WUMB November Program Guide

Dolly Parton in the Podsphere

I was excited when I realized that Dolly Parton’s 74th birthday would arrive on January 19, 2020, giving me a perfect opportunity to explore her music during a Sunday Morning Brew show falling on the same day. Like many others, I suspect, her “Jolene” was a critical gateway to a then-unfamiliar portion of the country music spectrum—a fusion of Appalachia, pop, traditional country, and bluegrass.

A new podcast, Dolly Parton’s America, launched last October, digs deeply into her Tennessee roots, songwriting prowess, and overall musical and cultural impact. Produced and hosted by Jad Abumrad (creator of the Radiolab podcast), it is one of the best examples I’ve heard of audio documentary focused on a particular musician.

I’m about halfway through the series, and I was particularly suprised and intrigued by the episode I just heard, “Neon Moss.” I was fascinated when the host first started talking about his father, Naji, but the interesting part wasn’t the fact that his doctor dad had treated Dolly for injuries she suffered after a car accident in 2013. It was that the host observed similarities between the rural cabins that both Dolly and Naji grew up in, though many miles apart, in Tennessee and Lebanon. They also both grew up with a slew of siblings and not much money.

Then the host suddenly brings in Rhiannon Giddens, who self-effacingly introduces herself as “a musician, songwriter, composer…and all around person at the party you don’t want to talk to because all she talks about is slavery and the banjo.” We hear a portion of “Little Margaret,” from Giddens’ There is No Other, a song that features her voice and Francesco Turrisi on the daf, an Iranian frame drum. Giddens explained that they had arrived at that arrangement almost accidentally.

But, as Abumrad explained, it was the kind of mixing that musicologists say goes back centuries, to when Middle Eastern instruments started finding their way to Appalachia.

The episode finally returns to Parton toward the end, when Naji tells Jad about how he first heard Western music, and, likely, Dolly’s songs, from a grocery store radio in his Lebanese village.

At a time when some talk about the scourge of globalism, I find it deeply satisfying to conjur up the image of a Lebanese boy listening to Parton’s “The Bargain Store” or “Jolene.” As Giddens put it, “…the human story is about migration.” And, therefore, so is the story of music.

Though I haven’t said much about them here, the interview segments with Dolly herself are compelling, and over the course of the series, she talks about Dollywood, the origin of “I Will Always Love You,” and why she avoids discussing politics.

In the “Neon Moss” episode, host Abumrad sums up the whole global-reach-of-music thing in the Dolly context quite poetically: “I think about that radio, that little radio in his village…about the ether on the way to that radio, where all the signals comingle and have forever, and how we’re all temporary holding spaces that the sginals pass through on their way back into the ether.”

Indeed. I hope you listen in on January 19 as we celebrate Dolly and how she’s been affecting the ether for more than 50 years.

~ Rob Hochschild


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