Author Sarah Smarsh talks Dolly Parton book at Writers Conference special event

Special Lecture Series features author of ‘She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs’

Country music singer Dolly Parton. Wikipedia

“Let’s Country and Western!” said National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestselling author Sarah Smarsh, at a UND-sponsored webinar on Thursday evening. At the webinar – which was attended by more than 200 people – Smarsh appeared on the screen from her home in rural Kansas, garbed in  a red-and-black checkered shirt and a dark baseball cap.

Smarsh’s appearance and greeting suited her topic: her second book, She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs. The event was made possible through a partnership between the University of Texas-Austin, Clark College, The North Dakota Writers Conference at the University of North Dakota and Humanities North Dakota. The event was also a part of a Featured Authors Special Lecture Series at UND, co-sponsored by the Writers Conference and Humanities North Dakota.

For attendees of last year’s Writers Conference, Smarsh is a familiar figure. In 2019, she was one of the featured authors at the 50th installment of the Conference, where she presented her inaugural work Heartland, a half memoir about her poor, wheat-farming family in Kansas and half commentary on poverty, socio-economic class and rural America.

Last week, Heartland, which earned a Best Book of the Year designation by NPR and several other media outlets in 2019, was a part of the conversation – but only to set the stage for Dolly. The two books are somewhat related in their underlying themes as well as the time Smarsh took to pen them. In fact, she wrote them almost concurrently.

Smarsh worked on Heartland for 10 years before a publisher picked up the book in 2015. And while Smarsh was finishing what she considered “her life’s work,” both the 2016 presidential election and Dolly Parton’s first album tour in many years were gearing up.

“I could sense kind of in the zeitgeist, that there was some kind of new energy around Dolly and about her that I hadn’t previously perceived,” Smarsh said, adding that the country singer proved to be a unifying force in a fraught political environment.

“Not only was she that,” Smarsh said, “but she was also a woman from rural America, that same place that was being disparaged in a lot of headlines.”

Sarah Smarsh

Smarsh didn’t initially set out to write a book about Parton. Instead, she spent a year researching and delivering quarterly print features on the singer for No Depression, a niche magazine about roots music. The engagement was, in fact, a fellowship that probed the intersections of country music and American society.

“Basically, it was an opportunity to validate an art form that was foremost, in my head, the cultural upbringing that I experienced in rural America,” Smarsh said.

True to Smarsh’s storytelling style, She Come By It Natural is hardly a celebrity biography. “What I do is take human stories and use them as a springboard to talk about bigger issues that are transcendent and affect all of us,” she said. “In the case of Heartland, that was my family. In the case of She Come By It Natural, it’s Dolly Parton and to some extent, country music, specifically that written and performed by female artists.”

Parton’s lyrics, Smarsh said, could be read as a feminist text, even if country music is nowadays generally associated with conservatism. In the second half of the 20th century, Smarsh noted, Parton’s songs gave a voice to those who had been silent before: women in precarious conditions such as poverty.

Parton reached the peak of her stardom – marked by a constant string of movies, magazine covers, songs and talk-show appearances – in the 1980s and 1990s, when Smarsh was growing up. This is one of the phases of Parton’s life that Smarsh’s book explores. The others include Parton’s formative years, her struggles to establish herself in the male-dominated country music industry of the 1960s, and the twilight of her career.

“There were many years when Country radio wouldn’t play her music,” Smarsh said. “And she went off and started her own thing. And she did some bluegrass even though it didn’t sell a lot. She expresses what she needs to express and with a synchronicity that connects with this immense, worldwide global audience.”

Coincidentally, Smarsh’s latest book also fits the theme of the ongoing UND Writers Conference, “The Working Classes,” which is taking place virtually this semester.

She Come By It Natural can be purchased on Amazon.

The Writers Conference’s Special Lecture Series continues in February with a talk with Mira Jacob, a novelist, memoirist, illustrator, and cultural critic.