Behind Dolly Parton's America

A Q&A with Shima Oliaee, Producer and much more on Dolly Parton’s America

Shima Oliaee is part of the two-person team that produced Dolly Parton’s America. The project took over two years, and both she and host, Jad Abumrad followed every Dolly wormhole they could find. Shima was a big part of the success of the series — part researcher, part writer, part editor and part producer (and a million little things in between). She was on the project with Jad from inception and got swept into the mesmerizing story as they dove into what would be a nine-part series on Dolly Parton and the culture that surrounds her.

Shima Oliaee in the Recording Studio

PC: You and Jad work as a two-person team to produce Dolly Parton’s America. Can you tell me how it started and where you came on in the process?

Shima: How do I begin. As you might know from listening to the series, in 2013 Dolly had a minor car accident, and she ends up at Vanderbilt hospital. One of the doctors there was Naji Abumrad, who is Jad’s father and so they, [Naji and Dolly] begin a friendship. At some point, Jad realized that there was someone calling on his father’s phone and their name was an interesting pseudonym. He asked his dad about it and he says, ‘Oh, it’s Dolly. I just help out when she needs some advice.’ He’s not her direct doctor, but he’s a good friend that advises her when she has a question. So that was the first step.

[Dolly Parton’s America] started very simply with Jad asking, ‘Shima, can you prep me for a conversation with her? Find out everything you can.’ So I did. I read her autobiography. I did research. I created all these questions. He and I sat down and we went over all of them. Then he flew to Nashville to meet with her and have their first introductory conversation.

He comes back and gives me the audio to listen to. I listen to the audio, and I go ‘Jad what happened?’ and he’s like, ‘What?’ and I said, ‘She railroaded you, man! You asked one . We had like 30 questions. What is this?’  

He’s a 20-year veteran, and I’m definitely the new kid on the block, but I’m honest with him, and I believe that’s part of the health of our working relationship. I was like, ‘What happened?’ and he said, ‘I know, but she’s just so intoxicating. She was telling me about home and then she was telling me about her people and then she’s saying that her toes got cut off and they sewed them back together and stopped the bleeding with cornmeal.’ Dolly has also written all these stories in her autobiography as well.

The funny thing is, I had the same trancing experience when I saw her live in LA. She tells these stories from her childhood, and in concert, I was mesmerized. I had thought this was the moment in her life as a 72-year-old where she’s now telling the stories from when she was a kid. What I started to realize as I did research was that she’s been telling these stories for 40 years, but she’s so good at it that you’re just taken along for the ride. You feel like it’s the first time she’s ever shared it, and you almost feel fooled. A lot of fans that we interviewed, their first introduction to Dolly was being mesmerized by these beautiful stories of her early life.

Jad and I laughed about the first interview, but it was also the foundation we needed for him to say [to Dolly], ‘Hey, would it be okay if we come back and talk to you again?’

The next magical moment was when a class called Dolly Parton’s America got written up in The New York Times, and Dr. Lynn Sacco was interviewed. It was published around the same time that Jad did the first interview with Dolly, so I reached out to Lynn Sacco. She was getting calls from everyone around the country because they all wanted her syllabus. They wanted to teach a version of her class at their school.

I emailed her and she was like, ‘Do you want my syllabus? Because I’m not giving it away.’ And I thought maybe there’s a way. So I did my research on Lynn and found her thesis from USC where she got her doctorate. I read that thesis, and I was so impressed by her.

When I got on the phone with her, we had a four-hour dialogue. We talked about post-structural philosophy, the history of medicine, children’s legal rights. We talked about what it was like for her to be in Knoxville having grown up in Chicago and what her class was like. After that call, she sent us the syllabus, and she invited us to her class.

So, I prepped Jad again. Jad did the class session, and we listen to the tape. It was interesting, but there was nothing eye-opening at that point. Then some time passes, and I think Jad wasn’t quite sure if there was a series. There’s been so much done on Dolly — there are millions of interviews. She’s written an autobiography sharing a thousand and one nights of Dolly Parton’s life. She’s given the world so much, and she’s been asked every question. She’s lived in the public eye, so we didn’t know what we could bring to it.  

Lynn reaches out a couple of months later, and we were working on other projects. She asked, ‘What’s going on? My class is graduating, so this is gonna be the last chance.’ I meet with Jad, and I ask, ‘what if we read their essays?’

Jad and I read their essays, and that’s the first moment where we’re totally floored about the brilliance of these UT students. Dolly is such a fraught figure for them, even coming from a place that adores, glorifies and loves Dolly Parton.

