When God made Dolly Parton, she broke the mold. A singer-songwriter with a lush voice and a sharp style, Parton notched the biggest hit of all time sung by another: “I Will Always Love You.” Parton’s original, 1973 version was her way of telling manager and duet partner Porter Waggoner she was through. After Whitney Houston cut it for the 1992 “Bodyguard” soundtrack, it became the best-selling single by a woman in the history of recorded music. By itself, it would have made Parton a wealthy woman; that she is estimated to be worth half a billion dollars today, just shy of her 74th birthday, is primarily because she has written and performed hit after hit after hit.
And then there is the feminism we alluded to at the top: Is she a feminist? Is she political? Does it matter?
Parton has been having another moment lately, after appearing in Ken Burns’s PBS series “Country Music” in September, reminding people of just how engaging she is. And she is the subject of a nine-part podcast, Dolly Parton’s America, produced by public radio station WNYC in New York (and streamable for free from its website). It is now through six of nine episodes, with the seventh set for release on Dec. 3. At its heart is the question: Why is our Dolly so popular across age groups and demographics?
Host Jad Abumrad notes that Parton is strong, indefatigable – so she must be a feminist, he reasons. An expert affirms: Parton is a pioneering third-wave feminist.
“Do you think of yourself as a feminist?” Abumrad asks her.
“No, I do not,” Parton says with finality.
Abumrad wrestles with this for a while and goes back to Parton, who concedes that she may be a feminist, not in theory, but just in practice.
Something similar happens in episode 6, “The Only One For Me, Jolene,” which asks whether the three verses of one of Parton’s greatest songs, “Jolene,” from 1974, are complete. It was about begging a vixen not to steal her man, an other-woman song. A professor of women’s studies with a deep appreciation of country music composes a fourth verse that makes it a lesbian ode. Abumrad plays a recording for Parton, and she laughs and laughs with delight – and finally says, “Well, that’s, uh, that’s another take on it!”
“Could you see (‘Jolene’)as a homoerotic subversion of the other-woman cheating song?” Abumrad asks.
“You’re overthinkin’ it,” she explains.
But she doesn’t claim final ownership. She leaves room for everyone.
For much of the fifth episode, “Dollitics,” Abumrad cannot stop wondering, in voiceover, whether it matters that Parton has not taken a stand against the president (that she could not be a Trump supporter seems to be a given for him).
At the 2017 Emmy awards show, Parton presented the nominees for best actor in a supporting role, with her co-stars from the movie “9 to 5,” Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. Tomlin and Fonda took turns denouncing Trump. “Weeeeellllllll,” Parton said, making her exit, gesturing to her chest, “I know about support ...”
Speaking to Abumrad, she said, “I have my opinion about everything, but I learned years ago to keep your mouth shut ... I saw what happened to the Dixie Chicks,” the country group whose members criticized President George W. Bush and were blacklisted.
But what if, Abumrad asks himself, and us, Parton is hurting people by not denouncing Trump?
It is unanswerable. Parton is simply determined to be that singular artist who pleases all and offends none. And long may she ride.
When Elvis Presley died, the critic Lester Bangs said he was the last thing Americans could agree on.