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Why the World Needs Kansas’ Sarah Smarsh Writing About Dolly Parton Lessons in Working-Class Feminism

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Above image credit: Kansas writer Sarah Smarsh's new book is "She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women who Lived Her Songs." (Sarah Smarsh | Facebook)
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4 minute read

Kansas writer Sarah Smarsh already has a picture of herself with Barack Obama. He looks casual and relaxed and post-presidential in his open-collared striped shirt, his left arm around her in a tight embrace, both of them beaming at the camera during last October’s Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago.

She’d scored an invitation to interview the civil rights icon Dolores Huerta because Obama had read her 2018 book, “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.” That event was, she says, among the “very improbable adventures and encounters with national figures” over the past two years.

Her conversation with Obama wasn’t long, but it was more than just a handshake.

“He comes from Kansas stock himself,” Smarsh noted in our conversation for the Kansas Reflector Podcast. “His mother was a working-class Wichita woman, and I’m sure that he connected with the story in some personal ways. He kind of quipped, ‘We come from the same people, we’re probably cousins.’ ”

Another reader was a would-be president, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota, who chatted with Smarsh at the Senate Democrats’ Rural Summit in September 2018 — until Klobuchar had to duck out for her now-famous grilling of then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

“It’s been very humbling to know that folks who kind of have their hands on the levers of power saw something worth reading in the book,” Smarsh said.

A lot of folks in Kansas would claim to be the opposite of impressed by someone having her picture taken with Obama and Klobuchar. Which is why I hope someday before too long we’ll see her in a photo with Dolly Parton.

Smarsh’s new book, “She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived her Songs,” is out this week from Simon & Schuster.

If there’s anything most Americans still agree on, can it be our universal love of Parton? (That answer might already be sorry, no, since Parton’s assertion that, yes, Black lives matter.)

Smarsh and I talked about other grave topics, including her recent Guardian article arguing that saving Democracy requires us to open our hearts to those who disagree with us and the comparisons and contrasts between her arguments in “Heartland” and Thomas Frank’s in “What’s the Matter with Kansas.” But the most important thing we talked about was Dolly.

Her new book grew out of essays she wrote for the roots-music magazine No Depression after the 2016 election.

“The media narrative about the place that I come from, rural America, white working class America, was this, you know, caricature of the racist Bubba at the diner on Main Street with the MAGA hat,” she said. “I’m not one to sentimentalize the place that I come from — never want to gloss over the ugly bits — but it’s like, that ain’t all it is.”

Parton had a new album out that year, playing arenas in 60 cities.

“I grew up on, you know, old country music, and the sorts of stories that Dolly Parton tells in her songs,” said Smarsh, who was thinking about the misogyny directed at Hillary Clinton that year and the Access Hollywood tape. “As a woman from a poor, rural space, it was like, ‘Ah, Dolly Parton is touring — what a balm that is for my soul to just, like, be following her and reading about her.”

Smarsh isn’t the only one for whom Parton exemplifies working class feminism, but Smarsh lived it.

“I was raised by women who didn’t go to college, they never studied feminist theory, but they embodied feminism’s tenets, even if they were averse to the term because it had been somehow weaponized by, you know, political forces,” Smarsh said. “And it struck me that Dolly Parton was a was a perfect model to explain that.”

I asked Smarsh an impossible question — what was her favorite Dolly Parton song? — and it turned out she had one.

“If you like, ‘Jolene,’ you’ll love ‘The Bargain Store,’” Smarsh said, noting that it has the same minor-key, dark sense about it.

“She tells a first-person story as a woman who has been used in some way physically and emotionally, we presume. And she’s saying, you know, my heart is like something you’d find in a bargain store and so is my body — it’s been used, but it’s still good,” said Smarsh, whose family bought everything they could at yard sales and thrift stores.

“She’s using that as this incredible metaphor,” Smarsh said. “And I love this song because that’s the ultimate crossroads of gender and class.”

Later, Smarsh told me she had yet to meet Parton or talk to her.

“I did not score an interview with her for the writing when I hounded her manager back in 2016,” she said.

That’s OK. When Sarah Smarsh writes, the world improves. If we see her picture with Parton someday, that’ll be cash on the barrelhead for everyone.

This story first appeared on the Kansas Reflector, a nonprofit news operation covering Kansas state government and politics that is part of States Newsroom. C.J. Janovy is the opinion writer for the Reflector.

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