As the 2020 election approached in the United States, I didn’t expect Dolly Parton to have the last word for me.
In the lead up to the election I'd been listening to the Dolly Parton’s America podcast, and it was a trip.
I was never really a big Dolly Parton fan. Growing up, my main memories of her were of my parents watching her Christmas specials with Kenny Rogers around the holidays, when I wanted to be watching the Alf Christmas Special.
But I had plenty of cultural connections to her. The Mathis Family accent sounds a whole lot like Dolly’s, because we’re all Appalachian to the core. I was raised on the north edge of the foothills of Southern Ohio, but when I was a kid, I believed for a time that there was a whale buried in our backyard in a hole underneath a steel grate because of the way that my dad pronounced the word “well”. Vacations were to Appalachia, and our religion and culture had crept north from the hills to the south.
My Dad’s father and mother had moved up to Middletown, Ohio from Tennessee and Kentucky respectively, and Dolly grew up near Pigeon Forge, just a few hours from the Mathis ancestral home in Dover, Tennessee - a place where, if I’m doing my genealogy correctly (and I might not be), our family established itself after a Confederate Soldier from Virginia, William Mathis, was captured at the local Battle of Fort Donelson. I also haven’t been able to confirm, but Dolly’s controversial song about an unwed mother, “Down from Dover”, seems to be referencing the same town.
Even if there isn’t an off chance that your families knew each other, you should listen to the podcast if you haven’t yet. It’ll almost definitely make you a fan. For me, listening to the podcast about her life - maybe the most important icon of the culture I was raised in - was a reminder of the best parts of my home: Great music, connection with the landscape, kindness, unpretentiousness, egalitarianism, family connections, an instinct to fight for the underdog. She exemplifies all of that and has promoted it in a variety of ways around the world through her career. It’s given me a better appreciation of Dolly as a person and an artist, and a lot of warm feels about home. She makes you feel like Appalachia is one of the world’s great places.
I moved away from Southern Ohio when I was 18 to go to college, spent the next five years in Kentucky, and left the region as a whole at 23 when Angel and I moved to New Zealand. Ever since, I’ve had somewhat of a complicated relationship with home - in part because my own instinct towards wandering has created a situation where I feel spiritually connected to a bunch of places - New Zealand, the Pacific Northwest, the Canadian Rockies, pretty much the entire North American West, Mexico - but, across the years, I’ve also developed a sense of being culturally alienated from where I grew up. The political and religious ties that bind in the Midwest and Appalachia are strong, and I developed some deep differences with my culture. My world growing up was relatively small and insular. My world now is expansive. The change has produced a different vision of what makes life meaningful, and how people should relate to one another in society.
Until 2016, those differences didn’t seem particularly insurmountable - but my people are midwestern evangelical whites with some-to-no college education: the conservative base through and through. Most of the people I was raised with were, and continue to be, Trump supporters. Beyond political differences, the four years of his presidency felt like an ongoing betrayal. From the other side, Trump support didn't just feel like political difference - it felt like hatred and aggression. For those four years, my people (whatever their justifications) supported a leader who’s attacking the rest of us and undermining the democracy that we all rely on.
It also felt strange. I could recognize the cultural streams that were converted to Trumpism, but it felt like an important deviation from the world I knew. It’s like you have a relative who’s always been a bit religious, but you find out they've joined a cult, cut off the family, and married someone twice their age. Not exactly a surprise in ways, but also alarming and not exactly comprehensible.
I spent a lot of time during the Trump years trying to figure out why my people fell so hard for this type of ideology, and this type of miserable political cult leader. I have some theories, and I can understand a lot of it intellectually. Even if it’s infuriating, and even if I don’t grant any legitimacy to Trumpism, I can rationalize that we’re all humans, that I have plenty of problematic ideas and blind spots myself. I’m a jerk a lot of the time too. I’ve been less than charitable to the people who raised me in the past. We’re all products of our environment to a degree so you can’t fully blame anyone for their mistakes. Most people genuinely are doing the best they can and trying to do what they think is best for the people they care about.
