It sure feels like everyone loves Dolly Parton. The beloved country music icon is still as ubiquitous in pop culture today as she was the late 60s, and any time in between. Her enduring popularity is not only a testament to her unquestionable talent both as a songwriter (she wrote classics "Jolene" and "I Will Always Love You" among more than 3,000 other songs) and entertainer, but also to her infectious, kind, and hilarious public persona. She's one of the only wholly unifying celebrities where her appeal crosses almost every barrier, from the political spectrum to genre to age and geography. Case in point: Very few artists have their own theme park, let alone a theme park that has thrived for decades like Parton's Dollywood, which still has millions of visitors each year.
Dolly Parton might be having one of her best years ever. If she wasn't already so adored, 2019 would feel like a renaissance for the now 73-year-old artist. She featured prominently in Ken Burns' ambitious Country Music documentary series, which devoted an episode to highlighting her East Tennessee roots and rise to country stardom. She's currently the subject of a popular nine-part podcast from Radiolab's Jad Abumrad called Dolly Parton's America, for which she's interviewed extensively, exploring her songs, life, and long-lasting relevance. She just hosted the Country Music Awards with Carrie Underwood and Reba McEntire, and had an ABC News special focusing on her career called Dolly Parton: Here She Comes Again! The Grand Ole Opry devoted a whole week to her, with a series of concerts and events hosted by Parton that celebrated her 50th anniversary as a member of the country music institution. (On Nov. 26, it will air as a two-hour NBC special.) Though she's never overtly partisan in public, her song "9 to 5" is Elizabeth Warren's walk-up song at campaign rallies. The list goes on.
Now, she has a new Netflix show in Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, premiering Friday, which she executive produced. It's an anthology series where all eight episodes are fictional vignettes each directly inspired by a song in her massive discography, from hits like "Jolene" to lesser-known cuts like "Down from Dover" and "Cracker Jack." Every installment begins with Parton, who's always at Dollywood, charmingly explaining the meaning and inspiration behind each track before introducing the episode. Make no mistake: Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings is not prestige TV. It shares more DNA with an offering on Lifetime or the Hallmark channel than, say, HBO. But it's her earned goodwill and her role as an ambassador of tenderheartedness, individuality, and rhinestone-bedazzled positivity that makes Heartstrings great entertainment, despite or maybe because of its campiness.
The pilot—the "Jolene" episode—features Parton joking that she wrote the song because "a red-headed hussy at our bank" was flirting with her husband. There's such a warmth and folksiness when Parton talks like this that it's totally disarming. After Parton introduces the plot of "Jolene," the dramatized rendering of her hit song comes to life. The titular character is played by Julianne Hough, a bartender and down-on-her-luck songwriter who dreams of making it in Nashville but is currently having an affair with a married man. At the bar, she instantly forms a platonic connection with a customer, a lonely wife, and mother who's trying to add some excitement to her ostensibly vanilla life (Kimberly Williams-Paisley). While their budding friendship is the most interesting part of the episode (along with Parton's own portrayal of bar owner Babe), the plot loses some of its momentum by veering too close to the song itself, losing any possibility of a narrative surprise if you already know the lyrics to "Jolene." But there's still some genuine emotional resonance in the episode, even if some of the catharsis hits in a This Is Us-inspired way that might come across like a focus-grouped tearjerker.
Netflix promises that each story "will vary in tone, from love stories and inspirational tales to family dramas, westerns, and revenge comedies,” and while that's true so far of the two preview episodes, there's inherent soap-like schmaltz to both offerings. That's not necessarily a bad thing considering that only someone like Parton, whose distinctly earnest and kind songwriting, could pull even the most cynical television viewers into her world. Even though the writing can sometimes be cheesy and try-hard (there's an awkward Fortnite reference in the pilot), the plot points are at the very least committed to the source material.
This literalism operates to the slight detriment of the second episode, which is based off Parton's 2002 song "These Old Bones." The episode, like the track, tells the story of a clairvoyant woman (Kathleen Turner) who lives "with a one-eyed cat named Wink / a billy goat and a blue tick hound" in the Smoky Mountains. Kids in the town think she's a witch, while other locals believe she can predict the future. But when a local lumber company tries to buy up her land and sends their lawyer (Ginnifer Goodwin) to threaten her, the woman's so-called powers are tested. Though the, uh, logging plot isn't in the lyrics, anyone with a passing familiarity with the song will be able to guess some of the bigger twists in the episode. Regardless, it's all telegraphed and explained endlessly, not entirely justifying the episode's 87-minute runtime.At times, these episodes feel more like TV movies than anything resembling a series.
Still, like Parton herself, this show is damn good at lowering someone's defenses. At the climax of the second episode, a character says, "we outsiders and we have to stick together," which basically sums up the singer's entire ethos as an entertainer. It's executed with such genuine feeling that even if you can see the emotional payoff of an episode coming from miles away, you may still find your eyes watering. Dolly Parton is a true representation of the American dream realized: She's managed to find her way from the Tennessee backcountry, wearing a "Coat of Many Colors" her mom sewed from rags to being the most honored country singer of all time. And her appeal is not just the literal rags-to-riches career arc; it's how she's been the great unifier, bringing together what would be polarized factions of the country through her music and songwriting.
Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings is another way for her to tell her story, and while it may not totally succeed as a standalone TV show—especially considering how many amazing series are streaming now—it still feels right. Just like comfort food, or throwing a Dolly Parton song on the jukebox.