Jan Abumrad On Dolly Parton's America You may know Jad Abumrad as the host of WNYC's 'Radiolab.' He tells Sam why he created another podcast, Dolly Parton's America, examining the life and work of music legend Dolly Parton. Jad himself grew up in Nashville, where his physician father, a Lebanese immigrant, struck up an unlikely friendship with the singer. Jad uses this podcast to ask what divides us, and how we can transcend those divides like Dolly does. Maybe. Email the show at samsanders@npr.org.
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Jad Abumrad On 'Dolly Parton's America'

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Jad Abumrad On 'Dolly Parton's America'

Jad Abumrad On 'Dolly Parton's America'

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JAD ABUMRAD: Are we recording on our end? Are you recording on your end? Or...


I know we're recording on our end right now.


SANDERS: I bet all the ends are covered.

ABUMRAD: OK. Good, good. Well...

SANDERS: Most interviews I do, the guests don't think to ask who's recording what. They aren't concerned with the technical of the conversation. But my guest today, he is different.

First things first, tell me your full name and the title you prefer - because you go by many titles at this point.

ABUMRAD: Yeah. I mean, my name is Jad Abumrad. I am the host-creator of Radiolab and More Perfect and Dolly Parton's America.


ABUMRAD: I guess I'll go with that as a title. That works.

SANDERS: That's a good title. Let's keep it in there.


SANDERS: I am Sam Sanders. You are listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. And as you heard, my guest today is Jad Abumrad. I'm calling him podcast royalty. His WNYC show Radiolab has been one of the biggest podcasts in the country for years now.

And just this past year, Jad released a podcast series that was just magical. As he said there, it's called Dolly Parton's America - also from WNYC. I binged this show recently in two days. And I love me some Dolly Parton. But what really made me love Jad's show about her is how he uses the story of Dolly to tell the story of us right now - what unites us, what divides us and how we maybe can transcend a lot of that like Dolly does.

Listeners, if you have already listened to Dolly Parton's America, you will still enjoy this chat. I promise. There are some new Dolly tidbits in there. And if you haven't listened yet, you'll still enjoy this chat. I promise all of the wisdom and knowledge Jad shares here, it needs no prep or prior listening to understand.

OK. Jad was in New York for this chat at WNYC Studios. I was here in Los Angeles. And as you heard, we recorded both sides of this conversation. Jad made sure of that. All right. Enjoy.


SANDERS: So you're a creative who feels a need to do these side projects. What made you say the side project for this year or two or three years will be Dolly?

ABUMRAD: (Laughter) God, I did a lot of - I'll give you - I'm going to give you, like, a three- or four-part answer. And they should all be sort of understood not chronologically because they all happened at once.

You know, the first thing is - I guess the moment I got really interested in Dolly - I mean, I grew up in Tennessee. So I grew up in the South, and Dolly Parton is sort of the patron saint of the place I grew up. And I mean, I certainly knew of her - knew her music. But I'd never really, like, stared directly at any of her songs or her influence. And so she was just kind of there. So part of it is that I have always felt like I knew Dolly, but I never actually knew her. There was that.

But I think more contemporarily, 2016, I - she came to Queens and did a gigantic stadium show. And it was right at the moment when the general election was heating up. And I just remember, like, this day. You know, you watch TV in the morning and you see the headlines, and it's just this garbage fire of political discourse. And then that night, Dolly Parton goes and plays a stadium show in Queens. And first of all, everybody around me was freaking out. They were so excited. And that caught me off guard. I thought, how - I didn't realize that everybody loved Dolly...

SANDERS: Everybody does.

ABUMRAD: ...Here...


ABUMRAD: ...You know...

SANDERS: In New York?

ABUMRAD: ...In New York City, which is such a dumb, naive realization. But it really did surprise me.

And then when they came back from the show, everyone was telling me these stories of what it was like to go to a Dolly show, where you saw this incredibly diverse, multiracial, multiethnic, multiage, politically diverse - most importantly - audience - all these different constituencies, these little slices of America, slammed together. And they were being polite. Right? I mean, they weren't solving the world's problems or anything. But they were just kind of...

SANDERS: But they were bring nice to each other, yeah.

