Podcast Review: Dolly Parton’s America

March 25, 2020
Title: Dolly Parton’s America
Broadcaster: WNYC Studios
Narrator: Jad Abumrad
Start Date: October 3, 2019
End Date: December 31, 2019

Dolly Parton’s America—the new podcast from WNYC studios—examines the person of Dolly Parton and the world, or “Dollyverse,” that she created around herself and her persona.

I’m guessing if I were to say the name Dolly Parton to you, you would have some sort of a reaction, a memory, or at least an association with that name. Whether it is the music she plays, the stories she tells, the movies she’s been in, the books she writes, or the region she is from I’d bet you know something about her. Dolly Parton is a kind of cultural lingua franca, certainly within America but also around the globe.

It is this cultural phenomenon of Dolly Parton—the woman, the myth, the legend—that the podcast production team of Jad Abumrad and Shima Oliaee jump into with both feet. For the avid podcast consumer these names should sound very familiar. Abumrad is the visionary behind podcasts like Radiolab and More Perfect. Oliaee has produced and reported for Radiolab and worked on the popular TV series Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Both of these artist’s skills in synthesizing detailed reporting and narrative storytelling are on full display in Dolly Parton’s America.

Dolly Parton’s America really has two storylines. One is a condensed narrative reconstruction of Dolly Parton’s story from her childhood on through her days at the Porter Wagoner Show and up to now. The other narrative they follow is a meta-narrative around the producing of the podcast itself. These two narratives are woven together almost seamlessly, to the extent that it’s hard to distinguish between them at all. They feel like a singular experience, both narratives informing the other with very little dissonance.

The meta-narrative is a fairly familiar theme for those who have listened to Abumrad’s storytelling before. What this type of podcasting manages to accomplish is the feeling that we as the audience are experiencing the discoveries of the production team along with them. It brings us into the world of the story and makes for a very immersive experience as a listener.

The range of topics that this podcast covers is impressive. In the first episodes they focus mostly on the person of Dolly herself and her journey as an artist. They spend time talking to Dolly about her songs; through this line of investigation, they drum out themes about the Appalachian region. They connect the origin of the “sad songs” and a whole genre of songs called “murder ballads” back to the “old country” of the British Isles.

The theme of family roots plays a heavy role throughout the podcast. Dolly attests to the high value she places on her family which roots her to her home and to her people. However, the podcast also identifies Parton’s music as uniquely rooted in the human family at large. Her music has this ancient human tradition in it, this through-line that is an amalgam of many cultures and societies brought together to make a music which somehow manages to feel like home to people from around the world.

Some of this comes from an evoked sense of nostalgia which Parton has harnessed to both sing and produce around. A meaningful set of episodes in Dolly Parton’s America are the ones where the production team traveled to Dollywood. If you are unfamiliar with it, Dollywood is the enormous theme park that is constructed around preserving the legend and life of Dolly Parton. Eventually Abumrad and Oliaee go with a member of the family to the actual residence and estate of the Partons to see the place where Dolly grew up. This was the moment that it started getting really interesting for Abumrad, especially as he finds connections to his own family story and the life that Parton lived as a child.

This podcast does not shy away from some of the hard truths and tensions that have swirled around the life of Dolly Parton. A whole episode is dedicated to her time on the Porter Wagoner Show and the fallout that eventually came from her realizing she need to leave that unhealthy space.

The tension that Dolly holds within the political sphere is brought up throughout the podcast. Having fans on all sides of the political spectrum, she has been notably wary around some issues and silent on others. Yet, the podcast notes the things she has taken a stand on, such as becoming a feminist icon via the 1980 film 9 to 5 and continuing to work around that story to produce a staged production in 2008.

Parton’s unique stance as one who aggressively holds to the middle is examined critically on the show, and hard questions are asked. But, the producers manage to provide a very balanced presentation of this questioning. Of course, they also speak directly to Dolly, who explains her positions with expected levels of genuine down-to-earth storytelling and charisma which have you leaving the podcast somehow feeling good about living in the tension of the middle.

There’s just so much about this podcast that is worth your time as a listener. In a comparatively short 9 episodes they pack so much. There is great music throughout. There’s detailed behind-the-scenes looks at songs like Jolene and Light of a Clear Blue Morning, and fascinating connections that people around the globe have to Parton’s music. Interesting historical information abounds and compelling links to our current societal climate pop up throughout. Dolly’s unique yet reverent view of spirituality and faith is fascinating, and her heart for being sure she lives a life that hurts as few people as possible is admirable.

The true gem of this podcast is what ends up being a very candid conversation with and around Dolly Parton, a woman who’s fame and household familiarity has ascended to such a level that many have dubbed her a saint. What stands out is how Dolly vocally denies this perception of her sainthood. In her conversations with Abumrad and the rest of the production team, you get to meet and experience an artist who has a high awareness of who they are, what they are called to do in the world, and is unabashedly confident in the way she has chosen to do it.

Dolly Parton’s America is well worth the listen. I hope you take the time to listen to it and enjoy the conversations that inevitably come out of having spent some time in the Dollyverse.

About the Author
  • Jackson Nickolay is originally from the North Woods of Minnesota along the shore of Lake Superior, but has lived in Holland, Michigan for the last 6 years. He completed a Master of Divinity from Western Theological Seminary with a focus on worship design. He has a passion for living into the dual vocation of an artist and a minister and finds application for these callings in worship music, embodied scripture, theatre, writing, and liturgical arts. He is married to Hannah Barker Nickolay who also graduated with a Masters in Divinity from Western Theological Seminary. Together with some close friends they run a small liturgical arts company called Wayfolk Arts, which focuses on crafting liturgies, scripture enactments, prayers, songs, and blessings for small and large ecclesial communities. Jackson is also the co-host and co-founding member of the Podcast No Script, a weekly podcast which centers on unscripted conversations about theatre's best scripts.

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