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What Dolly Parton can teach us about resilience

Plus a lesson she could teach Kanye West about grace and humility

By now, Dolly Parton’s cultural influence is well documented, told through podcasts, documentaries, memes and just a general gushing of praise.

But there are also thousands of stories about Parton’s personal influence.

Lynn Melnick was 14 years old when she remembers first hearing a Dolly Parton song from start to finish. She has a vivid memory of hearing the song “Islands in the Stream,” for the first time as she was being checked into rehab. At just nine years old, she had been raped by an older boy and, initially, she turned to drugs and alcohol to cope. In Parton’s songs, Melnick found another way to cope and an example of how to remain resilient in the face of trauma.

In her new memoir “I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive: On Trauma, Persistence, and Dolly Parton,” Melnick examines Parton’s life, as well as her own. On paper, Melnick says it doesn’t make much sense that a Jewish girl from Los Angeles would find a kindred spirit in a singer that grew up in a fire-and-brimstone church in Appalachia, and she set out to understand why she had become so obsessed with Dolly Parton.

She sat down with Reckon to discuss her book, why the world seems to be obsessed with Parton, how she copes with the rise in antisemitism, and why it’s rare to see a celebrity like Parton committed to personal growth and grace, especially in the era of Kanye West. She also provides us with a playlist of some of her favorite Parton songs.

A version of this story appeared in The Conversation newsletter, a weekly email that explores America through ideas, perspectives and people that you’re not likely to find in other media. Subscribe here to receive it in your inbox every Wednesday.

This discussion has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Reckon: To start off, why don’t you just tell me about the first time that you heard a Dolly Parton song in full. This was a very pivotal moment in your life.

Lynn Melnick: Yes, I can tell you that it’s the first page of the book. It’s the first time I remember hearing a Dolly Parton song start to finish was when I was being checked into drug rehab when I was 14 years old. There was a radio playing in the triage room and I heard it over the speakers. I knew it was her, so I must have heard her before, but I didn’t remember having heard her do a whole song before. It just was there at the right time and I just needed... That song in particular is so openhearted and it’s like it takes place right at the beginning of a love affair, so there’s just so much hope in it and that’s what I needed at that moment, so it came at the right time.

Reckon: Over the course of the book you write about Dolly’s songs often finding you at the right time. Despite, in your words, not necessarily being a natural fan for Dolly Parton, you grew up on the West Coast in Los Angeles, you grew up in a Jewish family about as far from East Tennessee as you could get.

Tell me a little bit about how you got to that point in your life at age 14 and what it was about Dolly that struck a chord with you then and resonated with you throughout your life.

Melnick: Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny to say like, I didn’t feel like, to imagine that Dolly wasn’t for me coming from my background because now she’s just blown up into this universally beloved icon, which she’s very deserving of but at the time, in the eighties when I was a teenager, she was past her big pop crossover years of Nine To Five and Islands In The Stream and Here You Come Again, and she was going back to her country roots.

I just didn’t listen to country radio and my friends didn’t listen to country radio. I grew up on folk music, which as I say in the book is country music for Blue states. It’s a very fine line, but it’s just that accent. I mean it was just a real… looking down on people from that part of the world, which was something I grew up with.

I would not have necessarily followed Dolly, but she came to me from the skies. I had very early trauma. I was raped when I was nine years old, which I talk about I think on the second page of the book, so I’m not giving anything away here. And it’s not an uncommon story in order to try to deal with my trauma in an era where we didn’t know as much about trauma and we didn’t know as much about healing from it and treating PTSD and all of that.

I just set about trying to heal myself and the best way that I found as a young teenager was drugs and alcohol. I was basically self-medicating and in a weird way it saved me because it kept me going, but of course it was destined to fail and it did, and so I ended up in rehab when I was 14.

Reckon: I’m thinking about Dolly as something of a cipher. She writes about topics that clearly resonated with you, have resonated with people across the entire political spectrum. Everybody can see themselves in her songs. There was obviously the podcast that came out last year or two years ago about her global resonance.

Melnick: Yes, absolutely.

Reckon: She’s never been overtly political. She’s never been shy about who she is either. What do you think explains her universal appeal and her recent renaissance as you’ve covered her over the course of this book?