ABUMRAD: They were hanging out. So that was the moment I got really interested in Dolly.

But I would be lying if I told you that was the real reason I did the podcast. The real reason I did the podcast - in addition to growing up in Tennessee and in addition to this 2016 thing - is that in 2013 - this is why I was saying nonlinear, right? So my dad is a doctor.


ABUMRAD: And Dolly gets into a minor car accident in Nashville and then ends up being taken to Vanderbilt, where my dad is a doctor. And he ends up giving her medical advice in one of those random twists of fate. And she was totally fine. And he was only her doctor for a second. But suddenly, he had a connection to her. And then they got to be pals. And so as I was having this thought, I had a way to get a message to her through my dad.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ABUMRAD: So it was like, you know, I'd say...

SANDERS: Describe that phone call. Dad, I need you to call Dolly.

ABUMRAD: Yeah, that was pretty much it. All right, I'm going to tell you something which I probably shouldn't tell you. It's probably fine.

SANDERS: Ah, yes. This is what I want, yes.

ABUMRAD: I mean, they got to be really good friends. And it was always - like, I don't live in Tennessee anymore, so it wasn't in my face. But like, every so often, like, his phone would ring and it would be her. And I'd be like, that - like, I didn't actually believe it was Dolly Parton because that's too weird. My dad is not that kind of guy who hangs out with famous people. And so there's a part of me that didn't believe it, but then she sent my dad a little guitar...

SANDERS: Oh, my God.

ABUMRAD: ...Signed from Dolly Parton to give to one of my kids. And...


ABUMRAD: ...I remember seeing the guitar and seeing the big cursive on the guitar. And I was like, I think he really does know Dolly Parton.

SANDERS: (Laughter) What? You didn't believe him at first? (Laughter).

ABUMRAD: I didn't believe him. I didn't believe him. It's not that I actively didn't believe him. I just - somehow it just - I was like, that's too weird. I can't actually fully take that in.

And so when I saw the guitar, I thought - oh, I think he really does know her. And it happened to be More Perfect Season 3, and we were doing an album of different musicians interpreting amendments from the Constitution. And so I asked him, you know, can I - can you set up a meeting where I could pitch her on the idea of maybe her doing a song? Which she did. And then at that same meeting, when I finally met her, I also pitched her on this podcast as well. And, you know, years later, here we are.

SANDERS: I'm-a (ph) tell you a thing that stood out to me as soon as I began to listen to the show. And I binged it on a long Southwestern road trip just before Thanksgiving. And I noticed from the start of the Dolly Parton podcast, a thing that you're already famous for with "Radiolab" - the intense scoring and sound effects and music, which we all love.

But with the Dolly podcast, there were these moments in the episode where obviously you'd have to play a bit of a Dolly Parton song, but you and your team would add sound effects or some new percussion on top of it. Like, at the end of the "Dollitics," you've got "Jolene" running, like, with a new backbeat.


SANDERS: And at first, I was like, this is sacrilegious.

ABUMRAD: Yeah (laughter).

SANDERS: One does not mess with Dolly's music. How did you get that right? Because you could have gotten it wrong.

ABUMRAD: Yeah. Yeah. I'm so gratified to hear that reaction.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ABUMRAD: This is not - this is about Dolly Parton in a kind of, like, multiverse, right? Like, that sort of - I keep using the metaphor of the multiverse. Like, each episode is a dimension in the multiverse...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ABUMRAD: ...Because she is kind of everywhere. Like, she has many, many worlds, right?


ABUMRAD: She talks to so many different people. She has different chapters in her life that are radically different. And so for me, like, one dimension of the multiverse was the way that Dolly's music travels, the way that it can almost, like, pierce genre and cut at an angle across 12 genres. And so for me, it was important to try that musically, to try and embody that musically. And so I - you know, I did it a lot in certain places.


ABUMRAD: And then I played it for some people, and they were like, too much, too much.

SANDERS: Really?

ABUMRAD: So then I scaled it back.


ABUMRAD: And I tried to just be small footprint about it. I ended up remixing "Jolene" in the process because I just couldn't help it.

