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← How Dolly Parton led me to an epiphany

How do you end a story? Host of "Radiolab" Jad Abumrad tells how his search for an answer led him home to the mountains of Tennessee, where he met a wise teacher: Dolly Parton.

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Showing Revision 9 created 09/14/2020 by Erin Gregory.

  1. I want to tell you about my search
    for purpose as a journalist
  2. and how Dolly Parton
    helped me figure it out.
  3. So I've been telling audio stories
    for about 20 years,

  4. first on the radio and then in podcasts.
  5. When I started the radio show
    "Radiolab" in 2002,
  6. here was the quintessential
    story move we would do.
  7. We'd bring on somebody --
  8. (Audio) Steven Strogatz:
    It's one of the most hypnotic

  9. and spellbinding spectacles in nature,
  10. because, you have to keep in mind,
    it is absolutely silent.
  11. Jad Abumrad: Like this guy,
    mathematician, Steve Strogatz,

  12. and he would paint a picture.
  13. SS: Picture it.
    There's a riverbank in Thailand,

  14. in the remote part of the jungle,
  15. you're in a canoe,
    slipping down the river.
  16. There's no sound of anything,
  17. maybe the occasional, you know,
    exotic jungle bird or something.
  18. JA: So you're in this imaginary
    canoe with Steve,

  19. and in the air all around you
    are millions of fireflies.
  20. And what you see is sort of
    a randomized starry-night effect.
  21. Because all the fireflies
    are blinking at different rates.
  22. Which is what you would expect.
  23. But according to Steve, in this one place,
  24. for reasons no scientist
    can fully explain --
  25. SS: Whoop.

  26. Whoop.
  27. Whoop.
  28. With thousands of lights on
    and then off, all in sync.
  29. (Music and electric sounds)

  30. JA: Now it's around this time

  31. that I would generally bring in
    the beautiful music, as I just did,
  32. and you'd start to get that warm feeling.
  33. A feeling, that we know from science,
  34. kind of localizes in your head and chest
  35. and spreads through your body.
  36. It's that feeling of wonder.
  37. From 2002 to 2010,
    I did hundreds of these stories.

  38. Sciency, neurosciency,
    very heady, brainy stories
  39. that would always resolve
    into that feeling of wonder.
  40. And I began to see that as my job,
  41. to lead people to moments of wonder.
  42. What that sounded like was:
  43. (Various voices) "Huh!" "Wow!" "Wow!"

  44. "That's amazing."
  45. "Whoa!" "Wow!"
  46. JA: But I began to get
    kind of tired of these stories.

  47. I mean, partially, it was the repetition.
  48. I remember there was a day
    I was sitting at the computer,
  49. making the sound of a neuron.
  50. (Crackling sound)

  51. You know, take some white noise,
    chop it up, very easy sound to make.

  52. I remember thinking,
    "I have made this sound 25 times."
  53. But it was more than that --
  54. there was a familiar path
    to these stories.
  55. You walk the path of truth,
    which is made of science,
  56. and you get to wonder.
  57. Now, I love science, don't get me wrong.

  58. My parents emigrated
    from a war-torn country,
  59. came to America,
  60. and science for them was, like,
    more their identity than anything else,
  61. and I inherited that from them.
  62. But there was something
    about that simple movement
  63. from science to wonder
  64. that just started to feel wrong to me.
  65. Like, is that the only path
    a story can take?
  66. Around 2012,

  67. I ran into a bunch of different stories
    that made me think, "No."
  68. One story in particular,
  69. where we interviewed
    a guy who described chemical weapons
  70. being used against him
    and his fellow villagers
  71. in the mountains of Laos.
  72. Western scientists went there,
  73. measured for chemical weapons,
    didn't find any.
  74. We interviewed the man about this,
  75. he said the scientists were wrong.
  76. We said, "But they tested."
  77. He said, "I don't care,
    I know what happened to me."
  78. And we went back and forth
    and back and forth,
  79. and make a long story short,
  80. the interview ended in tears.
  81. I felt ...
  82. I felt horrible.
  83. Like, hammering at a scientific truth,
    when someone has suffered.
  84. That wasn't going to heal anything.
  85. And maybe I was relying
    too much on science to find the truth.
  86. And it really did feel, at that moment,
  87. that there were a lot
    of truths in the room,
  88. and we were only looking at one of them.
  89. So I thought, "I've got to get
    better at this."
  90. And so for the next eight years,