Melnick: I was interviewed last year, and this is an aside, by a woman from a French newspaper trying to understand why US feminists love Dolly so much, because on paper she doesn’t maybe make sense to them, and I remember she said to me, “The French woman, we do not understand Dolly Parton.” I was like, “Well, here I am. Let me see what I can do toexplain Dolly Parton.”

But I think what’s interesting about Dolly is, she’s all things to all people. She has so much put on her because she is such a mystery. Her private life is remarkably very private. She’s had this, I think 56 year marriage that is pretty private. We rarely see Carl, her husband. And we don’t know what she’s really like. She’s very measured in her interviews, at least since maybe the early eighties. She just gets very measured about how she presents herself and that makes it easier to put stuff on her.

All sides absolutely love her and claim her as their own. The feminists here think... “Well, she’s obviously a feminist. I mean listen to her songs and she’s so accepting of populations that are often put down or discriminated against. She’s obviously this feminist liberal person.”

And then people on the right see her as this Christian God-fearing woman who is... Even though she has this outsize body, we’ll say, she’s also in her way cartoonish about it. It’s an acceptable form of appearance as a performer to certain right wing people, and she’s seen as more like this benevolent creature and it’s very interesting to see the reaction from the right.

Whenever there was a scandal having to do with anything that might be in the news as far as Dolly was concerned, for example, she spoke in favor of her friend Jane Fonda, [who] was arrested for a climate change protest. And Dolly said she supports her activism and [Dolly] does her activism in her way, which is through her songs.

And people on these right wing...I went onto these sites with these chat rooms and people were either just really angry and felt betrayed by Dolly or they felt like she just didn’t understand the problem. And that was more often they were just so quick to forgive her in the same way I think that us feminists have been so quick to forgive her when she says she has said things over the years that were less than feminist. And she would not claim feminism for herself until probably around 2020.

I think it’s because she keeps herself such a mystery that we can all just claim the Dolly that works for us.

Reckon: Like you said, she’s very reserved in interviews and things like that, but when you look at the work that she’s producing there’s as much for the right and for conservative white Christians as there is for the left, with songs like 9 To 5 or there was Travelin’ Thru.

Melnick: Yeah, Travelin’ Thru Yeah, it was for the movie Transamerica.

Yeah, she has an album that came out soon after 9/11, I think it came out in 2003, which is called For God and Country. To me, I did listen to the entire Dolly Discography twice start to finish, so I hung in there for that one, but I would not pick it up again. I feel like it’s unlistenable, it feels like pablum for a certain population and I find it to be cringey. and I love most of her work and I’m willing to go... I mean I’m full on corny, I’m willing to go most places with her, but I just couldn’t do it in the same way that I imagined her right wing fans were not going to listen to Travelin’ Thru or we’re not going to imagine 9 To 5 as the worker’s anthem that it is.

And so I think she’s interested in people and she’s interested in exploring everything, and I think that she is uncategorizable because she doesn’t box herself into anything.

She has a lot of very explicitly Christian songs, some of which I love. Some of them I just find so beautiful, and some of them I find really kind of unlistenable too. And so a lot of her right wing white Evangelical fans love that about her. I mean she’s got something for everybody. I mean she’s written 3000 songs, so..

Reckon: That’s true. Yeah, we’re all going to find something of ourself in there. That is interesting that you do like some of her Christian songs and obviously this is a bit of a non-sequitur, but a lot of the most famous Christmas songs were written by Jewish songwriters and so the mingling of this you can-

Melnick: I have huge love for Christmas music and the same is true of Dolly’s Christian songs. The belief, just this absolute optimism of them and joy and beauty is so present in the Christmas songs and Dolly’s Christians song. I mean sometimes they cross the line into it really too much. But just her absolute, absolute belief in this higher power that, even though I don’t believe in that and I wasn’t raised even with that God, it moves me because to be able to feel that much and express it and just believe so deeply in something I find very moving and enviable really when I listen to it.

Reckon: We’re talking about all the different ways that people can listen to and view her music. Through this book, you were looking at her life, her career and your life through a lens of rape culture and processing trauma. And you say early on, you know, you’re being a little bit tongue in cheek about it obviously, but you described her as the stereotypical woman who would look like she was “asking for it.”