SANDERS: I know that, but listen - Jad, just hearing you say that, as soon as you say, I ended up remixing "Jolene," my heart stops...

ABUMRAD: (Laughter).

SANDERS: ...Because that is such a big risk.


DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene - don't take - don't take. I'm begging of you, please, don't take my man. Don't take - your beauty is beyond compare.

SANDERS: Was there one remix or update of one of her songs that you had done and you were just like, can't do it? This will not work.

ABUMRAD: I would never touch - I don't think anyone ever should touch "I Will Always Love You." You messing with too much culture right there.

SANDERS: But if you and Dolly made a EDM "I Will Always Love You" remix for the album, I would listen (laughter).

ABUMRAD: I would - well, shoot. If Dolly walked in the room and said, Jad, we're doing this, I would do it.


ABUMRAD: Yeah. Yeah.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

ABUMRAD: I mean, she said no to Elvis on that song. You know that story, right?


ABUMRAD: He wanted to make that song. And I think his business person, whose name I'm forgetting - colonel something or other.

SANDERS: Colonel something or other

ABUMRAD: He wanted to own half the publishing.

SANDERS: Oh, no. That's Dolly's song.

ABUMRAD: And she's like, no, I won't do it.

SANDERS: No, buddy.

ABUMRAD: And she wasn't a huge star at that point, but she still turned him down.

SANDERS: Wow. So I am really interested in the timing of this podcast's launch. It comes out in 2019, which kind of seems like Dolly's year, like this Dolly-sance (ph) we're watching.


SANDERS: She's been on a bunch of awards shows, getting honors, performing with people. She has a Netflix show. Then there's your podcast as well. Did you plan this timing or it just worked out that way?

ABUMRAD: I had hoped to release it earlier in the year.

SANDERS: Really?

ABUMRAD: I knew that she had stuff happening late in the year.


ABUMRAD: I didn't realize it was going to be quite to this level. I know that with Dolly - I know - speaking to her manager, Danny Nozell, he will tell you, though, about a decade ago, maybe a little bit longer, her fan base was mostly over the age of 60. You know, because, I mean, when I grew up with Dolly just as a touchpoint, she - there was the "Islands In The Stream" Dolly. There was "9 To 5." There was "Jolene." And then there was, like, a long '80s period where she was making pop hits, but she wasn't - and I'm talking late '80s - she wasn't hugely relevant to people my age.

SANDERS: Well, because the late '80s were full of music that was not Dolly's music.

ABUMRAD: Exactly.

SANDERS: It was, like, synth-heavy, abrasive pop.

ABUMRAD: Exactly. And she dabbled in some of that stuff, you know, in a tiny way. But, yeah, no, she wasn't, like, speaking to a young, you know, teenage kid the way that she seems to be right now. But what Danny will tell you is that, you know, over that decade - and maybe it has a little bit to do with her being on "Hannah Montana" and, you know, being Aunt Dolly and...

SANDERS: Oh. That's the Disney show.

ABUMRAD: Because all of those young people - right. Huge audience, massive audience - all those young fans grew up with Miley Cyrus, and they had kind of crazy Aunt Dolly, who kind of became their aunt.


ABUMRAD: And so now all those people are in their 30s and they're loving Dolly as adults. And so that's what Dolly will tell you...

SANDERS: Gotcha.

ABUMRAD: ...Sort of is part of it.


ABUMRAD: Like, you know, Miley helped kind of bridge her to an entirely new demographic.

SANDERS: God bless, Miley.

ABUMRAD: Yeah. Yeah. But I also think it's - partially, it's just Dolly represents a thing in our culture right now that very few other people represent, which is this person who can span difference, who can kind of talk to everybody. And I think that's - and she has lived an epic life. Anybody who knows anything about Dolly knows that she is, like, the female Odysseus, you know, and, like, she has journeyed an incredible journey. And I think that is speaking to people. Like, that longevity I think really speaks to people.

SANDERS: Time for a break. When we come back, how is Dolly Parton political without ever saying anything political? Jad has an answer after the break.


SANDERS: I want to talk more about this idea of, you know, Dolly bridging the divide. She has a fan base at this point that is young and old, male and female, liberal and conservative, and that's really, really hard to do. And you outline in detail in the "Dollitics" episode of the podcast how the way she does it is by really, really never speaking explicitly about political issues.

