This fireside chat features Benya Kraus, co-founder of Lead for America, in conversation with New York Times Bestselling author Sarah Smarsh. The two talk about returning to the small cities and towns we call home to lead, the quiet leadership of working-class and rural women, and Dolly Parton, the subject of Smarsh’s new book, She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs. First recorded for the Rural Assembly Everywhere virtual festival.
Benya: Hello, everyone, and welcome to our fireside chat with the lovely Sarah Smarsh. Sarah, it’s so great to be in conversation with you this afternoon.
Sarah Smarsh: Likewise, Benya. I’ve been looking forward to this, and hello to everybody out there, yonder.
Benya: Yes. I’m sure many folks who are tuning in already know of you, and know of your many titles. Sarah, you are a journalist who has reported for the New York Times, and The Guardian, as well as many other publications, most perhaps famously known for your first book Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in The Richest Country on Earth. I’m a huge fan of that first book, and now also a fan of your most recently published second book about Dolly Parton, She Come by It Natural.
But perhaps just by way of introduction, a piece of your introduction, your story that I love that for folks who have not read Sarah’s work, I think something that makes you so distinctive in the voice that you bring, Sarah, is that you are able to thread these careful, thoughtful, systematic analyses of thinking of rural life, and what that means of being rural in America, but also thread your own personal connection and landscapes of Kansas. And I know you’re talking about some of that Kan-sass that you also throw in.
And so really here in conversation excited to talk about your book, but also again, to hear how you thread both your own narrative in this analysis, but also now the opportunity to have your narrative also be threaded in with Dolly’s. And so we’re gonna have a great conversation together around all things rural feminism, Dolly Parton, and whatnot. But to begin, first with maybe a mark of gratitude. Another piece of what I love about you and your work has been your Homecomers podcast. And in my work, I know I’ve shared this personally with you, but when I co founded Lead for America, I remember moving back home to Minnesota and having a lot of people think that this act of homecoming was bound to fail from the get go. And the thing that sustained me as I was finding host communities and fellows who are excited about this was your Homecomers podcast and the stories of homecoming you shared. So I felt like really in the beginning days, it was me and Sarah on the wild road together, so it’s very special and a big dose of gratitude for being here.
Sarah Smarsh: Thank you for that. When folks tell me that something I did connects with their story, that’s why I do what I do. And you all know, as folks who are from or live in, or care about rural America, that we don’t always have narratives that represent the best of us in our intentions. So, thanks for that.
Benya: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s kind of at the… I’d love to begin maybe with that intersection of these two big books that you’ve published. Heartland, which is kind of your story of thinking of home, how it fits into larger narratives of home, and this act of homecoming. So with your podcasts, and also some of the themes of leaving that I heard reflected in Dolly’s and your book about Dolly. In particular, there was this line that I’m just going to read and kind of ask your thoughts of how you think about the interplay here. In this book, She Come By It Natural, this one line that I really loved. You said, “Whether penniless Dolly Parton refusing to stay in a holler or affluent Dolly Parton looking at the door of Porter Wagoner’s studio, leaving was a revolutionary act. It is a power that has over the years brought textile mills, coal companies, and rich corporations to their knees when gender and poverty intersect, and working women have had enough.”
I read this one paragraph as I also thought of how you describe homecoming as people who are committed to preserving and strengthening the vibrancy and inclusiveness of small towns, rural lands, and misunderstood communities that headlines claim are dying. I hold both of these pieces in my head, and I’d love to kind of ask you, how do you view this interplay between leaving and homecoming. Is one essential to the other, or what’s their relationship?
Sarah Smarsh: Well that is a brilliant question. If we answer it with a Dolly lens, we might look first at her departure from her place of origin, which was a poor holler in East Tennessee. She was a talented musician from a very young age, she knew what she wanted to do from childhood. And the day after she graduated high school, I believe having been the first from her family to do so, she got on a bush for Nashville, which while within the state boundaries, might as well have been on another planet in terms of it being a bustling metropolis and the center of power for the industry that is the country music genre.
