She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs

by Sarah Smarsh

Hardcover, 2020




Scribner (2020), 208 pages


Explores how the music of Dolly Parton and other prominent women country artists has both reflected and validated the harsh realities of rural working-class American women. Growing up amid Kansas wheat fields and airplane factories, Smarsh witnessed firsthand the 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. Country music was a language among women-- and no one provided that language better than Dolly Parton. Here Smarsh explores the overlooked contributions to social progress by such women as exemplified by Dolly Parton's life and art. She shows how Parton's song offer a springboard to examining the intersections of gender, class, and culture. -- adapted from jacket… (more)


½ (47 ratings; 3.7)

Media reviews

The most vivid character in She Come By It Natural, though, is Smarsh’s Grandma Betty.... Observing contemporary feminism’s class-blindness, Smarsh is trying to write women like her own grandmother back into a cultural narrative that she believes has unduly ignored them. “The women who most
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deeply understand what Parton has been up to for half a century,” she writes, “are the ones who don’t have a voice, a platform, or a college education to articulate it.”... Smarsh is correct to criticize feminism’s past and present waves for not talking enough about class. But her analysis often cuts a little too close to the academic-theory-indebted identity politics she elsewhere so vehemently critiques (to say nothing of her reliance on terms like “woke,” “problematic,” and, yes, “slut-shaming”). Her read cannot quite explain the vast spectrum of Parton’s fan base, which includes conservative grandfathers, young queer folks, and just about anybody in between.
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Sarah Smarsh’s She Come by It Natural, an ambitious book that explores what Parton represents for the rural poor women often left out of social justice movements. Drawing on the experience of her own Kansas family, Smarsh uses Parton’s life to show what women’s empowerment can look like in
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slices of society where “feminism” is a dirty word, and how Parton—like many women outside of wealthy, college-educated circles—practices a brand of “implicit feminism.”
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Like a modern-day Mae West, Parton is endlessly quotable and fun to read about, but the book is also enriched by its glimpses of the women in Smarsh’s Kansan family, especially her grandmother, Betty, whose way of talking she borrowed for her title.... Knowing when to fight back and when to cut
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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.
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She Come by It Natural does more than chronicle the salient points of Parton’s impoverished East Tennessee upbringing, her rise to fame, and her transformation into a one-woman juggernaut of music, business, philanthropy and cultural bridge building. Smarsh also sets out to shed light on Parton
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through the examples of women in Smarsh’s own working-class origins, most notably her memorable grandmother Betty, whose spirited but harrowing personal history reads as if it could have sprung from some long-lost verses of “Jolene” or “Here You Come Again.”
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The singer’s savvy is as much sexual as entrepreneurial.... Her influence is now so pervasive that she has become a cross-genre inspiration to young artists like hip-hop star Nicki Minaj. Though not a self-identified feminist, Parton exemplifies the "unsurpassed wisdom about how gender works in
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the world" that Smarsh believes is part of the working-class female experience. A highly readable treat for music and feminist scholars as well as Parton's legion of fans.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member pomo58
She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs by Sarah Smarsh is a book that would have been interesting had it chosen a direction and actually followed it. Instead, it was just a jumble of facts, observations, a few connecting links, and a lot of self-congratulatory back
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patting (I hope she didn't hurt her shoulder patting herself on the back so much).

I had such high hopes for this when I read the book description. As someone who has taught Women's Studies courses I anticipated something with some substance to it. It did not take long for me to realize this was not what the description implied but rather a poorly constructed series of articles that touched on the ideas but made no larger coherent argument. It isn't a bad book and as separate articles in a periodical, where rigorous construction is less important, they may well have been quite interesting. But not in this form.

Smarsh gives the impression early in the book, and repeats it often, that Parton was considered just some dumb woman until recently. I can understand someone who didn't live through most of Parton's career thinking it wasn't until her generation came of age that Parton finally got the credit she deserved. But it is simply not true, at least not to the extent she implies. I remember quite distinctly in the late 80s and early 90s having discussions, both with friends of mine and in classes I both took and taught, about how savvy Parton was and how she did what she did on her own terms, or at least as close to her own terms as a male-centric industry would (often unknowingly) allow. So it wasn't just recently that she had been valued by people both outside the country music world and outside the music world entirely.

Yes, she has still had to battle the prevailing male privilege and so has never likely received all of the credit she deserves, but among the part of society that sees talent and ability as gender neutral (or at least tries to as much as anyone raised in this society can) she has received credit for about three decades. That bit of overstatement colored the rest of the book for me, weak hyperbole bothers me. But I still looked forward to reading all of the accounts of these women who lived Parton's songs. Well, Smarsh basically used herself and her family with some short anecdotes from other women scattered throughout. Again, I was expecting this very interesting point to be made through plenty of examples, and not primarily through a writer who, as the occasion seems to fit, walks on both sides of the privileged and the underprivileged line.

I guess what it comes down to for me is that I found the authorial voice weak, the argument disjointed (and it is an argument I agree with, which makes it doubly annoying), and the work to be more memoirish than about either Parton's songwriting and performance or the lives of very many of the women who likely fit the description of the title.

I don't recommend this for readers who actually want something organized or actually sociological in nature. For those who just want a light fluffy piece that couples Parton's work with a few people Smarsh has known or talked to, this will be a fun read. It isn't poorly written, just poorly organized and argued.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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LibraryThing member kcshankd
Smarsh brings it again. Inscribed with a big ol' sharpie. Ordered pre-publication from The Raven in Lawrence.

A loving homage to women and class and making it.

Will be sending copies to my mom & sister.
LibraryThing member spinsterrevival
This was a fantastic read, and I loved it enough to buy a hard copy after listening to the audiobook from the library. I really enjoyed how the author wove some of her own story in alongside Dolly’s, and it revealed that Parton is even more amazing than I knew. Also it shows that the patriarchy
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is wretched (i.e. men suck), but that should just be assumed at this point of my reading journey.
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LibraryThing member yukon92
Not really what I expected..... the parts about Dolly Parton herself were insightful, but the rest of the story was just dragging..... maybe I simply didn't understand beforehand what the book was about.
LibraryThing member fred_mouse
This is a beautifully written commentary on what Dolly Parton has meant to a generation of women. Specifically here, poor country USA women, because that is the perspective that Smarsh has, but there are aspects that I think many will recognise if Parton's music (or movies) featured in their lives.
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Given that it was originally published as four separate sections over the course of a year, it comes together beautifully as a single work.
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LibraryThing member thewestwing
Really enjoyed this book. Loved how it intertwined Dolly’s life with the progression of woman’s rights and the social changes of America. Would have loved if Smarsh could have interviewed Dolly directly for the book rather than relying on other sources. But there is still much to enjoy from
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this book.
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LibraryThing member MiserableFlower
Covers a lot of the same material as "Dolly Parton, Storyteller" without adding a whole lot of content.... would have been nice to actually hear Dolly's input and view on this as well. It was a little distracting for me to hear so much personal narrative from the author, but it didn't detract from
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the narrative overall. Just another viewpoint I guess.
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LibraryThing member secondhandrose
Not much new learnt here but still an enjoyable read.


National Book Critics Circle Award (Finalist — Nonfiction — 2020)
Heartland Booksellers Award (Finalist — Non-Fiction — 2021)


Original language


Physical description

208 p.; 7 inches


1982157283 / 9781982157289
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