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Why do we need Dolly Parton to be a saint?

Singer-songwriter Dolly Parton's persona has taken on an almost saint-like manifestation in recent years, writes Amanda Marie Martinez.
Ron Davis
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Singer-songwriter Dolly Parton's persona has taken on an almost saint-like manifestation in recent years, writes Amanda Marie Martinez.

In recent weeks, multiple news sources (including NPR) ran stories on Dolly Parton, claiming she had, with the royalties she made from Whitney Houston's cover of "I Will Always Love You," invested in a Black community in Nashville decades ago. These reports failed to acknowledge how exactly the singer invested in the neighborhood — beyond purchasing property in an area that has heavily gentrified in recent decades — while also presenting misleading claims about Parton's own assertions. The reports resurfaced America's love affair with the country star; media sources have become so quick to feed the public feel-good stories about Parton that routine fact-checking has gone overlooked.

Dolly Parton is having a moment — and has been, for the last half century. The singer, who first got her big break on The Porter Wagoner Show in 1967, has endured as one of the savviest business minds in the entertainment industry, transforming herself over the past several decades from the great singer/songwriter she has always been into a larger-than-life figure that's expanded her brand to include a theme park, popular films, and a lovable caricature of herself that's captivated generations.

Parton's tireless work ethic and vivacious personality has created a strong appetite among the American public for an endless stream of feel-good Parton content — a demand that's amplified in the tumultuous age of Trump, Black Lives Matter and the coronavirus pandemic. But while the singer's widespread appeal has long bonded fans across the lines of race, sexuality, and political beliefs, her persona has taken on an almost saint-like manifestation in recent years.

News stories abound about Parton's often well-deserved praise. In the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, the singer donated $1 million to help fund the Moderna vaccine. After Black Lives Matter gained mainstream traction last summer, Parton vocalized her support for Black lives — a risky statement to make for anyone in the notoriously conservative country music industry.

The recent, erroneous reports claiming Parton invested in a Black community decades ago triggers questions about how a collective infatuation with the singer has driven her beyond reproach — and adequate fact checking.

In a recent appearance on Bravo's Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen, Parton was asked what her best purchase was from the more than $10 million she's earned from Whitney Houston's 1992 cover of her song, "I Will Always Love You."

Parton explained she purchased property in what was then a Black neighborhood in Nashville, Sevier Park, saying it was "the perfect place for me to be considering it was Whitney," adding, "I just thought this was great and I'm going to be down here with her people, who are my people as well."

After the interview aired, several articles appeared quickly, pointing to the story as proof of the singer being akin to a longstanding civil rights icon, supporting the Black community long before Black Lives Matter was mainstream. Most notably, the Washington Post ran a story (triggering several additional stories) incorrectly stating Parton purchased the Sevier Park property in 1997, and portraying the singer as a champion of the Black community in Nashville without direct evidence beyond her purchase of the property in question. These claims come after the singer was forced in recent years to change the name of her "Dixie Stampede" dinner show for its celebrations of the confederacy, and also fail to look into the details of Parton's property ownership claims.

Online property records from the Nashville Planning Department indicate Parton acquired the properties in question, two neighboring parcels at the corner of 12th Ave S and Elmwood Avenue, in 1990 and 1991 (then transferred to Parton's trust in 1997) — before the massive success of Houston's cover, released in 1992 as part of The Bodyguard soundtrack. These stories have also been presented without clear indication about how she contributed to the Black community beyond purchasing property — the compound then had a large gate constructed around it — in a neighborhood that has heavily gentrified over the past few decades, an area now called 12 South and one of most-white, tourist-driven and expensive areas of Nashville.

According to Jessica Wilkerson, an associate professor of history at West Virginia University andsomeone who has written about Parton's presence in the popular imagination, Parton's recollections regarding the property in question are part of a pattern in how the singer has described her property investments, and in how she has branded herself.

Just as the singer has now claimed to have purchased the Sevier Park property as a way of giving back to the Black community, Parton has offered similar explanations when discussing property she owns in Sevier County, the area of East Tennessee where she is from and where she now co-owns a popular theme park bearing her name, Dollywood.

"[Parton] has a pattern of claiming that when she purchases property, she invests in a place that she's helping people," explains Wilkerson. "I think she can get away with that when she's doing it in her hometown. It gets trickier to do that with a Black community, where she doesn't live, she's not from there, and she's doing it as a rich white person who can buy up real estate."

Parton's purchase of property in what then was Sevier Park, a central area of Nashville, also paralleled broader national trends of "urban revitalization," where large numbers of white Americans began moving back into city centers and displacing residents of color in the process. Downtown Nashville likewise began undergoing renovation efforts in the 1990s, which included restoration of the historic Ryman Auditorium in 1994.

According to Learotha Williams Jr., associate professor of African American and Public History at Tennessee State University, Parton's purchase of the Sevier Park property shouldn't be interpreted as a conscious contribution to the Black community there, but part of a larger story of gentrification in Nashville.

Record executives, musicians and more at Barcelona Wine Bar in the Edgeville neighborhood of Nashville. Center, Scott Borchetta, founder of Big Machine Records, with the members of <a href="">Lady Antebellum</a>.
Jason Kempin / Getty Images
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Record executives, musicians and more at Barcelona Wine Bar in the Edgeville neighborhood of Nashville. Center, Scott Borchetta, founder of Big Machine Records, with the members of Lady Antebellum.

"She invested her money in an area that had a rich Black history, but one that was actively being undermined as a result of gentrification," he explains. Williams Jr. elaborates that the story of Sevier Park is part of a larger historical pattern within the city, where similar trends of Black displacement have impacted neighborhoods such as East Nashville, North Nashville and Edgehill, a neighborhood where Black residents are actively fighting gentrification.

The recent reports heralding Parton as a champion of the Black community are not the first time the star's name has inexplicably been brought up in conversations about racial justice. Over the past year, as demands to remove the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest — a confederate army general and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, from the Tennessee State Capitol — intensified, they were met with widespread calls to replace the statue with a Dolly Parton monument. Others, including writer Marcus K. Dowling, suggested a Black figure, such as Ida B. Wells, would be better suited to replace the bust of Forrest.

The growing Parton obsession raises questions about why the media and the broader American public has developed such a strong appetite for stories about the country music star.

To Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, a MacArthur Fellow, associate professor in the iSchool at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and someone who has written about what she calls "The Dolly Moment," such stories aren't truly about the singer, but an American public deeply invested in her positive portrayals – and what it says about themselves.

"This isn't about Dolly," McMillan Cottom explains. "Loving Dolly is a stand-in for how we can remediate our love for the nation, because Dolly is part of that American, apple pie iconography."

At a time when uncomfortable conversations about race have been at the forefront of national dialogue, McMillan Cottom explains Parton offers a reprieve from that news cycle, explaining: "I think we want to be able to feel proud of our country, our nation state, our citizenship, that national bond. [Parton's] a way to do that without being nationalist."

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Amanda Marie Martínez