The UT Classroom

We asked to [visit the class] again and this time I went. We get to the classroom, and it was Easter weekend. Everyone’s talking about Easter, and I start sharing a story. I’m a first-generation American. I didn’t grow up with any religion, but when I was five, I got sent to our family friend’s home the night my little brother was born. The next day this family took me with them to their Catholic church, and I was shocked by this naked guy I saw on the walls. I was five, and I was like ‘What’s happening to the naked guy?’ There’s blood on his crown and I’m like, ‘What did they do to him?’ Then my friend who was also five went up to the stage and drank the blood and ate the body and I was thinking ‘What is this!?’

Then I left [the room]. For Jad, [watching the students listen to my story], he said it was a moment of observing someone else being a fish out of the water, in a place where he always felt like the fish out of water. It was an icebreaker moment. I came back [to the classroom] and we all started talking.

We’d read their essays, so we just start asking questions. Then, one by one, the shame around accents started emerging. One young man shared about moving from California to the South and that he thought everyone would be dumb. One shared about when she went to a national leadership conference as the Mississippi delegate and people didn’t want to be her friend because they just assumed she was dumb — lucky to be there because she was the representative from Mississippi. She learned to hide her accent after that.

These stories of shame were deeply touching and also very eye-opening.

During this meeting, Jad and I realized our own ignorance and our own connection to what’s going on in America right now. We ourselves can’t see people clearly; we don’t really walk in others’ shoes. It’s difficult to imagine what it’s like to be someone who’s had a different experience than us, and, sitting in that classroom listening to the students, I heard my cousins’ voices in my head.

My parents were the only siblings in their families who were able to come to America as teenagers during the Iranian revolution in ‘79. They were the youngest children, so they got set sent the States because the universities had shut down and their older siblings had already graduated. I didn’t meet my cousins until I was an adult. When I met them, one of them cried to me and shared how hard her life was because she had to stay in Iran — she couldn’t move to America; she has an accent. She would be seen as an ‘other’ on the world stage. I saw my cousin’s pain in the UT students. When we left that day, Jad and I thought we hit on something really beautiful, and we didn’t know quite what, but we wanted to keep exploring it.

We schedule the second interview with Dolly. For that interview, we took two to three months to prepare and had a four and a half hour trajectory planned. My goal, which I shared with Jad, was I wanted to see Dolly cry. It almost sounds sadistic to say. But it wasn’t a sadistic desire. I wanted to know what makes her cry at night. I wanted to know what makes her human. She is so impenetrable; she’s walking grace, walking wit. She’s so trained on how to answer any question, and how to spin anything back to her own story, how to take over at any moment that I just wanted to see some moments of surprise. And I wanted her to be surprised by what she shared with us as well.

It’s Jad and I across from Dolly, one mic, and there’s an engineer recording in her Nashville studio. Jad begins. The key is, it’s almost like dancing. The way I looked at it is, it’s like Jad is the lead dancer. He is the melody. I am there as support; I’m the harmony. We both have the same goal. We both have to listen for anything out of the ordinary, a surprise, any moment where there’s some kind of gut feeling in the room. We have to be so planned out, so passionate about where we’re going, yet at the same time, we have to be so open and flexible, limitlessly flexible. That was our united front.

We started with the sad ass songs. We found some very early recordings of hers which we played. And then we went lyric by lyric with some of those sad ass songs. One of the lyrics we put in front of her, which you hear in the first episode, is being born is the first and the worst mistake I ever made. The doctor didn’t spank me he just slapped me in the face. We just knew no one had ever asked Dolly ‘What kind of line is that?’ We started there.

Jad with Dolly

There were two tearful moments from that four and a half-hour session. The first thing was the Trump moment. [Dolly was on stage with former 9 to 5 co-stars, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin when they gave an impassioned anti-Trump speech at the Emmys] That entire awards ceremony was nonstop Trump-bashing. I watched the SAG awards the month he’d been inaugurated, which Dolly also attended. I started to see what she was experiencing that entire year at these awards shows. Knowing her spiritual attitudes and knowing what she went through with Porter, it was just a moment where you put two and two together. She won’t even let Porter be bullied even though Porter attacked her very publicly after she left. Why would she let Trump be attacked?

One of the things in the interview, that you don’t hear in the show, is that when we got stuck there, I shared a story about something specific to my own life that related to that moment. Then we brought up the Emmy’s once more; we didn’t let it go. She still said, ‘I’m screwed either way.’  And that’s when I said, ‘You saw people bullying this person. Didn’t you want to protect him?’ That was based on a gut feeling in the room and the research we had done. She said, ‘I wanted to say, why don’t we pray for Mr. Trump?’ which surprised Jad and me. We were really happy we got a different flavor instead of just, ‘I can’t say anything because I have fans on both sides.’ When we left, we thought, ‘Wow. We turned a new page with Dolly.’  

