She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs (Hardcover)
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Nominated for the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award
The National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestselling author of Heartland focuses her laser-sharp insights on a working-class icon and one of the most unifying figures in American culture: Dolly Parton.
Growing up amid Kansas wheat fields and airplane factories, Sarah Smarsh witnessed firsthand the particular vulnerabilities—and strengths—of women in working poverty. Meanwhile, country songs by female artists played in the background, telling powerful stories about life, men, hard times, and surviving. In her family, she writes, “country music was foremost a language among women. It’s how we talked to each other in a place where feelings aren’t discussed.” And no one provided that language better than Dolly Parton.
Smarsh challenged a typically male vision of the rural working class with her first book, Heartland, starring the bold, hard-luck women who raised her. Now, in She Come By It Natural, originally published in a four-part series for The Journal of Roots Music, No Depression, Smarsh explores the overlooked contributions to social progress by such women—including those averse to the term “feminism”—as exemplified by Dolly Parton’s life and art.
Far beyond the recently resurrected “Jolene” or quintessential “9 to 5,” Parton’s songs for decades have validated women who go unheard: the poor woman, the pregnant teenager, the struggling mother disparaged as “trailer trash.” Parton’s broader career—from singing on the front porch of her family’s cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains to achieving stardom in Nashville and Hollywood, from “girl singer” managed by powerful men to leader of a self-made business and philanthropy empire—offers a springboard to examining the intersections of gender, class, and culture.
Infused with Smarsh’s trademark insight, intelligence, and humanity, She Come By It Natural is a sympathetic tribute to the icon Dolly Parton and—call it whatever you like—the organic feminism she embodies.
About the Author
Sarah Smarsh is a journalist who has reported for The New York Times, The Guardian, and many other publications. Her first book, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, was a finalist for the National Book Award. A 2018 research fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, Smarsh is a frequent speaker and commentator on economic inequality. She lives in Kansas.
One of Time’s Top 100 Must Reads of 2020
"Parton is endlessly quotable and fun to read about, but [She Come By It Natural] is also enriched by its glimpses into Smarsh's Kansan family. . . Knowing when to fight back and when to cut your losses is, in Smarsh's account, a talent shared by Parton and many of the working-class women she has immortalized in song and onscreen."
"Growing up, Sarah Smarsh was surrounded by the type of women Dolly Parton so often sings about: impoverished women in rural America who use both their smarts and sexuality to get by as best they can—often despite the men who would hold them back. These women populated Smarsh’s 2018 memoir Heartland, a National Book Award finalist. And in her stirring, insightful collection of essays about the country music icon, she gives them and Parton their due for redefining womanhood even as their class and culture worked to keep them down. Smarsh anoints Parton a badly needed beacon: in a divided country, she remains that rare someone who everyone can love."
"Like Parton herself, Smarsh’s treatment is so much deeper than what appears on the surface ... Smarsh tells Parton’s story through the eyes of women who grew up in rural America struggling to make ends meet ... A new generation is just now realizing the power of Parton’s music. Some certainly will find out about it because of Smarsh’s book, which tells Parton’s story and puts it into step with our times."
"Bristling with sharp insights and righteous anger, She Come by It Natural is a moving account of how Ms. Parton’s music has helped “hard-luck women” make their own escapes from deadbeat men and dead-end lives."
—Wall Street Journal
"Smarsh doesn’t pretend that Parton was ever a spokesperson for the [feminist] movement. She was something more meaningful: not a mouthpiece but a model."
—The New Yorker
“As Sarah Smarsh notes in ‘She Come by It Natural,’ her brilliant 2020 book-length meditation on Ms. Parton, ‘Several of my friends — white, Black and Latina, with disparate class origins among them — commented in the weeks surrounding the 2016 election that Parton was a balm of sorts, a spiritual leader when political leaders are failing.’ If anything, these words are even truer in the aftermath of the 2020 election than they were in 2016. And it would be so nice to think of Miss Dolly watching over us from that hill over the city. To believe her words in ‘Light of a Clear Blue Morning,’ if only for a moment: ‘It’s gonna be OK."
—New York Times
"Combining tribute, memoir and social commentary, Smarsh analyzes how Dolly Parton’s songs—and success—have embodied feminism for working-class women."
