“When I was riding up and down the roads in Iraq, I knew there was a chance there were mines or IEDs on either side of the road. But I didn’t anticipate that when you file something as innocuous as placing a statue after a beloved Tennessean, there would be as many mines along this path. It’s been eye opening for me, and it may expose a fissure that I didn’t realize was there.”
These are the words of Tennessee Democrat State Representative John Mark Windle, who formally brought forward House Bill 135 on Tuesday, January 13th for the creation of a statue at the Tennessee State Capitol of Dolly Parton for her work in both the arts and philanthropy in the state. The statue was to be financed by gifts, grants and other donations, and handled via a separate account within the state’s general fund. The public would also be allowed to give feedback about the design of the statue before it was completed.
But for all intents and purposes, the bill now appears to be dead after Dolly Parton herself came out on February 18th, and declined the honor. Dolly said in a statement:
I want to thank the Tennessee legislature for their consideration of a bill to erect a statue of me on the Capitol grounds. I am honored and humbled by their intention but I have asked the leaders of the state legislature to remove the bill from any and all consideration.
Given all that is going on in the world, I don’t think putting me on a pedestal is appropriate at this time. I hope, though, that somewhere down the road several years from now or perhaps after I’m gone if you still feel I deserve it, then I’m certain I will stand proud in our great State Capitol as a grateful Tennessean. In the meantime, I’ll continue to try to do good work to make this great state proud.
“People love Dolly Parton, and people want to honor her as an expression of their love for her music, and the type of person that she is. And everybody wants to respect her wishes, and I’m going to respect her wishes,” Representative John Mark Windle tells Saving Country Music. “However, many many people have reached out to me and said we need her example more now than ever. Even since she has declined, so many people say all the more reason to honor somebody who is so humble. I’m going to honor her wishes, but I don’t know how this plays out because there’s an outpouring of people that hope she’ll change her mind.”
House Bill 135 was just the latest chapter in the attempt to place a Dolly Parton statue at the Tennessee Capitol. In 2019, Republican Representative Jeremy Faison—who was the chairman of the House Republican Caucus—brought up Dolly Parton’s name as a suitable replacement for the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest that currently resides in one of eight alcoves in the Capitol. Since seven are filled with men, Rep. Fasion felt Dolly Parton or suffrage supporter Anne Dallas Dudley, or some other woman should fill the spot.
The bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest had become a polarizing subject since the Tennessean was a former Confederate General, and one of the original boosters for the Ku Klux Klan. Rep. Jeremy Fasion’s distant grandfather had been a Confederate Colonel as well, and he initially opposed the move to remove Forrest, fearing it would be the whitewashing of history. Many also pointed out that later in life, Forrest renounced his KKK affiliation, and worked to repair relationships with the black community.
Representative Fasion later changed his mind on the Forrest bust, advocating for it to be moved to a museum, saying, “I fundamentally reject any notion by someone saying that moving him to the museum is trying to whitewash history … If we want to preserve history, then let’s tell it the right way … What’s wrong with someone like Dolly Parton being put in that alcove?”
Then in June of 2020, an individual named Alex Parsons launched a petition specifically aimed at the Tennessee State House looking to replace Confederate-era statues. It was an anti-racist movement from the start that used Dolly Parton as the replacement specifically to draw interest and popularity to the cause. The petition received over 25,000 signatures, and made international news, with dozens of articles written about the effort.
“Tennessee is littered with statues memorializing confederate officers,” the petition reads. “History should not be forgotten, but we need not glamorize those who do not deserve our praise. Instead, let us honor a true Tennessee hero, Dolly Parton.”
Throughout the efforts, Dolly Parton made no public statements in support or opposition to the movements. How Dolly Parton’s mind was changed recently to being in opposition to her own statue is an interesting one. Numerous sources close to the Dolly Parton camp tell Saving Country Music that along with being worried about the timing of the honor while the COVID-19 pandemic and others concerns persist, her camp had grown concerned that the issue of her statue had become politically divisive. This is a strange conclusion since public support for the statue was nearly universal, and political approval of the statue was virtually unanimous across party lines. Both a Democrat and a Republican had taken the point in getting the statue done, while a petition spoke to the widespread public support for it.
However, over the last few months, a very small, but very vocal opposition to the statue had emerged specifically on Twitter, and specifically among country music journalists and media types who asserted that no Dolly Parton statue should move forward, and instead a statue should be erected for either a black country star, or a Civil Rights icon. Podcaster Tyler Mahan Coe was one of the first to raise the issue, and soon it became a cause célèbre among a very small, but very vocal sect of country music journalists.
The idea of opposing the Dolly Parton statue soon made it into an article in Rolling Stone authored by Marcus K. Dowling. Along with only presenting one side of the argument and solely calling upon individuals who were opposed to the statue to weigh in, the article outright mischaracterized House Bill 135 author Rep. John Mark Windle as being unable to justify why Dolly Parton deserved a statue.
