Icon and Identity: Dolly Parton’s Hillbilly Appeal

by Graham Hoppe, with photos by Tammy Mercure

“White Trash! I am.”

-Dolly Parton

In the early years of Dolly Parton’s career, she played a bit of the hometown girl with starry eyes. It seems hard to imagine now, but in early interviews with national figures like Johnny Carson and Barbara Walters, Parton seems earnest, bashful, and sometimes even a little embarrassed, but—and this is important—never outmatched. She bends the hillbilly stereotype in the direction that suits her, not least in her own life story, which has become the stuff of country music legend: she was born to sharecropper parents in a one-room cabin, delivered by a doctor who was paid with a sack of cornmeal. One of twelve children, she jokes that her family was so poor “the ants used to bring back food they’d taken from us because they felt sorry for us.” When Parton was growing up, her family had to do without electricity and indoor plumbing—hardscrabble facts that are repeated, and perhaps more repeated than any other details, in Parton’s biography. Part of a genre predicated on authenticity, Parton’s biography rings as true as any in country music. To paraphrase David Allan Coe’s song: if Dolly Parton ain’t country, I’ll kiss your ass.

Read more in Southern Cultures Vol. 23, No. 1: Appalachia or online here.