And so that departure represented a lot of aspects of what I kind of assert in this book amount to a working class feminism. Some years ago a quite famous feminist text came out called Lean In. There was this advice going around that one should lean in as a woman facing various sorts of adversity in a man’s world, tear down the patriarchy by fighting to share the spoils of your office space or your home. And the presumption that I found sort of baked into that advice was sort of that like, that space was already hospitable enough, that it’s worth sticking around to help to try to change. Or that you, more importantly, have enough agency, whether that’s cultural, economic, political, and so on, to right that place so that it is hospitable to you and who you are. We could broaden this out to talk about all sorts of people who have been marginalized in their home place or in the place where they reside for various reasons, whether it’s race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and so on.
So her leaving, it represented a declaration of self and power when she’s saying, “Y’all laughed at me when I said that I was going to strike out independently as a female. Not to go find a husband, but rather to fulfill myself.” And the patriarchal space in which she grew up, her grandfather was a pastor, and she was very much shamed in the very home that she loved for her impulses towards self-expression that were… They couldn’t makeup so she’d take burned match sticks and use them as eyeliner. She pierced her own ears and hung feathers from her ears. She’d tease her hair and wear tight clothes. This kind of early country version of the very kind of provocative presentation that Dolly Parton is known for, when she was a kid doing that kind of thing, that was like Jezebel. So she was shamed and punished often for just kind of expressing her true self.
I say this as someone who cares very much about rural America, as does Dolly Parton, who by the way, has spent her entire life continually returning to home in her storytelling in her songs, the direction of her philanthropy flows, the centering of much of her business empire in the Smoky Mountains that she still calls home. And so, we can at once be sort of fortifying ourselves against the aspects of home that need to be shed, that need to be left and simultaneously be loving, and abiding, and protecting, and preserving, and improving the place that we come from.
So what has Dolly Parton done over the course of being a sort of ambassador of her place? She has embodied a loving presence, she has accepted all people, she has made efforts to frankly improve her home and the culture of where she comes from in various ways. And so that sort of full circle return, it’s like… This is kind of the oldest archetypal story in human history, is the departure. You gain assets and understandings and wisdom that you then take back home. And it is then a gift to the place that you came from.
The reason that that story is worth talking about is because the United States, and particularly a late capitalist version of it, for so many young people including… I was born in 1980, so I’m 40. When I was a kid in the ’80s, there was already this message of like, get out. You’ve got to get out. Nobody was telling me, “Take up the family farm.” They were like, “The family farm is over. And maybe it breaks our hearts but it is dwindling and we can’t keep at it.” And we maybe didn’t understand the forces of work that made that so, but it was so, and the messages that I and so many people from rural America were receiving, it was all about get out. But nobody talked about come back. It’s all about that aspirational class ladder in the United States of you go wherever commerce is hopping and your salary can be maximized.
Well, for me as a member of the media industry, that would be New York City. I lived there for a few years and that’s when I knew that it would involve some professional sacrifices, and certainly some financial sacrifices, but Kansas is where I belonged. So in my mid 20s I moved back and kind of dedicated myself to a humble parallel, I hope, to what I just described in Dolly’s storytelling.
Benya: Yeah, I think that’s so beautiful. And I love that framing of what gift do you have to bring? And it’s this notion of reciprocity that I think is, just I think as souls that we hunger for, of what can I give to. And knowing also how much you get from this sense of belonging to place and this level of accountability. And I think another aspect, too, perhaps way more personal, but there were themes in here that I think perhaps maybe women who have had to leave cycles of violence, either it’s place-based violence in a position of extreme poverty, or interpersonal, which I think there were obviously some examples or themes of ways that Dolly has had to overcome such a challenge, is that how do you know, and maybe you can speak to this either in what you would infer that Dolly knew of where that spark of power came in, or perhaps yourself, of what makes… Was there a moment, perhaps, when you knew that coming back was a powerful act and one of agency that maybe now felt different than feeling maybe that you couldn’t make it out in New York? And how do you grapple with… I guess, was there a moment? And if there are folks who are listening in now that are thinking about what are the cycles of violence that I need to leave, but if I were to come back, what would make it different?
Sarah Smarsh: Well, the moment for me… Well, first I should say that one of the blessings of my life, and I bet a lot of people tuning in share this, has to do with a deep knowing about where my home was on the earth. I had a very chaotic upbringing in terms of my family, which I’ve written about, but one of the treasures of my upbringing had to do with a real closeness to the natural world, and to place in a very literal, not a metaphorical way, but the physical earth and the lines of longitude and latitude on this planet. There is a spot in a particular state that feels like where my soul is tethered. And that never left me even when I was presuming that I was going to have to go to other places to do the sorts of things that I’m meant to do professionally.
