As the USA prepares itself for a vicious presidential election campaign, we speculate on whether Dolly Parton’s Black Lives Matter comment is the start of a new political stance for the singer.
Dolly Parton has been famous for a long time for her political neutrality. Yet in a country bitterly politically divided it’s a stance that must be increasingly hard to maintain. In a recent Billboard interview she was moved to respond to the Black Lives Matter campaign by saying in typical Parton style, “Of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter?” Dolly making a political point?
She has of course plenty of reasons for appearing neutral. Country music, the bedrock of Parton’s popularity, has always been right wing. She has strong allegiance to her home state of Tennessee. Since the 1940’s, it has invariably voted Republican, only three times switching to the Democrats since her birth. It has a Republican governor, it’s two senators are Republican as are seven out of its nine representatives. In 2016 it voted 60% for Trump. Given that Parton has invested huge resources in theme parks and attractions in Tennessee, it would court financial disaster to go against local opinion.
If she needed evidence of what happens when you put your head above the country music parapet then she only needs to recall the Dixie Chicks, who suffered a protracted boycott after one member of the group came out against the Iraq war. Many country stations refused to play their music, albums and ticket sales dropped and they received a number of death threats.
Yet despite that and notwithstanding her ‘Black Lives Matter’ comment, Parton does give occasional glimpses of her views. For example, in the film and song ‘Nine to Five’ she managed to condemn the sexual discrimination women faced in employment whilst at the same time distancing herself from the political views of Jane Fonda. She has had many songs with strongly feminist themes whilst at the same time never explicitly signing up to the cause.
Less well known is that she ditched her first boyfriend for his racist views, and two years ago, after demonstrations and riots in Charlottesville and long before the death of George Floyd she decided to drop the name Dixie from one of her attractions. Parton commented, “there’s such a thing as innocent ignorance. I just thought of Dixie as being part of America. I never thought about it being about slavery, it was just a name we used. If I offended one person, I didn’t want to do that.”
There have been similar positions taken in her attitude to sexuality. In her second album ‘Just Because I'm a Woman’, the title song centres on a girl who tells off her boyfriend for passing judgment on her previous sexual encounters even though he’s guilty of the same behaviour, a fairly radical attitude for 1968. Later and long before the transgender debate came to such prominence, her song "Travelin' Thru," was written specifically for the feature film Transamerica (2005), a film starring Felicity Huffman as a pre-operative transsexual named Bree. For her trouble Parton received death threats. When ‘9-5 the musical’, was premiered, in London 2012, she responded by saying that she felt “it’s just as relevant now as it was forty years ago what with the Me-Too Movement.”
Yet in a recent set of podcasts she re-stated her position. “I have as many fans that are Democrats as I do Republicans. I’m not up here to bash somebody else I’m not playing that game.”
However, if her public expressions are non-political her music is anything but. Her back catalogue of songs cover migrants and deportees, people in poverty, mine workers, mental health and desperation. It’s music fused from her own background and experience. Born in a one room cabin in 1946, her father, who could neither read nor write, famously paid off the attending doctor with a sack of cornmeal. Her mother Avie had eleven other children by the time she was thirty-five and Parton left home, to seek musical fame and fortune, as soon as she finished high school. With no money it is said she would eat by taking left-over-food from trays left outside hotel bedrooms. ‘Coat of Many Colours?’ You were lucky!
As her podcast interviewer Jad Abumrad says, “She’s been singing about political issues since the 60’s. She’s simply saying when you ask about politics, I won’t cast anybody out.” He argues cynics may see this as a business decision yet the more he thinks you listen to her the more it becomes clear it’s a moral stance. Its not apolitical its just not party political or condemnatory.
So, is her Black Lives Matter comment the start of a new political stance for Dolly? Will she declare an allegiance as artists like Taylor Swift and others have done? On past evidence, not a chance! Nonetheless, it would be hard to imagine her voting for somebody who has so little time for women by somebody who has so much, or maybe she’ll just vote on the basis of her far more impressive business record.
Rising star Demi Marriner talks about country music, the role of women, and its place in the British music scene.