Melnick: Yes.

Reckon: Because of her demeanor and the way that she used that persona. I guess even going back to leaving the Porter Wagner show, she used that persona to defy expectations throughout her career. What about that drew you to her to process your own trauma?

Melnick: Yeah, there’s something I find very appealing She’s this hugely successful underdog. I mean her whole story is so improbable. She’s one of 12 children. They grew up in poverty, no indoor plumbing. Just absolute poverty. And the day after high school graduation, she gets on a bus and goes to Nashville and she just always believed that if she just kept working at something, that good things would happen. She just had that faith in herself and she knew that she could do it. And as someone who has had to pick myself up several times in my life and just keep going on, I have found that extremely helpful. That example.

And it was funny because when I started writing the book, I actually wasn’t sure why I was drawn to her. That was sort of why I was interested in the project. I’m like, why am I obsessed with Dolly Parton? I was raised Jewish in Los Angeles, I live in New York, what is this connection we have? And then the more I wrote the book, I realized it, the connection is in that sort of dusting yourself off and keep going point of view.

I’m extremely hopeful and optimistic despite everything I know now and everything I’ve been through. And I find that of Dolly, too. She believes in the power of a dream, but she also believes in the work behind a dream. And she’s been through some obviously very traumatic things, starting with poverty and she has always just believed in a better world for herself and for others. And I find that she’s been my companion in that because I think it’s very easy for people to feel defeated these days and to feel just sarcastic about all the possibilities out there. And that’s just never been me. I’ve just a little bit, as my kids would say, I’m corny and so is Dolly. So we’ve got that in common.

Reckon: We’ve talked a lot about Dolly, but your story is also improbable. I know you’ve been working through your trauma through your poetry for most of your life. But what did you learn about yourself in the process of writing this book, in the process of writing about somebody else’s story?

Melnick: I had always written about my trauma since I started writing poetry as a teenager. And I thought I had said everything I had to say, but clearly I didn’t. I think what I learned, well two things. One is that I stopped…I’m a big secret keeper from early on because I had big secrets to keep. And when you write something in poetry, well first of all, not a lot of people read it because it’s poetry. So there’s the safety of that. And then also people when they do read it, they don’t know if they understand it. Or you don’t have to stay in a terrible moment. You can go off and do something else and then come back. Poetry just allows for more leaps than memoir does. So there was that.

So writing my trauma in memoir form, which was just more linear, I’d never fully dwell on something because it’s also about Dolly and I go back and forth. But that was difficult. That was a sort of laying out of… not all my secrets, but many of my terrible traumas that have happened, knowing that I was just going to release them. And I have to say that with the book out, it feels like I’ve released them in a way that poetry didn’t, it feels like I’ve just let the things that happen to me be okay. I don’t have to keep things so hidden. And that’s a very new lesson because the book is just out and I haven’t really processed that as a feeling yet, but I think it feels good.

In writing it I think the thing I learned, not just for myself, but for most people I was writing about was compassion, which was unexpected. I really felt compassion for some of the people who made missteps but weren’t monsters. There are some monsters in the book, but just how to write about people in a way that honors their complexity and the fact that they’re just human. And then as I was doing that, I realized—and mostly this was through my writer’s group, because they’re always like, “Why are you talking about yourself so terribly?” And then I was like, “Oh, right.” So it sort of taught me how to be more compassionate towards myself in a way that poetry never did, because I never had to really sit with these stories that long in the poems. I could go on to the next thing. And so I do feel like I’m grateful for that, that I did learn to have some compassion for myself

Reckon: In our broader cultural conversation about rape culture, do you think we’re at a point now where you would’ve been able to find other life rafts if you were going through the same thing in 2022 that you were going through in the 1980s? Would you be in a better position to process that?

Melnick: I think yes and no. I think, absolutely, and I see this with my kids who are Gen Z talking about mental health. To them it’s like talking about having a cold, it’s just very normal. They’re very okay with the fact that everyone has different mental health issues and needs. But I do think as a culture, we’re more aware of addiction as a mental health disorder, and also of things like PTSD. There’s social workers in the schools now. There’s the internet.

