Nov 7, 2019

Dolly Parton's America: Neon Moss

Today on Radiolab, we're bringing you the fourth episode of Jad's special series, Dolly Parton's America. In this episode, Jad goes back up the mountain to visit Dolly’s actual Tennessee mountain home, where she tells stories about her first trips out of the holler. Back on the mountaintop, standing under the rain by the Little Pigeon River, the trip triggers memories of Jad’s first visit to his father's childhood home, and opens the gateway to dizzying stories of music and migration.

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JAD ABUMRAD: I'm Jad. This is Radiolab. So we've been on a bit of a trill lately over here. Me with my series about Dolly Parton, and also at Radiolab, looking at different kinds of music. You know, sort of examining different genres of music and asking where do they come from? Where do they go? Who do they speak to and why? All of these sorts of questions. And today I want to play you one more of the stories from the Dolly series, because I think it speaks to this same set of questions, and maybe even completes the thought. And by the way, if you haven't heard the series yet, go to if you like. I would certainly love it if you do. You can check it out also on Apple Podcasts. There are four episodes up there. So let me just give you a little bit of context on what you're about to hear. In the last episode of the series, this would be episode three, the one before the one you're about to hear, we zeroed in on one of Dolly's real Southern anthems. It's called My Tennessee Mountain Home. I was very surprised to learn that this Tennessee-specific song speaks to so many different kinds of people, very different backgrounds and places. In episode three, we went to Dollywood to see a replica of Dolly's Tennessee mountain home. She has a replica of the little cabin where she grew up there at the theme park, and at the end of the episode we were suddenly, very unexpectedly given the chance to see her actual Tennessee mountain home. I want to play this episode for you on Radiolab because, you know, it continues the thread of thoughts that we've been playing with here, but also that visit to Dolly's home really unlocked a very personal narrative for me. So without further ado, here we go.


JAD: Do you remember the first time you left home? Or left ...


DOLLY PARTON: Well, the first trip I ever made about my music, and the first trip I ever made. And I was young, I was little then. 12? 11? Was to go to Lake Charles, Louisiana, from Knoxville. And it was a long trip. They put us on a bus.


JAD: Do you remember how that felt to be on that bus?


DOLLY PARTON: Yeah, it felt -- I liked the wheels. I remember loving the motion. So there was this studio there, and so Uncle Bill thought I should come down there and make a record. And oh, I saw Spanish moss for the first time. I thought it was the strangest, most wonderful, mysterious thing I'd ever seen because it was so different. You know, that swamp and the cypress trees and the drive. I just remember that's the first time I ever seen like, the sand and the beach and the ocean. First true love, too. It was my first record, and I got a crush on Johnny. Little Johnny. His daddy owned the Gold Band Records and that studio. And he was so pretty and brown. Never seen a boy so pretty. And that's the first time I also had a banana, and I loved them. Then I wanted a whole bunch of them. Then I got sick on them. It's like it was just a whole bunch of feelings that I still remember like it -- you know, just like it was yesterday.


JAD: And so now I mean, you've been gone for so long. Over 50 years. Where do you actually live?


DOLLY PARTON: [laughs] Well, I'm like Santa Claus. I'm everywhere at the same time. Actually, I live everywhere.


JAD: This is Dolly Parton's America, episode four. I'm Jad Abumrad. In the last episode, we arrived at the place where Dolly left and has been singing about for 50, 60 years. Tennessee Mountain Home for many people, certainly for people who grew up in Tennessee, it's -- it's hallowed ground. I'd referred to it earlier as Tennessee Valhalla. Valhalla, home of the god Odin in Norse mythology. It's got that same kind of importance in Tennessee lore. Now I was convinced that it wasn't real. Or real anymore. The previous day, producer Shima Oliaee and I we'd looked at a replica of the Tennessee mountain home at Dollywood. That's the soundtrack of roller coasters. Now a bunch of people that we ran into in Pigeon Forge told us you gotta go see the Tennessee mountain home. We're like, "Cool. Have you seen it?" "No." "Do you know where it is?" "Oh, it's just over that hill." But every time they'd point to a different hill. So yeah, kind of started to think it was a place that lived only in heads and not in the world. But then to recap, Brian Seaver, Dolly's head of security and nephew picked us up at Dollywood, drove us up the back side of a mountain, down an unmarked dirt road, and into Tennessee Valhalla. So we'll pick things up there. Okay. After the gate ...


SHIMA OLIAEE: Did they live by this creek at that time? Like, there's so many waterways coming down the mountain.


