In public radio and podcast fandom Jad Abumrad’s voice is not only immediately recognizable, it’s iconic. As a host of WNYC’s hit show, Radiolab, Abumrad has explored myriad topics ranging from secret World War II missions to the social and cultural impacts of contagious diseases. He has a knack for storytelling, uncovering and contextualizing minute details that many other writers and journalists may have simply shrugged at or glossed over.
This instinct, a sixth sense that guides him to these subtle nuances that often rest undisturbed just below the surface or hide in plain sight, is focused on a new subject in his brand-new podcast (also produced and distributed by WNYC), Dolly Parton’s America. The nine-part series lives up to the oft-invoked, seldom accurate characterization of “a deep dive,” covering ground that even the most ardent Dolly experts and fans may have never trod.
A self-described “new initiate” of country music, Abumrad grew up in Nashville, but given Dolly’s standing as an almost omnipresent cultural touchstone he realized much later that during those Tennessee years he almost couldn’t see the Dolly Parton forest for the Dolly Parton trees. “I knew her music, in terms of the crossover stuff — ‘9 to 5’ and ‘Islands in the Stream,’” he admits. “But the first place I started was going back to ‘60s Dolly and ‘70s Dolly. That’s a very different Dolly.”
Though what he found in those early decades of her career was often unexpected, it was never truly shocking or surprising, especially given the pop culture monolith that Parton has become since those years. A monolith that Abumrad describes as being able to bring people together across all manner of divides — something particularly remarkable in this current global moment.
“You see these stories emerge of not only her changing over time, but what was happening around her in the south, in Appalachia, and in America,” he continues. “The early Dolly music and lyrics became almost like a portal that I could step through to talk about history, to talk about politics, to talk about culture, to talk about feminism. It’s all there in her music.”
And so, it’s all in the podcast. In the two already released episodes Abumrad et. al. cover topics as broad and varied as Dolly’s constantly being undervalued as a songwriter, her being “typecast” as a secondary character (a “dumb blonde”), her shift from the sad, forlorn songs of her early career to her jubilant, encouraging anthems later on, and even her own struggles with suicidal ideation.
With such an entity as Parton, a bystander might assume that any approach to unspooling the many tendrils of her vastly variable and dynamic career would be insufficient, myopic, and/or excruciatingly intimidating. Abumrad faces this daunting task with aplomb, acknowledging the many ways such a project can go awry, but not allowing that acknowledgment to dissuade him. Rather than shy away from storytelling that might open him and the podcast up to criticism about omissions or oversights or missteps, he leans into the humanity that allows for those scenarios. “This is a project where I was trying to see Dolly through other people’s eyes, so that I could understand them and understand their lives and their experiences… I wanted to understand Dolly not simply as a performer and an icon, but as somebody who’s created all this culture… Why do they love it? What do they see in it? What is it about it that calls them? I felt like that was a way to understand the country at this moment.”
BGS editor and contributor Justin Hiltner spoke to Abumrad on the phone about Dolly Parton’s America; the two took turns picking their favorite Dolly tracks, as if standing in front of a Dolly-only jukebox in a Dolly-themed dive bar.
JH: If you and I were standing in front of a jukebox full of Dolly Parton songs what would be your “pick” if you were asked to play Dolly Parton for a room full of people? What would be the first song you would think of?
JA: I think [with] any jukebox selection you have to disclaim: There’s no way to be comprehensive, so any selection you make is going to be one tiny sliver of a tremendous catalog of thousands and thousands of songs.
But, I think the first one I’m going to have to pick is “Muleskinner Blues.” I think it was 1970? I think that’s right. 1970. I would play this one because that song is just… it is pure fire. The rhythm section is so badass and her on top of it, you just cannot — you have to move when you hear it. And I say this as somebody who didn’t grow up with this genre. I grew up in a house full of opera and bad hair metal. Country music was not my jam. But this is one of the first songs that when I heard it I was like, “Oh my god. This SONG.”
The moment that she ad-libs, “I’m a lady muleskinner–”
Oh my god, it’s so good.
It’s so good! And I think about it all the time. When we talk about bluegrass, [people like to say,] “Oh, you know, we don’t have that many women forebears, we don’t have many [women] to point to.” I hear that [ad-lib] and I hear her telling the history of women in roots music and American music. “I’m a lady muleskinner” is like, “I’m not just singing this song that’s always been sung by men, this song is MINE now.” I love that.