Reckon: Which can be good and bad, I guess.

Melnick: Right, right. Oh, absolutely. But you can find information and that’s like the bizarre thing to watch about my kids. They’re all teenagers now. They can get all this information that we were trading amongst ourselves and trying to find out what was available. So yes, I think there would’ve been some things that were easier as far as being a victim of sexual violence.

I think there is more understanding now, but I think it’s in many ways just as difficult because how I always suspected #metoo would pan out, has panned out. It was really sort of trendy and maybe took down a guy or two. But for the most part we’re kind of a little bit over it at this point.

And from what I have seen and also in my work at, I have done some feminist activist work in my work sort of advocating for victims. I have found that it’s the victims who come forward who suffer the most rather than the person who’s been accused. Not in all cases, but in many.

So I don’t think things have gotten better in that way, I think there still is a stigma attached, and I see this sort of just witnessing the social circles of teenagers now. There’s a lot of the same things from when I was a teenager. Just a lot of judgment about what girls do with their bodies, how they dress them, all of this kind of stuff. I’m sure it’s better, but it’s not where I would have hoped, by far.

Reckon: And it does feel like we’re in a period of backlash right now. I mean, we’re also seeing a huge spike in antisemitism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry. And so in the stories that you’ve learned through Dolly and through your own story about resilience, what are some lessons, some ideas that you would want our audiences to know about ways to persevere?

Melnick: If anyone has any suggestions, I’m open. Especially in thinking about antisemitism, I always think of my grandmother who used to start sentences with “when the Nazis come back for us.” And then they she’d say X, Y, and Z. And she used to joke—my younger daughter looks much more like my husband who has an Irish background—and she used to say, “well, when the Nazis come back, we’ll have Stella answer the door because she does not look at all Jewish.” But I always that her entire life, she had that in the back of her head. And I also think how privileged I have been as a Jew of this generation, but I think hers is the smarter approach. I think we need to know what the dangers are, but we need to also learn to have hope besides them.

I mean this sounds very unhelpful, but we’re not going to get rid of antisemitism. We’re not going to get rid of sexism or homophobia. We have those things because this is how people are. I feel like we’re going in the right direction. But it’s very, very slow and there’s ups and downs and you just can’t eliminate hatred because it is unfortunately part of many humans.

And so I think we have to learn to prepare for the worst and hope for the best, to use that cliche. I mean, not to forget that there is suffering and that we have suffered, but to imagine something better for ourselves. And that’s what got me through so much of my trauma and recovery is to imagine that I could have a better life.

And even before I even felt worthy of it or knew how to get it, I imagined that it was possible. I just kept telling myself that it was possible. It’s going to get better. Sometimes I’d actually say it out loud because I’m someone who talks to myself. And I think that’s really the best we can do is just hope for more. Well, and also to work towards it. I mean back to Dolly’s thing about, as she says, the difference between wishes and dreams. Wishes are just something you sort throw away. And dreams are the thing you work for, if you’re going to achieve it. And that’s a mode of persistence, I think, is the work behind it.

Reckon: In some ways, you are fortunate that the artist who was your life raft, at least so far, knock on wood, has not been overly problematic. That probably feels more rare than it actually is.

Melnick: I know. Before the book came out, I kept saying, Please Dolly, just give me two more months or something.

Reckon: I’m thinking about this in terms of the context of how many of her fans, JK Rowling has disappointed. How many of his fans, Kanye West has disappointed. If Dolly were to do something disappointing or just, in general, is there a risk in interpreting your own life through somebody else’s art? Obviously that song you first heard at 14, “Islands in the Stream” would’ve helped you then as it did now. But I’m just kind of curious about your thoughts on, to use the cliche, separating the art from the artist.

Melnick: This has been something that I have long struggled with. It’s funny, I have a favorite quote by Alice Walker, which is, “If art doesn’t make it us better, what on earth is it for?” And I believe that very strongly. Alice Walker, who is a literary hero of mine, has also been very antisemitic in some of her speech. And that was heartbreaking to me.

And so sometimes I can do it and sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I can just say, you know what, I’m going to just enjoy this novel. And sometimes all I can think of is these terrible things that were said.

