Don't Rock the Inbox: Issue #4
New year, new country (but also the same old country)
We both love country music and write about it (Marissa’s even working on a book about it!), but finding places to do the latter — especially in the thoughtful, inclusive, nuanced way we aim to — has become increasingly challenging. So we’re making something new: specifically, a semi-regular newsletter with essays, interviews and reviews that reflect what’s happening now in country music, using that term’s broadest possible definition. Put a record on and enjoy Don’t Rock The Inbox! — Natalie & Marissa
In this issue:
Q&A: Kalie Shorr on how she navigates Nashville as an open book
On Garth and country music: blue, red and somewhere in between
Songs We Like (and some we don’t!)
What Dollymania is really all about
Lastly, courtesy of Kip Moore
Q&A: Kalie Shorr
“Why has there not been a headline that’s like ‘Qountry Music?’” quips Kalie Shorr in the middle of our somewhat tangent-filled discussion of The State Of Country Music, its politics, and its perennial exclusion of women — especially outside-the-box women artists like Shorr. Her exceptional 2019 debut, Open Book, was recently re-released as a deluxe edition by her new label, tmwrk records; a cursory playthrough should make it obvious to even the most reluctant country listener that even without the Twitter-ready jokes about the genre’s growing faction of QAnon wives, Shorr is hardly country as usual. You can hear the late ‘90s-early ‘00s Dixie Chicks, the brash pop-grunge flair of Avril Lavigne, the almost uncomfortably confessional lyrics of Taylor (although for this Swift skeptic, Shorr’s songs have always rung truer) — most of all, you can hear a truly distinctive, smart voice that’s neither been stifled by Nashville’s machine nor intentionally rejected it with a lo-fi, Americana aesthetic.
Shorr is working on a follow-up now, and was generous enough to speak with Don’t Rock The Inbox about her (long!) path in country, and what she’s learned so far.
NW: I know you wanted to be an artist starting when you were really young. At what point did you have that realization that I think most women can probably relate to: "The fact that I'm a girl is going to make this more difficult for me"?
KS: It was when I met my manager — literally, just a few months into living in Nashville. This was when nobody was talking about how few women there were, and there were so few women. One of the most prominent female voices on country radio was Kimberly Perry from The Band Perry — so still not even a female solo artist. But I come from the generation where first we made mix CDs, and then we had like, Limewire, and then we had Spotify playlists. So my music was not what was being fed to me, it was what I was discovering myself. *My* playlist was Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift and The Band Perry — but also, I thought Kelleigh Bannen was just as big as Carrie Underwood. I was actively seeking out a lot of up and coming female artists in country, watching their YouTube videos from whatever radio tour they were on, finding unreleased songs that I liked.
So when I moved to Nashville, I didn't know that those girls weren't getting the same opportunities. That was massive culture shock. I started to realize just by the shows that I'd seen everywhere, little writers rounds at the Bluebird Cafe and Listening Room, that it was literally all guys — and then you'll have one girl and she has to act like a bro in order to like, hang on stage. This was 2013, so like peak bro country. My manager sat me down — he wasn't managing me yet. But we met on the internet [laughs] and started talking. He had this idea a couple months after we'd met: He said, "I want to start an all-female singer-songwriter round, Song Suffragettes, because there are so few lineups where girls have a place to play." If you don't have a place to play, you don't have a place for publishers to come see you. If you don't get a publishing deal, you don't have record labels interested, you don't get a record deal — you know.
As he was telling me about it, my eyes were so opened to what was going on. I was like, "Oh, my God, wait, you're you're totally right." He had crunched some numbers and been like, "Women are like nine percent of country radio right now." I just had no idea. I didn't know that Kelleigh Bannon was struggling with her label — that she'd sold 100,000 copies of "Famous," but they never officially sent it to radio. That was probably my first time — just having Todd be like, "Yeah, this is why we need to do this." I had to pretty quickly adjust my expectations for my first year in Nashville as well — like, "Okay, this is not going to be as easy as we think it is." [laughs]
NW: Did it give you any pause that a guy came up with the idea?