JAD: There were a bunch of fields.


BRIAN SEAVER: You're gonna see the spot where the original house was here in just a second.


JAD: He drove us down this little dirt road that hugged a creek, past one field and then another.


BRIAN SEAVER: You know, these are the fields that Dolly played in and sang about.


JAD: Man, this is ...


JAD: Eventually, we get to a clearing. And there on a hill ...


BRIAN SEAVER: So this is the original house.


SHIMA: Oh my God!


JAD: Wowee!


JAD: Immediately recognized it. Tennessee Mountain Home. The exact same structure we'd seen the day before at Dollywood.


BRIAN SEAVER: We'll go up there and check it out.


JAD: Okay, cool.


JAD: Up on the hill ahead of us was a little gray shack, sloping tin roof, front porch. Two rocking chairs on the porch.


JAD: Oh, did you say watch out for snakes?




JAD: Okay. What kind of snakes do you -- would be up here?


BRIAN SEAVER: King snakes, mostly. They won't hurt you. But there's rattlesnakes, timber rattlers around here.


JAD: Oh, wow.


BRIAN SEAVER: Copperheads in the creeks.


JAD: Just adds to the experience.


BRIAN SEAVER: Oh, yeah. No, you're in -- you're real country now.


JAD: We walk up the hill towards the house. Back when Dolly bought the property in the late '80s, somebody had been living there but the property had fallen into complete disrepair. The foundation was there but not much else, so they had to kind of build it back up from memory. So technically, if you want to split hairs this is the reconstructed semi-original house that the Dollywood copy is based on. But what makes this one utterly different is where it is. There are no crowds. There are no roller coasters. It's just a house on a hill surrounded by forest. Tiny house, surrounded by these hundred-foot-tall pine trees. Just gigantic.


JAD: It's funny, I've heard her say in a million interviews, you know, we grew up, right ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dolly Parton: Right at the foothills in the great Smoky Mountains.]


JAD: ... at the base of the Smoky Mountains. And here we are, and it's exactly as she says.




SHIMA: It's so funny, because we saw the replica of the Tennessee home at Dollywood, but without the mountains it seemed so sad. And here, even though it's that barren and, like, isolated, it's so beautiful because it's here.


BRIAN SEAVER: It almost makes me start crying every time I walk into that little room, where -- that they've built in there. And that -- those are papaw's real boots.




BRIAN SEAVER: Yeah, they are. My mamaw decorated this.


SHIMA: At Dollywood?


BRIAN SEAVER: Yeah. Mamaw and my Aunt Willadean decorated that. So this is the back of the main house.


JAD: Okay.


JAD: When we got to the top of the hill, Brian sort of walked us around the back of the house. Again, just a gray shack.


BRIAN SEAVER: And my mom has my key to this.


JAD: Oh, are you all right?


BRIAN SEAVER: Yup. All good. Victory.


JAD: That was the sound of Brian almost slipping on the moss that surrounded the house.


BRIAN SEAVER: Feel this moss. It's like carpet.


JAD: It's so soft!




JAD: Oh my God, this moss is like ...


SHIMA: The moss is -- it's literally like walking the sponge of the Earth.


JAD: And the color of the moss is kind of otherworldly.


BRIAN SEAVER: [laughs] It's almost neon.


JAD: Yeah!


SHIMA: We're on the Parton front porch.


BRIAN SEAVER: That's right. So I don't know if you can see here, but ...


JAD: Brian didn't have his keys to the house, so we just stood on the front porch and looked in the window.


BRIAN SEAVER: Inside, you'll notice that all the walls are wallpapered with newspaper.


JAD: Yeah.


BRIAN SEAVER: So newspaper was the -- the primary way of decorating your wall.


JAD: If we looked inside here, would we see what we see when we go to Dollywood and look in there?


BRIAN SEAVER: No, it's more creature comforts.


JAD: Gotcha.


JAD: Through the window we could see a sofa, bearskin rug, maybe a TV.


SHIMA: You guys live here, though. So, like, when you stay up here, you actually stay inside.


BRIAN SEAVER: Yeah, we stay right there.


SHIMA: So it is very livable.


BRIAN SEAVER: Absolutely.


JAD: Wow.


JAD: Brian pointed off in the distance behind us.


BRIAN SEAVER: Over there across the -- on top of that hill is where the schoolhouse is. You walk up that trail.


JAD: Oh man, these bugs!




JAD: Brian ended up walking us up there, up that second hill that he pointed at. And what immediately became clear is that Dolly didn't just restore her Tennessee mountain home.


