She Come By It Natural by Sarah Smarsh


Given her outstanding book about growing up in poverty in Kansas (Heartland), I was happy to listen to Smarsh read her new book about Dolly Parton. Dolly grew up in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee and left after high school to make her way in country music. Her talent as a songwriter, her business acumen, her looks, and her voice have made her a wildly successful and rich entertainer. She has become known in recent years for her philanthropy including giving money every month to anyone hurt by the wildfires in Sevier County, Tennessee in 2016, having given 150 million books to children, and donating a million dollars to Vanderbilt for development of a Covid vaccine.

When interviewers referred to her body, she was unabashed and sometimes beat them to the punch. Smarsh says she exchanged a class-based objectification of her past for a gender-based one in the present. She told CBS in 2004:

I always said if I see something sagging, bagging, and dragging, I’m going to nip it, tuck it, and suck it. Whatever needs to be done. I mean, it’s like I look at myself like a show horse or a show dog. I’ve always had nice boobs, I always had a nice body when I was little, but when I lost all that weight, I had to get pumped up and fixed up. They just stand up there like brave little soldiers now. They’re real big, they’re real expensive, and they’re really mine now.

Smarsh makes the case that though Parton declines to use the word feminist to describe herself, she is an implicit feminist.

If you take Parton’s decisions 30 years ago and hold them up against some of the things said and written by activists, academics, and other movement-approved experts from the same time, I would wager that Parton’s feminism has aged just as well and in some cases far better. Lucky for all of us there is a generation of women coming into power that benefitted from both, whether directly or indirectly. They didn’t all get to go to college, but they are all the daughters of 9 to 5.

It was nice to hear the story about Elvis wanting to sing one of her most popular songs, “I Will Always Love You.” This was very exciting but she turned Colonel Parker down when he said she would have to sign away all rights to the music. That turned out to be a great decision. She had hits singing it in 1974 and 1982, Linda Ronstadt covered it in 1975, and Whitney Houston took it to a record 14 weeks at Number 1 on the pop charts in 1992.

This was a nice treat to listen to during these hard times. I strongly recommend it.

Sarah Smarsh, She Come By It Natural, Scribner, 2020, 187 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library.

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