"An ambitious book that explores what Parton represents for the rural poor women often left out of social justice movements ... in Smarsh’s reading, Parton’s feminism is implicit, embodied in her actions."
—The New Republic
"She Come By it Natural finds a sweet spot between celebrity biographies and academic studies about this legendary performer by offering a distinct working-class feminist perspective gleaned from Smarsh’s own experience within her rural female working-class family."
—Journal of Working-Class Studies
"As she did in her 2018 memoir, Heartland, Smarsh offers a feminist take on America’s rural working-class women who eschew the term “feminism.” The author looks at how songs by Dolly Parton and other country-music performers illuminate stories of women who might otherwise be overlooked: tired waiters, pregnant teenagers, spurned wives, loyal daughters."
—Washington Post, 10 Books to Read in October
"She Come By It Natural is a praise song for the cultural icon, but what emerges from an examination of Parton's life and work is just how much relevance her lyrics have had -- for Smarsh and for other women -- and why so much of the book is so deeply personal. . . . The fruit of that devotion is a tribute to the woman who continues to demonstrate that feminism comes in coats of many colors."
—Los Angeles Times
“A great stocking stuffer for fans of the country sensation. Smarsh portrays Parton as a voice for poor, working-class and undervalued women. This biography of the singer-songwriter is a testament to how she has been embraced by generations of women who see Dolly Parton, not just as a superstar, but also as a sister."
—The Detroit Free Press
"Published in October, She Come by It Natural is the latest—and best, and most affecting and convincing—component of what appears to be, at long last, the Great Dolly Parton Renaissance, that long-foretold tipping point wherein they finally get past the shock of the ridiculous way she looks and see that there are parts of her to be appreciated."
—The Ringer, book feature
“[Smarsh] skillfully illustrat[es] how [Parton's] music speaks to women, especially those from a lower-class background,”
“She Come by It Natural is the latest—and best, and most affecting and convincing—component of what appears to be, at long last, the Great Dolly Parton Renaissance.”
"Passionate, smart, and earnest."
"Sarah Smarsh expertly explores the overlooked social contributions of women . . . . [An] inspiring tribute to Dolly Parton herself."
"Smarsh explains that Parton’s full legacy is much deeper and more rewarding than it might seem from casual listening."
"Throughout the book, Parton and Smarsh are in unspoken dialogue with one another, sharing common language and struggle through the beauty of country music."
"Dolly comes vividly to life in [the book's] pages ... a serious, not worshipful but something better, deeply respectful critical portrait ... She really is as sharp and as complicated as we’d begun to suspect."
"She Come by It Natural will appeal to a wide range of readers who are curious about Parton. Smarsh finds a sweet spot between biography and memoir that lets her move nimbly between her personal affection for Parton’s impact on women’s lives and her journalistic analysis of Parton’s artistry, business acumen, and iconic role in our quick-changing zeitgeist."
"[She Come By It Natural] includes sharp social commentary and well-placed personal anecdotes, [and] is at its heart a love letter both to Parton and to the women who continue to see themselves in her songs."
"Smarsh seamlessly weaves her family’s experiences with Parton’s biography—triumphs and shortcomings alike—and cultural context. She Come by It Natural is, as a result, a relatable examination of one of country music’s brightest stars and an inspiring tale of what women can learn from one another."
"Smarsh and Parton are a perfect pairing for the kind of in-depth examination into gender and class and what it means to be a woman and a working class hero that feels particularly important right now."
—Refinery29, most anticipated
“We will always love reading about Dolly Parton,”
"Affectionate and astute ... Smarsh’s luminescent prose and briskly tempered storytelling make for an illuminating take on a one-of-a-kind artist."
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
"A highly readable treat for music and feminist scholars as well as Parton's legion of fans."
“Readers get the impression that Smarsh read and listened to the artist's every word and watched every filmed second of her in order to recreate Parton here in fine, sparkling form. Smarsh's range as a storyteller (much like her subject's) makes this the best kind of American story, one of a person so extraordinarily vast that we find room for ourselves, too.”
"A warm-hearted journey into what Dolly means to generations of women who saw their lives reflected in her songs, who first embraced her not as a star but a sister."
—Elizabeth Catte, author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia