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She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs

Review

She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs

How to explain the enduring appeal of Dolly Parton? In these divided times, it seems there’s not a lot Americans can agree on, but love for the Queen of Country cuts across deep cultural divides. Her fan base runs the gamut from conservative country music fans to members of the LGBTQ+ community. Today, she is a unifying force and treasured icon, though not so long ago she was underestimated (by both the music industry and fans) and mocked for her “backwoods Barbie” look and her body, famously tweaked by plastic surgery. 

In her second book, Sarah Smarsh attempts to unpack how Parton became such an enduring and beloved figure. Smarsh was a National Book Award finalist for HEARTLAND, an unflinching memoir of growing up poor in rural America. In her sophomore effort, she revisits similar themes, though this time with a pop-culture gloss. Specifically, she’s interested in the way Parton’s music reflects the struggle of poor and working-class women, the stigma they face, and the way they bear life’s indignities with grace and humor. Parton --- who journeyed from a shack in rural Tennessee to the heights of fame without forgetting where she came from --- speaks for those worn down by “hard luck,” Smarsh argues. Not just in her songs of women who have decided they’ve “had enough of his sh*t,” but in her very being, from the way she embraces “cheap” fashion to her “generosity of heart” and “take-no-crap attitude.”

"[Smarsh] skillfully illustrat[es] how [Parton's] music speaks to women, especially those from a lower-class background."

SHE COME BY IT NATURAL consists of four long essays originally published in 2017 in No Depression, a small journal focused on roots music. They are reproduced in this book with only minor updates. In them, Smarsh examines Parton as the embodiment of the working women’s fight; as a person who has mastered the art of leaving untenable situations (as evidenced by her flight from her small mountain home and her mid-’70s breakup with controlling musical partner Porter Wagoner); as a woman firmly in charge of the business of being herself; and as an icon. She draws on Parton’s own words from her songs, interviews and her autobiography, as well as her own life and that of her mother and grandmother, skillfully illustrating how her music speaks to women, especially those from a lower-class background.

Smarsh is clearly a Dolly Parton fan, and her tone occasionally veers close to hagiography. She doesn’t find much to criticize about the “Jolene” singer, although a few pages toward the end are devoted to discussion of the problematic Dixie Stampede attraction that bears her name. Though the popular dinner theater dropped “Dixie” from its name in the face of criticism, the show still offers a sanitized take on the Civil War in the form of a “friendly North and South competition,” per its website. She also takes a sympathetic view of Parton’s generally apolitical stance, seeing it as a reflection of her roots and her belief that “politics occur at a human level, examined as experience…and lived directly rather than bandied in academic terms.” Parton, Smarsh argues, prefers to make her views known in a more subtle way through her “bold stands for the LGBTQ community, for women, and for the poor.”

Above all, SHE COME BY IT NATURAL is a tribute to a woman who decided at a young age to live life on her own terms and has steadfastly managed to do just that. “I never want anything more than what’s fair,” Parton is quoted as saying. “The problem is, I never want anything less either.” Parton, as Smarsh shows, has made sure she’s gotten what she’s due, and in the process has inspired millions of people who see themselves reflected in her big hair, rhinestones and chart-topping songs.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on October 16, 2020

She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs
by Sarah Smarsh

  • Publication Date: October 13, 2020
  • Genres: Biography, Music, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1982157283
  • ISBN-13: 9781982157289