Country music has a target on its back. In this acidic moment in the culture war, country music has become an A1 priority for the individuals looking to re-educate America away from anything wholesome or traditional, which country music distinctly falls in the category of. And as the only genre of popular American music that owes most of its origins to Caucasians and the American South, it makes country music an especially desirable target for cultural realignment, if not outright annihilation if it refuses to rehabilitate.
Saving Country Music has been sounding the alarm bells about this impending issue for a while, with some surely believing this concern is alarmist, if not of outright paranoid. But the latest evidence that country music is in the crosshairs comes from a narrative on the website Longreads written by Jessica Wilkerson, who is an assistant professor of history and southern studies at the University of Mississippi.
The lengthy, and well-written autobiographical piece delves into the perspective of a young girl originally from rural East Tennessee who was sent to school in New York, and is attempting to resolve the intellectual conflict inside herself as someone born into Southern culture, but educated on the East Coast to question Southern norms and the region’s cultural constructs. For her dissertation, Jessica Wilkerson chooses to zoom in specifically on Dolly Parton as the focal point of her cultural dilemma, along with Dolly’s amusement park Dollywood.
The article itself is a very interesting study into how the disillusion with the American South takes place. Wilkerson explains her upbringing in rural east Tennessee, her home life, time with her grandparents, trips to Dollywood, and her admiration for Dolly Parton personally, until she begins to re-evaluate Dolly Parton, shifting her opinion of Dolly from a Southern icon to an artifice of Southern idyllic “whiteness.” The article is not a direct takedown of Dolly Parton, it’s more about the dilemma felt, re-evaluating her legacy. But it definitely sets the table for people to severely question the authenticity of Dolly Parton’s efforts, the true aim and measure of her altruism and musical contributions, and uses it all as a springboard to try and dispel many truths of Southern heritage.
While giving credit to Dolly Parton for some of her “feminist” sentiments through her music (“9 to 5, et al), the primary rebuke of Dolly Parton has to do with her race, or “whiteness” as the article repeatedly states. One problem with the article is that it takes on face value that “whiteness” is implicity evil, or at least severely undesirable, without really stating why this is. Jessica Wilkerson also goes after Dollywood as a fake, fairy-tale facade of what the American South actually is, criticizes Dolly Parton specifically for not paying her employees well, while peppering all of these observations with tidbits of Parton’s and Dollywood’s previous references to the Confederacy (all of which have been eliminated over the years), implying racism is simmering beneath the entire Dolly Parton construct.
Here are some quotations from Jessica Wilkerson’s Longreads article, not selected by Saving Country Music, but specifically selected out by the Longreads’ editor as bullet points or capstones of the article’s assertions.
Because my grandma is right — inquiry is seductive — I needed to question Dolly Parton’s meaning in my and our lives. I needed to confront Dolly Parton’s blinding, dazzling whiteness.
Carson’s farm [Jessica Wilkerson’s grandfather] was, in a sense, his own version of Dollywood. In my family, his is a story of a noble whiteness, where hard work alone — not benefits, not luck, not an economy that was made precisely for him — framed his success.
I am one of those white, class-conscious feminists who has uncritically pointed to Parton’s creative work as evidence of her progressive politics. I avoided an obvious question: What does she take from and expect of the workers tasked with building and maintaining Dollywood?
Dolly Parton promised jobs to her community; she did not promise well-paying jobs.
Dollywood has helped to make Parton one of the richest women in the music industry, all to a soundtrack of growing up poor.
Her Appalachia is pure and white and heroic; her Appalachia is drained of white America’s sins.
Dolly Parton has built her empire on and with the debris of old, racist amusements and wrapped it in working-class signifiers and feminist politics. I ignored that fact for a long time because it didn’t fit the script of the feminist, working-class heroine I had conjured.
There are numerous, inherent flaws in the perspective Jessica Wilkerson presents on Dolly Parton and Dollywood. First, of course Dollywood is an unrealistic dramatization of the American South. It’s an amusement park for children. Dollywood is meant to be an escape, and an entertainment zone, not a historical reconstruction or a museum rendition of the region that must present the South amid all of its previous sins. In previous era when Dollywood did make references to the Confederacy, it was criticized for it, and eventually eliminated them. Now it’s being criticized for trying to hide the region’s Confederate past.
Jessica Wilkerson claims that Dolly Parton is not paying her employees equitably, but bases this opinion off the very severe benchmark that one employee must be able to fully support a family of four by themselves on an hourly, entry-level position at the resort, when much of the entry level positions at Dollywood are staffed by teenagers, seasonal employees, people with other jobs, or with spouses also supporting the household.