There was a certain worldview around this, which she espoused in the episode, that stood out to you because you said so and that stood out to me - this idea that Dolly, instead of speaking out against people whose politics doesn't align with hers, she won't speak out; she'll just pray for them.

ABUMRAD: Yeah. Yeah. I mean...

SANDERS: You were really struck by that in the podcast.

ABUMRAD: Yeah. I was.

SANDERS: Why were you so struck? I mean, you grew up in Tennessee. People pray all the time. You know that.

ABUMRAD: Yeah. Yeah. I know. It's - I don't know. Like, I was really struck by it, and I - you know, I put it in the podcast. And some people - I think maybe rightly - said that was a naive reaction. So part of me does wonder if it is naive. But, I mean, I was struck by it because she - just to put it in context...


ABUMRAD: ...Like, we were talking about this Emmys moment, where, you know - so Dolly was a part of the movie "9 To 5," as we all know, which was a movie made by Jane Fonda, which when it was made in 1979, 1980, she was one of the most hated women in America.


ABUMRAD: She was just a few years away from Hanoi Jane - you know, going to North Vietnam and speaking to the people we were then fighting. And so she was, like, persona non grata in certain circles. She decides to make this movie, "9 To 5," which was - and I didn't know this beforehand - but it was a movie explicitly designed to be a kind of extended political ad for a union that represented working women. So it was actually a union before it was a film.

Dolly walks on - first movie she's ever done - writes the song, "9 To 5," which is one of the great political anthems of our time, I think. It will be sung at protests and picket lines for the next 150 years.

SANDERS: Yeah. And it's become an anthem for organized labor.

ABUMRAD: And it's an anthem for organized labor. So when you really look at the history of "9 To 5" and then you look at Dolly's place in it, you've got to just - you just got to decide. Like, Dolly is an intensely political being. And yet she has been so skilled at drawing power from that political movement but never being defined by it. Like, she'll - anytime she's asked to take a political stand, she declines. She won't let people use that song for their campaign songs.

SANDERS: But Warren tried to use it; she couldn't.

ABUMRAD: Exactly. And, you know, Elizabeth Warren is a huge supporter of organized labor. So you would think she should be able to use the song.


ABUMRAD: But Dolly says no. So I was really interested in her ability to be intensely political in her actions but never in her speech. That seemed interesting to me.


ABUMRAD: So we started talking about this moment in 2017 in the Emmys when her, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin go out on stage...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda.


ABUMRAD: ...To present an award, I think, for best supporting male something, something - I forget what. And they walk out - standing ovation - these three icons. Then Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda begin to take some not-so-veiled swipes...


ABUMRAD: ...At President Trump.


JANE FONDA: Yeah. Well, back in 1980, in that movie, we refused to be controlled by a sexist egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.


ABUMRAD: And this was just shortly after Charlottesville. You know, this was - there was a lot of intensely heightened sentiment.


LILY TOMLIN: And in 2017, we still refuse to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.


ABUMRAD: So Jane Fonda says this thing; Lily Tomlin says this other thing. Dolly Parton is standing between them. You see her eyes get real wide.


ABUMRAD: Like, either they're running off script or she didn't agree with the script or something. There's some tension there. And then she promptly steps - like, almost literally steps forward in between them and...


TOMLIN: ...Nominated for their extraordinary work in supporting roles.

ABUMRAD: ...Starts making boob jokes...


PARTON: Well, I know about support.


PARTON: Hadn't have been for good support...


PARTON: ...Yeah, shock and awe here would be more like flopsy (ph) and droopy. But...


ABUMRAD: ...And basically, like, hijacks the whole thing in order to...

SANDERS: She made it nonpolitical.

ABUMRAD: Made it nonpolitical. So, you know, we were talking her - to her about that moment. I was asking her, like, what - so did you not know that they were going to do that joke? And what were you thinking? And then my colleague, Shima Oliaee, asks her, like, did you feel bad for President Trump in that moment because at that awards show and at every awards show leading up to that award show, you had one actor after another actor getting up and sort of saying a political statement, wagging their finger at President Trump.

