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I started the reading for my Dolly Parton passion project with Sarah Smarsh’s She Come By It Natural for no other reason than it was new and in stock at my local bookstore (Flyleaf Books). That is to say, for no good reason at all.

I don’t intend to review these books, including Smarsh’s. Just assume that I think you could do way worse than read the things I’ll discuss over the coming weeks.

Two things jump out from my readings so far. One, Dolly Parton has transcended country music as much as she has defined it. The “moment” appears pegged to the early 2010s. I am not yet sure what the conditions were or why they were right for Dolly to cross the rubicon from pop-country memorabilia into popular culture’s post-wave feminist totem. The search for a good reason starts with a good timeline. I will be starting one soon.

The other thing that jumps out of Smarsh’s text is an earnest desire to situate Dolly’s monomyth within our current racial discourse. Readers have done our own bit of transcending. Smart people listen to NPR and know that “people of color” is not the same as “colored people.” Intersectionality has happened and well-meaning folks want to apply that framework to their understanding of the world. All of that comes out in Smarsh’s artful acknowledgement that being born poor and white is still a kind of privilege. But it really becomes a challenge for me, as a reader and Black consumer of whatever Dolly’s selling, when Smarsh looks for today’s “Dolly.”

Smarsh settles on Nicki Minaj. She is citing Jade E. Davis’ essay on Dolly and Nicki. Davis (disclaimer: only my best friend and such a delight to see her cited here) argues that:

Even though they’re pop stars, Parton and Minaj exist far outside the non-threatening spaces of acceptability. It’s okay to admire them, but you cannot emulate them in your everyday life. Parton’s “dirt poor” roots and Minaj’s Trinidadian heritage means they’ll never be “mainstream” or aspirational.

Speaking of monomyths, the recent readings on Dolly Parton are as classic a hero’s journey as any Greek narrative poem.

Dolly is born into as ordinary a world as a U.S. reader can probably imagine: white Appalachia dab smack in the middle of America’s greatest century. Dolly makes do with her coat of many colors but feels pulled to something stranger and greater than the circumstances of her birth. Her Uncle Billy plays the role of the herald who beckons to our young heroine with a rusted car pointed towards Nashville.

Along the way, Dolly is tested! A hero has to have a test. Is there a better modern version of a threshold guardian than Porter Wagoner, a man who literally offers Dolly’s greatest test in the guise of offering her greatest dream?

Dolly survives Wagoner but he isn’t down yet! He comes back with a final test. The test is designed to see if Dolly has truly transformed. Out of spite and envy and patriarchal ownership, Wagoner sues Dolly. If you haven’t heard Dolly’s first person account of the second episode of Dolly Parton’s America, you probably aren’t living right.

Her response to Wagoner’s admitted betrayal evidences a near-mythical level of grace. Dolly goes on to settle the ridiculous case with Porter and will financially care for him when he goes broke later in life. As the kids say, couldn’t be me.

Everyone is making a big deal of Dolly’s songwriting during her recent renaissance. And they should. She is incredible. But they may be missing that the greatest story Dolly ever wrote was the pitch perfect hero’s tale of her own life.

Maybe what I’m wondering is what kind of hero(ine) is Dolly? Lover, tyrant, mystic, saint, or warrior? Famous astrologer Chani Nicholas read my astrological chart once. She told me that I am very much a Lilith. Lilith is the badass first woman who doesn’t take Adam’s shit so mankind wrote her as a demon in their big book. I like to think this explains all my cussing and perhaps my deep rage at any injustice. It could mean that I am gay but I am way too lazy to find out. It may also explain why I once came so close to converting to Judaism. But, I digress. My point is that the Lilith in me is probably hoping that after all this reading I can definitely decide that Dolly is warrior.

Twinsies and all that.

If I lost you at monomyth, check this summary out on Medium:

For all the discussion among writers about The Hero’s Journey, this is pretty much all you need to know.

Separation from the Old World.

Initiation in the New World.

Return to the Old World.

The theme of The Hero’s Journey: Follow your bliss. Through their adventure, the Heroine discovers the most essential and authentic part of her psyche, embraces it, and as a result is empowered to win the final test, thus returning home a “transformed individual,” the physical journey servicing the Heroine’s psychological journey.

You can also watch The Power of Myth on PBS. Support public media. It’s kinda racist but at least it is educational.


Tressie McMillan Cottom, PhD is an associate professor in the iSchool at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life (UNC), Faculty Associate at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, and 2020 MacArthur Fellow.

More of her work can be found on Medium and her website.