Now, as for why I came back so soon in that journey and sort of took on the challenges that were related to that, it probably, while I might not have been conscious of it at the time, had a lot to do with the fact that… I talk and write a lot about socioeconomic class as an aspect of American identity that is a fairly nascent conversation for us in a country that has, for centuries, been denying that we even have a class structure. The American dream and the idea of the individual bootstraps being pulled up, and if you work hard you get what you earn, and so on. I think that it’s a more mainstream reckoning with the falsehoods of those narratives is going on right now. Those conversations weren’t happening yet when I was in my early 20s and setting off for New York.
And so when I was receiving very direct and blatant messages from my peers, and colleagues, and people in that environment that where I came from was shameful, that the fact that I was well spoken must mean that I’m somehow exceptional or different from the backwards fools were back home. It was like… I guess it’s a little bit meta that I was starting out in the communications field. I was a journalist, I still am, and was realizing the extent to which so many of the people who set the narratives about the place that I come from didn’t know anything about it. So I suppose the turning point for me was a realization. The reason that I got into journalism was very much out of a sense of civic duty. I wanted to be, perhaps, a government watch dog, or at the very least someone who was writing about injustice and shining a light on things that people needed to understand and talk about.
But how could I, coming from where I do, be of service in that way most effectively? It occurred to me it meant that going home so that I would not be writing about a place or a people in the rear view mirror, writing from that place and being true to it in every way. And by the way though, it wasn’t like some sacrifice. I love living in rural Kansas.
And folks thought I was nuts for making that decision, but that was also by the way, at a moment, this is the early 2000s when the media industry is just sort of unraveling with the advent of the digital era. A lot of people were being laid off, and newspapers didn’t know what to do, and young journalists didn’t have jobs. So it was all the more crazy to go to a place where all the newspapers are folding, because at least in New York City there are these legacy institutions that have enough wealth that they’re going to survive that shift. So on paper it was a terrible decision, but it was the right decision in my heart. And as it goes when you listen to that piece of yourself I think, things worked out.
Benya: Yeah, something I’m always struck when talking with you is the commitment to and value of being proximate to the story. And I guess on this notion of thinking of narratives that we are hearing about, it’s hard to detach us speaking today being a week away from a very important election. Another kind of quote in your book that I thought a lot about, and without getting partisan here, I think this notion always in politics is that, and I think especially now, is these narratives of who’s claiming to be more of the people than the other. We’re grappling with these narratives. Meanwhile, at our most human levels, that we as a society are quick to dehumanize the other in many of our most local institutions, church halls, the 4-H club, city halls and local elections seem to be dwindling and kind of maybe sometimes polarized in their own narratives.
And something that I loved that you wrote about with Dolly… So to bring Dolly into this space here, you mentioned how among the 2016 presidential election, you said, “Dolly Parton was a balm of sorts, a spiritual leader when political leaders are failing. And like any transcendent storyteller, her politics occur at the human level, examined as experience rather than abstract concepts and lived directly rather than bandied in academic terms.” And so, curious, what does this mean for you to have our politics occur at the most human level, both how your style of journalism is occurring and brought it seems to the most human level, but what does it mean now as we’re a week away from elections, what’s the need, or how can our politics embody this Dolly spirit of occurring at the most human level at both national, state, and even our most hyper local?
Sarah Smarsh: Wow, what a great question and the way you framed it. My context for direct answer, quickly, would be that in 2016 when I started working on this project which originally was serialized in a great roots music magazine called No Depression over the course of 2017. It was that fraught election year of 2016 which you mentioned, and there was a lot of misogyny in the air that year, and a lot of talk about feminism. I would say feminism with a capital F, like as a proper movement of sorts. I talked about before how my lens on critiquing American society very much has to do with socioeconomic class. And that straddling a sort of class line as I do having coming from a struggling family wheat farm and working among New York media professionals. And I’m coming to you from rural Kansas right now, by the way. I live here but my work and my head space is often in dialogue with folks in Manhattan.
