Y’all, the strangest thing has happened: suddenly I’m trendy? Or rather, where I’m from is trendy. Appalachia, especially its art and music, is having a moment. The chaos of the 2020s has left Americans collectively bereft, uneasy, hungry for authenticity. We are living through a maelstrom, and we all desperately need to touch grass. As a result, interest in and tourism to “simpler” places has increased dramatically, especially here in the Smoky Mountains, which has very touchable grass indeed. Bluegrass music is now in everyone’s Spotify, and overalls have become the preferred uniform of rich white Northern boys. More to the point—and I cannot describe how weird this is for me—Dolly Parton is cool.
There’s been a spate of books and podcasts about Dolly recently, as NPR liberals and the literati catch up to what her fans have always said about her. Most of these “reassessments” affect a bemused tone, as if it’s a big surprise that one of the most successful artists and philanthropists of the twentieth century is, like, a good person? With talent? Who knew! Lynn Melnick’s new memoir, I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive: On Trauma, Persistence, and Dolly Parton takes a blessedly different approach. Melnick is, or was, a bit of a mess, I don’t think she’ d mind me saying. She’s also a skilled poet and a lifelong listener to Parton’s music, despite having little in common with the star. Raised middle class and Jewish in Los Angeles, Melnick could have easily adopted a removed or scholarly register for her prose, and could even be forgiven for treating Dolly like a bright bauble or a strange bird who helped her through a few tough nights in rehab. But Melnick is a true fan, so instead of looking down her nose, she stands alongside Parton, mapping her own hard remembrances with witty lines reminiscent of Dolly’s lyrics. “I have been to the depths,” Melnick explains. “I have done destructive things to my body, punished it, used it in reckless ways, but I’ve learned that sinking into the pleasures of the senses is a resistance . . . having fun despite rape culture is an act of rebellion.” And so this book revels unabashedly in the turmoil of both women’s lives. Like Dolly’s voice, Melnick’s tone is casual and joyous, yet still defiant, cogently seeking commonality between its two subjects and showing how she and Parton have each performed their womanliness—and all its concomitant mess.
Melnick’s memoir is part of the University of Texas Press “American Music” series, which includes Hanif Abdurraqib’s masterful Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest (2019). Similar to other works in the series, I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive is organized as a playlist—or more precisely, a Gen X mixtape—with each chapter dissecting the history of a particular song. The playlist includes hits and deep cuts that played during significant moments in Melnick’s life. We dart around in her own and Dolly’s biographies; the book is not told in sequence but instead functions as memory does, sporadically and by association, with nonlinear chapters on addiction, religious faith (or the lack thereof), marriage, motherhood, and trauma. This structure feels more like the work of a poet than that of a music critic, as Melnick uses Dolly’s lyrics as “both text and subtext” to “tell the story I wanted to tell with her music.”
Carefully researched and at times uncomfortably honest, I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive also avoids hagiography and handles the problematic aspects of Dolly better than most. Appalachia, like many rural spaces, is often used as a cudgel by fascist brutes in the culture wars, and in the Dolly Universe, fans and critics alike find it easier to erase the diversity of the Southern mountains and pretend like my home is an entirely white space full of Trump voters toe-tapping to Dolly’s songs while missing her point entirely. (NB: if you believe this about us, you’re wrong, and you’re helping Trumpism win.) Melnick frequently checks her own privilege or paints herself unsympathetically to make her point. She also pushes back against some of Dolly’s messaging, such as her weak-tea feminism, the MAGA-ness and passive racism of her Dollywood theme park, and her glorification of poverty. “Sometimes gentle is okay,” Melnick says of Dolly’s tendency to aw-shucks at atrocity, but “sometimes [it’s] insidious.” The author questions repeatedly whether Dolly waters down or oversimplifies social issues in order to maintain her popularity. These gentle corrections are respectful—and more importantly, fair—criticism, particularly when it comes to how Dolly handles (or avoids) racial and income disparities in the South.