KS: He's very aware of that dynamic, and that's why everybody else on the Song Suffragettes team is a woman. We have a girl running it now named Taylor Fair, he's just the machine behind it. But the truth is, if you're in a marginalized group, you need someone who's in a not-marginalized group to help you break through. The suffragettes weren't going to get the right to vote without men helping them. He's a man in the music industry, and I still feel like he can be more forceful and more outspoken than a woman could because a second a woman is, it's like she's angry and being bitchy feminist. When he does, it's somebody in the industry who's fed up. He knows that he can get away with that easier, so he's like, "Fine, I'll just do it." Is that amazing that that's how that works? No. Is it nice that he's fully self-aware about it, and is using it to help? Yes.
NW: What have you gotten out of Song Suffragettes besides, obviously, a platform to share your music?
KS: I mean, I met the girls I wrote "Fight Like A Girl" with through that show. I met Candy Carpenter. And just from those two things alone, my career wouldn't look the same — I wrote four of the most critically-acclaimed songs on Open Book with Candy.
Even more than that, though, it's just taught me how to be a better woman because I'm so much more aware of these things that I probably could have continued to live in ignorance of. Even the concept of women not being represented on country radio, that's small potatoes in the scheme of what women — especially women of color — are dealing with. Just based on that privilege alone, on the fact that like, I'm fine even if I don't get on country radio — I can still have a career without having to constantly think about and talk about [my identity]. I really took some time to hunker down and do some women's studies and know what I was talking about — do research on how this affects everybody, and again, especially women of color working in industry or trying to be artists and whatnot. Being aware of those things will make you a better person. So I'm very thankful for that, because I probably would have lived in a little bit more of an ignorant state without it.
NW: Yeah — as someone who just interviewed Morgan Wallen, I feel pretty confident in asserting that most male country stars aren't often compelled to reflect on their ignorance when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
KS: I genuinely think that Morgan Wallen is probably a lot cooler and a lot more progressive than people think he is, he's just playing that major league game that, you know, most women aren't so we don't have to worry. I mean, I remember the point where my manager and I were like, "You know what, I'm not on country radio right now, and I'm not having to a kiss a lot of people's butts right now, so I might want to say whatever I want, right?" And then I got an album called Open Book — and truthfully, I felt like I got more press because of how outspoken I was about gender issues in country. Like back in 2017 I was in Teen Vogue. I know it's because they were like, "Oh, we can get a spicy quote from her," while everybody else was like, "I don't know if I'm really like, a feminist.” Yeah, well, look up the definition.
NW: It does seem, like you're saying, that plenty of country artists might actually have something to gain by being more politically engaged — contrary to popular belief.
KS: I go back and forth on this all the time. Because like, yes, if you're coming from a place of privilege, then you should use that for good. However, my dad was in the House of Representatives, my sister and her husband worked on Capitol Hill until recently, my mom campaigned for George Bush an insane amount and met him like, six times — so I've been around politics, honestly, just as much as I've been around music. It's something I'm really passionate about, something I'm educated about, and feel qualified to speak on. A lot of people don't have that. Do you want this hypothetical dude in a baseball hat telling people how to vote? It's just so weird, because it's not a thing in pop music at all.
NW: And I feel like it wouldn't even be a thing in country music if people hadn't been so vocally conservative for so long — politics have often been central, in part because of the genre's commitment to telling quote-unquote "real," timely stories, so it does come into the music a lot.
KS: I think if it wasn't for the early 2000s burst of jingoism in country music, we wouldn't have as much of a problem. But country music became synonymous with, you know, American flags and dying for your country. I'm all for supporting the troops, but you can support the troops and support your country while still questioning it. And honestly, that's kind of the beauty of living in America, that you're allowed to question it. What's more patriotic than questioning authority?
