One of Time’s Top 100 Must Reads of 2020
"Parton is endlessly quotable and fun to read about, but [She Come By It Natural] is also enriched by its glimpses into Smarsh's Kansan family. . . Knowing when to fight back and when to cut your losses is, in Smarsh's account, a talent shared by Parton and many of the working-class women she has immortalized in song and onscreen."
"Growing up, Sarah Smarsh was surrounded by the type of women Dolly Parton so often sings about: impoverished women in rural America who use both their smarts and sexuality to get by as best they can—often despite the men who would hold them back. These women populated Smarsh’s 2018 memoir Heartland, a National Book Award finalist. And in her stirring, insightful collection of essays about the country music icon, she gives them and Parton their due for redefining womanhood even as their class and culture worked to keep them down. Smarsh anoints Parton a badly needed beacon: in a divided country, she remains that rare someone who everyone can love."
"Like Parton herself, Smarsh’s treatment is so much deeper than what appears on the surface ... Smarsh tells Parton’s story through the eyes of women who grew up in rural America struggling to make ends meet ... A new generation is just now realizing the power of Parton’s music. Some certainly will find out about it because of Smarsh’s book, which tells Parton’s story and puts it into step with our times."
"Bristling with sharp insights and righteous anger, She Come by It Natural is a moving account of how Ms. Parton’s music has helped “hard-luck women” make their own escapes from deadbeat men and dead-end lives."
—Wall Street Journal
"Smarsh doesn’t pretend that Parton was ever a spokesperson for the [feminist] movement. She was something more meaningful: not a mouthpiece but a model."
—The New Yorker
“As Sarah Smarsh notes in ‘She Come by It Natural,’ her brilliant 2020 book-length meditation on Ms. Parton, ‘Several of my friends — white, Black and Latina, with disparate class origins among them — commented in the weeks surrounding the 2016 election that Parton was a balm of sorts, a spiritual leader when political leaders are failing.’ If anything, these words are even truer in the aftermath of the 2020 election than they were in 2016. And it would be so nice to think of Miss Dolly watching over us from that hill over the city. To believe her words in ‘Light of a Clear Blue Morning,’ if only for a moment: ‘It’s gonna be OK."
—New York Times
"Combining tribute, memoir and social commentary, Smarsh analyzes how Dolly Parton’s songs—and success—have embodied feminism for working-class women."
"An ambitious book that explores what Parton represents for the rural poor women often left out of social justice movements ... in Smarsh’s reading, Parton’s feminism is implicit, embodied in her actions."
—The New Republic
"She Come By it Natural finds a sweet spot between celebrity biographies and academic studies about this legendary performer by offering a distinct working-class feminist perspective gleaned from Smarsh’s own experience within her rural female working-class family."
—Journal of Working-Class Studies
"As she did in her 2018 memoir, Heartland, Smarsh offers a feminist take on America’s rural working-class women who eschew the term “feminism.” The author looks at how songs by Dolly Parton and other country-music performers illuminate stories of women who might otherwise be overlooked: tired waiters, pregnant teenagers, spurned wives, loyal daughters."
—Washington Post, 10 Books to Read in October
"She Come By It Natural is a praise song for the cultural icon, but what emerges from an examination of Parton's life and work is just how much relevance her lyrics have had for Smarsh and for other women and why so much of the book is so deeply personal. . . . The fruit of that devotion is a tribute to the woman who continues to demonstrate that feminism comes in coats of many colors."
—Los Angeles Times
“A great stocking stuffer for fans of the country sensation. Smarsh portrays Parton as a voice for poor, working-class and undervalued women. This biography of the singer-songwriter is a testament to how she has been embraced by generations of women who see Dolly Parton, not just as a superstar, but also as a sister."
—The Detroit Free Press
"Published in October, She Come by It Natural is the latest—and best, and most affecting and convincing—component of what appears to be, at long last, the Great Dolly Parton Renaissance, that long-foretold tipping point wherein they finally get past the shock of the ridiculous way she looks and see that there are parts of her to be appreciated."
—The Ringer, book feature
“[Smarsh] skillfully illustrat[es] how [Parton's] music speaks to women, especially those from a lower-class background,”
“She Come by It Natural is the latest—and best, and most affecting and convincing—component of what appears to be, at long last, the Great Dolly Parton Renaissance.”
"Passionate, smart, and earnest."
"Sarah Smarsh expertly explores the overlooked social contributions of women . . . . [An] inspiring tribute to Dolly Parton herself."
"Smarsh explains that Parton’s full legacy is much deeper and more rewarding than it might seem from casual listening."
