cover image She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs

She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs

Sarah Smarsh. Scribner, $22 (208p) ISBN 978-1-9821-5728-9

In this affectionate and astute cultural study, Smarsh (Heartland) shines a light on Dolly Parton’s struggles and path to becoming the queen of country music. Smarsh narrates Parton’s life: born in 1946 the fourth of 12 siblings on a small farm in east Tennessee, Parton weathered poverty and her parents’ divorce through her deep love of music and her desire to be a star. She left on a bus for Nashville when she was 18 with three paper grocery bags of her belongings; over the course of three years, Parton made a small name for herself through gigs as a backup singer and on morning radio shows. She scored her first top 10 hit in 1967 with “Dumb Blonde,” a song whose theme of a woman being smarter than a man who underestimates her characterizes much of her later music. It’s a sharp narrative (originally published as a four-part serial in the music magazine, No Depression) as Smarsh illustrates that even when Parton conquered the man’s world in the mid-1980s, she was still treated as less capable than men in the industry. So she created her own world: she opened her Dollywood theme park in 1986; started her own publishing company in 1993; and founded Imagination Library in 1990, which donates books to children. Smarsh’s luminescent prose and briskly tempered storytelling make for an illuminating take on a one-of-a-kind artist. (Oct.)