NW: Obviously I don't want to go through this whole interview without talking about your own music. I assume you're working on new stuff now?
KS: I'm the process of writing things. Yesterday, I literally started the process of thinking of visuals and keywords. I kept this big journal that Candy Carpenter made me for Open Book — she drew in glitter paint on the outside, and there's Polaroids and lyrics in it. I do have a little in-between project that I recorded during quarantine that's going to be coming out within the next month or so — like a little goodie bag until the next thing comes. But I'm just super excited to have an A&R team now; my label is so fucking cool. Just having more people to bounce ideas off of and they're so creative — they come from equal parts, the Sturgill Simpson world and the Diplo world, because that's who they manage.
NW: How have you found it writing in quarantine, without the inspirations of "real life"?
KS: I think the hardest part about writing during quarantine is the Zoom aspect. We're all so fucking tired of Zoom. Have you noticed how people have just given up on like "Zoom happy hours?" Like, nobody does that anymore.
However, I too have fallen in love in quarantine — my boyfriend and I started hanging out a month and a half before the pandemic, and we were officially dating for two weeks when we got quarantined together because both we got corona and his roommate was like, "Don't come home." But that was really interesting because he had to move in for two weeks, and that was how long we'd even been dating. So there's a lot of emotions there to write about, and I have kind of been going back through older ideas and trying to get back in those headspaces and finish those — little voice memos I might have recorded two years ago and forgot about.
I had somebody one time tell me, "If you ever just feel like you don't have any inspiration, just go out and fuck up your life." The guy was not wrong because as soon as my life got fucked up my music got a lot better [laughs]. But it's been kind of an interesting personal challenge to like, write love songs and still have them be true to my sound. I'm not gonna write up like, super happy go lucky pop country love song, so everything kind of has a different angle on it. —NW
On Garth and Country Music: blue, red and somewhere in between
Credit: AP Images
“I would have loved to have seen The Chicks, but Garth is good too,” @talkingincode Tweeted me after I exhaled loudly on the app after seeing Garth Brooks take the inaugural stage in his signature cowboy hat and jeans to sing “Amazing Grace” with a flick of twang in his voice.
While it’s hard to argue that any occasion could be made better by an appearance from The Chicks, Wednesday’s inauguration of President Joe Biden was one uniquely, and importantly, suited to Garth. It was classic Garth down to the wardrobe, to the infinitely earnest yet completely believable smile, to the intentional handshakes at the end: he made sure to touch every palm, including both the incoming and outgoing VPs (big ole smile for Pence, big ole smile for Harris). It was meant to signal hope and unity, and Garth, one of country’s biggest crossover acts of all time, makes a handy delivery vehicle for that message. The Chicks would have reminded folks watching that there is space in country music for them, too. Garth held the possibility of showing that to those who don’t already know - more liberal country fans and conservative ones wary of the new president alike.
I felt several types of relief on Wednesday, but a new sort of relief settled in when I saw the announcement earlier in the week that Garth would be appearing at the inauguration. At first, no country artist had been slotted, which would have further splintered the genre across political lines and upheld the mythology that country music is only for red states (and red hats).
Of course, the Biden administration knew better than that (competency - it’s neat!). Garth’s appearance held a not-so-subtle subtext of trying dim Republican fears and promote unity, while also offering liberals a chance to see that conservative folks and country singers aren’t just Xerox copies of John Rich — that they can express subtlety and empathy, a given for those who understand the roots of the genre but an unknown if all you’ve ever heard is “Cruise.” For me, seeing Garth walk down that stairs as proud as a kid on graduation day was a bit of country music crisis PR.