JAD: Yes, it's definitely like fall-on-your-ass slick.


JAD: She restored all of these other buildings from her childhood and sort of assembled them onto the compound. Sort of like what she did at Dollywood for other people, but she did it for her own family. He walked us into the one-room schoolhouse that they had painstakingly rebuilt to be just like the one where she went to school.


JAD: Ten little desks in two rows.


SHIMA: Look at the American flag.


JAD: Shima pointed to the flag, which only had 48 stars on it.


SHIMA: Hey, Old World map.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dolly Parton: At school, the teacher would write with these chalks on the blackboard and I used to think to myself, "Boy, I could draw on the barn with those and make something really pretty."]


JAD: So this is the kind of schoolhouse that Dolly would have been in?




JAD: At the front of the class, someone had drawn a giant heart on the chalkboard. Looked like a kid had drawn it.


BRIAN SEAVER: My little girl wrote that.


JAD: Brian told us his little ten-year-old girl had drawn that.


SHIMA: Aww! Huge heart with love in the middle.


JAD: Oh my God.


JAD: It was eerie to see evidence of kids of the present playing in what was essentially a time capsule from 1951. Next door to the schoolhouse ...


BRIAN SEAVER: Come over here and I'll show you the chapel.


JAD: Okay.


JAD: There was a chapel that Dolly had built. Also a replica. Also had a bell.




BRIAN SEAVER: And that's the church bell. This is just like the kind of place that Grandpa Jake would have preached at.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dolly Parton: I remember my earliest days of hearing my grandpa who was a preacher, and we would go to his church. He pastored the church. He played the piano and he'd sing or he'd play the guitar.]




SHIMA: Who's this -- all this for? Do you guys ever use it?


BRIAN SEAVER: There's -- there's been numerous instances of the family being in these -- these buildings, and weddings and funerals and, you know, get-togethers and graduations we go ...


JAD: Walking around the property, it was the experience of being in many different time flows at the same time. For example, back on the Parton front porch ...


BRIAN SEAVER: It was a blessing to me to get to grow up around her.


JAD: We were talking with Brian, and I asked him when was the first time you realized that Dolly or Aunt Granny as he calls her was famous.


BRIAN SEAVER: And, you know, I went to some concerts and things like that before. I went out to Vegas and went to a show with her. Then when I was eight years old, I was a -- I was a phenomenal breakdancer. So break ...


SHIMA: [laughs]


BRIAN SEAVER: Yeah. I was a b-boy. So when I was eight, breakdancing was huge. That was the big fad. And Dolly loved to watch me breakdance. She'd try to get me to breakdance anytime we were anywhere, she would try to get me to break 'em down. I could moonwalk. I could head spin. I could do it all. So we were in Louisville, Kentucky. I was sitting in the crowd in a 15,000 person venue, Dolly and Kenny show.


JAD: Kenny Rogers.


BRIAN SEAVER: Dolly was closing the show. And all of a sudden Dolly grabs the microphone and says, "My little nephew Brian is in the crowd. And I was gonna see if he would come up and dance for us. He's a breakdancer, and my band's worked up his favorite song."


JAD: Oh my God!


BRIAN SEAVER: My favorite song was I'm Your Driver by Barry Gibb. And -- and it was -- it kind of had a robot sound to it, and I thought it was really cool for breakdancing. So the band had worked it up. And she said, "Would you come up here Brian and dance for me?" And I looked at her and I shook my head no. Said, "Nope." And she says, "I'll give you $100." And so I jumped right up and I ran down the -- I was a born mercenary. So I run down the aisle, jump up on stage and the band hit the beat. And I just start dancing, right? Danced all over that stage for as long as the band would play. Soon as I stop, 15,000 people jumped on their feet. I got a standing ovation. Kenny Rogers and Dolly didn't even get a standing ovation that night, but I did.


JAD: Oh my God.


BRIAN SEAVER: It was hugely epic. I was on the front page of the Louisville Times the next morning. It was -- it was unbelievable.


JAD: That's -- that's an amazing story.


BRIAN SEAVER: Indeed. That was something else.


JAD: After touring the grounds and sitting for a while with Brian on the Parton front porch ...


JAD: I think what I'd love to do is just capture, like, about two minutes of just the sound of the space and then I'll join you guys.


JAD: I left Shima and Brian and sort of wandered around for a bit. This is where things got kind of weird for me. It was raining a tiny bit, but there were all of these yellow butterflies doing loop-de-loops in the air.


JAD: This is a little creek that runs right through Dolly's childhood home. Ooh, there's a snake. Hello, black snake.


