"She Come by It Natural" | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
Updated: Jan 17
Sarah Smarsh grew up listening to the music on the radio in the late 1970s and 1980s. Most were country songs by women with ideas about surviving life and men. Almost all of Dolly Parton’s songs struck a chord with Smarsh’s life and that of her mother’s.
In “She Come By It Natural,” author Sarah Smarsh gives a new twist to Parton’s legacy of representing women who choose power in a man’s world.
Smarsh’s mother, a teen mother, divorced a few times and working at low-paying jobs, encouraged her young daughter to listen carefully to country song lyrics. Smarsh’s mother identified with these lyrics that often bemoaned abusive treatment by men. However, many of the songs ended with the women being empowered by the lessons they learned. Dolly Parton sang songs about women taking control of bad situations and moving on.
Smarsh writes about Dolly’s life and how her songs give women power through her candid reflections about growing up poor, being judged for her looks and scorned for her poverty. Dolly escaped that life at age 18 when she left the mountains for Nashville to become a star and to become rich, two stated goals of hers from the outset.
Dolly’s earliest recorded original songs were taken directly from her experiences growing up in a family with 11 siblings and going to school with girls who were objectified even as preteens. She wrote about teen pregnancy, abandonment, economic deprivation, physical abuse, abortion and stillborn babies. Some radio stations banned her recordings.
Recently, Dolly has received much attention for her $1 million donation to Vanderbilt University to help with research for Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine. Her Imagination Library program, which she started in 1995 to provide a book a month for five years to children in the hills of East Tennessee, has spread to include communities around the world.
Dolly made it clear that the application to receive these books never be based on need. She never wanted any child to feel that they had received the book because they were poor. The first book every baby receives is “The Little Engine That Could,” by Watty Piper. This seems to exemplify the theme of her life. Her philanthropic project honors her father who never learned to read and of which he was ashamed.
In building Dollywood, in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Dolly's theme park employs thousands of people, many of them from her own family. She is generous with health care for full-time employees and offers an onsite health care center for part-time workers. She vowed early on to give back to her community, a community that inspired her and still has so much need.
Dolly donated millions of dollars to the Smoky Mountain areas hit by fires a few years ago. She raised millions more to provide social services to the victims.
The author addresses Dolly's choice to dress for attention and undergo plastic surgery (she talks about this in interviews). Growing up, Dolly admired the girl people called “trash” in her community. She admired her boldness and her ability to withstand criticism because she knew what she wanted. Dolly always knew what she wanted, and today she is one of the wealthiest people in the world not just from her songs, but from her real estate acquisitions, movie production ownership, theme parks and restaurants.
As one of the owners of the Dixie Stampede in Branson, Dolly has recently come under criticism for the evening entertainment which includes a reenactment of a Civil War battle between the North and the South. In response, the owners changed the name from Dixie Stampede to Stampede, but the entertainment continues.
Dolly is now in her 70s and is receiving long overdue recognition for her philanthropic work along with her songwriting and music.
About the author: Sarah Smarsh is the author of “Heartland,” a recent National Book Award Finalist and a “New York Times” bestseller.