And though the article does mention Dolly Parton’s assistance through the My People Fund to residents in Gatlinburg and Sevier County near where Dollywood is located after the devastating 2016 wildfires, it glosses over just how big that commitment from Dolly Parton was. A study released in November of 2017 verified that Parton’s efforts went to distributing over $8 million dollars to families who lost their homes, or were affected by the fires in the area.
Another one of the assertions of the Longreads article is that Dolly Parton is helping to keep in place the poverty and ignorance of east Tennessee and the American South through the facade she has built through her career and Dollywood. Though the article does mention Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library project, which donated it’s 100 millionth book in February, the article downplays these efforts as symbolic, instead of articulating important statistics about Dolly’s altruism to let the public judge the true impact.
Jessica Wilkerson portrays Dolly’s charitable efforts as a way to hide from her evilness and racism, or “whiteness.” The article also doesn’t mention many of Dolly Parton’s other philanthropic pursuits at all, like her work on wildlife conservation, her effort against animal cruelty, or the funding she’s provided for HIV/AIDS research and treatment. And though Dolly is continuously portrayed as a Southerner and white, it glosses over Parton’s efforts that would claim her very much as a progressive, including her embrace the African American and LBGTQ communities.
Are some of Dolly Parton’s charitable efforts just as much about the marketing of her image and brand as they are the ultimate affect on society? Of course they are. Is Dolly Parton without fault, either as a human, a Southerner, a country music star, or a global citizen? Of course not. Does Jessica Wilkerson and Longreads make some fair points about how we shouldn’t let the cloak of celebrity blind us from realities? Sure it does.
But Dolly Parton is beloved in east Tennessee due to all she has done for the local and regional community and its economy for very appropriate and verifiable reasons. Dolly’s appreciated throughout the South for her leadership and altruism, and as a shining example of a rags to riches story, and as an example of how to live as a noble citizen when wealth and privilege finds you. She’s revered in country music as a queen, and quite possibly is the most important woman in this history of the genre. She’s cherished by the gay community as an icon and a champion. She’s one of the few American’s loved universally in a very contentious period in history. And worldwide Dolly Parton is canonized as of of the greatest global citizens and entertainers in history.
Yet all of this is not the reason Dolly Parton is insulated from criticism, it’s the reason she has become a target by certain misguided individuals. Since Dolly is from the South, because she is white, and because she challenges the notion that “whiteness” is inherently evil, her place on a pedestal as a role model must be challenged by the intellectual elite.
The effort here is not just to rewrite the biography of Dolly Parton. The effort here is to deconstruct an icon of the American South in an effort to gain ground in the culture war. But what Jessica Wilkerson and others fail to ponder while they look to erode everything country music fans and inhabitants of east Tennessee hold dear by deposing one of its heroes, is what will replace their cultural identity once the myth behind Dolly Parton has been dispelled? Who will they look up to as a role model?
Of course the history of The South is filled with unrequitable sin that has justifiably stained its history, and they atrocities should never be hidden from view, or washed away. But to admonish individuals simply based off of their “whiteness” will not result in the eradication of racism. Quite the opposite, it can create a flight by some to tribalism, if not outright white supremacy, while others who are stripped of their heritage and cultural identity, and robbed of their local heroes turn to drugs or other vices to fill the void left where their pride and self-worth once was. They also often turn to cultural appropriation to find identity not indigenous to their region or ancestry after their own native heritage has been admonished and lampooned by popular cultural and intellectualism.
What does Jessica Wilkerson suggest replace the cultural identity for the people of east Tennessee after they become disillusioned with their patron saint of Dolly Parton? Should they fill that void with debilitating white guilt? Should they replace it with New York-based university-level intellectualism thy can’t afford, and have no access to? Part of the beauty of the South has always been the simplicity of its people. They like Dolly Parton. They like Dollywood. Infecting them with lifelong guilt for their “whiteness” is just a way to rob them of happiness, and will only result in exacerbating the social problems that permeate regions like east Tennessee, with institutions such as Dollywood, and individuals like Dolly Parton being one of the few ways up, or out.
And this won’t stop with Dolly Parton. This isn’t even the beginning, or an extreme example. Throughout academia, the effort to erode or eradicate any and all institutions and individuals tied to rural and middle America as a proxy war against the Trump Administration is underway. And while those efforts may be noble in the minds of many, they should stay isolated to the political realm. Because Dolly Parton is one of the precious few personalities left that every American, regardless of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, region of origin, social status, or political affiliation, can all look up to, find inspiration from, and be entertained by, and together.
We may not be able agree on much. But if we can’t even agree on Dolly Parton, then we truly are fucked.