMARSH: That's a moment when women who had her business ambitions were being encouraged to sort of downplay their own quote, unquote, "femininity."
SHIMA: You don't need to wear make-up, you can cut your hair short. You can put on the pants. And Sarah says that during this second wave, Dolly is one of the first to represent the future third wave.
SARAH SMARSH: She went, like, in the opposite direction. It was like, "You have a problem with my tits? Then here they are hanging out."
DOLLY PARTON: My tits hanging out, pushing 'em out there. 'Course I played it up.
SARAH SMARSH: And you can deal with it while I make you my employee. And there is something about that that is sort of like, I think a more kind of millennial spirit of approach to feminism.
SHIMA: One of the women I spoke to, Red Sagalow, talked about it this way.
RED SAGALOW: There's this idea of what feminists are supposed to look like. They're supposed to, like, not shave and they're supposed to, like, burn their bras and all this bullshit. And it's like no, feminism can be whatever the f*** it is you want it to be as a woman. You want to have big hair and big boobs and wear rhinestones, then do it.
SARAH SMARSH: She I believe was the pioneer on that one. Sort of like, you know, the way that -- the way that evolution happens. There's -- at any given moment, there's, like, some deviation, and then it takes -- it takes time for that to swell and natural selection to take place. Like, among a field of second-generation flowers, she was, like, a third-generation spirit.
SHIMA: The way that Sarah tells it, Dolly was kind of like the mutation. One of the first special flowers in this field. And then her flower power spread to all the other flowers until the entire field was filled with third-wave Dolly flowers.
SHIMA: Brings us to present day.
JAD: Sarah was really curious to see what Dolly thought of this idea. So in one of our conversations I asked her.
JAD: Do you think of yourself as a feminist?
DOLLY PARTON: No, I do not.
JAD: She shot that right down.
DOLLY PARTON: I think of myself as a woman in business. I love men. And I -- I really -- because I have a dad, I have all those brothers, all my uncles I love, my grandpas I love. And I relate to them. And I write a lot of songs about women because I am a woman, or I just write songs that women experience. But I write a lot of songs for men. In fact, I’ve had hit songs, you know, about men. I write -- you know, I write songs about my dad. The Dinner Bucket song, "Every time I hear the sound of a train coming down the railroad track, hear a big jet plane flying high, I'd like to throw my hammer down, ride off to some distant town, not even take the time to say goodbye. But I got to think about my babies about my," you know, "My wife and my old ladies. About how much she’d miss me if I was gone." So I write about working men, I write about gamblers, I write about -- but I write songs for men and about men and their feelings too, because I know how they feel. I look like a woman, but I think like a man. But I think like a woman, too.
JAD: But the -- the idea of Dolly Parton the feminist bugs you in some way, I’m gathering.
DOLLY PARTON: Well, that word "fem" -- I guess when you say feminist, it’s just what I think at the time. Like, everybody goes to extremes sometimes. I do not like extreme things. I do believe in making a point and making it well. I don’t believe in crucifying a whole group just because a few people have made mistakes. To me when you say just the word "feminist" is like, "I hate all men."
SARAH SMARSH: So did she say no? Or she just, like, was evasive?
JAD: No, she, like, recoiled.
SARAH SMARSH: Hmm.
JAD: Like, which surprised me. You know, I thought -- I don’t know. It was like I dropped a word bomb in the room.
SARAH SMARSH: Mm-hmm. Well, I think she knows -- and of course I can’t speculate, but I think that -- let me put it through my own experience. I had a very complicated relationship to the term "feminist" when I was a teenager in rural Kansas. Fox News was kind of a new phenomenon in the '90s.
[FOX NEWS CLIP: "Feminists now apparently stand for nothing."]
SARAH SMARSH: We didn’t have cable news in our farmhouse, but ...
[FOX NEWS CLIP: "Families are disintegrating. Men are disconnected."]
SARAH SMARSH: You know, like, the culture was starting to shift.
[FOX NEWS CLIP: "The big picture here is women do earn less in America because they choose to."]
SARAH SMARSH: This sort of like backlash that is full-throated now was, like, burgeoning when I was a teenager. And I could feel it. And I -- I had absorbed that just using the word "feminism," it had some kind of, I don’t know. It felt vaguely negative, and I was hesitant about the term.
JAD: So you would -- you would now identify as a feminist?
SARAH SMARSH: Of course.
JAD: Does it bother you a tiny bit that she won’t?
SARAH SMARSH: Yeah. But I wanna say like, the part of me that’s pissed off is the part of me that got to go to college.
SHIMA: The thing to know about Sarah is that she grew up poor, 40 miles outside of Wichita, Kansas. She said one of her chores growing up was quote-unquote "slopping the hogs." She ultimately was able to scrape together enough money from four jobs and a scholarship to enter the University of Kansas, which was just a few hours up the road. But she told us that you can't overstate how far those two worlds feel from each other. The world she came from, of farmers and laborers who mistrust the systems that have ultimately failed them, and the world of people who live in cities, who run those systems. And she says certain words, they have a different life in those two worlds.