I think it’s really just what do we have the capacity to put out of our heads while we enjoy art. I mean, it’s 100 percent true that not a single artist has ever been good and pure 100 percent of the time, and we’re all really awful a lot of the time. But there are also levels of awful and there’s levels of what you can put out of your mind when you enjoy their art. I’m not going to watch a Woody Allen movie because I, that’s all I can think of. It’s like, why am I giving this man money?

I certainly don’t believe that we should eliminate that art at all. If people don’t choose to enjoy it or read it or watch it, that says its own statement. But people are entitled to make their art no matter how awful they are as people. Doesn’t mean I have to support it or listen to it or anything.

But where Dolly is concerned, I mean, she has made missteps. Again, she’s just very, very human. I talk about this in the book. She was supposed to do a show that took place inside of a church community, and this was in the eighties and it was canceled after it was commissioned, and so it never really happened. And she basically said something that suggested that the Jewish people in Hollywood were uncomfortable because it was a church show. Which now where everybody’s aware of, because Kanye West has been out there with this stereotype for the last two weeks. But it’s always been a stereotype that the Jews control media, Jews control Hollywood.

And I believe she said this because that is probably what she believed. This is what she’s been told, this is what a lot of people have been told. And then I think Anti-Defamation League that talked to her. And so instead of doubling down, in the Kanye style, she basically said, “I’m sorry, and I understand how hurtful it is to be stereotyped based on where you’re from and who you are.” which she does. She’s long been stereotyped based on her background. And so she just basically said, I understand how it would be hurtful. I apologize. And that was it.

That’s how you handle something like that. And she’s made other mistakes like that and she’s gracious about it. She accepts her own imperfection as a human being. Were she to come out as some kind of raging antisemite, I think that, that would be a hard, even more heartbreaking than Alice Walker. And I don’t know what I would do.

Reckon: Well, I think to your point, I mean graciousness and grace and—this might be why she’s endured as long as she has—the willingness to adapt and evolve, not just musically, but also on an individual level and on a human level, is rare for a celebrity.

Melnick: It’s really rare. I mean, she’s 76. She grew up in the backwoods of East Tennessee. She was raised in one of those fire and brimstone kinds of churches. And yet, I mean, as far as gay rights, she’s been, in I think certain communities of the South, she’s been the driving force in changing minds and promoting acceptance. And she just would never allow for any of anything else. She’s usually pretty apolitical, but she’s always been 100% in for gay rights. And so I think she’s just open minded in a way that I think most people are not. And I’m talking about people on the right and the left.

Reckon: Certainly once you get that much money and that much acclaim, you don’t have to be open minded. You’re surrounded by people who don’t make you be open minded.

Melnick: That’s the thing about her as a person and as an artist. She could have—after the late seventies, early eighties—just released the occasional Christmas album and done a few hokey tours in Las Vegas. She would have the same amount of money. She didn’t have to evolve as an artist, but she chose to. And I think that’s what makes her so special is that she is constantly growing and recreating herself and trying to learn more about people.

She gave this speech, this commencement address at the University of Tennessee, when she was given an honorary doctorate. This is some years ago. And she gave a speech where she talked the three tenets in her life. I think it was like “learn more, be more, do more.” And learn more was a major tenet for her that you do to keep growing. And that is improbable, considering that she really didn’t have to, If you look at other country music artists who came up in the late sixties, early seventies, there’s not a lot of learn more happening.

Reckon: I would ask your favorite Dolly Parton song, but that seems unfair. So just what is the song that you’re listening to today?

Melnick: I’ve only listened to one Dolly song today, and it was Wildflowers from the song from the first trio album that she does with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. And I absolutely love that song. Part of the chorus is wildflowers don’t care where they grow. It’s a song of survival and persistence.

Lynn Melnick’s memoir “I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive” is available for purchase here. Below you’ll find a playlist of songs discussed in the book.

John Hammontree

John Hammontree | jhammontree@reckonmedia.com

John Hammontree is a co-founder of Reckon. He currently serves as Executive Producer of Reckon Radio, host of the Reckon Interview podcast, and author of The Conversation, a weekly newsletter that digs into ideas, perspectives and people that you're not likely to find in other media.

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