“You’ve paid a lot of money to come here tonight,” Dolly Parton once said to an adoring London crowd, “and I want you to know that I appreciate it because I do need the money. You’d be amazed at how much money it can really take to make a person look so cheap.”
That remark may perfectly sum up the public persona Parton has created: comical, self-deprecating, and wholly relatable. From certain angles, it’s also a ruse. Underneath the garish wigs is the mind of a brilliant businesswoman, strategist, and storyteller—in fact, her songwriting prowess has been compared to contemporaries Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. But who is Dolly Parton?
The same question haunts producer Jad Abumrad, and he’s using his insightful podcast, Dolly Parton’s America, to find the answer. Born the fourth of 12 children in a one-room cabin in East Tennessee along the Great Smoky Mountains, Parton’s early life was a country song before she could write them. But her humble beginnings belied a fierce ambition and talent that put her miles ahead of her country music colleagues. Abumrad takes his time covering his subject’s successes—from her 3,000 songs, to her two entries in the Guinness World Records, to her popular theme park—but his central question is one he knows will never be fully answered: Why, at a time in our country when one’s worth seems defined by one’s political leanings, does everybody love Dolly Parton?
Using his mic like a photojournalist’s camera, the funny and formidable Abumrad seeks to capture the real Dolly. And he doesn’t avoid the tough questions, such as whether Parton’s seminal hit “Jolene” has traces of homoeroticism; why she won’t publicly bash President Donald Trump; and why she has become a kind of godmother to her LGBTQ admirers. Mindful of preserving her diverse fan base, Parton knows how to use her countrified charm to dodge questions that may alienate them.
But Abumrad seems preternaturally aware that Parton’s image is both precious and precarious—and this Country Music icon isn’t going to tarnish it. Parton, despite the fame and riches, wants desperately to maintain her relatable image, that of a down-home country girl working 9 to 5.