I Will Always Love You: A Dolly Parton Reading List

Dolly Parton attends the 61st Annual GRAMMY Awards at the Staples Center on February 10, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic via Getty Images)

Central Florida doesn’t do glamour. I know because I was born and raised in Lakeland, Florida, the birthplace of Publix supermarkets and where Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, died in a nursing home. Growing up, my sister Abby and I had a never-named game where we’d see a figure skater, Vanna White, anyone, wearing a pretty dress on television, and then we’d passionately bicker over who got to have the rhinestoned, beaded, or sequined costume. We knew what glamour looked like, and we wanted it. By the time I’d graduated high school, I knew glamour in real life. I’d seen it in person three times.

My high school band competed in an annual competition up in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Each year, when the music part of the trip was over, we’d go to Dolly Parton’s dinner theater show one night, and spend a day at her theme park, Dollywood. And inside Dollywood, inside Chasing Rainbows, a museum dedicated to telling Dolly’s life story, was my pilgrimage: a collection of Dolly’s rhinestoned, beaded, and sequined costumes, more beautiful and breathtaking than anything I’d ever bickered over in the never-named game of my childhood.

Two years after high school, I moved to New York City and dug my heels into culture shock. Five years in, I got into a Dolly Parton-themed holiday party put on by a fancy New York PR firm. I glided through the night among the well-dressed and well-heeled. I sipped moonshine and peach iced tea with a party-themed name like it was mother’s milk. I danced to Kylie Minogue performing Dolly covers. And I held my head up high all night because I’d long already seen the installation in the front room, a sparkling display of Dolly’s costumes on loan from Dollywood.

I won’t say Dolly Parton changed my life. I’ve only just read her 1994 memoir “Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business,” loaned it to three people, gave it as a wedding present, and have the first and only edition in paperback and hardcover. I recently got the first Christmas album Dolly recorded with Kenny Rogers, “Once Upon A Christmas.” I’m pretty proud of that. I don’t own any Dolly T-shirts or anything like that (maybe I should), I just think she’s a gift to humanity — a living, breathing embodiment of dreams. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t. Dolly would say, “It’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world.” Maybe she’s not for you, even though she’s for everyone. But, hey, don’t take my word for it.

1. “Outta That Holler” (Sarah Smarsh, Slate, October 2020)

In this excerpt from her 2020 book, “She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs,” journalist Sarah Smarsh describes Parton’s brand of implicit feminism. By harnessing the value of economic agency and sexual power to overcome the poverty that defined her childhood — born the fourth of 12 children, “wearing dresses made of feed sacks” and “dyeing her lips with iodine from the family medicine cabinet for lack of lipstick” — Parton has shaped the person she is today.

She reminds her audiences that, no matter where they came from, everyone can identify with being shamed one way or another, and no one deserves it. Never be ashamed of your home, your family, yourself, your religion, she says, and adoring crowds applaud. One need look no further than her immense LGBTQ following to know that Parton’s transformation from a slut-shamed, talented teenage bumpkin to entertainment superstar contains a universal struggle that has less to do with being Appalachian than with being human. If her presence and the appreciation it instills in people could be whittled to a phrase, it’s “be what you are.”

2. “The Grit and Glory of Dolly Parton” (Emily Lordi, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, November 2020)

The person and brand that is Dolly Parton did not just happen overnight. Emily Lordi provides an overview of Parton’s decades-long career, illustrating how it’s been furthered not by reinvention, but through the reintroduction of Parton and her music, all while Parton herself engages with the times. Lordi first interviewed Parton over the phone, then in person after providing a negative COVID-19 test.

People want her gifts, her glow, her time; and Parton, who, as she says, “loves everybody and wants everybody to love me,” is often happy to oblige. She can’t sit still anyway — and early on in the pandemic, she decided to keep working, as long as her team could do so safely. Last May, she released “When Life Is Good Again,” a song of reassurance that justifies the journalist Melinda Newman’s claim, in Billboard, that, during the coronavirus crisis, Parton seems to have appointed herself America’s “comforter in chief”: “When everything is on the mend, / I’ll even drink with my old friends, / Sing and play my mandolin … And it’s gonna be good again.”

3. “Dolly Parton Steers Her Empire Through the Pandemic — and Keeps It Growing” (Melinda Newman, Billboard, August 2020)

The daughter of an industrious sharecropper father and a musically inclined mother, Parton is a savvy businesswoman whose earliest and latest decisions in the music industry are only the core of her empire. As Melinda Newman writes, “Her legendary body of music is just the start of what makes her Dolly. …”

She sounds surprisingly giddy as she talks about the next chapter of her career as if it’s her first. “I’m touched and honored that I’m still around and that I’m able to still be important in the business,” she says. “I honestly feel like I’m just getting started. I know that sounds crazy but I really feel like I might have a big music career, record career. Who knows?”

