Opposition to Dolly Parton Statue is Misguided

Ensconcing a statue of Dolly Parton in the Tennessee state Capitol is being proposed in the state’s legislature after receiving large grassroots support via a petition.

Democrat State Representative John Mark Windle formally brought forward House Bill 135 on Tuesday, January 13th for the creation of the statue for Dolly Parton’s work in both the arts and philanthropy in the state. The statue would 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’s completed.

Generally speaking, the proposal was met with overwhelming bipartisan support across both politics and culture. Obviously, Dolly Parton is a very popular figure, is most certainly worthy of such a statue, and as a native Tennessean, is an appropriate figure to be honored in her home state’s Capitol.

But a misguided notion—however well-intentioned—took root primarily on Twitter after the statue proposal was made public, proclaiming that Dolly Parton is not worthy of a statue in the Tennessee state house. The idea became prominent enough primarily among music journalists and media members to where Rolling Stone Country chose to publish an article entitled, Why Dolly Parton Doesn’t Deserve a Nashville Statue — Yet.

The problem with this idea (and the article), is that it misses the bigger picture, misrepresents precedent, and politicizes and race baits what was supposed to be (and previously was) a bipartisan, and universally-lauded idea.

First, this is not a “Nashville” statue. Its proposed home is in the state Capitol, which is for all Tennesseans. The article states, “But this isn’t Parton’s time. For one, Dolly still walks among us.” But this is wrong-minded. A statue for Loretta Lynn was just unveiled in October of 2020 in front of the Ryman Auditorium. A statue of Willie Nelson in front of the Austin City Limits venue was unveiled on 4/20/2012. These are just a few of many examples, including statues of state and federal property. Moreover, the case most certainly should be made that any statue commemorating Dolly Parton should ideally be erected while she’s still living, so she can enjoy the accolade. As Tanya Tucker recently stated in her two-time Grammy winning song, “Bring My Flowers Now.”

But the underlying insinuation behind the anti Dolly statue movement is that the statue is intrinsically racist, and there shouldn’t be any white individual who should be awarded any statue at this moment in time. “The United States is suffering from the impact of just the latest nationwide wave of vitriolic racism, but America’s bigotry is a scourge older than the country itself,” writer Marcus K. Dowling states for Rolling Stone. “Any new statue of a Tennessee-associated icon at the capitol should nod toward repairing the generational fractures — social, political, and economic — between black residents and the rest of the state.”

The article goes on to quote author Charles L. Hughes who calls Dolly Parton in a rather pointed and misleading comment, “a ‘convenient dodge’ for white people wanting to claim a ‘powerful projection of safe, communal, and broad-minded space.'”

However, what both the Rolling Stone Country article and many of the anti Dolly statue crowd critically fail to mention is why a Dolly Parton statue in the Tennessee state house is even being discussed. The effort was started by an individual named Alex Parsons who launched a petition last year 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.

“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.”

The Rolling Stone article makes reference to none of this, and instead says succinctly, “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.'”

But this is 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 further states, “At this point in history, is there a better example, not just in America but in the world, of a leader that is kind, decent, passionate human being? (She’s) a passionate person who loves everyone, and everyone loves her … The influx of people that have moved to Tennessee in the last several years is directly related to the kind, compassionate nature of Tennesseans, and she is the perfect example of that. She has contributed so much and sacrificed so much of her time to so many great causes.”

Furthermore, petition writer Alex Parsons states in the petition itself, “From the Dollywood foundation that has provided books and scholarships to millions of American children, to the millions of dollars she has donated to dozens of organizations such as the Red Cross and COVID-19 research centers, Dolly Parton has given more to this country and this state than those confederate officers could ever have hoped to take away.”

All of this was left out of the Rolling Stone article to make it appear that even the house bill’s sponsor had little justification for the statue.

But the assertion that perhaps if we’re replacing the statue of a Confederate general, it should be replaced by a black individual, is a very fair one, and is worthy of discussion. Placing aside the fact that if it wasn’t for Dolly Parton’s name being involved in the statue, we may not even be discussing the replacement of the previous statue in the first place, perhaps there is some Civil Rights icon or music artist that also is deserving of this recognition.