Better still is Melnick’s defense of herself, and of Dolly, against the dour elitism of academic feminism. Listen, Melnick tells us, sometimes the best way to fight the patriarchy is to put sequins on your tits. The author rarely admitted being a fangirl until recently. Parton was “a private passion,” and listening to her meant “not being sophisticated enough” in certain circles. But Melnick has tired of worrying about whether it’s okay to like Dolly, whether the good of Parton’s philanthropy (funding Covid vaccines, education, gay rights, etc.) and musical genius outweighs the boobular ill of not always speaking her truth in leftist buzzwords. Not that we need to keep score, but yes, Melnick affirms: Parton is “using rape culture against its own damn self,” and there is a net benefit to her sparkly presence in the world. Melnick happens to like high heels and flashy clothes, too, thank you very much, and admits to consciously presenting herself less like a well-educated poet and more like what Dolly happily calls “trash.” Not ironically, either—Melnick is not hipsterizing or posing, but engaging in the same kind of brassy trauma response and grassroots feminism as her heroine. If such unironic displays make you bristle, if admission of sin and untidy liberation bother you, Melnick thinks that is a you problem.
I need to be mindful with my praise here, because nowadays there is, quite rightly, a lot of gatekeeping in Appalachia. Being trendy also means being under scrutiny, which we don’t take to kindly. This region has long been stolen from, so we’re understandably cagey when outsiders write about us. For example, a portion of I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive recounts the author’s Dollywood vacation, complete with the standard luxury cabin rental and museum tour. Melnick admits this is a pilgrimage, a chance to bask in the healing blues of our landscape and extract its essence for her own use. “I came to find the real Dolly,” she writes with cheeseball awe, “or myself in any case.” Lots of troubled white ladies come to Appalachia to find themselves, and Dolly is often their gateway drug. That part’s a bit much.
Such parachuting and poverty tourism are common here, so generally we don’t talk to strangers, because even well-intentioned strangers tend to misrepresent us. Dolly often bears the brunt; Melnick notes the singer’s many bad experiences with interviewers, including the time Barbara Walters, dripping with saccharine kindness, called Parton “a joke” to her face. Thus, I admit I approached this book with some suspicion, some side eye. I appointed myself gatekeeper, because I write about Appalachia from the inside. I am qualified, I thought, to determine whether this big-city poet is allowed to love Dolly as we do. It was my job, in other words, to decide whether Melnick gets invited up into the holler or gets her ass kicked.
But Melnick’s take on Dolly’s music and her own “sad-ass” life convinced me, and I soon quit that foolishness. Yes, appropriation is always an issue, and yes, outsiders don’t fully understand Dolly. She is, or can be, just another excuse to erase Appalachia’s diversity and unhealed pain, to oversimplify the beauty that often results from exploitation. Then again, Dolly is also a badass who can handle all that complexity, and frankly, so is Melnick. We’ve all been through a lot, is what I’m saying. I don’t own Dolly Parton, any more than I own the wounds of my sisters, or of these strip-mined mountains. And Melnick is so forthright about her own pain, so respectful of Parton. Who am I to tell another woman not to speak, not to sing?
As our region’s history shows, Appalachian womanfire is most powerful when we embrace difference and organize against the Company, when we teach our music “knee-to-knee” to anyone willing to learn. If you find your power in bright colors and not giving a shit what others think, then I suppose you’re a hillbilly by default, regardless of location. I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive is, at core, about the Appalachian skill of “always being aware of the terrible” while steadfastly and laughingly avoiding its grip. Given the current crisis in reproductive and civil rights (I am writing this in the wake of several catastrophic Supreme Court decisions), and given the author’s deft and jubilant search, after enduring so much familiar sorrow, to commune with Dolly and her bedazzled brand of intersectional feminism, there is no question Melnick should be invited up into any holler she pleases.