And Dolly said, yeah, what I really wanted to say was, let's pray for the president. And I don't know - even just telling it to you now, I still kind of, like - it hits me every time. I was like - because it was the moment I realized that - like, I had always taken her reticence to be political as a business decision because she has fans on both sides. And if - and with President Trump, there is no middle ground. You say something about Trump, you're going to alienate 50% of your audience if you're her.

So I always thought the reason she didn't do it is because she was just being a smart businesswoman. But it occurred to me in that moment that, actually, while it is a business decision, it is also simultaneously a spiritual stance.

SANDERS: I, hearing that part in the episode, thought a long time about what celebrities we allow to live in that space above the fray, where they don't have to talk about the politics of the day, and I wondered if that is a space that we only reserved for white celebrities.

ABUMRAD: That's a good question.

SANDERS: And then I got a question from a listener just now - because I told folks on Twitter; I was like, I'm talking to Jad in a bit. Do you have any questions? And Ashley Gross (ph) wrote this - she wrote, I'm part way through the Dolly podcast and wondering whether Dolly resonates with people of all races or is her popularity more among white people? And if her popularity is more of a white phenomenon, how does she represent a bridge between different parts of American society? And that made me think, like, we really only allow white people to be that bridge.

ABUMRAD: Yeah. Yeah.

SANDERS: I couldn't imagine a black celebrity of Dolly's level not having to speak out about Black Lives Matter or having to speak out about Charlottesville.


SANDERS: And so the only celebrities that we allow to not, sometimes it feels like, are white people. No? I don't know.

ABUMRAD: No, no. I think that's really smart. I mean, it's - I sort of agree and don't agree at the same time.

SANDERS: OK, tell me.

ABUMRAD: You know, just to, like - the eighth episode in the series looks at a moment where a lot of these issues about can - is she simply beloved by white people, and so when I say, you know, she's unifying Dolly's America, I mean white America. Or does she speak across those divisions? I mean, we look at something that happened to her in Pigeon Forge. She has a dinner theater there called the - well, it was called Dolly's Dixieland Stampede (ph). And then...

SANDERS: Dixieland Stampede? Hold up. Stop (laughter).

ABUMRAD: Do you know about this?

SANDERS: I think I've heard about it, but just hearing the words Dixieland and stampede together, (laughter) I'm like...

ABUMRAD: Yeah, it's...

SANDERS: ...I don't want to be under the stampede of Dixieland (laughter).

ABUMRAD: Well, it is as it sounds...


ABUMRAD: ...And maybe worse.


ABUMRAD: Although it's kind of, like, a hilarious dinner theater that involves racing pigs and eating just spectacular amounts of pork and chicken...


ABUMRAD: ...With your hands...


ABUMRAD: ...And drinking a lemonade - a gallon of lemonade out of a boot-shaped cup.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ABUMRAD: So it's got that - it's kind of kitschy. It's kind of funny. It's kind of, like, a "good time," in air quotes. But what it actually is, the theme of it is a friendly rivalry between the North and the South, where half the audience is split into the North and half the audience is split into the South.

SANDERS: Oh, I have heard of this.


SANDERS: And I saw it and I was like, I won't be going to that.


ABUMRAD: Right. So, you know, we go and we do an extended kind of look at that - and what is it saying about her appeal in the South and also just sort of how history is remembered in the South, where I grew up. And it's really interesting. I mean, she has these kind of siloed audiences. And there is - I believe there is the Dolly that I experienced in New York; there's the Dolly that people experience in the U.K. And I think that Dolly is a very progressive figure, a radically welcoming figure.

You know, and my anecdotal sense is that she is loved by people of all races - I wouldn't say equally, but she extends far beyond white America. But there is a siloed version of Dolly that exists in the place where I grew up that is very much about Southern heritage and Southern pride, and I think that Dolly is a specifically white Dolly. And it sort of comes to a head in sort of a hilarious and kind of troubling way in this dinner theater. And we sort of, you know, cover that story. We cover the protests. We cover the counterprotests, which happen directly in the wake of Charlottesville.

And so, yeah, there - everybody's got their blind spots, you know?

