“The Dollyverse is this idea that you can see every story through her,” says Jad Abumrad, Radiolab co-host and creator of the new podcast “Dolly Parton’s America.” While investigating the 73-year-old country music legend, he explores murder-ballad history, banjo origins and his father’s childhood home in Lebanon. In this last pursuit, Abumrad becomes like every Parton fan. He develops a profoundly personal connection with her work.
Over a music and screen career spanning more than 50 years, Parton has attracted a diverse fan base that’s equal parts Christian conservative and LGBTQ, and touches every generation from traditionalists to Zs. They all hear their lives in her songs; we see every story through hers. And we have more opportunities to do so now than ever.
Netflix streams Parton’s new anthology series, “Heartstrings,” as of late November; “Christmas at Dollywood” premieres on the Hallmark Channel on Sunday; she co-hosted the Country Music Association Awards on Nov. 13; NBC aired “Dolly Parton: 50 Years at the Grand Ole Opry” on Nov. 26; and Abumrad’s podcast, co-produced with OSM Audio and WNYC Studios, launched Oct. 15.
Welcome to the Dollyverse.
“It blows me away that we’re not all celebrating her as a songwriter as much as we do, say, Bob Dylan,” Abumrad said in a phone interview. “From 1967 to 1973, she’s walking down the hall and No. 1 songs are falling out of her head.”
Parton has made 44 Top 10 country albums and 25 No. 1 hits on the Billboard Country charts. In 1973, she wrote “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” on the same night.
Television has always been intrinsic to the singer-songwriter’s success. A seven-year stint on “The Porter Wagoner Show” launched her career in 1967. In the aughts, her appearances as Aunt Dolly on Disney Channel’s hit “Hannah Montana” introduced her to younger fans.
Now, Parton is mining her songs for narrative content. “Heartstrings,” a Netflix series on which she is also an executive producer, comprises eight hour-long features inspired by and named after the artist’s tracks. She introduces each episode and appears in some. At the beginning of “These Old Bones,” starring Ginnifer Goodwin and Kathleen Turner, Parton speaks about growing up without a TV, saying, “Writing songs was like making my own little movies with my guitar.”
The country singer is familiar with the process of adapting her music into other projects. In 2015, Parton and NBC turned her 1971 smash hit into the TV movie “Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors.” It broke records for NBC with 13.1 million viewers, and a Christmas-themed sequel followed in 2016. Talks to adapt “Jolene” bounced around Hollywood before morphing into the current Netflix series.
“She is egoless. I never even got a hint of it,” Patrick Sean Smith, the showrunner of “Heartstrings,” said of Parton’s approach to the work. “I asked if the narrator (in the song) keeps telling Jolene she’s beautiful as a way to manipulate her. And Dolly was like, ‘No.’ I asked, ‘There’s not a power dynamic when she says, “Oh you can have any man?” ’ And Dolly was just like, ‘No, that’s not in there.’ ” What remains in the narrator is unadulterated vulnerability.
This kind of authenticity enables Parton’s work to live in different media and feel the same — and is, of course, what endears her to a legion of fans.
“Her songs are inclusive while being personal at the same time,” Smith said.
This is one of what Abumrad describes as “an absolute smorgasbord of contradictions that are somehow cohesive.” She connects to people with opposing belief systems, yet none believe she chose a side. As a result, he said, “Nobody dislikes Dolly.”
“She’s able to tap dance around political decisions in a way that is extremely shrewd,” Abumrad said. “Part of it is super real. There is something deliberately spiritual about it — the fact that she will never say an unkind word about anyone.”
He believes the real reason Parton hasn’t been accoladed in the same way as Dylan has more to do with “the whole backwoods-Barbie, country-girl, boob-jokes thing. That’s distracted people from looking at the songwriting.” Parton leans into these distractions and self-deprecation, titling a 2008 album “Backwoods Barbie” and never missing the opportunity to make a joke about her figure.
“Johnny Carson would make a boob joke, and she would double it,” Abumrad said of Parton’s talk-show appearances in the ’70s and ’80s. Of a bit that didn’t make the podcast, he added, “She told me she thought to herself at the time, ‘I know one day people will look past this and see me for who I am.’ ”