JAD: I spent maybe 10 minutes just kind of wandering around, half-expecting a bear to come stumbling out of the woods.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dolly Parton: There were bear all over the place. Bears just running around everywhere.]


JAD: And bears aside, the whole time I couldn't shake this feeling like I had been here before. Like, it was something like deja vu but not quite. Maybe more like a rhyme, the way that one memory rhymes with another. When my producer Shima came and got me and was like, "What the hell, man? Let's go." I mentioned it to her.


JAD: Do you want to know something crazy? Like, I was thinking about driving up here is exactly the feeling of driving up to my dad's old village in the mountains of Lebanon.


SHIMA: Oh my God.


JAD: These tiny little streets.


JAD: The memory that kept intruding was from almost exactly 20 years earlier. I'd gone to Lebanon with my dad for a wedding. This is when I was just getting into recording, so I had my recorder with me everywhere I went. And the day after the wedding, my dad had driven us up the mountains to show us the village where he was born and raised. A little village called Wadi Chahrour. It's this little enclave where literally half the village has our last name. It's high up in the mountains, actually the exact same elevation as the mountain where Dolly lives. The air sort of has that exact same kind of thinness to it. And when we finally got to see his house, it looked a lot like Dolly's.


JAD: When I saw her house ...


JAD: I told him about it later.


JAD: It reminded me instantly of your house in Wadi.


NAJI ABUMRAD: Yeah. It's almost identical like Dolly. There was one bedroom. We were five kids and two parents, and so you put your floor mat and you sleep side to side. And when you wake up in the morning, you stack the floor mats in the corner.


JAD: Wow. So seven people in one room?


NAJI ABUMRAD: Seven people in one room.


JAD: Jesus. How did you even sleep?


NAJI ABUMRAD: You sleep. You learn.


JAD: God! Tell me who you are, just so I have your introduction.


NAJI ABUMRAD: What do you mean? I'm Naji Abumrad. I'm your father.


JAD: [laughs] And what do you do when you're -- when yeah, what do you do otherwise?


NAJI ABUMRAD: Right now, I'm a professor of surgery at Vanderbilt. And ...


JAD: I didn't expect to want to put an interview with my dad in an episode about a visit to Dolly's Tennessee mountain home. But as I mentioned at the top of the series, I mean, I really couldn't have even done this series without him.


JAD: Can I ask you a personal question?




JAD: This is something -- it's something I've always been curious ...


DOLLY PARTON: It's not that personal.


JAD: No. It's like, it's more personal but -- for both of us, I guess. I've never under -- how did you meet my dad?


DOLLY PARTON: Well, your dad was -- I had -- first time I met him was years and years ago. I was having some health problems, and then I didn't connect with him again 'til my friend Judy and I had a wreck ...


[NEWS CLIP: Dolly Parton suffered a few minor injuries in a car crash in Nashville on Monday.]


DOLLY PARTON: ... several years back.


[NEWS CLIP: Police say she was riding in an SUV that was hit by another vehicle.]


DOLLY PARTON: And so when they rushed me to the emergency room, he came to the emergency room. And then after that, we just kind of ...


JAD: They became friends.


DOLLY PARTON: Friendship.


JAD: That's cool.


DOLLY PARTON: He's a good man.


JAD: I feel like I have to be completely transparent about this. Now I had always been really tickled and a little bit confused. Like, what could they possibly have in common? But then seeing how similar his house looked to hers, and then also thinking back to something she had told me in one of our conversations.


DOLLY PARTON: I don't know how well you know him, but you can never know your parents like -- like other people do.


JAD: To make a long story short, I decided to ask him some questions. And it turned out she was right. My dad and my mom left Lebanon same year that Dolly wrote My Tennessee Mountain Home. 1972.


[NEWS CLIP: The Middle East appears dangerously close to all-out war tonight.]


JAD: The country was sliding into a civil war that would kill roughly a quarter of a million people. And this is out of a population that's basically the size of Brooklyn. And some of my first memories, like when I could barely walk, was watching my mom and him watch the TV.


NAJI ABUMRAD: I never wanted to see Lebanon in that kind of a situation. It used to hurt me a lot to watch it.


JAD: But he almost never talked about it. I'd ask questions sometimes, but he, my mom, they never really wanted to go there. And so I just assumed that when they left they left. I mean, they were scientists.


NAJI ABUMRAD: I went to the American University of Beirut.


JAD: He told me that America felt like this place where science and reason still operated, and so they got the entire family out.