  91. I committed myself to doing stories
    where you heard truths collide.
  92. We did stories
    about the politics of consent,
  93. where you heard the perspective
    of survivors and perpetrators
  94. whose narratives clashed.
  95. We did stories about race,
  96. how black men are systematically
    eliminated from juries,
  97. and yet, the rules that try
    and prevent that from happening
  98. only make things worse.
  99. Stories about counter terrorism,
    Guantanamo detainees,
  100. stories where everything is disputed,
  101. all you can do is struggle
    to try and make sense.
  102. And this struggle
    kind of became the point.
  103. I began to think, "Maybe that's my job."
  104. To lead people to moments of struggle.
  105. Here's what that sounded like:
  106. (Various voices) "But I see -- I, like --"

  107. "Uh, I --" (Sighs)

  108. "Well, so, like, huh --"

  109. "That, I mean, I --"

  110. "You know -- golly -- I --" (Sighs)

  111. JA: And that sigh right there,

  112. I wanted to hear that sound
    in every single story,
  113. because that sound
    is kind of our current moment, right?
  114. We live in a world where truth
    is no longer just a set of facts
  115. to be captured.
  116. It's become a process.
  117. It's gone from being a noun
    to being a verb.
  118. But how do you end that story?
  119. Like, what literally kept happening
    is we'd be, you know, telling a story,
  120. cruising along,
    two viewpoints in conflict,
  121. you get to the end and it's just like --
  122. No, let me see.
  123. What do I say at the end?
  124. Oh, my God.
  125. What do you -- how do you end that story?
  126. You can't just happily-ever-after it,
  127. because that doesn't feel real.
  128. At the same time,
  129. if you just leave people
    in that stuck place,
  130. like, "Why did I just listen to that?"
  131. Like, it felt like there had to be
    another move there.
  132. Had to be a way beyond the struggle.
  133. And this is what brings me to Dolly.

  134. Or Saint Dolly, as we like
    to call her in the South.
  135. I want to tell you about one little
    glimmer of an epiphany that I had,
  136. doing a nine-part series
    called "Dolly Parton's America" last year.
  137. It was a bit of a departure for me,
  138. but I just had this intuition
    that Dolly could help me
  139. figure out this ending problem.
  140. And here was the basic intuition:

  141. You go to a Dolly concert,
  142. you see men in trucker hats
    standing next to men in drag,
  143. Democrats standing next to Republicans,
  144. women holding hands,
  145. every different kind of person
    smashed together.
  146. All of these people that we are told
    should hate each other
  147. are there singing together.
  148. She somehow carved out
    this unique space in America,
  149. and I wanted to know, how did she do that?
  150. So I interviewed Dolly 12 times,
    two separate continents.

  151. She started every interview this way:
  152. (Audio) Dolly Parton: Ask me
    whatever you ask me,

  153. and I'm going to tell you
    what I want you to hear.
  154. (Laughter)

  155. JA: She is undeniably a force of nature.

  156. But the problem that I ran into
  157. is that I had chosen
    a conceit for this series
  158. that my soul had trouble with.
  159. Dolly sings a lot about the South.
  160. If you go through her discography,
  161. you will hear song after song
    about Tennessee.
  162. (Music) DP: (Singing, various songs)
    Tennessee, Tennessee...

  163. Tennessee homesick ...
  164. I've got those Tennessee homesick blues
    runnin' through my head.
  165. Tennessee.
  166. JA: "Tennessee Mountain Home,"
    "Tennessee Mountain Memories."

  167. Now I grew up in Tennessee,
  168. and I felt no nostalgia for that place.
  169. I was the scrawny Arab kid
  170. who came from the place
    that invented suicide bombing.
  171. I spent a lot of time in my room.
  172. When I left Nashville,
  173. I left.
  174. I remember being at Dollywood,

  175. standing in front of a replica,
    replica of her Tennessee Mountain Home.
  176. People all around me were crying.
  177. This is a set.
  178. Why are you crying?
  179. I couldn't understand
    why they were so emotional,
  180. especially given
    my relationship to the South.
  181. And I started to honestly have
    panic attacks about this.
  182. "Am I not the right person
    for this project?"
  183. But then ...

  184. twist of fate.
  185. We meet this guy, Bryan Seaver,
  186. Dolly's nephew and bodyguard.
  187. And on a whim, he drives
    producer Shima Oliaee and I
  188. out of Dollywood,
  189. round the back side of the mountains,
  190. up the mountains 20 minutes,
  191. down a narrow dirt road,
  192. through giant wooden gates
    that look right out of "Game of Thrones,"
  193. and into the actual
    Tennessee Mountain Home.
  194. But the real place.
  195. Valhalla.
  196. The real Tennessee Mountain Home.
  197. And I'm going to score
    this part with Wagner,

  198. because you've got to understand,
  199. in Tennessee lore,
  200. this is like hallowed ground,
    the Tennessee Mountain Home.
  201. So I remember standing
    there, on the grass,

  202. next to the Pigeon River,
  203. butterflies doing loopty loops in the air,
  204. and I had my own moment of wonder.
  205. Dolly's Tennessee Mountain Home
  206. looks exactly like my dad's home
    in the mountains of Lebanon.
  207. Her house looks just like
    the place that he left.