It’s hard for some to digest the parallel fights afoot in country music. There’s the urgent need for the genre to become more inclusive and reckon with its racist history — and the institutions that continue to reinforce that history as a contemporary standard (see: the Opry sticking it to SJW’s or whatever by inducting Lady A/Lady Antebellum while the group is still middle of a lawsuit against the real Lady A). There’s also the need to recalibrate the way that everyone outside of Nashville and Music Row understands what country music means, that it’s both a genre born of white supremacy and one that is far more than just jingoistic anthems; that it is one where women make up a fraction of airplay but also create some of its best music; that it contains mainstream and sometimes more “conservative” singers who are very much worth consideration despite whatever your perception of their politics is. Garth knows how to make media waves better than most, but his music shouldn’t only be considered and analyzed in a moment of bipartisanship, just as every Kacey Musgraves interview shouldn’t demand she wax on about weed and her challenges with Music Row or country radio.
As much as country music is to blame for reinforcing and supporting some terrible norms, the cultural climate outside of Nashville has often done little to try and see the genre in any other light, leaving the task of representing it to artists like Kacey or Mickey Guyton who, while making masterful music, repeatedly must convince people that there are voices for equity on and around Music Row, because no one else will. That blame lies on national publications and critics too, who only discuss a certain type of (purportedly “outsider”?) artist while freely dissecting the “culture” of Nashville; if you have written more think pieces than profiles on country music, maybe a mirror is a necessary part of that reporting process.
The pattern brings to mind the rise of Lil Nas X, whose CMA win spurred an onslaught of new stories about how he was the first out gay man to win — he wasn’t, and it’s important to understand why assumptions like that do an overall disservice to the progress we’re all hoping the genre can and should make (I wrote about this for Teen Vogue).
Garth’s songs have dealt with abuse and equality, and suffered on the charts because of it (and yes, he has some angry folks in his Twitter mentions right now, but I’ll hold my breath to see if and when that materializes anywhere past some online anger by anonymous handles with dogs as their avis). His risks have offered him a broader, more elastic audience — something that the newer score of dudes could jot down as a lesson in longevity. In country music, you’re much more likely to win the electoral college and the popular vote if you settle into a role of consoler-in-chief.
The symbolism of Garth’s presence was a lovely one, but it’s also important to note that it’s not an anomaly. Brooks has played past inaugurations before — most recently Obama’s in 2009, though he missed Trump’s (“scheduling conflict”) — and has used his country currency to push the limits of what can be sung about by a superstar in the mainstream. His presentation has always been one about love, sentimentality and emotion, contrary to what the majority of the public thinks country music is about, which is trucks and tailgate and bro-dom. Which, in some places, it absolutely is — country radio being the primary one. But it’s also hard to make the argument that this is a unilateral perspective when Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson are the elders of the genre — all supporters of equal rights regardless of “politics.”
Like Dolly, Garth is “not-political” with a wink. He’s a populist in action and in song, and when he supports something “political,” it’s done with the intentions of helping it move past being so to being with - take equal rights, for example, or even the inauguration. It’s his willingness to exist outside of a strictly conservative bubble that has made him all the more appealing (it’s Garth who played Central Park – not John Rich, after all). Artists like Garth — and eventually Kacey, Maren, Mickey and others — have acted as a signal to thousands (millions?) of fans who were programmed to like country music in secret because they thought it wasn’t for them, or they’d be judged for it. It’s why when Garth said that his move to play the inauguration was “not political” it rightfully angered some who felt it to be endemic of the same vanilla waffling that landed us at this exact moment in time. But it was also just some words: it is political, and, as Ann Powers said on Twitter, “That’s OK.”
The Lady A debacle was symptomatic of many things, and not limited to how Music Row’s “No politics!” stance can’t be reversed in a well-meaning Band-Aid - and how neutrality is never a good substitute when real action is required. "We want our music and our live shows, everything that we're a part of, for everyone to feel welcome and invited,” Lady A’s Hillary Scott said recently. They figured out the first part of this equation —acknowledging systemic racism and how the genre has played a role — but haven’t yet decoded the rest. Why did no one in the room raise their hand about “antebellum” years ago? And why did the Opry decide that now was the best time to induct them?