NAJI ABUMRAD: Brother, sister, parents.


JAD: Moved most of them to Canada. We ended up in America. First Syracuse then Tennessee. And they moved on.


NAJI ABUMRAD: A new -- it was a new beginning.


JAD: It just felt like a psychic break. They didn't think about the old world anymore. And I assumed that based on just how they lived. But when I asked my dad, "Do you think about your Lebanese Mountain home? Because it seems like you don't ever." He just looked at me like I'm crazy.


NAJI ABUMRAD: This is where I grew up. I was there this past year. I was in Beirut for one day. I came from Dubai to Beirut on my way to the States. I got into the hotel at ten o'clock in the evening. I took a taxi from the hotel, drove me through the village. Stopped by the house, looked at it. I felt so comforting. Put myself in the taxi and went back to Beirut.


JAD: Wait, you just drove to the -- from the hotel to the village, parked, looked at the house for 20 minutes and then drove back?


NAJI ABUMRAD: Yeah. Didn't talk to anybody, didn't visit anybody. I just drove through the village and came back. And just about every single time before that that I visited Beirut, I did that same -- that same thing.


JAD: I didn't know that.


NAJI ABUMRAD: It's -- it's my feeling of -- I don't know, my therapy.


JAD: Wow. I didn't know that. It's funny. I always wondered -- part of the -- part of what I've been wondering about is like, Dolly has -- her whole world is built on looking back at her home, Tennessee mountain this and that. And I compare it to you and Mom and -- never talked about Lebanon.


NAJI ABUMRAD: I didn't talk about it because who do I speak to here?


JAD: Another thing he told me which I also didn't know, is that when we first moved to Tennessee -- he told me this when we were driving -- during the Iran hostage crisis when I would have been about seven ...


NAJI ABUMRAD: We used to get -- several times people would be driving by and would throw rocks on our windows.


JAD: No kidding. Really?


NAJI ABUMRAD: Yeah. And ...


JAD: I never knew about that.




JAD: Needless to say Lebanon and Iran different countries. But that distinction was lost on whoever threw those rocks.


NAJI ABUMRAD: Who do I speak to here?


JAD: Hmm.


JAD: Back in his kitchen.


NAJI ABUMRAD: Who? The average colleague of mine in America? They don't understand it. She does. That small 550-600-square-foot home. You can't take that out of me. You know, there are certain things. Maybe -- I mean, as I'm telling you this it's almost like there's an anxiety building up in me. It's almost like it's a feeling of weakness.


JAD: Wow. Why?


NAJI ABUMRAD: No, I'm just telling you.


JAD: Yeah. No, no. Yeah, but tell me more.


NAJI ABUMRAD: I don't know. I mean, it's like I know we're gonna have to sell that house, and that would be the saddest day of my life.


[LYRICS: "Sitting on the front porch on a summer afternoon/ In a straight-back chair on two legs leaned against the wall."]


JAD: How much of this do you talk about with Dolly?


NAJI ABUMRAD: We talk about it.


DOLLY PARTON: Well, family is everything to both of us, but he's very open with me about his family and about the old ways back home. And just the fact that we're just two people from different parts of the world, but there's a lot of similarities in our personalities.


NAJI ABUMRAD: We're both the same. When she talks, I mean, I have never visited her Tennessee home, and when she talks about it, she talks about it as if it is as important as any religious sanctuary that any human being can have. And I can -- I can understand that.


DOLLY PARTON: Two people that couldn't be more different, that we are so similar in so many ways that is fascinating to us.


JAD: Hmm. And there's something similar there?


DOLLY PARTON: There is. And we talk about that. I don't -- I can't explain it. It doesn't even need to be explained. It's just like how you meet people in your life. You just click, you just feel like you know them. There are just some things that, you know, you just can't explain it. You just be it, you just live it, you just know it and you just feel it.


JAD: Back at the little shack on the hill. I hadn't really processed any of this stuff. I hadn't talked to my dad yet or talked to Dolly about my dad. I was simply struck by the rhyme of it. One house looked like another. And for different reasons, very different reasons, they both ended up coming down the mountain. I wasn't really sure how seriously to take any of this, but I did feel like a little window had opened in my mind.


HELEN MORALES: I remember ...


JAD: And I thought back to a conversation I'd had with Helen Morales who wrote that book Pilgrimage to Dollywood, it's been a real guide on this project. She told me that her family is Greek.


HELEN MORALES: And my dad used to play Dolly Parton. And -- and he used to say this was our music, right? Meaning immigrant music.