Some of the names proposed just frankly don’t make sense though. The Rolling Stone article and others have asserted that the recently passed John Lewis might make a good candidate, but he was originally from Alabama, and represented Georgia in Congress. The first ever performer on the Grand Ole Opry, and pioneering harmonica player DeFord Bailey has also been floated. Though most definitely a critical individual to both country music and for illustrating the role black artists played in the formation of the genre, he’s not exactly at the stature of Dolly Parton.

Another name that makes much more sense is the Memphis-born entertainer Aretha Franklin, whose towering career most certainly resonates throughout American culture similar to Dolly Parton’s. But why does it have to be one or the other? Why can’t it be both? This is one of the fundamental flaws of the critical race theory that is behind much of the opposition to the Dolly Parton statue. It often believes that white American must have to suffer for their to be “equity,” as opposed to trying to move forward to sow equality.

The fundamental question should not be Dolly Parton’s race. It should be if Dolly Parton deserves a statute at the Capitol. The answer among the majority of Tennesseans is most certainly “yes.” It’s also fair to say that since this statue discussion is being framed by Civil Rights, we should also consider a second statue for someone specifically iconic to the black community—Aretha Franklin, or perhaps Ida B. Wells, or perhaps civil-rights lawyer Z. Alexander Looby who has also been cited as a worthy candidate. Use both names to bolster the cause, and raise funds to erect the statues. Perhaps you even erect the statue for the black icon first.

Just to prove I am not such a biased Dolly Parton fan that I would reflexively advocate for Dolly Parton to be honored in any capacity even if she was not worthy of the distinction, last year when multiple outlets including NPR and Billboard proposed that Dolly Parton should be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as a country fan and Dolly Parton fan, I advocated for the opposite, saying that despite Dolly’s legacy, it’s not her place to take the spot of a more worthy rock artist when her legacy has already been well-preserved within the country music realm. We wouldn’t want a rock artist to take away a distinction from a country one, and so as country fans, we shouldn’t advocate for the same.

But there is a deeper issue here that deserves to be discussed. It’s how symbolism has become the centerpiece of the discussion of race in America, while structural changes to systemic issues remain unresolved. This is why over the last 7 or 8 months, the United States has gone through incredible upheaval, including millions marching in the streets peacefully, and in certain instances, downtown corridors being looted and fire bombed, and cordoned off as autonomous zones by angry mobs, all in the name of racial equity—yet we still have no knock warrants and cash bond for non violent offenders, and we still have the War on Drugs. We also just elected the author of the 90’s Crime Bill and a prosecutor to Executive office. What did we earn from all that strife, action, and upheaval? There hasn’t been one substantial movement towards police reform, yet we got rid of Uncle Ben’s and Aunt Jemima. Not that these things might not be important too, but they’re mostly symbolic.

Too often, social media signaling has obfuscated the addressing of underlying concerns, because it can result in cheap wins, or the gaining of social cred. The more extreme your viewpoints, the more popular your voice, and the more you stand out. This is what is pushing much of America to polarized perspectives, and eroding consensus behind what previously were universal ideas, such as a Dolly Parton statue, often leaving such objectives unresolved due to gridlock.

It’s questionable why any state house is even talking about new statues right now with the incredibly poor way the COVID-19 vaccine has been rolled out in every vicinity across the United States. If people want to address racial equality issues, state houses and assemblies is where this should be happening, with laws and proposals to address police reform. Country artist Randy Howard was killed in a no knock warrant in 2015 in Tennessee for a charge he was about to be exonerated from. These issues cross both racial and cultural lines, and can find consensus, similar to the proposal for the Dolly Parton statue.

A statue of Dolly Parton is not the problem with race in America. And it seems strange that it has become the latest cause celebre among country music’s cloistered Twitter clique, while they still have yet to even address other major race-based issues in country music, including the exclusion of Mickey Guyton from a video shoot for The Highwomen, or if they’re worried about cultural appropriation, Florida Georgia Line lifting the chorus of a Kane Brown song, which went completely unreported.

Instead, we’re worried about a Dolly Parton statue she unequivocally deserves and was originally proposed as a solution to problematic memorials, and Jason Aldean’s wife’s Instagram story. This is how symbolism and social media signaling prevails over the substantive addressing of the underlying issues that directly affect race and other issues in America. It’s not that these discussions aren’t important as well. But they just scratch the surface. You can get a win against Dolly Parton and her statue. But the fundamental issues you think you’re battling against will still remain.

This story has been updated.

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