Country’s tendency to go head-in-the-sand has plagued the genre, and caused palpable harm, for decades. As historian and author of I’d Fight the World, A Political History of Old-Time, Hillbilly and Country Music, Peter La Chapelle points out, artists and Opry members freely campaigned for George Wallace, including Minnie Pearl, Webb Pierce and Marty Robbins, with no one in their surrounding team willing to be loud enough to tell them no.
“The quietness is almost something verging on the ‘banality of evil’ that Hannah Arendt writes about,” La Chapelle says. “The wheels of bureaucracy and commerce and saying ‘yes’ to one's supervisors seems to overrun any pip or squeak about why this is not a good decision, ethically or morally or even business-wise.” After all, the genre spent the last decade alone telling everyone to “Just get along,” while being careful to not mention what exactly it is we are all arguing about to begin with.
Dolly, in particular, has been held up by the genre as an example of someone who doesn’t speak about politics — except her stance has always been one abused and misconstrued, remarketed as a convenient excuse for bros who can’t put topical subject matter in a song, let alone an interview. Many have co-opted “What Would Dolly Do?” as a sort of tagline to avoid what they see as political confrontation, even though what Dolly would really do is give a million dollars towards a vaccine research for a horribly politicized virus (see more on Dolly a little further down in this newsletter). Like Garth’s inauguration appearance, Dolly’s hand (as Natalie says, as “the last uncancellable person”) helps bring something not from political to apolitical, but back from the bring of polarizing.
Garth wasn’t the only country dude at the inauguration, either. Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard sang “Undivided,” a song Hubbard wrote after, uh, having unfollowed his bandmate on Instagram for posting election conspiracy theories — white men well above and beyond a place where and real career “damage” or cancellation could actually hit their bottom line. It’s a good and admirable step for Tim and Tyler to join Garth in neutral-ish land, but country’s women are either stifled (Taylor Swift, for the entirety of her country career), “cancelled” (The Chicks) or pushed to the fringes for the same decisions. That neutral space of being, perhaps, “socially liberal and fiscally conservative” is not an honor awarded across gender or racial lines.
Tim and Tyler would likely argue that “Undivided” is “not political,” too. And as a song, it’s honestly not - musically nor lyrically, nor by its performance on country radio, which is right in line with how any usual FGL song would chart, a testament to the familiar power of Tyler’s voice (and proof that if you give something a chance - i.e. a woman or artist of color - to become the familiar norm, it can become the damn norm). Their appearance at the inauguration? “Political,” if you will, or we could just call it a good step. After all, the genre is far more complicated than red and blue, left and right, and always has been, with this being no exception.
“All art is political,” Amanda Gorman said as part of a TED Talk in 2018, before she shot to fame with her inaugural poem. “The decision to create, the artistic choice to have a voice, the choice to be heard is the most political act of all.”