That long time now straddling of a so called divide that has just been my day to day reality has developed in me a real sensitivity to the differences between how a movement or social progress expresses itself at different rungs of the class ladder. Dolly Parton had a new album and she was doing this big arena tour in 2016. And I was realizing, okay there’s all this talk about feminism. And wow the irony that this woman who has said before in interviews that she is averse to the term herself, as are many of the women who raised me for various reasons, she nonetheless, by my definition of feminism, exquisitely embodies the tenets of that philosophy that if we just distill it to its essence is very simply that all genders are equal and should be treated equally and equitably.
So that’s why I started writing about Dolly as this kind of springboard to talk about a working class version of feminism that maybe doesn’t get its due when we talk about which women should and shouldn’t receive credit for our gender’s progress. How that relates to this moment has to do, I think, with if within ourselves we can examine the… How far is the distance between what you are saying, and tweeting, and signaling, and wearing on a T-shirt. Right now I’m wearing my ACLU T-shirt that says, “Let people vote.” I’m also wearing a button that says, “Dolly for president.” That’s beside the point. I’m walking around with a shirt that says, “Let people vote.” What am I doing about that? Because if I’m not doing nothing about that, then this shirt is, at best, kind of hollow virtue signaling, and at worst a really kind of destructive sort of hypocrisy. And there is a strain of that that runs through politics on both sides of the aisle. This talking a whole bunch of talk, but are you walking the walk?
And in the case of feminism, it is absolutely true that a lot of the women who raised me have nothing to do with a feminist movement and they’re not wearing T-shirts that say the word, they’re killing it at feminism in a way that some women that are from more privileged backgrounds and will be seen at the march where my family isn’t present because they couldn’t get off work or get childcare of whatever, we need to examine within our own hearts and minds whether those two things are reconciled, our statements and our actions in our heart of hearts.
Benya: Yeah. That is so true. And I think of… I similarly also moved back to my hometown of Waseca, Minnesota. And when I was on that road trip, I was looking for who are these local change makers in town. And I realized that in every town I had visited, I could name a handful of women who were always walking the talk and really were the ones calling the shots, but you could never find them upon a Google search. In so many cases they were guardians and shepherds of their communities, but would cringe or really not want to ever kind of put a label or a statement on what they were doing. I think that’s a really salient point.
And there’s another Dolly quote that kind of makes me think a lot about this moment with COVID-19. And we have a question here also from Lindsay Wilson via Crowd Cacsh. She says, “Women are leaving the workforce at four times the rate of men predominantly to provide unpaid labor of caregiving to children. The pandemic is nowhere close to ending and another huge percentage of women considering leaving the workforce because of the incredible pressures to juggle too much if they do. What are your thoughts on what will be the impacts of so many women leaving the workforce, especially rural places? And I’m going to pair that up just with a moment of bringing Dolly into this conversation here. You had also talked about how towards the end of your book that, “Once Dolly had achieved this level of fame and fortune she’d hustled for all her life, bottomed out emotionally and found herself the same woman she’d always been, yet psychologically reborn. What would be the next goal? There is only one thing left to do: create her own damn world.”
And I’m pairing that up with Lindsay’s question because this essence of the phrases that really stick with me is, “Psychologically reborn,” and “Let’s create our own damn world.” What does that mean when we think of women, the workforce, the pressures of COVID-19, the transformation that’s having psychologically on us? What are these elemental parts of dolly’s own damn world do you think can lead us into the rebuilding post COVID-19?
Sarah Smarsh: Well that moment that I described in the book in Dolly’s kind of professional and personal trajectory was kind of on the heels of her very successful entry into Hollywood as a movie star. She had a great experience on some of those movie sets, but on some of them not so much to such an extent that it was actually traumatic to be a female who was, for one sexually objectified for her gender, and very self-consciously so. And in some ways, in perhaps even feminist ways, she participated in that. But her experience in the man’s world of Hollywood was very hard on her. There was the additional layer of the classism that she experienced coming from a rural place, having a twang in her voice, not being formally, quote unquote “educated” and so on.
So around mid life, she was in her… I guess she wasn’t quite to 40. She had what people then called a nervous breakdown. She just sort of collapsed and fell into a depression. She actually talks quite candidly in some of her earlier writings about considering taking her own life, actually. Then, and that line that that section ends on where she’s like, okay she sort of gets right with herself, she asks for help, she receives that help, she is rebuilding herself. And so then it’s like what is the next step?
