Heartstrings is Dolly Parton’s new anthology show on Netflix. The first season is eight episodes, each with a story inspired by one of the songstress’ classic songs. The tracks Parton chose for these episodes are not necessarily her best works, or even her most famous hits, but rather, the songs with stories Parton wanted to bring to life on screen.
Parton’s anthology series is the kind of project the country legend has always wanted to do. In her recent appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Parton told the host and stand-up comedian, “I always loved to write story songs, and I always thought I’d love to see my songs up on-screen”. This “dream come true” for the musician, who is one of country music’s most successful artists of all time, involves eight original teleplays inspired by the stories Parton tells with her music. The show translates these stories – some of which were originated 50 years ago – for contemporary audiences.
Parton’s stories are sentimental, and at times the show verges on the sort of saccharine storytelling you’d expect from a Hallmark Christmas movie, but overall the show is heartwarming and offers lots of country music for Parton’s fans to enjoy. The stories themselves vary in content: some sad, some sweet, and even a western-inspired one bursting with high adventure. Despite the series’ sentimental tone, the Netflix original has a surprising political stance: Parton explicitly says she accepts people from all walks of life, including members of the LGBTQ+ community, because “love is love”. Parton knows what she’s doing, and is making a choice. This is Dollywood: we’re in her town.
It should be no surprise to see “Jolene” on this list of songs. It is one of Parton’s most famous singles, and has been covered by artists like Miley Cyrus and the Pentatonix. “Jolene” is the story of an auburn-haired beauty who threatens to lure away the narrator’s partner. Rather than confront her man, the narrator pleads with the other woman, Jolene, to “please don’t take him, even though you can”.
Every episode of Heartstrings begins with a segment with Parton in Dollywood. She sets up the episode by introducing the song, and establishing the connection between its story and the one the audience is about to watch. In the first episode, Parton suggests the song’s long-lasting appeal is because “most of us have actually had a Jolene – or a Joe – in our lives at one time or another”.
Two Doors Down
Parton introduces this episode with a message of acceptance; she argues that everyone would be happier we could all learn to love and accept each other, “because what it all comes down to, is love is love”. That’s a powerful thing.
“Two Doors Down” is ostensibly a song about a party, and similarly, the episode “Two Doors Down” is essentially a story about a wedding; however, the lesson at the core of both is that acceptance – particulrly of those from a different walk of life – is a choice. Dolly wrote the song in 1977, when she was on the road. As she puts it herself, being on the road was a lot of fun, but she also missed home, and she missed her family. She got through by forming meaningful relationships with the people she toured with, regardless of their religious beliefs or sexual orientation – people who are just “two doors down”.
If I Had Wings
Parton’s 2014 song “If I Had Wings” may be one of her more recent recordings, but its sound and style is among her oldest. In the episode’s introduction, Parton states that when she wrote the song, it reminded her of her Mama, Avie Lee Parton, “when she would sing the old mountain songs.” These “songs were stories of sadness and struggle. But they also had dreams in ‘em of what might be”.
The song definitely channels mountain music. It’s melody and lyrics are right at home with bluegrass, which is rooted in the Old Time and Appalachian styles. Parton’s version is imparted with conviction as well as desire; the narrator doesn’t just dream of a better tomorrow – she prays for the strength to make it a reality.
So many of Parton’s great songs are based on stories from her childhood. “Cracker Jack” is no exception. The original song is a reflection on a scrawny dog the narrator found in the woods as a child. She takes the pup home, and the two become close companions. The narrator suggests that throughout her life, she has never formed another bond like the one she had with her Cracker Jack.
Although the song centres on the narrator’s childhood dog, Cracker Jack, Parton suggests the song is really about the importance of unconditional friendship. Rather than follow the obvious route, and writing a sappy Old Yeller style story (although the episode does open with a woman finding a pup and naming it Cracker Jack), Lisa Melamed, the episode’s writer, presents the story of four middle-aged women, whose many-decade friendship has endured, and gave them to strength to endure, heartache after heartache.
Down From Dover
Dolly wrote the song “Down from Dover” in the late sixties – a time when female country artists were pushing back against the patriarchy with controversial songs highlighting the plight women faced. Hits like “Harper Valley PTA” by Jeannie C Riley and “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin” by Loretta Lynn. Dolly’s version was no less controversial: “Down from Dover” tells the story of a young girl who gets pregnant out of wedlock, is abandoned by the father, and is left to deal with the shame and public scrutiny on her own.
The song is heartbreaking. It’s sung from the perspective of a young woman, who’s dealing with the stress and discomfort of pregnancy largely on her own. Her parents hide her away, telling her that she’s brought shame to the family. The narrator copes with the stress of her isolation by hoping for the day when her lover will return to her, but, predictably, he never does come down from Dover.
The song forced listeners to see how public shaming tears families apart. It was controversial because it sympathizes with its narrator, and thus puts a human face on the issue of unwed mothers. This was particularly significant at a time when many young women were denied access to contraception and abortion services. Perhaps this is why Dolly, in her introduction to the episode, refers to “Down from Dover” as “one of my most important songs”.
Of all the episodes, “Sugar Hill” most closely follows the original song it’s inspired by. Parton released the song on her 2002 album Halos and Horns. The song’s title is taken from Sugar Hill Records, the bluegrass and Americana label that produced the album. The song overtly a tribute to hometown memories, but it is as much that as a celebration of life-long partnerships. Parton, who’s been with her husband over 50 years, carries this inspiration into the episode as well.
The episode is described as “a decades-spanning romance returns to its roots in this story of sweethearts turned soul mates and the humble hometown they once called their own”. It opens with a patriarch returning home from a funeral, with adult children and granddaughter in tow. His wife, to cheer him up, suggests they go on a road trip to their hometown Sugar Hill. Like the song it’s based on, “Sugar Hill” is a sweet story that reminds viewers there’s no place like home.
J. J. Sneed
“J. J. Sneed” is Parton’s tribute to westerns – with a twist. The song reimagines a basic cowboy plot with a female adventurer in the lead. The narrator is in love with another bandit, J. J. Sneed, who happens to be her partner in crime. The two outlaws live on the run together. Despite the many times she had his back and nursed his wounds, J. J. Sneed betrayed her for another – more traditionally feminine – woman. Rather than cry and accept defeat, the narrator confronts him about it and, in true outlaw style, shoots him down.
The song was released on the 1971 album Joshua, which also includes her hit “Joshua”. The title track would have been the more obvious choice for an episode, but this ballad makes for a much more interesting story.
These Old Bones
All of Parton’s songs are personal, even the ones that tell other people’s stories. As Parton says in the episode’s introduction, she’s written many songs about people she would have like to have met. “These Old Bones” is a tribute to a real-life woman that Parton actually did meet – a woman from her past who made an impression on her. The song offers a glimpse into Parton’s childhood – one of countless experiences that helped her become the country star she is today.
The real-life Bones was a woman who lived in the mountains. She carried with her a pouch filled with animal and bird bones she used for divination. The song describes her as an eccentric and a recluse – a hillbilly seer of sorts. According to Parton, she met Bones when she was young, and was told by the clairvoyant that she was anointed and would do “big things”. It’s fitting that the final episode of Heartstrings is a tribute to one woman who saw a young Dolly Parton for what she really was: a star in the making.
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