“Rep. Windle’s reasoning for a Parton statue is both a curious and benign one. ‘The only connection that Dolly Parton and I have is that we are both hillbillies,’” is how Rolling Stone and Marcus K. Dowling characterized it. But this was selectively stating facts, and quote mining to bolster the article’s perspective. In the interview with The Tennessean where the above quote was taken from, Rep. Windle gave a detailed explanation of why the Dolly Parton statue was justified. Not only were his words left out, a link to the original article in The Tennessean was not supplied in keeping with current editorial standards.
“I certainly respect the editorial board of Rolling Stone and like the publication,” Rep. John Mark Windle tells Saving Country Music. “But we have enough negativity right now without publications trying to reinforce stereotypes. It’s not helpful. It seems a shame there would be any backlash to putting a statue up of a person who exemplifies non-divisivness. For the supposed intellectual elite of ‘Rolling Stone’ to make a judgement of what’s lacking in Tennessee is unfair. I do wish ‘Rolling Stone’ would have provided the opportunity to tell my side of the story.”
Furthermore, the fervent effort on Twitter to renounce the Dolly Parton statue also came about from both suppressing critical information about the story—including the motivation for the statue—along with numerous outright falsehoods. Author Charles L. Hughes who was interviewed for the Rolling Stone article said on Twitter, “The Dolly Parton statue was introduced after Black women demanded the removal of Forrest and the honoring of Black Tennesseans in the Capitol. The whole idea, intentionally or not, is steeped in the anti-Blackness, misogyny, and anti-Memphis bias of TN state government.”
Rep. John Mark Windle says about this accusation, “That is not even within the realm of possibility that was the impetus for either the bill, or the idea of the bill because I had no idea that had transpired. That can’t be true because I drafted the bill. Dolly Parton is certainly not anti-black. She’s the exact opposite. I’m at a loss for words. But that was certainly not my intent.”
Strangely, opposition for the Dolly Parton statue had become an issue of race, even though the original idea behind the statue was one specifically of healing across racial, gender, and political lines. Just as unusual is that the opposition was coming specifically from country music media that would normally advocate for the honoring of a country music icon, and even while the idea enjoyed otherwise overwhelming bipartisan consensus among the public. Even The New York Times published an article on February 15th addressing the concerns for the statue, but ultimately proclaiming it was time for the Dolly honor to move forward.
“Isn’t it odd that the real consternation over the issue comes from the left?” says Democrat Rep. Windle. “For the left to attack the idea of a person who is non-judgemental and inclusive, and an example of someone who everybody agrees with, to go back to the same old arguments of right verses left—and that’s what ‘Rolling Stone’ did—they want to go back to the gutter, and rough it up some more. This was an opportunity to heal some wounds.”
As Saving Country Music and others have suggested, perhaps the Dolly Parton statue could be part and parcel with a statue for a black musician or Civil Rights icon as well. Much of the misunderstanding about the statue is from the mischaracterization that it’s a zero sum game, meaning somehow the Dolly Parton statue is replacing one from a black individual, as opposed to an autonomous issue. There could be multiple statues to multiple black icons moving forward.
“That’s certainly worthy of conversation,” says Rep. Windle about the possibility of a black individual being honored as well. “But please understand, I’m not trying to fight a culture war. This is not about throwing a blow in a culture war. We’re simply trying to recognize an example for young women in particular, and also young men, to see that somebody who works hard, is decent, and non judgemental can be successful. And maybe we should wait 10 years. But the question is, can America wait wait 10 or 20 years to try to reinforce values that are important to our country?”
Tennessee Rep. Windle also clarified that his specific bill for the Dolly Parton statue is not specifically about replacing the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust. “That depends on what the Capitol Commission does, as well as the State Building Commission. Without getting into any issues that are divisive, I think [the Dolly Parton statue] would be a welcome addition from all groups and both sides of the aisle to the Tennessee State Capitol.”
Rep. John Mark Windle also acknowledges Dolly Parton’s point about there being more pressing issues at the moment to address. “She is right, there are other issues that are going on,” he says. “But it’s not as if all those issues are being put to the side. The legislature is going to deal with whatever issues they deal with, and this was not a distraction from the everyday work, nor will it continue to be a distraction.”
The killing of the effort to erect a Dolly Parton statue at the Tennessee State Capitol is the story of the very small, but very fervent opposition to widespread public and political support that looks at the statue as a zero sum game, recuses itself from pragmatic solutions that could have included a second statue to a black icon, ignores the facts and history of how the effort to erect the statue came about, and is offering no alternative now that the Dolly Parton statue is virtually dead. There are no bills, no petitions, and no grassroots efforts to replace the proposed Dolly Parton statue, nor any consensus behind an alternative name for a statue. The movement’s sole motivation is opposition.
“We need people to step up now and be leaders,” says Rep. John Mark Windle. “She’d have no desire to do it, but I really believe that if Dolly Parton could be our next President if she ran as an independent. It’s phenomenal how much of a response I’ve seen for the simple deal to place a Dolly Parton statue.”
“America is at a crossroads now in many people’s minds,” Rep. Windle continues. “and they believe as I do that we need leaders like Dolly Parton. Her example is selfless sacrifice, work, pluck, and compassion for all groups. I just hope we can honor her in some way why she’s still here. I certainly respect that she says when she’s gone or a few years down the road, but American needs her example now. I hope she’ll reconsider.”