Happy Monday. October’s been a long year. Who among us does not at least kind of need a story about how great Dolly Parton is and the things she’s chosen to do with her life? Luckily, The New Yorker’s Lauren Michele Jackson is happy to oblige.
Jackson’s piece is in part a review of She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs, a book due this week from author Sarah Smarsh and Scribner. But it’s also just a celebration of Dolly, one of those pieces of writing in which the writer’s enthusiasm seems to bubble off the page. Specifically, the piece does a terrific job of addressing Parton’s politics, which in the most obvious sense have always been pointedly withheld, but which in practice come through loud and clear:
Humor indelibly choreographs Dolly’s two-step around the sort of culturally warred-over topics that trip up so many celebrities. If the shtick is slick, it doesn’t feel so, only polished, with a whiff of old-fashioned etiquette concerning the subjects one doesn’t talk about with company present. Another word for this is “grace,” helpfully supplied by [Smarsh’s book]. It’s an appropriately evangelic interpretation of Parton’s seemingly apolitical poise. In lieu of taking a stand, Parton walks the walk, binding the country’s disparate passions with a better politics—good works and the call of homecoming.
For those unfamiliar with Parton as a person, her biography, or her discography beyond the big hits, some of these notions may surprise you. (Did you know about Dolly’s book program, Imagination Library? It is excellent.) Jackson’s take on both Smarsh’s book and Parton’s public persona and the choices she’s made is a compelling one; it’s worth reading in full, but we’ll just share one more quick excerpt because today is garbage and you, dear reader, deserve it:
In a delightful clip that has recently been making the rounds online, from an episode of the short-lived nineteen-eighties variety show “Dolly,” Parton leads Patti LaBelle in “a little rhythm” sounded, washboard style, from the clacking of their acrylic nails. Wearing similar puff-sleeved, sparkling black gowns, the two luminaries briefly harmonize a rendition of “Shortnin’ Bread,” the slave folk song, before collapsing into giggles. The moment can feel silly, but no doubt Smarsh would see its serious feminine brilliance. Acrylic nails, disparaged when seen on the hands of performers like Parton or Cardi B, may very well be responsible for some spectacular feats of songwriting.
Here’s the clip in question:
All hail Dolly Parton and great writing.
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