Let me follow that inspiration, because one of the things that I think about that song is where it falls in her history. She was on the Porter Wagoner show, right? She’s this crazy prolific songwriter, but she’s kind of under the thumb of this guy, who’s a legend and an amazing hitmaker in his own right, but he was kind of holding her back. At that point she’s starting to bristle. We talked to a bunch of people… I think of them as “Dolly-ologists,” these new academics who think about Dolly a lot, before this song it was a lot of sad songs, often sung from the perspectives of little girls, about something that had been done wrong to them. This is the first song that she grabs her power, in some way.
When she holds that first note she holds it as long as she wants and the band has to follow her. So she’s like, “Y’all gonna follow me.” Then as soon as she lets go the band follows her. It’s literally her taking charge of the band. You feel that power, you feel that energy. It’s such a good song. I’ve been listening to it non-stop.
I think my first jukebox pick, what might be my favorite Dolly cut ever, is “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” with Chet Atkins. Have you heard this?
It’s just two guitars, it’s just them. They’re kind of conversing while they play. There’s this subtle moment where Chet makes a joke like, “Why don’t you pick one, Dolly?” Then he continues to pick a solo and Dolly laughs like, “That’s not me, that’s not me!” But there’s this sort of respect in his voice, where he’s telling the listeners that she’s a picker. Like, “Don’t forget, don’t sleep on Dolly Parton. She can play guitar!” She’s the real deal.
They mix up the words at one point, they aren’t singing the right harmonies together. Then at the end, they’re just laughing together, and Dolly sighs, “Oh, I love you Chet.” He’s like, “Oh, I love you Dolly.” I think it’s my all-time favorite Dolly Parton recording ever. And for a song that she’s re-recorded so many times, to hear it pared down like that — definitely my number one pick.
Wow. That’s awesome.
What’s another one for you?
Let’s see, I’m really zoned in on ‘70s Dolly right now. I hope you don’t mind that most of my picks are going to be in that era.
Nothing wrong with that!
I just love the moment that her songs go kinda funky and percussive. I’ve always been less of a lyric guy and more of a music/tambour kind of guy. I love from “Jolene” on when she starts adding different instrumentations to her songs.
I have a couple of picks here… let’s go with “Joshua.” Again, it’s a song she did right after “Muleskinner” and I feel like that’s the moment when she truly becomes [a star] — if you want to look at her ascent to global superstardom, I think it begins in those few years and “Joshua” was her first number one. I just love the production of the song, I love how her voice was recorded, it’s a little bit distorted. I love how all the instruments are panned hard left or right. The rhythm guitar is over on the right and Dolly’s voice is on the left — or maybe it’s vice versa. I love the whole ‘70s production of it.
It’s such a weird story! It’s [about] an orphan girl meeting a crazy old man living by himself in the woods and they fall in love. There’s something kind of offbeat and oddball, but also kind of poetic about it. When it modulates, it goes up a semitone, like somewhere in the middle. It’s just cookin’. I love it.
My next pick, and really this is hard, I would probably pick something off of The Grass is Blue. And I think that my favorite one is “Train, Train.” I mean, you can’t be upset at a bluegrass song about a train, for one, but also that album means so much to me. You have this woman who has conquered every genre, has hits on so many different charts, and for her to come back to bluegrass — and I always make sure to emphasize the “back” to bluegrass because she’s been based in this. Her music since day one has been bluegrass music, the mountain music, as she calls it.
And the band on that record, the band that she toured with doing promo for that record, they were ridiculous! Chris Thile was in the band, if Chris Thile wasn’t, Sam Bush was. Jim Mills — it’s everybody. Jerry Douglas. This stacked roster of bluegrass pickers and then she takes that band to like, the CMA awards. To see bluegrass in primetime, in the mainstream like that always means so much to those of us who have always loved bluegrass first and foremost. I keep beating the drum of, “Induct Dolly Parton into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame! Induct Dolly Parton into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame!” I think it’s a no-brainer, and “Train, Train” is the perfect distillation of that for me.
Totally! You know, it’s interesting, what I remember is being in the UK — we went to the UK to shadow her for the premiere of 9 to 5 the musical — and on the way to the show I had to be in the car [with her] posse from the Dollywood Foundation and the Imagination Library, like David Dotson and some of these folks. They all were echoing basically what you just said. That album, more than any other album of hers, is most meaningful to the people around her. I think a lot of people feel like you feel. I don’t want to say it was one of her less successful [records], but it didn’t have the crazy crossover [appeal.] That album meant a lot to a lot of people.
