I listened to lots of country music as a kid, courtesy of my parents. It played in the car as we drove to and from school, Cub Scouts, church, and random weekend activities. My parents also enjoyed occasionally putting on their favorite records and dancing around the living room in order to both reminisce and to expose us to what they felt was good music.
But it also meant that we didn’t listen to the poppy, crossover country popular at the time.
It just wasn’t what my parents enjoyed. So, while instead of Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Anne Murray, and the Urban Cowboy soundtrack, we were introduced to George Strait, Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and other such acts designed for kicking up dust at a dance hall on weekends.
That meant that my only exposure to Dolly Parton as a kid was watching 9 to 5 and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas when they would randomly appear on cable television. Which then meant that my pre-pubescent self had a very – let’s just say – specific glimpse into Parton’s life, music, artistry, and personality. But even after spending several years as an adult educating myself on the greater history of country music, I still had a blind spot with certain artists because I’d convinced myself that they weren’t for me, and that definitely included Dolly.
So, when a music journalist friend of mine conducted a fantastic radio interview with the author of a brand-new book about Dolly Parton, I knew I had to fix this gap in my knowledge. And when I learned that Dr. Leigh H. Edwards had written an academic exploration into how Parton has spent the bulk of her career subverting, resisting, and undermining gender tropes and norms in country music, I couldn’t resist obtaining a copy to review.
Not only is Dolly Parton, Gender, and Country Music a sterling monograph on Parton’s personal oeuvre, but it fulfills Edwards’ thesis and more.
This 2018 release from University of Indiana Press is a stellar exploration of how Parton deftly balanced traditional country aesthetics with her willingness to rebel against those same trappings by completely owning her image and how she performed her femininity. Thanks to thorough research that digs into Parton’s personal statements across her autobiography, social media outlets, and interviews in a variety of mediums, the reader is presented with a woman completely in control of who she is, her art, and how people interact with her.
In fact, that might be the book’s central argument: in a genre where women had traditionally been forced into either the “girl singer” model or the sexualized artist designed specifically for the male gaze, Parton balanced both those concepts into a genre-fluid whole. The result was intentionally transgressive to the country music establishment, and it allowed Parton to control her own career in ways unavailable to female artists at the time. And that trailblazing approach to image and artistic development set the stage and career trajectory for folks like Reba McEntire, Gretchen Wilson, The Dixie Chicks, Lady Gaga, Kacey Musgraves, and – yes – Taylor Swift.
Edwards argues convincingly for Parton as a both a camp and country icon, putting Parton’s own description of her aesthetic as a “hooker with a heart of gold” to good use.
Entitled “Backwoods Barbie,” the first chapter serves the crux of the greater narrative by outlining the various ways and means that Parton has performed her gender over nearly 50 years. Call it “sincerity v. camp,” “art v. artifice,” or “authentic v. performance,” but Dolly Parton is always Dolly Parton, no matter the medium.
In professional wrestling parlance, this is called “kayfabe” – the willingness of the performer to never break character, no matter what’s happening. But kayfabe only works when and if the fans engaging with the art are also willing to suspend reality. As opposed to being put off by a fake character created by an artist looking to make a few bucks on being quirky or “different,” kayfabe really works when fans believe the artist is so committed to authenticity that they are their character, their personality, their persona at all times.
This is the power of Dolly Parton and her gender performance:
she can be the innocent mountain girl with an authentic rags-to-riches success story who descended from her actual roots in the mountains of rural East Tennessee as well as the strong, outspoken woman who is comfortable displaying her body and sexual energy on her terms. In Dolly Parton, these are not mutually exclusive characters, voices, or ideals. They aren’t even two sides of the same coin. They ARE the same coin.
With chapters two, three, and four – respectively titled “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” “Parton’s Crossover and Film Stardom,” and “Hungry Again,” Edwards walks the reader through the greater biography of Dolly Parton to show how her artistic progression was intentional, purposeful, and entirely within her control. Chapter 2 discusses her origin story, how she rose to prominence in the shadow of Porter Waggoner, and how she ultimately broke from his artistic control, paying specific mention to Parton’s willingness to sing about gender and class in ways only few female artists were doing at the time.
With Chapter 3, we view Parton’s rise to crossover fame in the late ‘70s and throughout the ‘80s. Not only did she wholeheartedly embrace pop-formatted arrangements and movie stardom, she did so by relying heavily upon a campy Mae West ideal. Edwards explicates Parton’s gender performance further, courtesy of case studies that examine the themes of 9 to 5, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and the HBO documentary of the “Real Love” tour with Kenny Rogers.
In Chapter 4, we find a Parton who, after watching her star quality dim in the ‘90s, returns to her authenticity roots by creating a series of albums steeped in bluegrass and classic country tropes.
Yet, instead of tilting the scales too far into traditional country, Parton strikes the keenest balance of her career between the innocent mountain girl and the country trash images. She accomplished this even as she became even more outspoken in her support for causes that stood outside the country music establishment, specifically for LGBTQIA+ rights. Further cementing her status as a cultural icon, she also took great strides to craft a Dollywood experience that showcased the best of her Appalachian roots, instead of pushing a hackneyed redneck image for mass consumption.
When Chapter 5 rolls around with the title of “‘Digital Dolly’ and New Media Fandoms,” Edwards presents us with a picture of authentic Dolly Parton fully realized in the technology of the current millennium. She makes the case that Parton, because she’s always lived the character of “Dolly Parton” to the absolute fullest measure, was better prepared for success in the age of social media than most of her peers. Parton didn’t have to create a persona for interacting with her fans online – she’d been that person her entire career, and her fans could now interact with her more effectively and intimately than every before.
Dolly Parton, Gender, and Country Music portrays an artist of strength and verve who’s committed to being exactly who she wants to be on her terms.
No matter what the traditional paternalistic power structure dictated she should do. She literally rose from abject poverty in Tennessee to become one of the most powerful, creative, and iconic cultural figures in history, empowering two-plus generations of singers, creatives, actors, and people in general to be exactly who they want to be.
Throughout the text, Edwards laid out a convincing argument regarding the power of Parton’s gender performance as one that explicitly rejects the male gaze and turns it upon itself by Parton owning her image and using her sexuality as she sees fit. And by utilizing heaps of contextual analysis into Parton’s flirtatious, campy, and over-the-top interviews with a wide variety of media figures, she delivered oomph, substance, and depth that I greatly appreciated as a reader. Ultimately, this is a fantastic read that is both highly academic and accessible, whether you wanted to read a critical examination of gender theory in action or looked to simply learn more about the life and legacy of Dolly Parton.
Despite all of the cliches you might have heard about the place, Adam P. Newton actually enjoys living in Texas – most of the time. He currently creates and curates content for a marketing agency, and in his limited free time, he writes a memoir about his journey through music called “Explaining Grownup Music to Kids.”