JAD: Huh. What did he specifically mean when he said that? Like, what did he hear of him -- his own experience in her songs? Did he ever talk to you about that?


HELEN MORALES: No, he didn't talk to me about that. He didn't, I think, have the vocabulary to talk about -- or to be that articulate about what it was like to -- to miss home in that way. Never to quite -- quite feel at home. And that's I think why some of her songs about home are so important, because they do articulate that. And eventually the, you know, home is in the music. Home is listening to the music.


JAD: Do you think that that -- that very loud idea of home that's in Dolly's songs especially appeals to people who feel like they can't be loud about their home?


HELEN MORALES: That's a really -- that's a really interesting and I think astute way of looking at it.


JAD: In any case, I kept thinking about that conversation. Specifically the moment where she said Dolly Parton is immigrant music. I wondered how deep does that idea really go? Coming up, I follow that question into an entirely different understanding of Dolly Parton's music and country music in general. And how I and all of us fit inside it. Dolly Parton's America will continue in a moment.


[SARAH: Hi, this is Sarah calling from Scarsdale, New York. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at]




JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Dolly Parton's America here on Radiolab. We're excerpting a bit of the nine-part series here on Radiolab. If you want to hear the rest, search Dolly Parton's America on Apple Podcasts or go to Okay, so that phrase from author Helen Morales ...


HELEN MORALES: This was our music, right? Meaning immigrant music.


JAD: Filled me with all kinds of questions, which then ...


RHIANNON GIDDENS: Have we started?


JAD: Yeah.




JAD: Led me talk to this woman.


RHIANNON GIDDENS: My name is Rhiannon Giddens, and I'm a musician, songwriter, composer now, I suppose. And all-around person at the party that you don't want to talk to, because all she talks about is slavery and the banjo.


JAD: [laughs]


JAD: Now the banjo is an interesting case study. Rhiannon, if you know anything about her, if you saw her on the Ken Burns special, if you know her music, you know that she plays the banjo, clawhammer style. Really well. But she didn't always.


RHIANNON GIDDENS: The very first memory I have of really thinking about how awesome clawhammer banjo is was actually on a Dolly Parton song.


JAD: No kidding?


RHIANNON GIDDENS: Yeah, it was her second bluegrass CD, The Little Sparrow. Or was it the third one? I can't remember. Anyway, it was The Little Sparrow, and it was that little end part of Marry Me? At the very end, it goes into this little old-time jam. For, like, literally five or ten seconds. And I would -- that was always the moment where I was like, "Oh man, that jam is so cool!"


JAD: But she says when she finally started trying to get in on those jams, you know, pick up the banjo herself and sit in, as a Black woman ...


RHIANNON GIDDENS: At the beginning I kind of was like, "Well, you know, can I come in here? Can I play this music?" You know, it's not -- like, I'm just kind of sneaking in here and I'm the only -- I'm the fly in the buttermilk as they say, you know, at these gatherings, and feeling like I had to ask permission. I never had to ask permission.


JAD: Take the banjo itself, she says. The true history of the banjo itself. This is something that I think collectively we're just starting to kind of reacquaint ourselves with. I mean, largely I think as a result of people like her bringing it back to light. But consider the banjo. You hear just a couple notes on the banjo and it immediately conjures a picture of, you know, white mountain men, East Tennessee, maybe West Virginia.


RHIANNON GIDDENS: But the banjo's roots are in West Africa. There's all these West African lute instruments, and it became what we know of as the banjo in the Caribbean, right? The first -- the earliest banjo we have that still exists is from Haiti.


JAD: Wow!


RHIANNON GIDDENS: You know, where it is the banjo. It's got multiple long strings or short string and, you know, it looks like the -- the instrument that we know of. And people brought that with them up to North America, and it became a part of the landscape of the enslaved life. Now white people didn't play the banjo. For a long time it was a plantation instrument. But what happened was that in the 1830s and '40s, the white entertainer picks up the banjo.


JAD: And from there she says, you have an inexorable march that included 60 years of minstrelsy, the deliberate segregating of the recording industry, and the end result is that by about 1930 the banjo, which came into America as a Black instrument was suddenly solely associated with white culture.


RHIANNON GIDDENS: And so then you start seeing, you know, "Oh, let's go back to the days of the old barn dance." You know, this clean white American music, which is a total fabrication. This is the hidden history of country music.