Heading those words: that’s really what Dolly — and Garth — Would Do. —MM
Songs We Like, and Some We Don’t
“Wilder Days,” Morgan Wade: The next great country artist (country? Americana? I don’t know, let’s call the whole thing off) on your radar should be Morgan Wade, whose upcoming album was produced by the wonderful Sadler Vaden. “Wilder Days” hits on the middle of a Venn Diagram between heartland rock and country but more sentimental than purely scruffy, exactly where I wanna be - MM
“Pretty Things,” Kat Hasty: While some folks are obsessed with whatever Tik Tok kid is scoring millions of views, I paid attention to the quiet streaming sensation that is “Pretty Things” by Texan Kat Hasty, an acoustic ode to not giving a fuck if you conform to anyone’s standards - beauty or otherwise. Perfectly Lone Star Lilith Fair. - MM
“American Dream,” Willie Jones: The power in the video for this song is undeniable, as is the singular pole Willie Jones plants straight into the mainstream of country music, exactly where it (should) belong. - MM
“Minimum Wage,” Blake Shelton: “Your love can make a man feel rich on minimum wage,” Blake, a millionaire with a millionaire fiancée (wife? who can keep track) sings on his new single. It’s not only tone deaf, as Shelton has already been compelled to address, but aesthetically it’s boring (something, as Marissa put it in Slack, “that would play to Kim Cattrall riding around on the back of a motorcycle in Mannequin”). The worst kind of “I’m just a simple country boy” pandering. —NW
“The Ride,” Hailey Whitters feat. Jordan Davis: Jordan Davis will always get points in my book for making a concerted effort to take women on tour, and his voice is a delight here with my eternal favorite Hailey Whitters - who is also true perfection with Little Big Town on “Fillin’ My Cup.” Kind of impossible to pick just one, but there are few else bringing such enjoyable, super-twangy jams our way (and with fiddle!). - MM
“Neon Diamonds,” Lainey Wilson: Lainey Wilson is extremely good! I will continue to shout this from the rooftops! This song epitomizes exactly why — it’s groovy and fun, with a twangy blues edge that separates it from the pack. —NW
“I Can Help,” Charley Crockett: There might not be an artist doing better covers right now than Crockett, who manages to channel a kind of pitch-perfect retro minimalism over and over again — without it getting boring. This lilting, sweet version of the 1974 hit has me thinking forward to warmer days. —NW
“Feelin’ the Miles,” The Wilder Blue: Famously I am a sucker for anything disco country adjacent, and this low key jam certainly fits that bill. It’s just very vibey, an exhale of a song. —NW
“Slept Alone,” Wayne Graham: I’ve listened to this song about a million times since it came out late last year, and it never fails to make me smile with its understated loveliness. I do try to fall asleep while the grass gets wet! —NW
“Wish You the Best,” Joy Oladokun with Jensen McRae: I don’t really know if this song belongs here - it’s not a country music single, after all - but damnit, it’s my favorite thing to come out this year so sorry folks, you’re gonna have to listen to it. You won’t be sorry. It’s folkie enough to work, but just damn transcends. Remember this when she’s got an arm full of Grammys. - MM
Behind The Playlists: Indigo by Natalie Weiner
The Unstoppable Rise of Morgan Wallen by Natalie Weiner (sorry to toot my own horn but I want people to read it!)
The Ballad of Justin Townes Earle, by Jonathan Bernstein
Truck Yeah! 50 years of country music and truckin' by Salman Haqqi
21st Annual Country Music Critics’ Poll by Geoffrey Himes
Country music’s pandemic year: Frustration, backlash and a sad ending by Emily Yahr
Sorry, But Get Used to Morgan Wallen by Craig Jenkins
It’s Dolly’s World And We’re Just Living In It
We just lived through a Dolly Parton press cycle, in case you’ve been hiding under a rock. There was the Netflix Christmas special and the new holiday album; a new book tribute to the country legend and her impact by Sarah Smarsh, called She Come By It Natural, another one by Lydia R. Hamessley called Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton and a new memoir/anthology by Parton herself called Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. Literally everything is coming up Dolly, and frankly there are plenty of way worse people to dominate the zeitgeist — a fact that national outlets that tend to only dabble in country music, like NPR, the New Yorker and the New York Times, seem to finally have realized.
It begs the question, why now? Dolly has spent over 50 years in the public eye: for the majority of that time she was a punchline as much as she was a country star, and not “a literal angel” (as in the Vulture listicle, “10 Times Dolly Parton Was A Literal Angel”). Or an expert “crisis manager.” Or a person deserving of her own national holiday. The shift from endless boob jokes to Dolly For President has taken decades, but with Obama being compelled to answer for not awarding her the Presidential Medal of Freedom during his time in office on late-night TV, the pendulum certainly seems to have swung to full Dolly hagiography.