SANDERS: Yeah. Have you made peace with those contradictions as someone who is obviously a big fan of Dolly Parton?

ABUMRAD: I have. I have because...


ABUMRAD: ...I spoke to her about...


ABUMRAD: ...You know, what have you learned from that? And she - you know, Dolly is a businesswoman and has structured her empire to make a lot of money. But I think I trust her when she says something like, you know, I was ignorant; I didn't know. She apologized, and she changed it. Did she change it enough? I think that's arguable. But I truly feel like she would never knowingly cast someone out. But I do take your point from the very beginning, which is that - could she keep the posture that she has if she were black? I'm not sure.

SANDERS: All right, time for one more break. When we get back, I will ask Jad if there are any other artists out there right now in the culture occupying the same cultural space as Dolly - above the fray. We discuss. BRB.


SANDERS: What is it like to interview someone so open and so welcoming, someone who you say will never cast someone out? That must be an interviewer's dream, but it also must present - I don't know - a certain kind of challenge. Like, is an interview with Dolly Parton just, like, 17 hours?

ABUMRAD: (Laughter) No. I mean, the thing that - the most challenging part that I had is that - usually, an interview with Dolly Parton is 20 minutes.


ABUMRAD: She's lived her life...


ABUMRAD: ...For 50 years speaking to people in 20-minute chunks...


ABUMRAD: ...Because the interviews tended to go a certain way.


ABUMRAD: I managed, through my dad, to be able to carve out more time with her, and then the challenge was - that first interview, she just railroaded me. Like, she was - I mean, she's such a skillful interviewee. She's so charming and such an incredible storyteller that she just kind of gets going and will charm the pants off of you and in a way that it was really hard to sometimes - like, she would take control of the interviews.

SANDERS: What was one thing you did to get over that hump?

ABUMRAD: I mean, this is kind of wonky, but the thing that actually made the biggest difference was, like - I went in there that first interview, and I had read her autobiography, and I had read a lot of the stuff she had said in the press, and I had questions based on that. And I think that was not the right question. I was playing to a lot of the tropes, her Dolly tropes. Then the second time, I actually did a exhaustive, like, three-week research period. And then I created - I literally created a PowerPoint presentation of - this is true - of - it wasn't in PowerPoint, but it was essentially a PowerPoint presentation of all of the things Dolly has said over the course of her life, all of the old songs she sang - you know, her first hits, the first songs she recorded when she was 13, all this stuff. I had it laid out in PowerPoint, and I just clicked through it with her. And I said, tell me about this - click.

SANDERS: Really?

ABUMRAD: Tell me about that - click. Yeah. And so...

SANDERS: You walked Dolly Parton through a PowerPoint about her own life.

ABUMRAD: Yeah, and it turned out to be brilliant because we were both staring at this computer and somehow...

SANDERS: To keep you on track.

ABUMRAD: Triangulating versus looking at each other made it a lot easier for me and, I think, for her. And she was just like - I think at a certain point in that, she was like, damn. You've done your research.


ABUMRAD: And so I think it was also a way for her to see that I was actually really serious and I wanted to go deep. PowerPoint, man...

SANDERS: I'm, like, writing down to make a note.

ABUMRAD: It's great.

SANDERS: This is the tease (laughter).

ABUMRAD: It - PowerPoint is an interviewer's best friend. I'm telling you.

ABUMRAD: I love that. One of the things that is a theme throughout the entire arc of the episodes is how Dolly Parton is this exercise in contradiction, which we've spoken to already. But, like, she loves to joke about her breasts and her body, but she'll never tell you about her love life. She wrote a song, "9 To 5," that's seen as a feminist anthem. She won't call herself a feminist. You know, there are other contradictions all the way up and down her career. What Dolly Parton contradiction made you scratch your head the most or you still think about? Which one can't you shake?

ABUMRAD: Yeah, that's a really good question. I think the contradiction - is this - OK, is this the right answer to your question? I think the contradiction I can't shake is that - I grew up in Nashville. I was in the fourth grade, and, I mean, it was, like, a regular question for them to ask, who here goes to church? Raise your hand, right? So, like, it was just assumed that everybody went to church, and it was a Christian church, and I didn't. And so then that became - and I just - that was the place I grew up. And so I've always had a very kind of suffocating view of Southern Baptists and religion, and she - the contradiction that I find most fascinating is that she appeals right to the core of those people, people of faith. That's the contradiction that I can't shake, and I can explain it to myself.