Do you have another one? Maybe to close us out? One more for you, one more for me.
Sure, let’s see. I’ll give you a choice and you can tell me which one will be more interesting. “Love is Like a Butterfly” or “He’s Alive.”
Oh shoot, do both.
Okay, I’ll do both in one shot. So, “He’s Alive” is not the kind of song I’d ordinarily choose to put on, as a — I’ll be completely transparent — godless liberal. I come from a country that was torn apart by religion and my parents are scientists, so when we came from Lebanon my parents were like, “Don’t you damn set foot in a church!” [Laughs]
The first time I heard “He’s Alive” I got goosebumps. I hadn’t been that moved by a song in a long time. We were driving from Knoxville to Dollywood, actually, with one of Dolly’s biggest fans, and she put that song on for us. It was crazy, driving through the hills seeing signs like “Jesus saves you” and “Jesus loves you.” Then that song comes on and, as you know, the first few minutes are kind of a little bit overblown and orchestral and there’s this bombast going on, but when the chorus and the gospel chorus come in? Oh my god. That is more intense than any techno DJ drop. We were all just pinned to our seats for that. It feels like she’s alive, right? [Laughs]
I played it for my wife and my family the other day and they were like, “You like this?” But when it gets to the chorus they were like, “Oh, I get it.”
I’ll throw in “Love is Like a Butterfly” because when she had a string of number ones going from Dolly the “girl singer” to being Dolly the superstar, that was one [important song.] I don’t know, there’s something about her voice on that song. She’s describing this almost trance of love, she’s in love with someone and she’s weightless and entranced the way a butterfly is in the wind. The song isn’t as poetic as some of her others, but there’s something in the way she sings it that I just feel what she’s describing without even hearing the words. Something about her voice that is so… it literally flies. It’s like a butterfly. Her voice captures that. I’m so mystified by her voice on that recording.
I think my last choice would be, “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That,” not only because it’s just a really good jukebox song — it is a perfect rollicking country song for a night at the dive bar. But also I realized — I’m openly gay, I’m a career banjo player who happens to moonlight (during the day) as a music writer, and so I went through this whole dynamic [when I was younger] of discovering my sexuality after I had already been in this music for my whole life. I realized, “Oh wait, I don’t think I belong here. I don’t think this space is for me. I play banjo, I love bluegrass.”
Something that I really appreciate about Dolly, from long ago, before I even knew she was a queer icon — and rightly so! — I could project my queerness onto and into her art and see myself in it. There’s something about “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That” that’s just like, “Why does this straight man have to come up in my business and remind me that he’s unavailable to me?” That’s what I hear listening to that song, and it’s funny that I could go down a list of like ten other Dolly songs that feel like that to me. That feel like the queer experience realized through Dolly’s lens.
That’s really interesting… how so many of her songs create that space, so you can read it that way. I love that you have a list that goes beyond that. I might have to call you back and ask you to elaborate on that. [Laughs]
It was something that I really didn’t want to have this conversation happen without mentioning. I mean, even if you don’t count the rhinestones and the false nails and the big boobs, and everything. Boiled down to just nuts and bolts, and thinking of her as just a songwriter, she’s still allowing space for people to see their own experiences in her music. That’s not a very common thing in country. It is because heartbreak is all through country and everybody’s heart gets broken all the time, but other than that it really takes that sort of [approach] — well, what you’re talking about through this whole entire project. She touches on all of these issues that are sort of endemic to our culture, in a way that’s so organic that we ingest them almost without realizing it until now, in retrospect, I look back thinking, “Well of course she’s a queer icon, she’s creating space for us to relate to her music.” Even if it’s coming from such a specific place.
She, as a songwriter like you say, has created that space. Even without having to look at the persona in any way.
She still has not gotten her due as a songwriter, and it’s painful at times. To see that be such a big part of what you’re doing [is important.]
Yeah, I appreciate that, that’s where we start the series is taking her seriously as a songwriter, cause I agree. Robert Oermann said in one of our episodes that if she had been born two hundred years ago she’d be Mozart. (I think maybe he means more than two hundred.) Because she’s that touched by that creative spirit. That’s never been acknowledged. Bob Dylan gets it, Johnny Cash gets it, but she hasn’t.
Photo of Jad Abumrad: Bo Jacober
Illustration: Christine de Carvalho