Intellectually, I can accept all of that, but it’s very difficult to feel it. No matter what I think, emotionally I have a hard time responding with anything but anger, sadness, and frustration. After 4 years of really trying, that’s still where I am - angry, sad and frustrated when I think about home, the culture that birthed me, and the hatred, dehumanization, aggression and baseline ridiculousness that Trumpism represents - both personally, and for a huge percentage of the people I’ve come to know and love since I moved away from home.
Listening to the podcast was a bit of a balm because it’s a reminder of a lot that’s great about home. It’s not all Trumpism.
But it was more than that, because Dolly’s provided unexpected insight into how to be in the face of the experience of being wronged (and even attacked) by people you love and care about.
Dolly Parton has been a lot of things in her life - the butt of a million boob jokes, a sex symbol, a feminist icon, an amusement park inspiration, a Drag Queen favorite - but the thing that has given her transcendent popularity and an air of sainthood (at least according to the podcast) is grace - that she somehow manages to be kind and accepting even when she doesn’t have to be. Through her career, even when she’s been seriously wronged, she’s shown grace in the true meaning of the term, being good to people who don’t deserve it. She threads a particular relational needle that most of us can’t figure out (at least publicly) - how to maintain productive relationships with people who don’t live up to their end of the social bargain. That quality has allowed her, paradoxically, to come out ahead of her detractors and abusers and to give her a sort of universal trust and likability.
To me Dolly's best song - one of THE best American songs - is Jolene, and that song illustrates that quality.
If you’re not familiar with the song, watch the video below. it’s a simple, beautiful, classic song that has Dolly pleading with another woman not to steal her man. It’s melancholy, but not aggressive or angry, and takes the form of almost a hymn of praise to the beauty of a woman she’s worried about stealing her partner. Her position is that Jolene is a better, more beautiful woman than she is, and that if she wants to, she can have her man. But please don’t.
It’s a song about love, sort of, but there’s a revelatory bit of the podcast where they discuss the fact that Nelson Mandela, in prison in Apartheid South Africa, used to blast Jolene when he was given the chance to pick the music for the community. The song seems like a strange choice at the outset - and maybe Mandela just had good taste in music - but the point they make is that the song’s not just about love, it’s about being in a position where you’re at another human being's mercy, and all you can do is ask them not to hurt you in the hopes that they'll treat you compassionately. Mandela must’ve understood that sentiment as well as anyone in modern history.
The song makes a lot of sense as Mandela’s favorite as well when you think about the approach that Dolly takes in her pleading. In Jolene, she’s not groveling. She’s also not angry, but fully acknowledges Jolene’s beauty and humanity (to the point that some have read the song as a veiled lesbian love song to Jolene). And while doing that, she’s asking Jolene to do the same for her - recognize her humanity, and the damage she’d do if she were to take Dolly’s love.
It's a bit much to compare Dolly to Nelson Mandela, but you can also see why the song would have resonated for him. Jolene is about recognizing that another person has the capacity to hurt you, and that even good people choose to do so at times. It’s also about choosing not to deny your enemy’s humanity, and insisting that they recognize your humanity as well. It’s a model for healthy conflict. For Mandela, that kind of attitude, expanded exponentially, is what allowed him to gain the trust of many of the white South Africans who’d imprisoned him while also functioning as an exemplary leader for black and colored South Africans, and gave him the capacity to lead a country full of people who would've been justified in seeking vengeance out of Apartheid peacefully.
All of that is to say that this gracious approach to the world is the thing that resonates so much about Dolly Parton for me right now, I think.
The emotion Dolly expressed in Jolene rhymes with my emotional state about America, and more specifically my home.
The Republicans are no Jolene. And the Democrats are no Dolly for that matter. But in every election I do feel vulnerable to people who I hope will treat the rest of us as human. I don’t have any interest in dehumanizing the people or culture I grew up with, or denying that there’s beauty there. And I’m not exactly scared of them. But it feels foolish not to prepare for the fact that they are likely to make more political decision that will be hugely harmful in the future. But also it doesn’t change the fact that we’re in the same boat, and we’re going to have to figure out how to get through this together, whether we like it or not, so we might as well remember that we're all humans.
“I had to have this talk with you
My happiness depends on you
And whatever you decide to do”
P.P.S Here’s another amazing, underestimated Appalachian voice doing one of my favorite versions of Jolene.