Singer-songwriter Dolly Parton's persona has taken on an
almost saint-like manifestation in recent years, writes Amanda Marie
Ron Davis/Getty Images
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
"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.
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. Dowing, suggested a Black figure, such as Ida B. Wells, would be better suited to replace the bust of Forrest.
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
"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."
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."