- Dolly Parton’s America by Jad Abumrad
At a time of intense political division and increasing socioeconomic inequality in the United States, who can bring Americans together? Olympic athletes? Religious leaders? How about Dolly Parton? The award-winning WNYC podcast Dolly Parton’s America, hosted by Jad Abumrad and produced by Shima Oliaee, posits just that: “In this very divided moment, Dolly seems to maybe be a kind of unifier,” says Abumrad in the first episode. Through the course of this ten-part series, and two live music features, we hear how Dolly Parton’s skillful songwriting and carefully crafted business acumen have cultivated a loyal and diverse fanbase across generations. Transcripts are available on the WNYC website.
Early episodes of Dolly Parton’s America provide compelling context to her work as a groundbreaker in the commercial country music industry, particularly as an artist who centers women’s stories and experiences. Early in her career, as a duo with Porter Wagoner, she became the first woman to win a Country Music Award. Whitney Houston’s recording of her composition “I Will Always Love You,” originally written about Dolly’s transition to a solo career, remains the best-selling single of all time by a woman artist (#6 overall). Her appearance in films like Steel Magnolias and 9-to-5 solidified her versatility as a performer across artistic mediums. She is one of America’s few entertainers to have been nominated for a Tony, Grammy, Emmy, and Academy Award.
But Dolly Parton’s America is not just a podcast about career highlights. A significant through-line is the examination of popular perceptions of the artist by mainstream audiences and how these have evolved over time. Throughout the series, we hear testimonials about what Dolly means to a diverse cross-section of her fanbase: women of multiple generations, scholars, artists, students, immigrants, small town folk, urban dwellers, and those from the LGBTQ community. The podcast argues that people identify with the artist’s public image in vastly different ways, both as a mirror of one’s own experiences and as a canvass upon which one’s hopes may be projected. [End Page 178]
In many ways, Dolly’s trajectory does mirror certain sociological shifts in American society. Her early role as a support figure to her male music partner, Porter Wagoner, in the 1960s represents a typical gendered experience for women of that era. Her ultimate self-emancipation, creatively and financially, from Wagoner’s spotlight overlapped with a period in which women’s financial independence, and divorce rates, grew across the country. Some of her songwriting subjects, from pregnancy and abortion to partner abandonment and suicide, broke taboos to offer timely commentary on social issues, notably written from a woman’s perspective. Her acting role in 9-to-5 (1980), and her signature song of the same name, tackle discrimination against women in the workplace, paralleling their entrance en masse to the American labor force. And as legal norms gradually shifted, in recognition of her large LGBTQ fanbase, she became an outspoken voice in the country music scene in support of same-sex marriage equality. Whichever way you spin it, Dolly has clearly had her ear to the ground and shifted her public persona accordingly.
We also learn quite a bit about the host, Jad Abumrad, who brings both personal and professional storytelling to the podcast, occasionally drawing upon childhood memories and familial connections to drive certain storylines. At one point, he does a deep dive into his own family’s Lebanese roots, reflecting on what Dolly’s work symbolized to their immigration experience in America. It turns out that the interview access afforded to the podcast by Dolly Parton and her team originated with Abumrad’s father, who served as one of her doctors in Tennessee.
Although the series is, on the whole, very entertaining and enjoyable to listen to, there are aspects that leave something to be desired. While the host makes a compelling case for Dolly’s enduring appeal...