"Throughout the book, Parton and Smarsh are in unspoken dialogue with one another, sharing common language and struggle through the beauty of country music."
"Dolly comes vividly to life in [the book's] pages ... a serious, not worshipful but something better, deeply respectful critical portrait ... She really is as sharp and as complicated as we’d begun to suspect."
"She Come by It Natural will appeal to a wide range of readers who are curious about Parton. Smarsh finds a sweet spot between biography and memoir that lets her move nimbly between her personal affection for Parton’s impact on women’s lives and her journalistic analysis of Parton’s artistry, business acumen, and iconic role in our quick-changing zeitgeist."
"[She Come By It Natural] includes sharp social commentary and well-placed personal anecdotes, [and] is at its heart a love letter both to Parton and to the women who continue to see themselves in her songs."
"Smarsh seamlessly weaves her family’s experiences with Parton’s biography—triumphs and shortcomings alike—and cultural context. She Come by It Natural is, as a result, a relatable examination of one of country music’s brightest stars and an inspiring tale of what women can learn from one another."
"Smarsh and Parton are a perfect pairing for the kind of in-depth examination into gender and class and what it means to be a woman and a working class hero that feels particularly important right now."
—Refinery29, most anticipated
“We will always love reading about Dolly Parton,”
"Affectionate and astute ... Smarsh’s luminescent prose and briskly tempered storytelling make for an illuminating take on a one-of-a-kind artist."
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
"A highly readable treat for music and feminist scholars as well as Parton's legion of fans."
“Readers get the impression that Smarsh read and listened to the artist's every word and watched every filmed second of her in order to recreate Parton here in fine, sparkling form. Smarsh's range as a storyteller (much like her subject's) makes this the best kind of American story, one of a person so extraordinarily vast that we find room for ourselves, too.”
"A warm-hearted journey into what Dolly means to generations of women who saw their lives reflected in her songs, who first embraced her not as a star but a sister."
—Elizabeth Catte, author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia
In early April 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic gained steam, country singer Dolly Parton donated one million dollars to Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) to support coronavirus research. It wasn't her first gift to VUMC, and it was far from the first time she'd donated funds to a cause she deemed important. Yet a moderately viral Tweet declared, "It sounds like a gag." As Smarsh (Heartland) makes clear, such reactions to Parton's generosity aren't uncommon—as are similar responses to her music, her brand, and, in particular, her physical appearance. Despite that, Parton's decades-long career boasts an impressive talent, a strategic business acumen, and a large and diverse fan base, many of whom would otherwise claim to dislike country music. That kind of popularity is rare, especially for a musical genre frequently treated with derision. Part memoir, part tribute, the book is less about Parton's music than her identity and how she has embraced and uplifted it to the inspiration of many. Smarsh's insightful reflections on her experiences growing up in poverty on a Kansas farm are a springboard to discuss feminism, gender, sexuality, class, and race from an angle that is often ignored. VERDICT A thoughtful musing on the significance of Parton's work and success, and those she inspires.—Genevieve Williams, Pacific Lutheran Univ. Lib., Tacoma
A journalist and bestselling author pays tribute to country music legend Dolly Parton (b. 1946).
Before her recent elevation to the status of universally beloved icon,” writes Smarsh, Parton “was best known by many people as the punch line of a boob joke.” This book, based on essays the author wrote for No Depression magazine in 2017, explores Parton's musical and cultural contributions. It also tells stories about the women so often at the heart of Parton's songs. Bent on becoming a star, she left for Nashville after high school. But she faced many challenges as an attractive woman working her way to the top. Parton's breakthrough song, “Dumb Blonde,” released in 1967, foretold the attitude a largely sexist country music industry took toward the singer, especially in the early part of her career. Her first industry mentor, Porter Wagoner, for example, recognized Parton's musical talent, but he tried to use it to serve his own “thunderous ego.” The quick-witted grit that helped her endure would later come out in the characters she played in hit Hollywood films like 9 to 5 (1980). Smarsh argues that this "humorous bravado" arises not just from Parton herself, but from the "culture of working-class women" she represents. The singer’s savvy is also as much sexual as entrepreneurial. The author shows how Parton used both to reach success—and not just in music: She has said that Dollywood is “the most lucrative investment she ever made.” Her influence is now so pervasive that she has become a cross-genre inspiration to young artists like hip-hop star Nicki Minaj. Though not a self-identified feminist, Parton exemplifies the "unsurpassed wisdom about how gender works in the world" that Smarsh believes is part of the working-class female experience.
A highly readable treat for music and feminist scholars as well as Parton's legion of fans.