SARAH SMARSH: But there are women who, as we speak, are living the tenets of feminism more strongly and in a more badass manner than women who wear the word on a t-shirt and march in the marches. And yet ...
SHIMA: What do you think of that word even?
GRANDMA BETTY: I don't think it -- no.
SARAH SMARSH: Would not take that term on themselves.
SHIMA: She gave the example of her grandma.
GRANDMA BETTY: I think that men and women should be paid equally. There's just a lot of things that -- well, that I don't necessarily agree with. And you're going to ask me what it is and I can't tell you, because I don't know.
JAD: But -- so maybe just introduce yourself. Tell me who you are.
GRANDMA BETTY: I'm Grandma Betty.
SHIMA: In talking with Sarah about this distance and about Dolly, she kept bringing up her grandma, and she's like, "If you met my grandma, you'd know what I mean.
GRANDMA BETTY: I'm a little nervous. Can you tell?
JAD: Oh, yeah, yeah. No, no. This is great. This is great.
SARAH SMARSH: Your first time being interviewed by anybody other than me, I believe.
GRANDMA BETTY: That's true.
SHIMA: She totally didn't want to be interviewed. She did it I think as a favor to Sarah. And mostly because she loves Dolly.
GRANDMA BETTY: I think that she sings like an angel.
[SONG: "Love Is Like A Butterfly"]
SHIMA: In any case, Betty was born just a few months before Dolly Parton.
GRANDMA BETTY: Well, I was born in '45. So ...
JAD: When is this?
GRANDMA BETTY: Well, that’s an oldie.
SHIMA: She showed us pictures of her from 1967, the same year that Dolly did that interview you heard earlier.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dolly Parton: I just made up my mind that's what I wanted to do, and anything ...]
GRANDMA BETTY: And that’s me.
SARAH SMARSH: And that’s your beehive.
SHIMA: And in the pictures ...
SARAH SMARSH: So you look just like Dolly.
GRANDMA BETTY: My hair did. [laughs]
JAD: Oh my God. That's totally ...
SHIMA: It's -- it's identical.
SHIMA: Betty told us that she was a really rebellious kid growing up. She skipped school a lot. She got into fights, mostly with rich kids who bullied her and her cousins.
GRANDMA BETTY: Oh yeah. I mean, that's the way that I dealt with things back then. You know, somebody give me any crap, you know, you shoot it right back. You don't walk away.
SHIMA: She told us about this one time when she was 17 and she was at home. And then her mom's ex-husband showed up.
GRANDMA BETTY: He was drunk, of course. They had broken up, and he came to the house one night. And he was drinking, drunk. And I was -- I had already gone to bed. And I could hear him in there arguing. And he called my mother a pig. And I got out of the bed and I went in there and said, "Don't call my mother a pig. Ever." And I went back to the bedroom. And then they continued arguing. I heard him call her a pig again. And I got up and went in there and said, "This is it." I picked up a cast iron skillet that had grease in it, and I whammed him upside the head, and it knocked him down. But he got up and he staggered to the front porch, and then he fell off the porch. And that's how it happened, because he called my mother a pig, and I told him not to do that.
JAD: Wow. That’s -- that's amazing.
[LYRICS: "Laughter brings me sunshine. Every day is springtime."]
SARAH SMARSH: My grandma grew up working on factory floors, waiting tables in diners on interstates and highways. And so, you know, she doesn’t take any lip.
SHIMA: Sarah says that her grandma was the person that all the women in the family would come to when they had problems. Nonetheless, by the time Betty was 30 years she'd been married seven times. Most of those husbands had beaten or abused her. One had even shot her in the shoulder. Sarah told us about this one time when they were together, and her grandma kind of popped her jaw in and out. Like, clicked her jaw. And then said, matter of factly ...
SARAH SMARSH: That was a gift from one of my sweethearts.
SARAH SMARSH: You know, it's heartbreaking to me to think about her enduring something like that. But I also kind of thought, like, "What a bad bitch," you know? But as far as, you know, ever letting on, like, just by an inch that she had been hurt or had any sense of victimhood is like, no.
SHIMA: She said that was just totally taboo. But Sarah says there was always this one moment where she'd get to see what was happening underneath. It was when they’d be driving to the groceries, and her grandma would pop in a cassette tape of Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors.
SARAH SMARSH: I just, like, never saw this woman crack and that song -- damn!
JAD: Can we play it?
GRANDMA BETTY: Sure.
SHIMA: We sat and listened to it in the living room.
[LYRICS: "Back through the years, I go wandering once again. Back to the seasons of my youth. I recall a box of rags that someone gave us ..."]
SARAH SMARSH: Coat of Many Colors is, of course, about ...