And the next step was, she went back to Pigeon Forge. And against all advice of her male attorneys and accountants, she created a business called, not Hollywood, Dollywood. And if you think that it’s just a cute little play on the word, I think you’re underestimating how intentional she is in just Gandhi-ing the hell out of her professional career, by which I mean she is the change she wishes to see in the world. What she lamented about Hollywood was that her people and place was reduced to a caricature. It was profited on by people who didn’t care about it and so on. So she situates Dollywood in a place where it will employ generations of people, including her own family and folks from low income households, and then this kind of business behemoth of tourism grows around it. I believe the University of Tennessee study a few years ago found that her business mark on the state economy is something like 1.5 billion dollars a year.
So how does that all relate to the extremely unfortunate and disturbing reality that, as the questioners noted, legions, droves of women are being forced to leave the workforce to care for children and probably also elders. We get through this crisis on the unpaid labor of females as we have gotten through many crises and eras before. It is unequivocally a loss. In the long arc of justice, this is certainly a setback. And it will be felt for generations to come.
But I love that you kind of, Benya, wove in that point where Dolly sort of rises up and she’s like, what am I going to build? Because in this moment, as systems are deteriorating and structures are falling, while unfortunately the most vulnerable among us, whether in terms of gender, or race, or otherwise suffer from that seismic destruction of sorts the worst, even yet in that space there is the potential for rebuilding. And so long as those marginalized populations are at the table of talking about how the rebuilding is going to go down and what it’s going to look like, there is potential for this moment to be a boon for women and a boon for people of color in terms of if we’re going to use this, learn the lessons of our times to create structures that are more equitable. So it is a simultaneous, as in the parable of Dolly, a simultaneous loss and potential and opportunity for real growth.
Benya: Yeah. There is a really great question that just came in, too, that I think goes off… Yeah, it captures, I think, some of Dolly’s journey and the sense of I love the psychological rebirth that I think also comes with an understanding and appreciation of your worth. At the beginning we were talking about, what does it mean to leave cycles of violence? I can’t find the quote at this moment, but I remember throughout the book you talk about how Dolly’s music always is homecoming, regardless of wherever she is. She talks about her place, about her people. And even the way she has this self-deprecating humor at concerts and the ways that she talks about her experiences that are deeply traumatic in extreme party. We have Maggie King here with a question saying, “Can you talk about your journey of realizing your story is unique and worth being told, as well as any advice for aspiring storytellers to find this confidence within themselves?” Was there a moment, perhaps, when you were, Sarah, psychologically reborn and seized, perhaps, this ownership and even pride and recognition of the worth of your fifth generation wheat farming connection?
Sarah Smarsh: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. Maggie, thanks for that question. It gave me goosebumps, actually, when Benya Kraus read it because this, regardless of whether you’re a storyteller or what gifts you bring forth and in what way you participate in the rebuilding and re envisioning of rural America, this is the essence of whether that mission lives or dies, is one’s deeply rooted belief in not just the worthiness of the cause, but the worthiness of yourself to participate in the cause. And if you’re a storyteller, that means that you’re up against a society that does not value folks who have a more artistic bent as much as it values other trades and crafts. So that’s sort of like strike on for self-confidence. The paycheck’s lower and the paycheck signals, then, that there is less value because that dollar sign and the monetary correlation is supposed to somehow in our society supposed to represent worth. It doesn’t, of course.
So you got to get right with… Well, first of all I know from Maggie asking the question that she believes in her own voice, because she used it to speak. And that is a power. But when you come from a rural space or you’re advocating for a faction of our society, and this applies in all sorts of senses, that is frequently diminished, frankly, in national discourse, then there’s a cultural mark now against self-confidence and fortitude on the path.
And I was actually thinking, I’m a trail runner and I was on a trail run this morning. I was thinking about how just the chaos of this moment and how many crises are going on at once and how different people are faring. And I thought, I just had this sense of like… Because that isn’t going to let up anytime soon, by the way. We’re deep in it and we’re probably going to get even deeper in it. And whether you are a storyteller, or an aspiring policy maker, or a scientist, or someone developing perennial wheat grains for the purpose of sustainable agriculture, right now we need you to be so centered and in an abiding belief in yourself, which is not a selfish act. It is in fact the best gift that you can give our society and our times. Because if you let yourself get pulled asunder, then we can’t benefit from what you have to give.
