Professor of Music Lydia Hamessley presented a paper titled “‘Shattered Image’: Appalachian White-Trash Femininities in the Songs of Dolly Parton” at the annual meeting of the Society for American Music held March 5-9 in Lancaster, Pa.
Dolly Parton, a “Backwoods Barbie” and, in her words, a “white-trash princess,” explains the genesis of her iconic image. As a child she was intrigued by a local woman with big hair, red fingernails and heavy makeup. Her mother’s response: “she ain’t nothin’ but trash,” and Dolly recalls that the woman was probably the town prostitute. Dolly’s fascination for this figure, this white-trash woman, has resulted in a number of songs, among them “The Bridge,” “The Bargain Store,” “Down From Dover,” “Mountain Angel,” “Shattered Image.”
Included in the session “Constructing the Feminine,” Hamessley’s paper examined several of these songs in which Dolly creates images of women who are essentially good (i.e., not yet trash), but who find themselves, often as a result of pregnancy outside of marriage, shunned by their families, alone and driven to madness or suicide – women who have become trash. Dolly’s songs evoke our sympathy, not derision, for these women. However, the songs do not embody the empowerment evident in Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” or the biting accusation of male complicity in creating Kitty Wells’ “Honky Tonk Angel.” Nor do Dolly’s fallen women come to us through a classic country music sound.
Dolly’s musical style, of course, runs the gamut from country to pop. But there is also a strain of traditional Appalachian mountain music in her sound that is especially evident in these songs. Hamessley argues that her use of a mountain style here – modal, ballad-like, fiddle-based – engenders our sympathies, but keeps the women rooted in a mountain culture that Dolly presents as unforgiving and often cruel and deadly.