[LYRICS: "And how my mama put those rags to use."]
SARAH SMARSH: ... a little girl who is so proud of this coat that her mother sews for her from scraps. That's the only way that she's going to have warmth in the winter. She's proud of the coat. It's beautiful to her. And when she enters school, she is shamed for it.
[LYRICS: "And they're making fun of me and my coat of many colors my mama made for me.]
SARAH SMARSH: It's about poverty, yes. But it's also about a little girl who is being told to be ashamed, and she's saying, "I refuse to be ashamed."
[LYRICS: "My mama made for me. Made just for me."]
GRANDMA BETTY: Thanks. Sorry guys. It just brings back so many memories.
JAD: What does it -- what do you think of?
GRANDMA BETTY: I think about my grandma sewing. Sewing my dresses. And, you know, kids making fun of it. And I think that's why I became such a badass because, you know, it's -- it's hurtful when people make fun of you. And my way to react was to knock the hell out of them, you know? You’re crying, too. That’s my story.
SHIMA: When Grandma Betty would listen to Dolly's music, Dolly was singing the song she didn't have the space in her life to sing.
GRANDMA BETTY: It's hailing outside.
SARAH SMARSH: Is it?
SARAH SMARSH: Ooh, welcome to Kansas.
JAD: It's sunny and it's hailing?
SARAH SMARSH: That means we're a month away from tornado season.
SHIMA: And then towards the end of the interview, she surprised us and told us something else. She said that after her seventh husband died, Arnie -- he was the one guy who treated her well, by the way. After he died, she decided to sell the farm. And then as she's packing up her stuff, moving all the things out ...
GRANDMA BETTY: And we had 50-gallon barrels that we burnt trash in.
SARAH SMARSH: And I think an old bathtub.
GRANDMA BETTY: And I took my nylons and my tight-fitting bras and threw them in the barrel and threw a match.
SHIMA: She burned her bra!
JAD: Did you really?
GRANDMA BETTY: I really did.
JAD: That’s legit feminism, then. That’s by the book.
GRANDMA BETTY: Yeah. That's the way it was. Hi, Charlie.
JAD: Hello, Charlie.
JAD: Charlie is Sarah's cat, and she sort of walked in to be like, "Okay, y'all. Interview's over now." And as we were walking away I kept thinking, clearly, the lenses we have to see each other, the words that we use to describe each other, they're just not good enough.
SHIMA: And maybe Dolly moves in that space where those words fail.
DOLLY PARTON: My friends call me the Dolly Mama, you know? And I'm gonna write a whole book on just sayings, and just how to ...
JAD: By the way, after our Kansas adventure we went back to Dolly one more time, and I took that question that I asked her and reframed it in light of something that we had seen and that Sarah Smarsh had told us. That there are the feminists in theory, but there are also the feminists in practice.
JAD: And she puts you in that category.
DOLLY PARTON: That's the one. That’s me. That's me.
JAD: Like, it’s about how you live.
DOLLY PARTON: Yes, that's a good way to say it. I think that's a good way of saying it. I live it. I work it. And I think there's power in it for me.
SHIMA: By the way, the idea that feminists burned their bras? Total myth.
JAD: Didn't happen.
SHIMA: Never happened.
JAD: They almost did.
SHIMA: They -- yeah, they ...
JAD: But they couldn't get the fire started. Is that right?
SHIMA: No, it was they needed a permit to light the bra on fire, and they didn't have the permit.
SHIMA: And that's why they were like, "Oh, I guess we can't do that." So they just threw the bras in the trash.
SHIMA: Never set it on fire.
SHIMA: Grandma Betty's the only one.
JAD: [laughs] Excellent.
SHIMA: I'm gonna go burn bras right now.
JAD: Okay. I'm gonna read the credits, then. Dolly Parton’s America was produced, written and edited by me and Shima Oliaee. Brought to you by OSM Audio, that's O-S-M Audio and WNYC Studios. We had production help from W. Harry Fortuna, and original music from Alex Overington. And huge thanks to the folks at Sony for allowing us to use some of Dolly's early music. Thanks also to the Everett Corbin Collection at the Center for Popular Music. Special thanks to Lynn Sacko, Danny Nozell, Kyle McLain, Theresa Hughes, Randy Schmidt, Pat Walters, Lulu Miller, Suzie Lechtenberg and Soren Wheeler. And a very special thanks to my Dad, Naji. Check out DollyPartonsAmerica.com for more information, for playlists, and to see the absolutely beautiful artwork created by artist Christine De Carvalho. I’m Jad Abumrad. Thanks for listening. And on the next episode of Dolly Parton’s America ...
DOLLY PARTON: He would say, "This is my damn show." I would say, "I know. But this is my damn life. And we're not talking about the show, I'm talking about my life. I'm talking about my future."
JAD: We'll have the story of Dolly Parton's Peter Parker moment. The moment she became a superhero.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of programming is the audio record.