LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Dolly Parton is a unifying force in a divided United States. That’s the central theme of the podcast series “Dolly Parton’s America”, released late last year by New York public radio. She made her fortune by becoming a multi-channel commodity, attaching her name and iconic image to theme parks, fashion and television, as well as music. The country star also explains the business benefits of being nonpartisan.
The Tennessee native has come a long way since growing up in a mountain cabin with 11 brothers and sisters. Aside from writing thousands of songs, Parton’s oeuvre spans musicals, films and TV shows. A 2017 study showed that Dollywood, the Tennessee theme park to which Parton lends her name, generated almost $120 million a year in state and local taxes. This broad approach and six decades of stardom has brought her a large fortune.
Host Jad Abumrad begins the nine-episode podcast with Parton’s early sad songs, inspired by Appalachian ballads with roots in storytelling in England, Ireland and Scotland. She first achieved commercial success when veteran entertainer Porter Wagoner invited her on to his show. The audience wasn’t welcoming but eventually warmed to her.
As an urbanising America spread country music to the cities, Parton quickly became a bigger star than her supporting role on the show allowed. This brought her to the first of many commercial crossroads. She decided to leave, writing one of her most famous songs, “I Will Always Love You”, as a goodbye to Wagoner. Elvis Presley wanted to record it, but Parton wouldn’t give up publishing rights; another big decision where the budding businesswoman stuck to her guns. The song made her millions of dollars after Whitney Houston recorded it for the 1992 film “The Bodyguard”.
“Dolly Parton’s America” secured fantastic access to the singer and offers fascinating insights into her life. It’s therefore a shame that Parton’s message is very controlled, and she tends to repeat herself a lot. The narrative also unravels slightly when it shifts to the presenter or to Parton’s fans.
The podcast explores how the movie “9 to 5” made Parton a feminist icon. The 1980 feature is about harassed and overlooked women standing up for fair treatment and seeking revenge against their sexist boss. Abumrad calls it the “beta version” of the more recent #MeToo movement.
Appearing in the film was another big decision for Parton, who also wrote the theme song. Her co-star Jane Fonda’s activism against the Vietnam War made her unpopular with the sort of patriotic Americans who tend to like country music. Still, Parton managed to fend off the controversy, defending the actor while distancing herself from Fonda’s political views.
Parton’s neutrality is a recurring theme. For example, she won’t be drawn into criticising or defending Donald Trump. Some of her fans became angry when she stayed silent as her “9 to 5” co-stars slammed the U.S. president at a recent awards show. “I have too many fans on both sides of the fence,” she says on the podcast. “I learned years ago to keep your mouth shut about these things.”
For her, the Dixie Chicks reflect the dangers of speaking up. The band was once America’s bestselling female combo. But after the U.S. invasion of Iraq one member told a London audience that the band was ashamed that U.S. President George W. Bush was from their native state of Texas. It earned them a boycott from the biggest sections of their fan base.
In an increasingly polarised America, it’s tough not to choose sides. Previously apolitical stars such as Taylor Swift have spoken out against Republican politicians. Brands like Nike have profitably tapped into controversy, for example by featuring former National Football League player Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled during the national anthem to protest police shootings of unarmed black men.
Even Parton’s unifying stance has suffered some cracks. The podcast’s second-to-last episode describes how “Dixie Stampede”, her Civil War-themed dinner attraction, had to be rebranded because of its light-hearted portrayal of the scarring conflict. Parton’s success is based on her broad appeal. But it’s getting ever harder for American entertainers to walk the line.
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