Growing up in rural Kansas, there was one narrative Sarah Smarsh heard over and over again. “If you want to be successful, get out.” So she did. But after working as a journalist in New York City for several years, she did something that shocked her peers and colleagues: she moved back home.
“I knew that it would involve some professional sacrifices and certainly some financial sacrifices, but Kansas is where I belonged,” she said.
Now a New York Times best-selling author, Smarsh’s success is undeniable. And the seemingly unusual path she took isn’t all that different from that of the subject of her second book, She Come by it Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs.
“If you don’t like the road you’re walking on, start paving another one.”— Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton, now a country music icon, was born the fourth of 12 children in Locust Ridge, a holler in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. She left home the day after she graduated high school, taking a bus to Nashville to pursue her dream of becoming a musician. Her career later took her to Hollywood and around the world, but she has always cared deeply about her home.
“Dolly Parton has spent her entire life continually returning to home,” said Smarsh. “The storytelling in her songs, the direction that her philanthropy flows, the centering of much of her business empire in the Smoky Mountains that she still calls home” are all tied to where she was raised.
Parton’s contributions to Tennessee, and especially East Tennessee, cannot be overlooked. She has donated over 1 million books to children around the world through the Imagination Library, and raised and donated millions of dollars for causes including relief for wildfire victims, hospitals, women’s centers, and even research for a Covid-19 vaccine. Meanwhile, the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, has an economic impact of over $1.53 billion a year, and generated $118 million dollars in state and local taxes in 2017.
“What has Dolly Parton done?” Smarsh asked. “She has embodied a loving presence, she has accepted all people, she has made efforts to frankly improve her home and the culture of where she comes from in various ways.”
For Smarsh, Parton’s commitment to her home state demonstrates what she calls a “full circle return,” which is “one of the oldest archetypal stories in human history.”
In these stories, people leave their homes but then return to make them better. “Through the departure, you gain assets and understanding and wisdom that you then take back home, and it is then a gift to the place where you came from,” Smarsh explained.
That is a story that Smarsh and Parton share, as does Benya Kraus, who recently hosted an interview with Smarsh as part of the Rural Assembly Everywhere virtual festival. Kraus is the co-founder of Lead for America, a national nonprofit that places young and diverse recent college graduates in fellowships in local governance in small towns across the country. Smarsh and Kraus’s conversation illuminated how they, like Parton, have strived to go beyond just paving their own roads back home. They have also looked to forge paths wide enough to bring other people home, too.
Smarsh has written extensively about rural and working-class communities and is the creator of the podcast The Homecomers, which tells the stories of people fighting for the communities they love.
“I’m not going to limit myself just because people won’t accept the fact that I can do something else.”— Dolly Parton
Smarsh first began writing about Parton in 2016, a time that she describes as having “a lot of misogyny in the air.” National conversations about feminism, as well as Parton’s album and accompanying stadium tour from that time, helped Smarsh put her finger on an issue that is often overlooked: that expressions of feminism, like other movements and ideologies, change at different rungs of the class ladder.
Parton—like many of the women in Smarsh’s family—has previously stated that she is averse to the term “feminism.” But Smarsh says “[Parton] nonetheless, by my definition of feminism, exquisitely embodies the tenets of that philosophy.”
“So that’s why I started writing about Dolly, as a springboard to talk about a working-class version of feminism that maybe doesn’t get its due when we talk about which women should and shouldn’t receive credit for our gender’s progress,” she said.
Smarsh described a tension between women of more privileged backgrounds who are comfortable “talking the talk” of feminism, and working-class women who are certainly “walking the walk,” but perhaps without using the language of the movement.
This phenomenon was familiar to Kraus from her travels to small towns across the country. She explained that women are the changemakers in most of the communities she visits, but they don’t necessarily consider their leadership as embodying feminism. “In so many cases, they are guardians and shepherds of their communities, but they would cringe or really not want to ever put a label or a statement on what they’re doing,” she said.
Gender and Progress in the Covid Era
“We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”— Dolly Parton
The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the structural gaps between classes, genders, and races in the United States and around the world. Racial and ethnic minorities have been disproportionately affected, as have poor people and people living in rural areas.
Meanwhile, women are dropping out of the workforce at four times the rate of men, primarily to care for children and the elderly. “This is unequivocally a loss,” said Smarsh. “In the long arc of justice, this is certainly a setback, and it will be felt for generations to come.”
But Smarsh also sees the pandemic as an opportunity. “In this moment as systems are deteriorating and structures are falling…in that space there is the potential for rebuilding.”
And to make the best of these opportunities for change, Smarsh suggests a Dolly Parton special—believing in yourself.
“Whether you are a storyteller or an aspiring policy maker or a scientist, or someone developing perennial wheat grains for the purpose of sustainable agriculture, right now we need you to be so centered in an abiding belief in yourself. This is not a selfish act—it is in fact the best gift you can give our society and our times. Because if you let yourself be pulled asunder then we can’t benefit from the gift you have to give.”
Want More? Watch the Full Conversation
Watch the complete session from the third day of the Rural Assembly Everywhere virtual festival, to hear Sarah Smarsh and Benya Kraus discuss Dolly Parton, homecoming, working-class feminism, rural women, and much more.