Sarah Smarsh: As far as when did I have that moment, one of the gifts of my life, I guess, is that even when I was a kid if adults were hollering at me and criticizing me in an unkind way, I don’t know how or why but I just knew they were wrong. I thought, well that ain’t right. I’m fine. Nothing wrong with me. Not in an egotistical way, but just a discernment between personal truth and the often inaccurate and destructive messages that come at us all our lives, whether domestically, privately, publicly, politically, through pop culture and so on. So Maggie, I’ll be watching and listening for your voice.
Benya: I love that. And I love how you came back to this notion of gift. And when you think of yourself as an offering, I feel like the work that you do to recognize and claim your self worth becomes less and less about you. And one of the notes actually going back to the creation of Dollywood, I think that has the potential of sounding very self-ego driven when you think of the look of glamor that was always presented. And I think I fell into this trap, too, of before reading your book I was like, “Okay, it’s all about Dolly.” But the more you dive into it and her story, you realize that Dolly’s commitment to place, and also I think commitment to God. You spoke about her Christian faith in the way that very publicly she also spoke about her Christian faith, were some of the core shapers of what created Dolly’s world. And that Dollywood doesn’t actually become about Dolly.
Sarah Smarsh: Yeah.
Benya: So, that is about seeing yourself worthy enough of being a gift for others. So just a comment on that that I found deeply, deeply inspiring. Going off that theme of gift, I’m wondering if you can… You speak about Betty very beautifully. I feel like at this point your grandmother Betty, I feel connected to her which I’m so glad for. There is also one piece in your book where you talked about the role of country music and its relationship with the rural women in your life. And this idea of the importance of representation, of who you see as being gifts to society. And so, there’s this line where you said, “That I can map my upbringing against a soundtrack of declarative statements sung by women in denim and big hair is one of my greatest blessings. We weren’t a family of musicians, but the two women who raised me, my mom and grandma, cared a great deal about music that validated the stories of our lives, working class girls, women, wives, mothers, in a way that TV shows, movies, books, magazines, and newspapers almost never did.”
Benya: I think that quote stuck out to me because it highlighted all the ways in which… That Dolly’s inspiration… The ways in which you were able to see parts of yourself reflected back. You also did complicate two of the ways that Dolly represented even at Dollywood of changing Dixie Stampede to just Stampede. I’m wondering in this piece of amplifying now voices of rural women and trying to show the way that country music did that for you, I’m curious of what narrative, what’s the responsibility of now the platform that you have to also really make sure that rural women who are underrepresented have their chance to be seen, but also thinking about the larger context of so many identities that don’t have that privilege of being seen and represented in media.
So thinking of, especially in this moment when we’re getting a new national vocabulary on Black Lives Matter, where there’s an urgency to center Black voice in representation. You mentioned you talked about Nicki Minaj a bit in your book too. And I’m curious how you balance that need to claim your space, and your voice, and your gift, and then also center that while also thinking of all the other identities that go underrepresented. What role or responsibility do you have, and how do you make space in the distinctiveness, but also the shared under representation?
Sarah Smarsh: Yeah. Well one way that I’m trying to be of service to that moment in our evolution, hopefully moving toward a more equitable world and country in relationship to race, is that, and I hope I’ve been doing this for quite a few years but it is more at the fore of my mind these days, is always being attentive to… This might sound counterintuitive to some folks tuning in, but never neglecting to talk about the white part of where I come from. So while I talk about class, I aspire to do so in an intersectional way that’s always acknowledging the ways in which that is in conversation with gender and race and other aspects of identity. And in my case, my identity has to do with what I describe as like a simultaneous racial privilege and economic disadvantage.
And that is a conversation that’s very difficult for some reason for a lot of people to have because it’s fraught, frankly, because I am a member of the same race who… I’m talking to you all from Kaw Nation Homelands and the fifth generation farming legacy I come from also has to do with the systemic and systematic attempted eradication of an Indigenous people. So I’m always trying to own my kind of inheritance of that legacy of white supremacy and even genocide while also talking about simultaneously… Because the conversations we’ve got to have for the nuance and the truth that is required of this moment, it’s a lot of this and this simultaneously. And so, talking about white poverty and the folks who raised me. And how do those inter playing problems connect? And there’s a lot to be revealed when we can discuss things in a prismatic way like that.