SANDERS: How do you explain it to yourself?

ABUMRAD: Well, you know, she is a believer, very strongly so, but doesn't ever - she's not - she doesn't go to church, but she's deeply spiritual, a deep believer. And she has, from the very beginning, stood up for the members of the LGBTQ community...


ABUMRAD: ...And sung songs that can be read in certain ways by that community. And so, like, I get that. I get that. But it isn't so much that she can say two different things to two different constituencies. It's that somehow, she creates a space where those two people can be near each other.

SANDERS: Yeah. It's beautiful.

ABUMRAD: And it's like it's a different set of rules when people are in front of Dolly Parton. That's the thing that kind of tweaks me. It isn't so much that she is a set of contradictions. It's that they don't feel like contradictions in her presence.

SANDERS: Are there others in the culture that you feel are doing that right now as well? I mean, when I think about, like, the biggest celebrity in my orbit the last decade, it's probably Beyonce, but she is...


SANDERS: ...Extremely polarizing.

ABUMRAD: No, this is a very real question for me because I want to do another series, and I want it to be about some other celebrity or some other person.

SANDERS: Well, do Beyonce. Do that.

ABUMRAD: I would love to do Beyonce if Beyonce would let me spend as much time as we got to spend with Dolly. I was thinking Serena Williams, to be honest. I was like...


ABUMRAD: Let's shift it completely from entertainment to sports.

SANDERS: And one of the most polarizing figures in the modern era...


SANDERS: ...Through no fault of her own - people are just mean to her. But that's a different story.


SANDERS: How much do we want to talk about the relationship between your father and Dolly and the parallels between their lives? It's so beautiful hearing it in the podcast, but maybe the best way to do it is just to tell folks, listen to that, because there's no way to do it justice here, I think.

ABUMRAD: Yeah. I mean, I guess I kind of agree with that. I mean, I was - I'll just add...


ABUMRAD: ...That it was really - I mean, I've been doing this for a long time. And I - that was one of the moments I felt, like, the most fearful.

SANDERS: Really?

ABUMRAD: Yeah - to sort of put myself out there.

SANDERS: Just set it up. So, like, there's this episode in which, describing his friendship with Dolly, your father talks about some of the parallels between his upbringing abroad and her rough-and-tumble upbringing in Tennessee. And at one point, he says, basically, her childhood home was just like my childhood home.

ABUMRAD: Yeah, and this is a realization I had as well when I went to visit her childhood home. We just - luckily, her bodyguard/nephew Bryan Seaver took us, just on a whim, to this place that nobody gets to go to, and it was spookily like my dad's childhood home in the mountains of Lebanon. And it led to a lot of conversations with him and with her about the ways in which these two cultures which I have always held to be very, very separate actually are not as separate as you think, down to the music, you know.

You could look at the music that makes country music what it is. The instruments, the meters, the scales, the song structures - all of these things are actually an amalgam of Middle Eastern melodies and instruments, African instruments, like the banjo, which traveled through the Caribbean - all of these things that have been kind of subsumed and very literally whitewashed so that we only think of country music as the music of white people in the mountains. It is actually music that is all of our music in some way.


ABUMRAD: And so that - if it was, for me, a way to explore and to upend this whole system of assumptions that I've had since growing up in the South about who I am in relation to that place. I realized that I knew nothing about the South, and I knew nothing about my own relationship to that place. And that was one of the...

SANDERS: You know more than most, though. You grew up in Tennessee.

ABUMRAD: I know. But, you know, you - where'd you grow up, out of curiosity?

SANDERS: San Antonio, Texas.


SANDERS: It's this weird place. Everyone wants it to be the South; it's actually not. It's Texas.

ABUMRAD: Yeah. Texas is separate.


ABUMRAD: Texas is its own thing. But you probably know what I mean when I say that when you - you don't live there now, I'm assuming.

SANDERS: No, I live in LA.