JAD: Rhiannon has really sort of led the way in bringing that history back to light by continually talking about it, and of course playing in bands like the Carolina Chocolate Drops. It's a band she started with two other Black musicians, Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons, where they played straight-up Appalachian folk music. But what really tripped me out, kind of expanded things for me in terms of not just thinking about the Tennessee Mountain Home, the TMH, and its relationship to my dad's LMH, but just what music is at its core. Well, it's when I heard this one particular song off her latest album.


[LYRICS: "Little Margaret, sitting in her high hall chair/Combing back her long, yellow hair/Saw sweet William and his new-made bride/Riding up the road so near."]


JAD: The song is called Little Margaret.


RHIANNON GIDDENS: It was an Appalachian ballad. Comes from the mountains of North Carolina.


JAD: She says she was riffing off a version by singer Sheila Kay Adams, but on Rhiannon's record she's accompanied by a guy named Francesco Turrisi who is playing the Iranian frame drum called the daf.


[LYRICS: "It was late in the night/They were fast asleep/Little Margaret appeared all dressed in white/Standing at their bed-feet/Saying, "How do you like your snow-white pillow?"/"How do you like your sheet?""]


RHIANNON GIDDENS: We'd like to call it layering. We layer this up on another thing and all of the similarities peak.


JAD: When I heard this I was like, why do these sound so right? Like, is there a back story that they share?


RHIANNON GIDDENS: There was no effort to it. It was like he started playing, I started singing, that was it.


JAD: Ah.


RHIANNON GIDDENS: But you're right, there is this connection to where did it come from? And my whole thing is, just as within America there are these connections that we have simplified and erased to our detriment, you know? Connecting an Appalachian ballad that was begun as an English ballad, but then what happened -- where did the English ballad come from? You know what I mean? Where did that style of melismatic singing come from, if you're talking about Celtic singing. You know, where did the modes come from, you know, of trance, say. If you've ever listen to somebody sing 14 verses of an Appalachian ballad, that's trance. You hear an Iranian daf, that is a trance instrument that is used for sufi, it's used for folk. There are these moments that remind us that we actually all come from the same source.


[LYRICS: "Saying, "Is Little Margaret in her room/Or is she in the hall?"/"Little Margaret's in her coal-black coffin/With her face turned toward the wall""]


JAD: After talking with Rhiannon we spoke to maybe a dozen different musicologists who told us that yeah ...


FEMALE MUSICOLOGIST: Any Western instrumental tradition is indebted to the ancient Middle East.


JAD: Like, if you listen to the style of singing, the way the singers bend the notes up and down, you hear that same singing style and Appalachian balladry and the modes.


MALE MUSICOLOGIST: You know, the kind of modes that were used.


JAD: The beats.


MALE MUSICOLOGIST: Tap tap toom. Tap toom. Tap Tap toom.


JAD: You hear that stuff in country music.


FEMALE MUSICOLOGIST: There absolutely were trade routes among Arab Americans that ...


JAD: We even learned that instruments from the area that is now Lebanon were taken into the mountains of Appalachia very early on. And some people told us the banjo ...


FEMALE MUSICOLOGIST: The banjo also, all these complex lutes, whether from Europe or from Africa, all can be tied back to the Middle East.


JAD: And to be honest, a lot of what we heard was sort of exciting. It was like, "Yay, go team!" But also kind of reductive.


MALE MUSICOLOGIST: Origins are really hard in music.


JAD: Like, when you talk origins, it becomes a conversation about who owns it. But in fact, one of the big movements right now in music history is to not do origins. Because when you actually look at how people were actually living, there was just too much mixing.


FEMALE MUSICOLOGIST: I think that sometimes we give ourselves too much credit for having entered the age of globalization. And when we study history, we see how incredibly globalized people have been for so many centuries.


JAD: Take a whaling ship from the 19th century that might have sailed the Indian Ocean. A ship like that might have sailors from the UK, from US, Portugal, Germany, Scandinavia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Hawaii, New Zealand, Tonga, Australia, the Cook Islands. All of them with different instruments, and they're jamming because they're bored. They're teaching each other songs, exchanging instruments. How do you boil that down to one simple story?


MALE MUSICOLOGIST: We have this desire to reach beyond where we live, and we have this desire to reach beyond who we are and who's around us. That to me is the interesting story.


FEMALE MUSICOLOGIST: The human story is about migration, you know? It is about movement. It is about, you know, one group moves from A to B, and in that they affect and they are themselves also affected, you know? And whether it ends up in America, whether it ends up in, you know, Lebanon or whatever, it's always a story of who came through, where did we go, where did we come from?


JAD: Standing on the neon green moss, I spent a lot of time listening to the wind blow through the gigantic Virginia pines that line Dolly's property.