4. “Dolly Parton on How to Be More Like Dolly Parton” (Anna Moeslein, Glamour, November 2019)

In an interview with Parton, Anna Moeslein and Parton review “Heartstrings,” a Netflix series in which each episode is based on a different Parton song. They also discuss emotions and Parton’s position on what people can do to bring “a little Dolly in their own lives,” as well as fashion and beauty.

Well, I think it’s always important for us to be allowed to be who we are, all that we are, and appreciate that. And I know being a woman in this world…I’ve always been proud that I was born a woman, and I’ve joked that if I wasn’t, I would have been a drag queen. That’s my favorite line, but it’s probably true. I love being able to express myself, and I want to be seen and appreciated for who I am. So I’ve always appreciated and loved people for who they are. Because we don’t need to all be the same.

5. “Is Dolly Parton the Voice of America?” (Rachel Riederer, The New Republic, December 2020)

Citing Jad Abumrad’s Radiolab podcast (“Dolly Parton’s America”), Parton’s Netflix series, shoutouts from Nicki Minaj and Drake, and even a history course at the University of Tennessee, Rachel Riederer discusses the latest Dolly Parton renaissance. And, given the political landscape of the U.S., Riederer wonders if there’s a place for Parton’s enduring position to sidestep politics — which Abumrad refers to as “Dollitics.”

You cannot talk about sharecropping without talking about politics, and to say more would not be her style. She was not shy about her desire to sell books or to present her life as a fairy tale, and you sell a fairy tale by focusing on the romance and adventures of the rising princess, not the conditions that made her a scullery maid.

6. “Springtime for the Confederacy” (Aisha Harris, Slate, August 2017)

When I mentioned Dolly’s “dinner theater show” above, I was intentionally vague. Despite my setup, I know Dolly is human. And humans are complicated. Dolly’s dinner show seems complicated, too, but really, it’s not. The show, known until 2018 as “Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede,” is performed before an arena split into the “North” versus the “South,” where the audience, feasting on a four-course dinner eaten without cutlery, cheers on white-washed narratives of colonization, then the Antebellum South, then a performance competition between the North and the South. As a high schooler attending the show, I sat and watched from the North side, not fully grasping how problematic the programming was. I suppose I could do what Parton did in the Billboard article above: plead “innocent ignorance.” As an adult, I know better.

The last time I saw the show was in 2006. Aisha Harris reviewed the show in 2017, after watching it the same week as Unite the Right, a white supremacist rally, descended on Charlottesville, Virginia. At the rally, a neo-Nazi intentionally drove into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing an innocent woman, Heather Heyer, and injuring others. (The president notably remarked in the aftermath that there “were very fine people, on both sides.”) Harris recorded the experience of the dinner show from start to finish, without holding back.

While the show makes zero mention of slavery, that’s not to say there were no references to the Civil War. The war was alluded to both in the overarching North-versus-South conceit and through details both subtle (the gray and blue color schemes on each side) and blatant: The racing piglets were named after Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Scarlett O’Hara. Dolly says that the show is about bringing back “those good old times,” referring to her childhood, but of course she wasn’t around during the days of Grant and Lee.

Harris wrote a follow-up to this piece after the show responded to her initial review, and again in April 2018, when the show dropped “Dixie” from its name.

7. “Living with Dolly Parton” (Jessica Wilkerson, Longreads, October 2018)

Jessica Wilkerson, who grew up in East Tennessee, where Dollywood is located, confronts the worldviews of her upbringing with those acquired as an adult after moving away from home for graduate school in New York. Weighing the socioeconomic implications of Dollywood’s hiring practices and confronting “Dolly Parton’s blinding, dazzling whiteness,” Wilkerson strikes a reluctant balance, compartmentalizing more than one version of Dolly Parton.

But the aftermath of Dollywood left me low-spirited. I was nestled into a cozy room in the log house my dad built on top of a ridge, where we lived. From the peak of that ridge, I could stand and see the Smoky Mountains, where Dolly Parton grew up and where she built a simulacrum of her mountain childhood. Hers felt more real than mine. I was sad, but jealous, too. I lived in the real world of Appalachia. A world of layaway stores and packaged foods, bleary-eyed workers and stressed-out mothers. I longed for the simulation.

Alison Fishburn is an American writer living in Paris, Ontario.