The other moment, when she did shed tears, was about her family. It wasn’t about the women that went through some of the horrors that you hear in sad ass songs, but it was instead about her nieces and nephews and some of the tragedies that have been in her family among the younger generation.

This was the moment when we saw her as a human being — why we wanted to get to a tear shedding moment. I wanted to know Dolly the person, not Dolly the star. This is a person who has a family, it’s very complicated, and just because she is rich and famous doesn’t mean that her family hasn’t had some tragic things happen to them. She mourns horrific moments that nothing can protect her from, that nothing can protect her brothers and sisters from, that nothing can protect the younger generations from.

In that interview there were lighter moments as well – when she told us, ‘That’s when I needed a weapon,’ with Porter. She shared humorous and charming stories, but when we left that interview that was the solidifying of a second huge moment. We felt like we had something special.

We start listening to the tapes and dissecting ourselves. She mentioned Appalachian ballads. So we started doing research — ‘Murder ballads? What is this? There’s a real Knoxville girl? Wait, what?’ Dolly’s nephew Bryan Seaver actually reached out to us and told me he played the Nelson Mandela moment from episode six for Dolly and that he shared with her verbally about the Appalachian murder ballads and the Knoxville girl from episode one. Dolly asked us for the transcript of that moment because she wanted to know the whole story about where the Knoxville girl came from.

So, Dolly has been checking in on us, but Bryan did tell me she hasn’t listened to the full series yet. He said, ‘She doesn’t know how to download a podcast, but if you send this as a CD, I’ll play it for her over Christmas.’

I think those two visits, the class and Dolly’s interview, were the foundation [of the podcast]. From there we just started jumping down rabbit holes. You see a lot of very strange gorgeous places we landed through jumping through those rabbit holes.  

PC: All of that was extremely interesting. The brilliance of this podcast is that we can hear the depth of the research and the time it took, especially in the mirroring of Dolly’s story and cultural change. The way you and Jad approached the research is reflected in the arch of each episode.

It sounds like so much has happened in the past 2 years. Was it an intense couple of months with lulls in between or were you working on this daily? What did the process look like?

Shima: The first year that we were working on this it was a priority, but it wasn’t the priority. Last year at this time, he and I put out the podcast mini-series UnErased. Also, More Perfect was finishing, and Radiolab was [and still is] going on. He and I are both connected and committed to that, in a very big way because he is the founder of the podcast.

This past year we started cutting away all the side projects and really focused. For me, it’s been my nonstop. This has been my lover, my late-night buddy, my weekend mate, my best friend. This series has been my everything.  I didn’t want to leave one stone unturned.

We started to discover revelations, like the connection of the immigrant experience to what people from the South might experience, or understanding that we really needed to include Doctor Abumrad’s friendship with Dolly. I don’t necessarily think Jad started this podcast thinking he would ever want to share personal details about his family. But as we explored, as we spoke to musicologists, after we talked to Rhiannon, after we went to the UK, after we spoke to the Kenyan Dolly Parton Esther Konkara — until all of those things happened, we didn’t quite know how big of a sprawling organism we had.

All these uniquely American, but ultimately global, stories began to emerge for us in the reporting. We realize, oh my gosh, while she’s going through her break up with Porter the divorce rate doubled in America. What is that? While she’s writing sad ass songs, abortion was not legal. Think about that. She got married and she couldn’t have birth control legally. America is a microcosm of the world, and her very personal story of her Appalachian upbringing is connected to the greater world. People in South Africa cry to her music; people all over the world love her.

We talked to a Zimbabwean scholar that wrote a piece about how the classical artwork of Zimbabwe was less important to the people than Dolly Parton’s music, especially the song Just Because I’m a Woman. It has been on the top of the charts in many countries in Africa for decades now.  There is something that she’s connecting to from her very personal, detailed, individual experience that is connected to everyone’s universal experience.  

We discovered her life, her persona, and her art served as a prism for phenomena happening here and across the planet. In 2016, during one of the most contentious US presidential elections of our time, she was dubbed the “Great Unifier.”  Working on this project, Jad and I were facing the oncoming 2020 election just holding our heads thinking, ‘What do we want to share with America at this time via Dolly? What would Dolly want us to share?’

PC: It’s evident in the podcast that there are so many avenues you could take any episode, but in talking to you, I can see that there’s exponentially more that we don’t hear. How do you winnow down what you want to talk about in an episode and stay on a strict path?

Shima: I think one of the things is sanity. Even as we got to the ninth episode, I was pitching three more. Then we just realized, at some point, we have to say, ‘the end.’