[LYRICS: "In the pines, in the pines/Where the sun never shines/And you shiver when you're going through."


JAD: I thought about the different kinds of wind can blow through a place, and how music is the way we accompany ourselves as we blow across space and time. And then ...


JAD: Oh, yeah. Oh my goodness.


JAD: We got back in the car with Brian.


BRIAN SEAVER: I don't want to talk.


SHIMA: No, it's so beautiful! This is like -- I almost cried but I kept it together.


JAD: Brian, this is really special. Thank you.


BRIAN SEAVER: I'm glad y'all enjoyed it.


JAD: As a Tennesseean, to be able to come here just feels somehow like I'm getting to the heart of where I came from in some weird way.


BRIAN SEAVER: There's a lot of truth to that, you know? This is -- Dolly was talking the other day about Tennessee ...


JAD: Then Brian drove Shima and I back down the mountain. In the wake of that visit, I kept thinking about all the different ways, all the weird ways that music and stories from different places can mix together in the Dollyverse. And I kept thinking about a story that my dad told me ...


NAJI ABUMRAD: You know, because we were sort of ...


JAD: ... about the first time he entered the Dollyverse. He told me that in his little village in Lebanon, on the other side of the church ...


NAJI ABUMRAD: On the other side, there were a couple of small shops that sold grocery and meat. And that guy had a radio. We used to congregate in front of that shop because that's how listened to the music.


JAD: Do you recall what you heard?


NAJI ABUMRAD: We heard Fairuz. That's where I heard the first western music.


JAD: Asked him, "What about Dolly?"


JAD: Do you think it was -- it's possible that you might have heard her there too?


NAJI ABUMRAD: Probably. Probably.


[LYRICS: "Sitting on the front porch on a summer afternoon/In a straight back chair on two legs."]


JAD: Now I work in radio, so perhaps this is a convenient metaphor, but I think about that radio, that little radio in his village. About the ether on the way to that radio where all the signals commingle and have forever, and how we're all temporary holding spaces that the signals pass through on their way back into the ether.


[LYRICS: "In my Tennessee mountain home/Crickets sing in the fields nearby/Honeysuckle vine clings to the fence along the lane/Their fragrance makes the summer wind so sweet/And on a distant hilltop an eagle spreads its wings/And a songbird on a fencepost sings a melody/In my Tennessee mountain home/ Life is as peaceful as a baby's sigh/In my Tennessee mountain home/Crickets sing in the fields nearby"]


JAD: Dolly Parton's America was produced, written and edited by me and Shima Oliaee. Brought to you by OSM Audio, that's OSM Audio and WNYC Studios. We had production help from W. Harry Fortuna, original music from Rhiannon Giddens, Fairuz, and Dolly Parton, of course. Big thanks to the academics we spoke with in that section about instruments traveling around the world. Ben Harbear, Revell Carr, Anne Rasmussen, Anne Lucas. Special thanks to the folks at Sony and Melissa Cusick at Nonesuch Records. Lynn Sacco, David Holt, Francesco Turrisi, Anne Warden, Helen Morales, Sam Shahi, David Dotson, Lulu Miller, Suzie Lechtenberg and Soren Wheeler. And thank you, of course, to my dad. You rock. I love you. We've partnered with Apple Music to bring you a companion playlist that will be updated each week with music that you'll hear in this episode, plus some favorites we'll throw in. And you can find all of that at I'm Jad Abumrad. Thank you for listening.


JAD: Coming up next week. As Dolly's reach has expanded and expanded to talk to so many different kinds of people, sometimes the conversations get tricky.


DOLLY PARTON: You know, it's like everybody's arguing about religion or they're definitely arguing about their politics. And I say, "Can we just stop? Stop! Don't do that! We don't need to talk about that now."


JAD: Dollitics. That's next time on Dolly Parton's America. Also WNYC Studios has a new podcast that I think you should check out. It's called Scattered, and it's really lovely. It's hosted by Chris Garcia who is a comedian. He spent two years looking for his father's past, and that journey is hilarious and -- and heartbreaking and mysterious. And, you know, if you've ever wanted to understand where you're from and the people who made you who you are, this is -- this is a podcast that gets at all of that but in a completely new way. And it's funny. Did I say it's funny? I think I said that. But it's also sad. It's all the things. And it's got space travel, and a stay at a communist labor camp, and electroshock therapy is in there and plenty of Cuban coffee. Definitely check it out. Go to your podcast app and search for Scattered from WNYC Studios.


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