Three years ago, Jad Abumrad knew next to nothing about the music legend. Now he hosts a podcast about her life and role as a unifier in a divided US

Lets just call it what it is weird. Its weird to be a man asking Dolly Parton if she considers herself a feminist. But Jad Abumrad, US radio host and creator of the long-running series Radiolab, asks her anyway. You can hear her reply in the first episode of his new podcast, Dolly Partons America, a nine-part exploration of the musicians life and influence on pop culture, and society more generally.

Growing up in Nashville, Abumrad says, Parton was a figure of huge importance in that world, but he never had much to do with her creative output the films or music. Like many, he knew of her simply as a platinum-haired, rhinestone-studded country diva. In 2016, he realised she was a much bigger phenomenon. Today, he is an expert. When you sit down with her once you get past the glitz and the acrylic nails and the persona you realise there are universes of things to talk about, he says, rapturously. She has lived a thousand lives, but we only ever see one part of her in the public eye.

As for asking her about feminism, Abumrad says he tried to be super careful and respectful. But shes so important to young women right now that I felt I had to honour that, to be curious and not tiptoe around. Were a team of two, myself and [female producer] Shima Oliaee, and she kept me pretty honest through the process.

So how did a fortysomething radio presenter with no prior interest in Parton become her No 1 fan? The answer lies in the tense political situation in the US in the summer of 2016. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were going at each others throats in a way that was shocking to a lot of us, he says. Regardless of political party, it just felt like it had gotten so ugly.

Then Parton came to Queens, in New York City, to perform and it reminded him of another celebrity visit. Id seen people a few years before getting excited about the pope. It felt like people had elected her in their hearts. With everyone from drag queens to evangelical Christians to hipsters queueing up to see her, the idea of Parton as a great unifier struck Abumrad. He wanted to find out more. Luckily, he had a connection in the family: his father, Dr Naji Abumrad, had treated Parton after a car accident in 2014, and they had kept in touch.

Here she comes again … Jad Abumrad sits down with Dolly Parton. Photograph: Shima Oliaee

Three years on, Dolly Partons America is the result of much digging, research and time spent speaking to the star herself. Abumrad has also interviewed Partons confidantes and managers, celebrities such as Jane Fonda (who starred in the film 9 to 5 with her) and ordinary Americans who have taken her into their souls.

He also sought out academics who study Parton in sociocultural terms (as people have with Bob Dylan for years) to break down the stereotypes that surround the singer. He investigates, for example, her dark, sad, gothic early songs, on subjects including suicide and miscarriage, with Helen Morales, author of the book Pilgrimage to Dollywood. Of course, the question of what it is to be a woman soon comes up, with Parton herself saying she doesnt identify as a feminist before the idea of what feminism means to working-class women is explored. I feel like thats not just her not taking a stand I feel like its a different kind of stand, Abumrad says of Partons apparently apolitical nature.



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