Like many people, I have become a Zoom aficionado as of late. I’ve also downloaded Netflix Party Chrome extensions and tried to master Marco Polo. But with little news to discuss even when we get to see each other’s faces online, my friends and I have needed to get creative. Since it’s faster to access podcasts online or via Alexa than order hard copies of books right now, we decided to start a podcast club. I was never much of a big podcast person pre-pandemic, so I’ve really enjoyed the audio worlds my friends have suggested, like Sporkful, My Favorite Murder, and Mobituaries. But no podcast has rocked my world this month like the stellar 2019 release Dolly Parton’s America.
You might think the title is a bit overstated (I did, at first), but you’d be wrong. This is Dolly Parton’s world, and we are just lucky to live in it. Throughout the series, Parton is referred to as the Dolly Lama or Saint Dolly, monikers that seem entirely appropriate after you listen. The nine-part WNYC series (available on Stitcher, Spotify, and Apple) is hosted by Jad Abumrad, and produced and reported by Shima Oliaee. Abumrad’s father, a doctor in Tennessee, became friends with Dolly Parton after treating her for injuries following a 2013 car crash (Parton becoming friends with practically everyone she comes in contact with is a theme throughout the series), and Abumrad asked her to see if she’d be up for being a podcast subject.
The sad part is, I already considered myself a fan going in to Dolly Parton’s America. I watch Steel Magnolias at least once a year and have mangled “Jolene” a few times at karaoke. But I was a fool. I knew nothing. Fortunately, the series helps fills in any gapes in Dolly Parton’s history straightaway, as the first episode, “Sad Ass Songs,” describes the devastating compositions that were part of her early career. Her discography dates back 50 years, and Parton’s first four albums, based on the mountain songs and murder ballads of her Tennessee youth, contain “an ocean of pain,” says Abumrad, featuring asylums and stillborn children.
You may not know some of those, but you’re bound to recognize the subject of the second episode, “And I Will Always Leave You,” which describes how Parton was inspired to pen her best-known song. It was actually the greatest resignation letter of all time, written for Porter Wagoner when she wanted to leave her role as sidekick on his variety show to start her own career in earnest. “He didn’t know how many dreams I had,” Parton tells Abumrad.
Sometimes the series uses Dolly Parton as a springboard, placing her career in larger historical context to explore what it means to be Southern, for example, or the origins of the word “hillbilly.” Or her songs’ reverberating impact: The “Dollitics” episode explores how the theme song Parton wrote for the 1980 movie 9 To 5, in which she also starred, “captured the entire working women’s movement,” according to co-star Jane Fonda. The episode devoted to “Jolene” reveals that it was one of Nelson Mandela’s favorite songs to listen to in prison. Parton proclaims that she is a very spiritual person, but not an overtly religious one, carving out her own very particular feelings about faith in the series’ stirring final episode.
Overall, it’s an amazing deep dive into the life of an extraordinary person, but it’s the lessons from Dolly Parton’s career that are sticking with me most. Even with various tough times she’s had, Dolly Parton has always believed in herself with a steel-like intensity, carving out a career as not just a legendary musician, but also a businessperson, philanthropist, and, yes, amusement park owner (Her Dollywood Foundation Imagination Library now gives a book a month to over a million children). As she told University Of Tennessee graduates during her 2009 commencement address, “If I had one wish for you, it’s that you would learn to dream more.” She’s an amazing example of the impact one life can have, and during a time when most of us are starved for inspiration, Dolly Parton’s America can make for a much-needed, soul-soothing listen.