Dolly Parton is an icon for all sorts of people: country music lovers, the LGBTQ community, immigrants building their lives in America.
The podcast started after his Lebanese father struck up an unlikely friendship with Parton. Abumrad tells KCRW that his father was one of the doctors who took care of Parton after she got into a car accident and was sent to Vanderbilt Hospital in 2013. “He advised her a little bit, and eventually they just became pals. And so when I got interested in Dolly, I had a way to actually get a message to her,” Abumrad says.
As the journalist got to know Parton, he realized why she’s been so endearing to people: “Parton is always in control of her story and her appearance, and will never allow herself to be victimized.”
The political history of “9 to 5”
One of Parton’s most famous songs is “9 to 5.” Abumrad explains that actress Jane Fonda wanted to make a comedy film about real-life women clerical workers who fought against harassment. In one interpretation, the film was a political ad for a labor rights union called “9 to 5” that advocated for these women.
In Abumrad’s podcast, Fonda shares that when driving home after a script meeting, she heard Parton playing on the radio, and then envisioned Parton playing a secretary who was being harassed by her boss. Fonda sent script to Parton, who landed her first film role as the secretary.
“And Dolly Parton then writes this incredibly potent political anthem, yet will not let it be used for political campaigns, which it's being recycled again and again in Democratic campaigns,” says Abumrad. “And she objects every time … and she doesn't let herself be defined by the politics of it, even though it is insanely political. So it's a very interesting sort of case study on Dolly sort of being political, but also apolitical at the same time.”
Parton’s kind words for President Trump
Abumrad recalls that Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton (who all starred in the movie “9 to 5”) reunited to present an award at the 2017 Emmys. In their speech, Fonda said, “Back in 1980 in that movie, we refused to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” Tomlin added, “And in 2017, we still refuse to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.”
Then Parton’s eyes went wide and she made unrelated jokes to diffuse the politics, which drew both praise and criticism, Abumrad says.
For his podcast, Abumrad spoke with Parton about that moment, and she said, “What I really wanted to say was, ‘If you hate the president so much, why don't we pray for him?’”
“It made me realize that her famously apolitical stance is actually something of a spiritual stance. It isn't simply ‘I'm going to avoid politics.’ It's that ‘I am not going to cast anyone out,’” he says. “It made me realize that one of the reasons that she can have these concerts where everybody in America feels comfortable there, where you have evangelical people of faith standing next to men in drag, standing next to guys in trucker hats, standing next to lesbian women holding hands, standing next to little girls, you can have everyone represented -- it’s because she conveys that aura of safety and that aura of forgiveness, and that she never says an unkind word, even about President Trump.”
Regional perspectives of Parton
In covering Parton, Abumrad learned that on the coasts, she’s seen as a progressive figure who appeals to LGBTQ communities. And in Tennessee, she’s seen as “a wholesome southern pride personality.”
“People come to Dolly with their own projections, of their own sense of who she is. And she never compromises herself in any setting. She's always the same person. But she's so kind of complex as a personality that everyone can just see what they want to see,” Abumrad says.
--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson