ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – It was Dolly Parton’s 75th birthday, so naturally, cards were the first assignment. Grace Lager split her students into groups and asked them to make video greetings.
The Eckerd College class spread out in a grassy plot on campus and dove into laptops. It’s like this two hours a day in the warp-speed winter intensive, all about Dolly.
Can we call her Dolly? She’d be okay with it. The Smoky Mountain not-so Dumb Blonde has risen to saint-like status, recently helping fund Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. Her story, filled with Appalachian history, charity and business acumen, is certainly enough to fill a few weeks.
But it’s the kind of class that tricks you into learning more. Splashed against our history of sexism, consumerism and brutal cultural divides, Dolly becomes a fascinating case study, a bedazzled pinball in the machine, zipping past traps to score again and again.
First, birthday cards.
“Happy birthday!” said Anna Goodin, 21, on video. “Thank you for being a hillbilly badass and always empowering women. You rock. It has been awesome to learn how your music has shaped so many people’s lives, and I hope that even during these crazy circumstances, you’re finding ways to celebrate.”
They agreed to send Dolly the video cards, then moved onto the day’s lesson: image and authenticity. Dolly was smiling on the slides in a dress with gold sequins, holding an electric guitar.
“How do we define authenticity?” Lager asked. “How do we know when something is authentic?”
Lager specializes in gender and media. She got the idea for the class after listening to Dolly Parton’s America, a 2019 podcast by Jad Abumrad and Shima Oliaee at WNYC Studios. Dolly is friends with Abumrad’s dad, Dr. Naji Abumrad, who was involved with coronavirus research at Vanderbilt University... you follow? Anyway, the podcast makers had incredible access to Dolly. It’s a delightful listen, and like Lager’s class, deceptively deep.
“I was blown away by the cultural issues they were covering — gender, class, race — and that Dolly Parton was somebody who was able to address these issues through her music,” said Lager, 46.
In one episode, a class at the University of Tennessee studies Dolly. Professor Lynn Sacco was not a fan of Dolly’s brand, until Dolly gave a commencement speech at UT. She caught the bug. Her students debated Dolly for hours, discussing hillbilly tropes, economics, representation.
It got them talking. Lager saw a need for that on her campus, too.
“We had a lot of things going on in our country,” she said. “These are issues that our students want to talk about and need to talk about, and it’s uncomfortable. But music seems to be a salve.”
The students are a cross-section of majors, from chemistry to marketing. Some didn’t even know Dolly wrote I Will Always Love You. But they know who she is. Dolly has a universal appeal. The podcast visits corners of the world where she is revered and examines the non-white, world roots of country music.
In the first week of class, the conversation turned to race. Dolly spoke about Black Lives Matter in 2020, in the Dolly way: “Of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No!”
It was surprising, and not. Dolly is political while avoiding politics, a feat Dolly Parton’s America calls “Dollitics.” Her songs have addressed real issues, but she won’t endorse or badmouth candidates. She typically deflects those questions with humor.
“She outright rejects the label ‘feminist,’” said Lager. “Yet, if you listen to her lyrics, even going back to her first songs in the ’60s on The Porter Wagoner Show, they are feminist lyrics.”
It’s a lot to unpack in the Me Too era. Dolly’s brand of empowerment is pocked with contradictions and inextricably linked to Wagoner. Lager’s students watched cringeworthy videos of the two together using sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital to dissect the relationship.
He gives her permission to talk, they wrote in the Zoom chat.
Treats her like an accessory.
She thanks him, but he doesn’t thank her.
“With his introduction of the women as ‘pretty little ladies,’ he’s up-playing his role as the male country singer figure, and in turn downplaying their role, and almost belittling them to mere women as sidekicks,” said Emerson Hamer, 21.
Ah, but it wouldn’t stay that way. The best part of studying Dolly’s career is the progression. The freedom. The forgiveness. The way forward.
Lager laid out the week ahead, assigned reading and podcast episodes. They’d study Dolly’s lyrical growth from sad to bold in Muleskinner Blues and Jolene. They’d assess her evolving appearance, her ascending hair and multiplying sparkles. They’d visit Dollywood, at least in spirit.
And Friday? Well, every memorable class builds in a little time for movies. What a way to make a living.