The first winnowing moment, though, was after we saw the Tennessee mountain home. That last trip to Knoxville was when all the strands that we had been weaving and following started to come together.  One thing I’ve noticed in any artistic endeavor I’ve taken up is that you work so hard  — you try everything, you put in the sweat and tears, and you’re hungry. You’re almost religious in how give your all in each moment to the act of creation and being open to the discoveries that occur moving towards that creation. It’s this process we allowed to happen over the first year and a half.  

But after we saw the [Tennessee mountain] home, and we knew the home was real, we got on our flight to New York still alive from that memory, and we just started mapping it out. We knew, ‘Sad Ass Songs, we’ve got to do Sad Ass Songs. We’ve got to do, I Will Always Leave You; we’ve got to do Porter.’ That’s the moment where she forgives even when she shouldn’t. It’s an early moment in her life that’s connected to so many stories that follow. We needed to share that story to the best of our ability.

And then there was Dollitics, which Bryan coined when we were talking to him on the mountain top. We already knew we wanted to do the Emmy’s moment and talk about Jane, Lily and Dolly, about how she will not share about politics. We had the story about Jolene, but we didn’t have all of the story yet, so we didn’t quite know if that was something.

It was like being in a cave in the dark. Jad and I were alone and picking away at rocks not able to see anything. Once we saw the home, it was like the sunlight emerged through the hole of the cave and we saw jewels. Each episode began to emerge, but we hadn’t had the chance yet to take each jewel out and really polish each one to make it shine. That’s what we did for the last 6 months of the journey.

And even though we saw all of this from a journalistic and historical standpoint, at the end of the day we wanted people to feel, emotionally, what we felt. We wanted people to fall in love with the UT students. If they didn’t understand what it was like to be an Appalachian, we wanted them to be surprised. If you were an Appalachian and you felt like no one understood you, we wanted to show deep respect.

PC: The one thing that knits the series together is the feeling that Dolly is this lense in which we can understand the world in recent decades. Is she a lens to examine these decades or is she someone that’s just so tapped in — reading the world either consciously or subconsciously — that she’s able to express it? Is Dolly a product of her time, or is she expressing what she sees?  

Shima: I think it’s like in Neon Moss, the fourth episode, where we were trying to trace the origin of certain instruments. Did this instrument come from that place? The banjo came from Africa but then stringed instruments came from the Middle East. And then the Appalachian ballad, the melismatic singing that also has Middle Eastern tones — how did it end up in the Appalachian Mountains? The Iranian drum that you hear in the song Rhiannon sings, there’s a story that it traveled from the Mediterranean to Ireland, and that’s how the Irish got their own version of the drum. It’s all up for debate. It’s all up for discussion; nothing is quite clear. What is clear is things simultaneously arise.

There is this idea in Buddhism called dependent origination, which is how things simultaneously emerge. Because of this, that exists. Because of that, this exists. Without the other, this cannot change. They sometimes call it “causal interdependence.” So, in other words, I think every person is a product of the time. I also think that every person influences the time, whether you’re Dolly Parton or someone who will never be nationally recognized.  I think what sets Dolly apart is how clearly she’s able to express what is inexpressible about what is happening at that time.

The thing is, it doesn’t always feel inexpressible. When you listen to I Will Always Love You, or when you listen to 9 to 5, they seem so simple. ‘Pour myself a cup of ambition.’ It just seems like a simple idea, but to put all those thoughts together in a song? The reason her songs sound so simple is that they are very profound.

Of course, she’s not the only one creating history, but I do think her way of observing and communicating has set her apart in a gorgeous way. When you hear her songs, you feel it.  You know, I’ve cried too in the last two years — I’ve had sad moments — but I didn’t write I Will Always Love You.  I think she elucidates things because she is directing herself. She directs her spirit, directs her mind, to tune in and then broadcast through her music.

Doctor Abumrad, Shima and Jad

PC: With such a small team, just you and Jad working through questions that can be deeply emotional, what’s your relationship like? I assume you work countless long hours together and that you’d either be the closest of friends or the worst of enemies after a while. I’m sure so many small podcasting teams are trying to do what you two have done. How do you do it?

Shima: We were both nerds. Jad and I are both nerdy people. I think he’s okay with me calling him a nerd, but I’m definitely a nerdy person. This was not a painful thing for me [to do]. I was fascinated and I love learning. This is kind of my dream job. That’s the starting point.

Jad is arguably one of the best editors in audio right now. He’s done this for 20 years, so I think my passionate nature added energy. I pushed and said things like, ‘We’ve got to interview your dad; we’ve got to show the friendship.’ And he said, ‘No, I don’t think we should share that.’ And I said, ‘No, no, I think we should!’

