In 2009, Associate Professor Lynn Sacco sat in Thompson-Boling Arena as the legendary Dolly Parton accepted an honorary degree from UT. Sacco admits that she had never really been a fan of Parton, seeing her as an embarrassment to feminism. But her view of Parton changed that day, and it changed Sacco’s life.
“She comes out in her gown, and then the governor comes over, and they give her the degree and she stood there and just sobbed. She seemed very genuine,” Sacco told Jad Abumrad and Shima Oliaee, who created the NPR podcast Dolly Parton’s America.
Sacco, who had been tasked with creating a class to teach students how to analyze topics and create original historical research, thought Parton would be the perfect lens through which to view Appalachian history.
And so she created the history honors class Dolly’s America: From Sevierville to the World.
In 2017, news of the class went viral after a story appeared in this magazine and the university
tweeted it, tagging Parton. National and international news outlets like the New York Times and BBC ran stories about Sacco’s class.
“I just kind of fell into the spell of what Lynn was doing,” Abumrad told the Knoxville News Sentinel. “And I tried to take it in my own direction, and I chose the name as an homage to them ’cause that was really an important moment in our reporting.”
Abumrad and Oliaee visited Sacco’s class in Knoxville and had hours of one-on-one phone conversations, discussing with the students and Sacco what Dolly Parton’s America really is—which happened to be the subject of their final papers.
Sacco and her students appear on episodes seven and nine of the podcast, which won a Peabody Award in June and drew more than 1.5 million downloads per episode. The group discussed topics like Appalachian stereotypes, football, religion, and feminism.
“My biggest surprise was that the women students nearly all wanted Dolly to be a feminist,” Sacco said. “It was very important to them that they have a ‘good Southern woman’ who can represent that aspect of how they understand their gender role—they are not bra burners, but they see themselves as equal to men and admire Dolly’s unwillingness to take a back seat to anyone.”
One topic that elicited an emotional response from listeners was when students talked about purposefully changing or getting rid of their Appalachian accents in order to be taken more seriously in the world.
Polly Ann Taylor (’18, ’20), from the small town of Clintwood in far southwestern Virginia, was one of those students. After episode seven was released, she spent time reading through messages on Twitter from people who had gone through the same thing.
The overwhelming amount of support and connection honestly made my day every time I read them,” Taylor said. “Some of them also broke my heart when I saw how the story resonated with them, how it’s also their experience, too. But it made me so glad that we were able to share our discussion the way that we did.”
Taylor says her accent is now naturally changing a little bit. “I’ve lost a good bit of the Southwest Virginia twang—though it still comes out when I go home or talk to my grandpa. But I’m proud of it, and don’t want to lose it or my new Knoxville accent entirely.”
For the students, the answer to “What is Dolly Parton’s America?” is a complicated one. But for Sacco, who retired at the end of the academic year, it’s simple.
“Dolly Parton’s America is a place that values everybody, that is not based on ticking off boxes like ‘Did I see you in your pew on Sunday?’” Sacco said. “But it’s more based on generally a life that’s loving, caring, appreciative of others, generous,
Feature illustration by Christine de Carvalho, courtesy of WNYC Studios
Dolly’s America illustration by Marcus Williamson