I would also say that… That’s just in terms of how I think about my work. But then your very important point about representation is something that I don’t want to miss commenting on. For all my marginalization in terms of class and gender, still could see this blonde woman singing on the television and see something in myself in her. And of course for people of color and folks who don’t identify as I do, as a cisgender heterosexual woman and so on, there’s the conundrum of finding someone who represents you whether in a physical sense or identity, or ownership of a particular voice and experience. That experience is even more fraught than it was for me.
So I try to, in my work, lift up voices from communities who face even greater disadvantages than I ever did, whether that’s through mentorship or just professional connections that I can relate to being born into a place that didn’t have any connections. And yet all the same, unfortunately, I have the white skin walking into spaces that, while I had to talk them into letting me in, ultimately they did. And where I a woman of color, that might not have been the case.
Benya: Thanks, Sarah. We’re getting to the end of our time, but I wanted to maybe ask one last question to set us off on our way. And reading again, towards the end of your book you talk about, “Some of us get so lost in the policy centered discussion of feminism that we fail to look ruthlessly at the way we live our lives. What sort of country songs would be written about us? Would they be about the woman who was stuck or the one who was breaking free?”
And those questions, I think, are particularly salient as we are grappling with this larger question of our own national identity of what it means to be rural, of what it means to be woman, white, Black, brown, Native, and really what it means to be American. And so, hearkening back to Dolly again and bringing our girl in here, if you could choose a Dolly song that either captures this, perhaps clashing moment of discernment that we find ourselves in as a nation, or perhaps a Dolly song that represents the American identity in its ideal, what would that song be?
Sarah Smarsh: This is so hard. And if you want to go for tone and sound, then Dolly’s early work, which is where you find the dark Dolly, and there’s some dark layers down underneath all those wigs, I guarantee it. If you haven’t listened to a lot of her early stuff, check it out. It’s very haunting Appalachian melodies are often bearing witness to the trials specifically of women, but just in a general sense folks facing adversity and uphill battle. And a lot of folks can relate to that general sentiment right now.
But I’m actually going to go with a song with a very different sound. A lot of times, just like the sort of paradox of her physically intentionally embracing the physical symbols of what people call “trashy”, quote unquote, she juxtaposes that with her real true self that couldn’t be more authentic and classy and beautiful. Similarly a lot of her songs have a much heavier message than the sort of jaunty melody that’s going on.
And there’s a song from 1978 called Two Doors Down. It’s kind of the disco era, and she had already had some crossover success. And this song, while you can hear some country in it, is definitely pop country and leading toward pop on that continuum. And what that song is about, and it sounds very… It’s an upbeat tempo and melody, and you kind of dance and bop your head to it. But the song she’s singing and the words of the songs, the lyrics, are quite profound in what she’s getting at. She’s saying, I’m in my room and I’m crying. I’m feeling sorry for myself. But she can hear that two doors down there’s like a rager going on. And there’s this great party. And so first I think of like the physical distance inherent in that is something that we can all vibe with right now, regardless of the context amid the pandemic and how that’s affecting our proximity to people and our ability to share [crosstalk 00:48:33]. But then what she’s talking about and the purpose of the song is how she’s like, we assume she’s just been through some sort of breakup because she says she’s crying her eyes out, she’s feeling sorry for herself. But she hears something more promising going on down the hallway and she decides to… She didn’t deny her feelings, she didn’t put a cork on her tears, she didn’t pretend like nothing was wrong, she got it out, she acknowledged the difficulty of the moment, and then she stood up, dried her tears, and was like, damned if I’m not walking down to that party and going to have a good old time somehow.
So she goes over. Then there’s also some romantic twist involved. It’s also like a sexual libration song and then she brings a guy home from the party. And it is quite scandalous to be singing such things as Dolly Parton in 1978. But we put that piece of lyrics aside, that spirit of sort of indomitable, optimism isn’t quite the right word, but just human spirit, and wherewithal to see the next day and to find the beauty in it, and to bring the best of yourself into that room is something that is going to be required of all of us, maybe especially on November 4.
Benya: Awesome, thank you so much Sarah for this. Always enlightening conversation and being in community with you. That last question was also my way of, if we were in person, I was going to totally play a walkout song for you. Now you get this instead. So thanks for choosing that. And thank you everyone for being with us.