Dolly Parton is a true icon, with her big, blonde hair, over-the-top outfits, and crooning Southern drawl. The 73 year-old has become country music’s grandmother, a model of both class and success, and a source of wisdom.
Parton’s very essence is reflected in the new Netflix original anthology series, Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, produced by Sam Haskell, Patrick Sean Smith, and Parton herself. Claiming to be “Based on the stories and songs of Dolly Parton,” the show is an eight-episode series that takes the audience through different Parton songs and an accompanying storyline that (sometimes loosely) reflects the narratives in her music.
Each roughly hour-long episode starts with a sweeping shoot of Dollywood, a Parton-themed resort and theme park in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Inside, the camera pans up to Parton, who introduces each episode. She addresses the audience, telling stories about her own life and explaining the moments that served as inspiration for her songs. Speaking slowly and deliberately, it’s almost as if Parton is like an eccentric teacher, donned in fringe-sleeves, hot-pink acrylic nails, and bedazzled bodycon dresses.
In the first episode, “Jolene,” Parton tells the story of the song, saying, “One day many years later I caught my husband flirting with this redheaded hussy at our bank and I just had to write a song about how that made me feel.”
Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings is composed of classic sentimental content often reserved for childrens shows or cringey Hallmark movies. Each episode acts like a mini-movie, with relatively flat characters, none of which we get to learn about long enough for any of them to have a last name. The characters operate within emotional clinches: a couple that has to schedule sex in “Jolene,” a woman who finds herself in a broken marriage in “Cracker Jack,” a girl who wants to be independent and free in “J.J. Sneed.”
Throughout the series, Parton is always there to offer sage advice that gets the characters through each of their turbulent problems. In “Jolene,” Parton stars as Babe, the owner of a bar where the character Jolene (Julianne Hough) works and sings. Babe is like the mother that Jolene never had, gently guiding her toward self-realization. She tells Jolene, who has been putting off starting her singing career, “You’re not going to Nashville because you’re scared — you’re scared of failing. And you run around with all these unavailable men because you are scared of love.”
In “Cracker Jack,” character Lucy Jane (Sarah Shahi), reminiscing about Parton’s song “Cracker Jack” and her own old dog, tells her friend that, “I think the lesson is that you really have to live, ya know? Truly, just live your life. Find what makes you happy.”
Parton, with hair teased high and a confident gaze, reflects her public persona in Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings. She’s sweet and well-intentioned, and always helps everyone around her figure out what’s right.
Although it is dripping with sentimentality and cheap drama, Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings explores issues that make it more engaging than your average Hallmark movie. In “Jolene,” Jolene and her friend discuss feminism, both of them coming to realize that the most important way to be a good woman is to support other women. In “Cracker Jack,” the four characters on a ladies weekend are all plagued by their struggles with domestic violence and emotional trauma.
So, while Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings could be trashed as simply a corny melodramatic miniseries, there is something uniquely Dolly about it that saves it from critical damnation. While the show definitely won’t be winning any awards for superb writing, cinematography, or acting, it has the innate whimsical energy of Parton herself. Following her along as she reminisces about her life is another way to appreciate Parton as a musical icon and to find added meaning and color to so many of the songs that have defined country music.
In the eighth episode, Parton tells the audience, “When I was just a little bitty thing, I started writing songs that told stories about people that I would have liked to see up there on the big screen. Now for me, writing songs was like making my own little movies with my guitar.” Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings is no high art, but it’s another opportunity to appreciate a woman who has redefined the music industry by doing just that.
Featured Image by Netflix