I am not from rural Tennessee. I did not grow up in a wooded cabin without running water. My father doesn’t work on a farm and my mother doesn’t cook on an old wooden stove. As a child, I didn’t play with June bugs and I have never attended church.
In fact, I grew up Jewish in Midwestern suburbia with all the creature comforts that entails. My parents have their own business. As a child, I played The Sims on an early 2000s Dell desktop. And on weekends, I frequented Hebrew school and the Jewish deli.
And yet, despite all of that, every time I turn on Dolly Parton’s My Tennessee Mountain Home album, I feel a sense of home. It’s as if Dolly’s melodic vocals are holding me in a swaddle, gently swaying me into a wholesome bubble of comforting warmth.
I’m not a stranger to country music, as bizarre as that sounds given my upbringing and my identity as a cosmopolitan millennial woman. I grew up on The Chicks (formerly known as The Dixie Chicks) and, from a young age, fell in love with their specific brand of feminist twang. But it wasn’t until one summer in college, when I followed my brother out west to Colorado, that I discovered the magic of bluegrass. With its “high lonesome sound” and storytelling prowess out of the Appalachian Mountains, I was hooked. I listened to anything I could get my hands on —from the Punch Brothers and Gillian Welch, to Greensky Bluegrass and Billy Strings. It was only natural that, in time, this obsession would lead me to the back catalogue of the one and only Dolly Parton.
If you’ve existed on the internet at all in the past few years, you’ve probably encountered some form of Dolly Parton content. There’s an NPR podcast focused on her position at the crossroads of America’s culture wars, an NBC special celebrating her 50 years at the Grand Ole Opry, a Netflix series dramatizing the stories in her songs and a Netflix movie featuring Dolly’s music starring Jennifer Anniston, and countless viral memes. It’s undeniable that even for a woman who’s reached legendary levels of decades-long superstardom, she’s having a popular moment.
But My Tennessee Mountain Home remains an oft-forgotten album by most mainstream country listeners. It’s a concept album that chronicles Dolly’s early years in Nashville as she faced homesickness; she sings with melancholic longing about hummingbirds feeding on her mama’s roses and the homemade toys her father used to make. The album is an autobiographical project singular in its focus — from the opening track, featuring Dolly reading a letter she sent back home to her family, to the penultimate song that finds her crooning, “That was in the better part of life we left behind.” There’s no room for any of her signature love songs or popular country duets. It’s just Dolly’s childhood, stripped down and sung honestly.
Though the album never cracked the top 10 on the U.S. country music charts, and its contemplative songs tend to be passed over for Dolly’s rowdier, more crowd-pleasing fare like “Jolene” and “9 to 5,” it marked an important passage in her life. Released in 1973, it acted as a reset for her career by paving the way for her professional split from Porter Wagoner. (Wagoner, for those unaware, was her longtime duet partner responsible for launching her into the spotlight on his variety show, The Porter Wagoner Show). It was a difficult and painful goodbye, but a necessary one, setting the stage for her solo star to skyrocket.
I came to the album in my own time of uncertainty and fear. After finally settling into New York City life in 2018, my team was laid off due to company restructuring and I lost my job. As someone who craves stability, I was terrified and unable to see what the future would hold. In an attempt to take space for this transition and intentionally push back against the limits of my own comfort zone, I booked a solo trip to Montana. With little research and planning other than a flight and an Airbnb, I headed off to “Big Sky Country” on my own. Driving my rented Subaru along alpine passes and glacial vistas, I turned to Dolly for comfort.
In those disquieting days, it didn’t matter that my childhood looked vastly different from the one Dolly was singing about. In her voice and her lyrics, she expresses a universal truth of nostalgia. “In my Tennessee mountain home,” she sings, “life is as peaceful as a baby’s sigh / In my Tennessee mountain home, crickets sing in the fields nearby.” I know exactly what she means — it’s a dream of something that once was, that we can’t currently return to, but that we’ll be forever aiming towards. I felt it both for my former life in New York and for my family and my youth spent in Ohio, which I’d left behind long before.
I do want to be careful not to co-opt an experience that is not my own by relating to these songs that, at times, feature poverty and hardships I haven’t experienced. But it is my belief that Dolly’s goal was to create a greater, all-inclusive relatability with this work. She sings, “Teardrops mingled with the summer rain that was falling the day I left my mountain home behind / With a suitcase in my hand and a hope in my heart, I was following a dream I had to find.” She could be me, or you, or any of us, just trying to find our way.
Now, I pull up the album on my Spotify whenever I’m in need of a warm hug or that elusive twinkly light feeling. When I listen to My Tennessee Mountain Home, I’m immediately transported from my current situation — usually pacing in circles around my too-small apartment while shoveling Oreos into my mouth — to a field of wildflowers at sunset, in my mind, a scene that’s expansive and limitless, as if Dolly is personally giving permission to all of my own open-ended searching.
How I Keep Calm is our series featuring different ways people manage anxiety. If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with “How I Keep Calm” in the subject line.
Image of Dolly Parton by Andrew Putler/Redferns.