Through working with him, I’ve learned to deeply trust. I want to explore everything, but then at some point, I just have to trust that we’re gonna be okay. While in London, Jad’s dad turned to me and said, ‘You and my son are very different.’ He said, ‘but you are like salt and pepper, they go together.’ I think he understood it. We are so different, but yet it works.

And then also, I love people, almost too much. The UT students still call me. I love them and the Dolliologists, these women that shared their personal stories, I loved listening to “Coat of Many Colors” and crying with Grandma Betty. I’m such an emotional person. Jad is like a master swordsman. Nothing deters him. In a lot of the wild places we found ourselves in gathering tape, we had to anchor each other. I learned so much. If something comes up, he knows what to do.

I’ve had my own training in other fields. I’ve had every kind of job, and I’ve had a lot of different experiences, some very painful. Even with my educational background in psychology and music, all of these things connect me to people’s pain and emotion in a room. I’m curious as to who people are and so is Jad – we both bring something unique out of people. He helps me focus, and I hope I help him too. I don’t know how to explain it.

PC: It sounds like you have an energy and excitement that works when it works and then other times it masks what the story is, and Jad does a really good job of focusing in on that story. But if you weren’t so energetic and determined to explore everything, we may have missed a weird rabbit hole that people need to hear. Together, you come up with a cohesive project.

Shima: Yes! The beauty of that was that we had so much freedom, which was the greatest gift. Most artists, especially if you work in radio, TV or film, have an opinion somewhere and you have to rein in your ideas in order to appease an outside voice.  But because we were working on a podcast and we were a two-person team for this company that Jad himself owns, we had freedom that you wouldn’t otherwise have. But, it also meant we had responsibility and things to take care of that we wouldn’t otherwise have had.

Part of our harmony is not that we don’t disagree. We do we go back and forth, but that’s also why it gets better. I think it helps that I didn’t know Jad before I worked for him. I never put him on a pedestal, which maybe is my stupidity, but I just didn’t. I just saw him as human from the very first moment I started working with him. I think that helped him be really honest and feel safe in the process. I think it helped me feel safe in the process. We are both human beings working in a very complicated world.  

We’re trying to figure it out and tell this epic woman’s story, and tell every other person’s story somehow through her. I mean it’s a massive undertaking. I think that a healthy rapport really helped. I’m not afraid of no at all, and he’s not afraid to say no. We always got to the best landing place.  

PC: Do you think there are other Dollys? Are there other people that are going to be a window into something we can all feel but can’t explain.

Shima: I think that is a very easily arguable sentiment. Of course, there are other figures we could point to. Jad and I actually started making a running list. We would go back and forth and think would it work for this person, would it work for that person, would it work for this entity, not even just a person? I don’t know if I should say who because maybe it’s a future series. At this point, I think that Dolly is the leading human in this endeavor.  At the same time, one of the reasons I feel that way is because I’ve been able to explore her in a billion different ways for two years, and I haven’t done that with anyone else. I wasn’t looking for something or someone else as a prism to America, but I definitely think there are others. At this point, though, I’m not quite sure to what extent someone else could surpass her.

Still, some of my friends who are invested in the culture wars, they are not interested in hearing a podcast about Dolly. They just think of it as a music history thing. You need to be open enough to listen and go a little bit on the ride. We have the benefit of having many people who took that chance on us and some people who are avid Dolly fans who would listen no matter what. But to others, I’d say, ‘You don’t understand, you’re going to end up in Kenya, you’re going to end up in Lebanon, you’re going to walk the red carpet with Dolly in the UK, march with miners in the Battle of Blair Mountain, hear songs from the hearts and minds of Queer Appalachia, and then “Jolene” will emerge from the loudspeakers at Robben Island in the prison cell next to Mandela, can you believe it? The same way that Dolly connects to people around the world, we wanted people to be connected to each other through this series.

We’re editing and writing the last episode now, which closes the journey. It goes back to the human that is Dolly. She’s not a 35-year-old who probably has 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 more years left, right? She is a woman who is a grandmother’s age, who has seen many friends pass away. This is a sunset moment before she leaves the planet. This is the end of an era. So yes, we use her as a prism to see America through, but at the same time what we want to convey at the end is that this is also a love letter to the people who will never experience the last seven decades of American culture and history.

It’s a love letter to the people that will never have lived on this planet during the same time as Dolly Parton. And that’s where we ended.

Thank you, Shima, for giving us all the chance to learn more about Dolly Parton’s America. We’re looking forward to listening to the final episode.

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