A Jewish Author’s Obsession with Dolly Parton

Author Lynn Melnick’s memoir–slash–biography of America’s sweetheart Dolly Parton hit shelves earlier this fall. In I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive, taken from Parton’s 1999 song “The Grass is Blue”, Melnick lovingly chronicles how Parton’s expansive songwriting catalog and her six decades as a household icon have been inextricable from Melnick’s own journey from a Jewish teenage addict to an accomplished artist.

“I’m a poet, and to me, that line is so poetic; the idea that I’ve had to think up a way to survive,” Melnick tells Lilith. “She could have said, ‘I’ve had to think of a way to survive,’ but that would imply that a way to survive exists. When you say, ‘I’ve had to think up a way to survive,’ it means you have to invent your own way to survive. That’s what Dolly did and that’s what I had to do.

“That line really spoke to me… Her perseverance is something that I really admire,” Melnick continues. 

The California native, who now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters, talked to Lilith about her lifelong relationship with Dolly, how a 2018 trip to Parton’s Dollywood helped crystallize the book for her, and, of course, that blonde, zaftig facade that belies the depths of Dolly’s discography and philanthropy. “My oldest daughter is seventeen and very feminine, just like Dolly and myself, which is why I was really happy that the cover of this book, designed by Kimberly Glyder, is pink! You know who I am and who Dolly is [by the cover].”

You write at length about it in the book, so without giving too much away, how did you come to Dolly Parton?

The way I came to Dolly Parton is on the first page of the book! But the first time I heard a Dolly Parton song start to finish was when I was being checked into a drug rehab facility by my parents when I was fourteen years old. 

I’d been aware of her before because she was everywhere as a pop culture staple in the U.S. That was the first time I’d paid attention to her music and I was hooked. Her voice felt like something I had to grab onto and that it would get me through the hard time that I was having. Ever since then I’ve looked to her as a beacon to get me through.

“When I went to literary parties in my twenties, people would always comment on what I wore, but would not ask me what I was working on. You get to wear the pretty dress or you get to do an interesting project—but you don’t get both.”

You write about how Dolly’s high-femme visage helped see that you can be taken seriously as an artist while also wearing bright dresses and high heels. Can you expand on that?

Where Dolly and I also meet is our femininity. She’s so feminine in her presentation and was often not taken seriously because of that. A lot of people equate something that’s high-femme with being silly or trivial and not serious or smart. I’ve always been drawn to dresses and heels and nail polish—these feminine adornments. When I went to literary parties in my twenties, people would always comment on what I wore, but would not ask me what I was working on. You get to wear the pretty dress or you get to do an interesting project—but you don’t get both. And that transferred to when I became a mother, and people would ask me about my kids and not about what I was working on. I reject that. I feel better when I dress the way I want to dress and I present myself the way I want to. 

The way we as white people in the United States think of poverty is that it’s a temporary state. We’re poor now, but [by achieving the] American dream, we’re going to end up with money. I think that people of color don’t get that leeway. It’s always somehow their fault.

You write that “white people get to romanticize hardship.” How has Dolly has done this, but also how, as you write elsewhere, have you done this by “commodifying your own trauma history”?

Dolly grew up one of twelve in real poverty and she sings a lot about it and has used it in her art, but not in a commodifying way. When I write about white people romanticizing hardship I’m thinking more about what it’s like to be in Dollywood where there’s a recreation of her childhood cabin and it’s all very folksy and cozy. “Simpler times.”

The way we as white people in the United States think of poverty is that it’s a temporary state. We’re poor now, but [by achieving the] American dream, we’re going to end up with money. I think that people of color don’t get that leeway. It’s always somehow their fault.

Because I mostly write about my own trauma history, I’ve been accused multiple times of using my own trauma to get ahead which seems a little bit absurd because, if anything, trauma destroys your ability to thrive. 

I think about that a lot: you could say that Dolly traded on her background and turned it into something that’s more digestible. I have made my own trauma more digestible to the reader in the way that I sculpted this book. Nobody wants to read page after page of horrifying things!

