In She Come By It Natural, the journalist Sarah Smarsh tracks Dolly Parton’s trajectory from being reduced to “the punch line of a boob joke” to “a universally beloved icon”. Now, Parton, who turned 75 on Tuesday, commands centre stage, “where women of a certain age historically have gone unseen”.
The book was born in the turbulence of US politics in recent years. Not recognising the “hateful, sexist version” of the rural working class propagated by the press during the 2016 presidential election, Smarsh set out to paint a more nuanced picture in a series of pieces for the music magazine No Depression.
For Smarsh, the author of an award-winning memoir about her struggling family farm, Dolly Parton is the antithesis of Donald Trump: a “unifying balm” amid increasing divisiveness. Catching a concert in Kansas, Smarsh was struck by the diversity of Dolly’s fan base, from “proud rednecks” to drag queens.
Parton’s rise to fame is an irresistibly American rags-to-rhinestones story. Born as the fourth of 12 children on a farm in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, she grew up with no indoor plumbing, electricity or running water. Inspired by her musical mother, she began composing songs at the age of six and recorded her first single at 13.
Despite formidable successes as a performer, businesswoman and philanthropist, Parton still considers herself first and foremost a songwriter. She has written about 3,000 songs and recorded 47 solo studio albums. “I may look like a show pony,” she wrote in an earlier work, “but I’m a workhorse”…