Which, it should be said, is not necessarily a bad thing: Dolly is brilliant, and enormously creative — a pillar of American culture both because of her music and her miraculous ability to craft a consistent, captivating, completely original public persona that’s defiant and unthreatening at once. The 2010s also sometimes seemed like the decade of celebrity deaths, a decade of realizing how rarely we properly appreciate our pop culture heroes before they’re gone; it’s very nice to give Dolly her roses while she’s still here.
But what does it mean to live in “Dolly’s America” or “The United States of Dolly”? There is a specific way that she appears to bridge the gap in an increasingly divided country, although that ability is more about what she leaves unsaid — or what she shrouds in her ever nifty “Dollyisms” — than anything else. It seems unlikely, though, that people following QAnon, among other conspiracists, are also Dolly Parton fans given her willingness to say — for example — that “Of course Black lives matter” and donate to COVID-19 vaccine research. The unity that she’s come to symbolize is no longer possible; we’re too far gone. But her meticulously laid-out mythology is that of someone who seemingly has had it all ways at once — someone who far and away exceeds the (low, patronizing) expectations many people have for those who find their fame in Nashville as opposed to on a coast. When there is nothing left to agree on, we can allegedly agree on Dolly, who never offers missteps, only mystery. The last uncancellable person. Who wouldn’t want to celebrate and even emulate someone like that, someone who leaves no loose ends open to critique?
There’s a useful comparison in Loretta Lynn, who hasn’t garnered quite the same degree of reverence in spite of similar endurance: both legends have not only the up-by-her-bootstraps backwoods backstory, having grown up just a few hours from each other in eastern Kentucky and Tennessee respectively — and both eventually made plenty of lemonade from the lemons of those hardscrabble early years. Lynn’s late-career renaissance, fueled by smart experiments alongside Jack White, would also seem to make her a more popular choice for cult country legend — Parton, though she continues to release music at an impressive clip, has rarely strayed from the (stellar, beautiful) pop-country sounds that made her famous. Parton also arguably benefited from Lynn’s blockbuster success in the mid-‘60s, and how she crystallized the “I’m a brash country broad who won’t take any guff” trend of that period — and it was Lynn who (somewhat cynically, it should be noted) tapped into the commercial potential of a provocative country song sung by (gasp!) a woman with her string of late-’60s and early-’70s hits.
Feminism essentially became Lynn’s bit for a solid decade — and yet Lynn managed to argue for causes associated with the then-massive women’s liberation movement without ever being moved from her ultimately conservative perspective. It was simply more practical, Lynn said over and over, for your husband to not be an alcoholic, for him not to come home and rape you after he’s had one too many, for you not to be deemed some sort of tramp for leaving him, for you to have the option of not having a child for each time you have sex. She never saw a tension between those assertions and, say, campaigning for both Bushes and eventually — grimly — Donald Trump.
For plenty of women, though, those facts are understandably impossible to reconcile. Parton’s consistent willingness to talk about what it means to be a woman in the world — even as it’s come with fewer direct provocations, and remains quite intentionally apolitical — is easier to square. Smarsh argues in her book, for example, that “Dolly as an exemplar of an overlooked, under-articulated version of working-class feminism.” But the uncomfortable truth is that it’s Lynn, rather than Parton, who — statistically — speaks for more white working-class women in America.
Reverence for Parton, in that light, amounts to a kind of wishful thinking — desire for a clear-cut Goodness that’s tougher to come by than ever. Dolly does fill that void, and has, exceptionally, for years — a feat in and of itself, one that deserves to be celebrated right alongside her songwriting. What we have to remember, though, is that golden status is a two-dimensional one, the image projected by a by-all-accounts generous and kind person who is also very good at being famous. That perfection is impossible, as Parton certainly knows, and the appearance of it is ultimately a tactical feat rather than a moral one. Our celebrations of Dolly are as much about all the things she’s never shared as about what she has. —NW
May we all be the woman in this new Kip Moore video.