In some songs she’s merely singing about her past and in others she’s trading on this myth of rags to riches which is not accessible to all people.

One of my previous poetry books, Landscape with Sex and Violence, was intended to be entirely about trauma. It doesn’t ever look away from that. I did that because I needed to get it out of my system and I wanted readers to be confronted with what it’s like as a woman in rape culture.

I’ve been told by men that my work didn’t feel like it was for [them]. And it’s like, well why not? Any book that explores violence that men do to women should be read by men. Women know! Men aren’t socialized to want to read that. But I didn’t have them in mind when I was deciding what not to write. I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive was about balancing Dolly and trauma so that it didn’t become too much of a biography or too much of a memoir.

Dollywood is somewhere that’s really important to you personally but also as a place that’s upholding really toxic and damaging ideals, especially right now. How do you reconcile that as a Jewish woman? 

2018 was a very hard year for me for multiple reasons. You know when you have those years? I had a writing fellowship at the New York Public Library so I had a little extra money—which never happens as a writer!—and I used it to take my family to Dollywood.

I felt like I stood out because I’m Jewish and rural Tennessee was a very Christian, very white area. Maybe I would do something with antisemitism and the south?  But there was something too about being in Dolly’s home turf and the joy that she brought me throughout my life and I thought, I’m going to write about this.

When you start a writing project you don’t always get a say in where it decides to take you! The book became less about Dollywood, although that factors into it, and more about Dolly Parton as a whole.

I think it’s important to talk about how figures like Dolly can’t remain apolitical. She needed to pick a side.

For the longest time she wouldn’t pick a side. Previously, she’d avoided issues, saying things like, I’m feminine not feminist. She didn’t want to anger any of her fanbase. It certainly upset me during the #MeToo movement. I don’t know if it was the Trump years or COVID, but she’s been a little more vocal recently. In an interview in TIME magazine 2020 she said, and I’m paraphrasing, that she’s a feminist if she believes that women have equal rights to men. She’s publicly supported #BlackLivesMatter, whereas a few years ago, she would have just not said anything.

But she puts her feminism into her songs, like “Just Because I’m a Woman,” which is about sexuality, and she’s been vocal about the need for queer rights from the beginning. She has a parental leave policy at Dollywood. In her music, in her actions, and who she donates money to, we can see what her politics are.

There’s been a little bit of a shift, but mostly it’s people’s thinking and talking about her has changed. 

You write that Dolly is all things to all people. What is she to you?

In the Dollywood gift shop there’s this keychain that says, “No. 1 Fan,” and it has her picture on it. There’s hundreds of them! Everyone who loves Dolly is her number one fan because she is all things to all people!

I got through the pandemic by diving into her body of work and her life. Again she pulled me through this difficult time. I started to feel like we were best friends; she just doesn’t know it!

It’s not her image or her look, it’s her absolute talent as a singer and a songwriter which gets overlooked.

I admire her kindness and generosity and philanthropy and she’s very funny, but Dolly is, to me, the person who sings and writes these amazing songs. And that’s what’s gotten me through.

She was just awarded the Carnegie Medal in Philanthropy to honor all of her giving. She doesn’t have to do all that she does, and she does a lot of it quietly. Everybody knows about the $1 million to Moderna, and most people know about the Imagination Library through which she has donated over 100 million books to children in honor of her father, who never learned to read or write. She has wings in children’s hospitals. She started an eagle sanctuary at Dollywood because the eagles were threatened there. When she sees a need, she fills the need. She’s a really kind heart and that’s why she stays so beloved.

As I said before, I grew up seeing her before I heard her music, and stereotyping her because of her look. Now I think people are waking up to her as a person, but also as a singer and a songwriter. I think social media has a lot to do with that; people keep finding articles on her and finding out the beautiful things she’s done for people.

She is beloved by all points of the political spectrum. It’s the only thing that this country can agree on!

Scarlett Harris is a culture critic and author of the book A Diva Was a Female Version of a Wrestler. You can read her previously published work at her website, The Scarlett Woman, and follow her on Twitter @ScarlettEHarris.