She Come By It Naturally: Dolly Parton and the women who lived her songs
Growing up amid Kansas wheat fields and airplane factories, Sarah Smarsh witnessed firsthand the particular vulnerabilities—and strengths—of women in working poverty. Meanwhile, country songs by female artists played in the background, telling powerful stories about life, men, hard times, and surviving. In her family, she writes, “country music was foremost a language among women. It’s how we talked to each other in a place where feelings aren’t discussed.” And no one provided that language better than Dolly Parton.
Smarsh challenged a typically male vision of the rural working class with her first book, Heartland, starring the bold, hard-luck women who raised her. Now, in She Come By It Natural, originally published in a four-part series for The Journal of Roots Music, No Depression, Smarsh explores the overlooked contributions to social progress by such women—including those averse to the term “feminism”—as exemplified by Dolly Parton’s life and art.
Far beyond the recently resurrected “Jolene” or quintessential “9 to 5,” Parton’s songs for decades have validated women who go unheard: the poor woman, the pregnant teenager, the struggling mother disparaged as “trailer trash.” Parton’s broader career—from singing on the front porch of her family’s cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains to achieving stardom in Nashville and Hollywood, from “girl singer” managed by powerful men to leader of a self-made business and philanthropy empire—offers a springboard to examining the intersections of gender, class, and culture.