Becca Balint: Dolly Parton and the healing of America

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When viewed through the prism of politics, our nation looks irreparably damaged. President Donald Trump has done significant harm to our institutions, social fabric, and important friendships and alliances across the globe. And it's easy to lose heart, to feel as if we'll not recover from this national fiasco. But I recently discovered a balm for my heartache about my country: Jad Abumrad's podcast - Dolly Parton's America

Abumrad seeks to answer the unlikely question, Can Dolly Parton heal America? The podcast traces Dolly Parton's life and career and uses that frame as a means through which to understand America.

Abumrad, who grew up in Tennessee, realized that Parton's fanbase is genuinely representative of America itself. He explains, "You've got evangelical church ladies standing next to men in drag — Dolly is massive in the LGBTQ community — standing next to guys in trucker hats. All of these different communities, on either side of the `culture wars,' all standing together, shoulder-to-shoulder, singing the same song." Parton has the uncanny ability to hold all our aspirations and dreams at once, and it was this observation about Parton that initially drew Abumrad in. But it's Parton's astonishing career and talent as a songwriter that holds the story together.

Born in a one-room cabin on the banks of the Little Pigeon River in Pittman Center, Tenn., to parents who raised 12 children, Parton is the quintessential unlikely success story. This remarkable woman — whose dad allegedly paid the doctor with a bag of cornmeal when he assisted at Dolly's birth — has written or co-written over 3,000 songs and has reached No. 1 on the Billboard country music charts an astonishing 25 times.

Parton is obviously incredibly prolific, and her songs resonate with so many Americans. But it's her singular ability to cross so many different culture lines that intrigues me. She speaks to our deep desire to hold complexities and contradictions about people — even as our highly partisan political climate insists that we don't.

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She's been able to do this because so many people can relate to her — not in spite of her over-the-top style but because of it. She's crossed lines her whole life, and her bravery, humor and gumption give us all permission to do the same.

I've recently been captivated by her performance of the classic tune "Mule Skinner Blues" on the Porter Wagoner show in 1970. You can watch the clip on YouTube, and you should. With her sky-high hair, bright yellow dress, winning smile and perfect pitch, Parton wins over the audience despite the fact that her singing as a "lady" muleskinner is rather transgressive for the time. It became a country music hit and set her on a course for stardom.

This was never a foregone conclusion. Dolly Parton was told her voice was too high, her clothes were too gaudy, her makeup was just "too much" — and that nobody would take her seriously because of the size of her breasts. But all that didn't matter in the end. Parton didn't let others define her. She became an American icon by representing that powerful voice inside each of us that insists we'll find our own way; we'll forge our own path.

A friend recently attended a work conference in Nashville, Tenn., at which Dolly Parton was the keynote. She tried to take a picture of Parton several times, but each time the rhinestones all over her outfit caused the picture to just end up as a brilliant flash of light. Parton reminds us that we won't be held down or held back by anyone — not even by the fraudster who currently occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as Senate Majority Leader in the Vermont Legislature. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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