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BIRD SONGS: Dolly Parton & Appalachia

Welcome back to Bird Songs, where we do the unthinkable: talk about our record collection.


Dolly Parton was spotted in a Super Bowl commercial this week, hawking cell phones with Miley Cyrus. At least that's what I caught of it - I was doing beers at the bar with a couple of serious sports fans who were busy being bent out of shape about the Bengals and trying to explain the more arcane rules of football to me. I pointed Dolly out and they wrote her off as some kind of ridiculous dinosaur from the oft-hated Country Music Establishment. And I said man what are you talking about.


The Algorithm must have been hard at work, because Dolly made another appearance just one day later on my home TV. Carson (BF chanteuse and community envoy) had her recent Netflix documentary on, and in the sacred spirit of following the thread I knew that I had a new blog assignment. Let's talk about Dolly Parton.


The Netflix doc was trying to reconcile Dolly's image of artifice with her image of down-home authenticity - and that seems to be the main discussion folks want to have about her these days. One the one hand she's immediately recognizable as an image, an image that she has spent seventy years cultivating and encouraging (see "Backwoods Barbie," from 2008, featured in the documentary). On the other hand, she's the embodiment of a story, and that story is the engine of her very public persona. She's got the kind of country-music origin tale that seems archaic in our 21st century, and indeed Dolly is a rare ambassador of the distant, difficult past that our collective culture is currently reimagining and attempting to understand.


I'm talking about a South that doesn't fit neatly into simplified notions of history; the kind of history that was perverted for profit in things like The Beverly Hillbillies and Deliverance, where Appalachian culture became a signifier of backwardness, violence and intellectual and economic poverty. The Appalachians have long been a whipping post for America's anxieties about itself, whether that be by Hollywood, Southern aristocrats, or by urban thinkers obsessed with one-sided notions of social and political progress.


But, as in all things Americana, contradictions are everywhere. Appalachia has also been viewed as a kind of lost world, a place where so-called noble American founding values were never encroached upon by history. You can see how that's just as problematic as a lot of stereotypes we have of the South in general, and how easily it was propagandized by racist organizations like the KKK; nonetheless, it's an idea that drew writers and musicologists to the area in the mid-20th century as part of the first wave of a Folk Revival that later became a cornerstone of the Counterculture. And oddly enough, the exposure Appalachian artists were given by those curious outsiders often gives us an unbiased look at their reality. It's an idea that I'll probably return to a lot in these blog posts - our musical memory is essentially an impossibly tangled knot that contains threads of everything in our culture, both the good stuff and the bad stuff, and oftentimes a lot of the really good and really bad stuff. And all of it begins with Gospel - which I guess we'll get to some other time.


Much of Dolly's music deals with her Appalachian roots and proves that the area's music - bluegrass, old-time, and country - is as much of a mythic wellspring as the Blues, which it is related to through Gospel. Some of Dolly's hits are very literal links between the traditions of the pre-television past of her youth and the current digital reality wherein all modes of thought can be commodified, stylized, repackaged or exploited by anyone, at any time. Beyond the obvious barriers she has broken in her life as an independent musician and artist, she's broken the barriers of time by creating a body of work that links telegraph-era songwriting, radio-era musical conventions, television-era showbiz savvy, and internet-era media enterprises like Netflix into something at once very personal and completely universal.


Here it all is at once: a gospel song written in 1946, done as bluegrass in 1977 on Dolly's own television variety show, uploaded by someone else and now available for viewing on her curated YouTube channel:


This whole discussion, so far, hasn't covered anything remotely new. Besides in her own carefully cultivated media personality, Dolly's whole deal has been covered many times, including a few years ago in Dolly Parton's America, a podcast produced by WNYC's Radiolab, which was in heavy rotation at the Bird Friend estate in the Spring of 2020. I won't try and talk about the impact that she's had on our collective consciousness, because there are a heck of a lot of more content out there that will handle it more eloquently than I can. There are plenty of pieces of literature you can search for. There are also movies (produced by Dolly), television dramas (produced by Dolly), theme parks (owned by Dolly), and books (written by Dolly) that all reinforce these points: that she is talented, that she is innovative, that she is essentially an angel sent from Heaven, that she understands the currents of American culture better than most people.


That last point, though, is especially important for our purposes, because it hints at what Dolly does better than almost anyone else - writing songs. Beyond all of the myth-making and artifice it's clear that she's as essentially impenetrable as any songwriter; she conjures music from a place of experience that she just sort of lampshades in her official story. It's no secret that she weaves bluegrass, country, pop, rock and roll, and old-time music into her work; she talks about it all the time. But a look at pretty much any of her 3,000 songs (really) reveals a deeply human perspective that's not easy to establish as a songwriter. I've barely covered the basics on Dolly Parton, and at this point I'm still just re-hashing what's been said before. So I'll just shut my trap, while you enjoy this Bird Friend Family favorite:


Oh, and one last thing. If you were turned off by her Super Bowl spot because of some hang-ups about authenticity, don't forget that even Bob Dylan sold out to the ad men. For Victoria's Secret, no less - and to prove my dedication to this point, my search history now has an entry for "bob dylan victorias secret."


-G


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