ABUMRAD: So, you know, you leave a place like San Antonio, you leave a place like Nashville, and very quickly you put a little story in your mind about what that place was that you left.


ABUMRAD: And it's a two-dimensional story. It's a flat story. And you - and when you talk to your friends in LA or when I talk to my friends in New York, you tell a certain story about the place you left. And it's - I've known for years it's not the true story. And when I go back - and largely through this series, I have gone back - I realized the South is so much more interesting, so much more diverse, so much more populated with interesting subcultures fighting for their own rights in unique ways than I ever gave it credit for.

And I told a certain story about my own upbringing in the South, and I never actually saw it for what it was. And so, for me, being on the ground at Dolly's home, thinking about my dad's home, getting a chance to talk to him and her about those similarities, was the process of unwinding that old story and replacing it with something new.

SANDERS: Yeah. What is one thing you weren't able to get in these Dolly podcast episodes that still bugs you, the most valuable thing you left on the cutting room floor?

ABUMRAD: Oh, you mean, like, didn't get the chance to include.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

ABUMRAD: Oh, wow. That's a good question. You know - and I might find a way to wedge it in in these last two episodes.


ABUMRAD: But she told - and this isn't really, like, a get or anything. I mean, it was just a - the way that she said it was kind of cool. We were talking about the process of her writing songs, and she told me that one of the things she does to get in the - she calls it her God space - is she fasts. She'll do, like, a water fast for a couple of days until, like, it just kind of quiets her mind and she gets into this space where she's ready to write songs. And when she kind of gets into that God space, she just writes for, like, days and days and days.

SANDERS: God space. How long will she fast?

ABUMRAD: She said a couple of days, three or four days. She'd go until...

SANDERS: So three or four days of no food, just water?

ABUMRAD: No food, just water. And then she suddenly kind of gets to that place where she's writing songs.

SANDERS: Because she's hallucinating.

ABUMRAD: Probably.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ABUMRAD: Probably. It makes me think - I love that image because it's - it very much connects with how she grew up. I mean, she grew up with nothing...


ABUMRAD: ...And was channeling all of these experiences around her. And then you become Dolly Parton, this global star, and there's got to be a way to get back to that beginning state. So I like imagining her doing that, and I haven't figured out where to put that. I kind of want to put that somewhere, but I haven't - not the best answer to your question. But that's...

SANDERS: No, that's a pretty good answer. I'm just, like, imagining Dolly not eating for four days. Feed her.


SANDERS: Tell me the biggest lesson you want listeners to take away from this show about Dolly, about you, about the world.

ABUMRAD: I'm not sure there's just one, but, I mean - OK, so you watch Dolly move her - live her life, tap dancing around these labels that are dividing everybody right now. She so effortlessly sort of floats above them or sort of, like, sidesteps them. I want us to think about those labels and question them the way - you know, perhaps we have to take them on. We don't have that ability to do it the way she does it. But seeing her so effortlessly avoid them calls them into question for me. That's what I think of...

SANDERS: How can we question the labels?

ABUMRAD: Yeah. I mean, that sounds a bit...

SANDERS: Dolly would like us to question the labels. No, it sounds like what we need right now, if I'm being truthful (laughter).

ABUMRAD: Yeah. I mean, that's kind of what I think about it. Dolly would like to avoid the labels.


ABUMRAD: I would like to kind of upend them if I could, at least in some small, small ways.


PARTON: (Singing) Jolene, -lene (ph), -lene, -lene, -lene, -lene.

SANDERS: Thanks again to Jad Abumrad. Check out his podcast "Dolly Parton's America" from WNYC. And listeners, check out this podcast again on Friday. We'll be back with a wrap of the news and the culture of the week. It'll be good. I promise.

Also, every week in those episodes we want you in the show. Do not forget to share the best part of your week. Send that to me here at the show. Record your voice on your phone in the little voice memo app or whatever. Email that voice file to me, sharing your best part of your week. Email that to samsanders@npr.org - samsanders@npr.org. We also accept dog and baby photos. Thank you in advance. Until Friday, thanks for listening. Talk soon.


PARTON: (Singing) Don't take - don't take. Jolene, -lene, - lene. Don't take...

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