NASHVILLE — To call the Republican supermajority of the Tennessee General Assembly extremist is merely to state a fact.
These legislators have refused to expand Medicaid, a decision that is opposed by 63 percent of Tennesseans. They are considering a bill that would allow people to carry a gun without a permit, though a new poll shows that 93 percent of recent Tennessee voters support permit requirements. The General Assembly has also just reappointed a secretary of state who opposes expanding access to absentee ballots, never mind that Tennesseans shattered records by taking advantage of temporary absentee voting options during the pandemic.
It almost seems like Republican legislators don’t deva what their constituents want.
In at least one respect, however, the General Assembly is in lock step with the rest of us: We love Dolly Parton, and our lawmakers love her, too. John Mark Windle, a Democrat from Livingston, is sponsoring a bill to erect a statue of Dolly Parton on the Capitol grounds at a site that faces the Ryman Auditorium, known here as the Mother Church of Country Music.
“She accepts everyone. She’s nonjudgmental,” Mr. Windle said. “She is the example of what I think a Christian ought to be.”
Tim Rudd, a Murfreesboro Republican, echoed Mr. Windle at the first hearing of the bill. “I don’t know of any living human being that’s done more or is doing more to help Tennesseans than Dolly Parton,” he said.
Ms. Parton, who has already been immortalized in bronze in her hometown of Sevierville, can inspire bipartisan support in the polarized General Assembly not just because she accepts everyone, or because she has done more than anyone else to help her fellow Tennesseans. She can inspire support across the political spectrum in part because she has spent her entire career keeping her opinions to herself.
“I don’t do politics,” she explained in the 2019 podcast series “Dolly Parton’s America.” “I have too many fans on both sides of the fence.”
But this silence in the political arena is more than a savvy business move. For all her engagement in the world of commerce, Ms. Parton regards herself primarily as a “songteller,” as she explains in her most recent book. She prefers to express her views in the elliptical words of a song.
Besides, refusing to engage in partisan politics isn’t the same thing as holding your tongue in matters of human justice. In her own way, Ms. Parton has spoken out in support of L.G.B.T.Q. people (“You should be allowed to be, you know, how are you are and who you are”), feminism (“I don’t have to preach. I write it. I sing it. I live it”) and Black Lives Matter (“Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter?” she asked Billboard’s Melinda Newman last summer. “No!”), among other issues that can be minefields for country artists.
For, of course, Ms. Parton, who is 75, is first and most obviously a gifted entertainer. The philanthropist who has given away more than 150 million children’s books, built an amusement-park empire that provides jobs for people in her hometown, supported Tennessee wildfire survivors with a monthly stipend, and funded medical research that resulted in a coronavirus vaccine is also the creative genius who wrote “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” on the same day.
It’s no wonder that for more than 50 years, diverse audiences — cowboys and drag queens, hillbillies and Goths, sorority girls and quick-stop cashiers — have loved Dolly Parton, and for more than 50 years, Dolly Parton has loved them all right back. No one in the entire state of Tennessee is more beloved. It’s possible that no one in the entire country is more beloved.
Others in Tennessee history no doubt deserve a statue on state grounds even more than Dolly Parton does. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the Black Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who risked her life to write about lynching in the early 20th century, comes to mind — a point elegantly argued by the former Tennessean columnist Dwight Lewis last year.
Even so, this troubled moment in history may be the perfect time for our state legislature to consider honoring Dolly Parton, a Tennessean who brings people together, someone whose creative work and public generosity remind us of what is good in human nature, someone whose very life prompts us to recall that what we share with one another will always be greater than what we allow to come between us.
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 kaç 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.”
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, At Last: And Other Essays From The New York Times.”
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