  208. And that simple bit of layering
    led me to have a conversation with him
  209. that I'd never had before,
  210. about the pain he felt leaving his home.
  211. And how he hears that in Dolly's music.
  212. Then I had a conversation with Dolly
    where she described her songs
  213. as migration music.
  214. Even that classic song,
  215. "Tennessee Mountain Home,"
    if you listen to it --
  216. (Dolly Parton "Tennessee Mountain Home")

  217. "Sittin' on the front porch
    on a summer afternoon
  218. In a straight-backed chair on two legs,
  219. leaned against the wall."
  220. It's about trying to capture a moment
    that you know is already gone.

  221. But if you can paint it, vividly,
  222. maybe you can freeze it in place,
    almost like in resin,
  223. trapped between past and present.
  224. That is the immigrant experience.
  225. And that simple thought
    led me to a million conversations.

  226. I started talking to musicologists
    about country music as a whole.
  227. This genre that I've always felt so
  228. having nothing to do
    with where I came from
  229. is actually made up of instruments
    and musical styles
  230. that came directly from the Middle East.
  231. In fact, there were trade routes
    that ran from what is now Lebanon
  232. right up into the mountains
    of East Tennessee.
  233. I can honestly say, standing there,
    looking at her home,

  234. was the first time I felt
    like I'm a Tennessean.
  235. That is honestly true.
  236. And this wasn't a one-time thing,

  237. I mean, over and over again,
  238. she would force me
    beyond the simple categories
  239. I had constructed for the world.
  240. I remember talking with her
    about her seven-year partnership
  241. with Porter Wagoner.
  242. 1967, she joins his band,
    he is the biggest thing in country music,
  243. she is a backup singer, a nobody.
  244. Within a short time, she gets huge,
  245. he gets jealous,
  246. he then sues her for three million dollars
  247. when she tries to leave.
  248. Now it would be really easy
    to see Porter Wagoner
  249. as, like, a type: classic,
    patriarchal jackass,
  250. trying to hold her back.
  251. But any time I would suggest that to her,
  252. like, come on.
  253. (Audio) This is a guy, I mean,
    you see it in the videos too,

  254. he's got his arm around you.
  255. There's a power thing happening, for sure.
  256. DP: Well, it's more complicated than that.

  257. I mean, just think about it.
  258. He had had this show for years,
  259. he didn't need me to have his hit show.
  260. He wasn't expecting me
    to be all that I was, either.
  261. I was a serious entertainer,
    he didn't know that.
  262. He didn't know how many dreams I had.
  263. JA: In effect, she kept telling me,

  264. "Don't bring your stupid way
    of seeing the world into my story,
  265. because that's not what it was.
  266. Yeah, there was power,
    but that's not all there was.
  267. You can't summarize this."
  268. Alright, just to zoom out.

  269. What do I make of this?
  270. Well, I think there's something in here
    that's a clue, a way forward.
  271. As journalists, we love difference.
  272. We love to fetishize difference.
  273. But increasingly, in this confusing world,
  274. we need to be the bridge
    between those differences.
  275. But how do you do that?
  276. I think for me, now, the answer is simple.

  277. You interrogate those differences,
  278. you hold them for as long as you can,
  279. until, like up on that mountain,
  280. something happens,
  281. something reveals itself.
  282. Story cannot end in difference.
  283. It's got to end in revelation.
  284. And coming back
    from that trip on the mountain,

  285. a friend of mine gave me a book
    that gave this whole idea a name.
  286. In psychotherapy,
    there's this idea called the third,
  287. which essentially goes like this.
  288. Typically, we think of ourselves
    as these autonomous units.
  289. I do something to you,
    you do something to me.
  290. But according to this theory,
    when two people come together
  291. and really commit to seeing each other,
  292. in that mutual act of recognition,
  293. they actually make something new.
  294. A new entity that is their relationship.
  295. You can think of Dolly's concerts
    as sort of a cultural third space.
  296. The way she sees all the different
    parts of her audience,
  297. the way they see her,
  298. creates the spiritual
    architecture of that space.
  299. And I think now that is my calling.

  300. That as a journalist,
  301. as a storyteller,
  302. as just an American,
  303. living in a country struggling to hold,
  304. that every story I tell
    has got to find the third.
  305. That place where the things
    we hold as different
  306. resolve themselves into something new.
  307. Thank you.