Some musical icons make for fascinating subjects because they manage to stay elusive and mysterious. Others are compelling because they’re ubiquitous in building a career that spans so many different kind of audience members. If there’s one entertainer from the last half-century that embodies that second group, it’s Dolly Parton. But as the WNYC Studios and OSM Audio podcast “Dolly Parton’s America” has shown, there’s more of her experience in that first column than you might expect.
It’s a perfect premise for a show that considers the legacy of Dolly Parton. For a very long time, producer Shima Oliaee could really only talk about it with one other person. “We had this as a secret project for two years. No one around us in our work environment knew that this was happening. We literally worked in a bubble of the Dollyverse,” Oliaee told IndieWire.
Her partner in this “Dolly Parton’s America” project, host Jad Abumrad, is not only a prolific figure in the world of podcasting from his longtime work on “Radiolab” (where Oliaee has also worked). He also had an unlikely second-degree connection to Parton herself.
Abumrad’s father is one of the doctors who helped treat Parton after a car accident five years ago. From there, the two became friends. That friendship meant that when Abumrad and Oliaee took on this challenge, they had a chance to speak with Dolly in different ways than her many other interviewers over the years. But before they could even know what to ask, Oliaee had to go through everything about Parton in the public domain. And there was a lot of it.
“Jad came to me and said, ‘I think I want to have a conversation with this person. Can you find out everything you can find out about them?’ So I did research and then I read everything I could. I saw everything I could. We watched every boob joke. We watched every late night sketch, we watched ‘SNL,’ all of that,” Oliaee said.
At the end of all that research — especially given Parton’s long history with learning how to turn challenges into punchlines she can control — Oliaee developed one clear objective. “I told Jad and he laughed, but my No. 1 goal for myself was: I want to know what makes Dolly cry at night,” Oliaee said. “She’s so graceful and self possessed. I want to see a tear fall. I just want to know what no one knows.”
Abumrad’s first interview was a compelling, hour-and-a-half conversation, but it didn’t quite have the breadth they felt the show needed. Luckily, over the course of the intervening years, they were able to speak with Dolly in more depth.
“We interviewed her on her tour bus. We interviewed her at her family home. We’ve interviewed her in the UK. We’ve been in many environments with her, asking her deeply personal questions. But I think the first time we kind of cracked the surface was the longest interview we did, which was that second one I was at in the studio,” Oliaee said. “Jad and I were both open to being surprised. We’re a team. He’s leading the interview, and then if either of us catches anything, we try to catch it in the moment. And that’s usually where something opens, where we catch a kernel we didn’t see. Maybe something comes from that. Maybe it doesn’t. We don’t know.”
Teamwork is especially key on “Dolly Parton’s America.” There’s a real gravity in taking on this project that spans decades and continents and every kind of social and cultural divide that Dolly herself looks to transcend. But, as Oliaee sees it, distilling all those duties down to a core pair can be liberating too.
“We had challenges I think other teams don’t have because it was only two people. It’s the editing, it’s the composing, it’s the outlining, it’s the interviewing, it’s the research, it’s the prepping, it’s the fact-checking, it’s the making sure everyone that you’ve interviewed is OK,” Oliaee said. “It was two people. And the exact weight of the challenge of that is in total equality to the weight of the freedom you have and the joy you can have through that freedom and the creativity you can muster.”
In turn, that helped lead to a greater connection with Dolly, too. That closeness that they were able to cultivate over the course of hours speaking with her about a variety of subjects meant that there was room to ask some more difficult questions that might feel forced in a quicker, more controlled environment. Both Oliaee and Abumrad broached topics, from political issues to family history, that go beyond the extensive history that Parton has so willingly shared over the years.
“I think that was a little bit of my role was to push. I didn’t mean for it to be my role, and actually when I hear it, I go, ‘Oh my God, don’t press Dolly Parton! Back away!’ But when those moments of silence happen, you have to sometimes let the silence play out so someone shares what they need to share. Or you have to grab the moment,” Oliaee said. “The more I got to know Dolly as a spiritual person, I kind of knew she won’t share a story that drags anyone in the mud. So we know that and we really respect that about her. But anything else, we really tried to leave no stone unturned.”
It all tied in with the idea that Oliaee and Abumrad, who previously collaborated on “UnErased,” a four-part series on the history of conversion therapy, have found a way to bring a journalistic approach to stories of real empathy. Even though this came from a friendlier origins than most of the sources in their other work, they found themselves in situations where many of the people they talked to for perspective on Dolly’s work — including students at the University of Tennessee taking the course that helped give the show its title — were revealing deeply personal elements of their life.
“We’re journalists, we have to kind of scratch our heads and be really skeptical at first. She’s so larger than life, we’re just looking for a hole. But the happier version of skepticism is to be open to being surprised.” Oliaee said. “We were very green in the Dollyverse when we began. We allowed ourselves to experience the revelations and be profoundly moved by everyone speaking on her life, and then being shocked by some of the things she shared with us.”
So then, once the interview phase had passed, the time came to figure out how to put this into show form. Figuring out where to start meant figuring out what part of Dolly Parton is most elemental.
“We had to go back to our starting point, which was look at her lyrics. Go as deep into the lyrics as you can for someone who has been seen as this larger than life persona,” Oliaee said. “What we really wanted to convey was what it might’ve been like for a woman coming up in the ’60s and the ’70s and the ’80s, being Dolly Parton and what it would look like from a televised standpoint — those songs where she actually talks about what it was really like for the women she saw living around her. I think that juxtaposition became a stronger starting point.”
Oliaee says that Dolly has heard at least parts of the show, even if she still might not fully understand the podcast world. But for “Dolly Parton’s America,” in representing the singer’s life accurately, the goal was to show how much of her experience is in anyone who might listen, regardless of class, country of origin, policy beliefs, or level of fandom.
“Our hope was every person heard their story. We all feel like the other. How do we have hope? How do we treat others? How do we try to treat ourselves?” Oliaee said. “The thing with Dolly is that she’s like, ‘Do you! Don’t expect me to be you. Don’t ask me to tell you what to do. You can do it.’ That’s her agency. Her freedom is in her ability to embrace everyone. And because she doesn’t use labels, she doesn’t see the separation. She really sees her family in every person she meets.”
“Dolly Parton’s America” is available on all podcast platforms.