I want to tell you about my search for purpose as a journalist and how Dolly Parton helped me figure it out. So I’ve been telling audio stories for about 20 years, first on the radio and then in podcasts.
When I started the radio show “Radiolab” in 2002, here was the quintessential story move we would do. We’d bring on somebody — Steven Strogatz: It’s one of the most hypnotic and spellbinding spectacles in nature, because, you have to keep in mind, it is absolutely silent.
Jad Abumrad: Like this guy, mathematician, Steve Strogatz, and he would paint a picture.
SS: Picture it. There’s a riverbank in Thailand, in the remote part of the jungle, you’re in a canoe, slipping down the river.
There’s no sound of anything, maybe the occasional, you know, exotic jungle bird or something.
JA: So you’re in this imaginary canoe with Steve, and in the air all around you are millions of fireflies.
And what you see is sort of a randomized starry-night effect. Because all the fireflies are blinking at different rates. Which is what you would expect. But according to Steve, in this one place, for reasons no scientist can fully explain —
SS: Whoop. Whoop. Whoop. With thousands of lights on and then off, all in sync.
JA: Now it’s around this time that I would generally bring in the beautiful music, as I just did, and you’d start to get that warm feeling.
A feeling, that we know from science, kind of localizes in your head and chest and spreads through your body. It’s that feeling of wonder. From 2002 to 2010, I did hundreds of these stories. Sciency, neurosciency, very heady, brainy stories that would always resolve into that feeling of wonder.
And I began to see that as my job, to lead people to moments of wonder. What that sounded like was: “Huh!” “Wow!” “Wow!” “That’s amazing.” “Whoa!” “Wow!”
JA: But I began to get kind of tired of these stories.
I mean, partially, it was the repetition. I remember there was a day I was sitting at the computer, making the sound of a neuron. (Crackling sound) You know, take some white noise, chop it up, very easy sound to make.
I remember thinking, “I have made this sound 25 times.” But it was more than that — there was a familiar path to these stories. You walk the path of truth, which is made of science, and you get to wonder.
Now, I love science, don’t get me wrong. My parents emigrated from a war-torn country, came to America, and science for them was, like, more their identity than anything else, and I inherited that from them.
But there was something about that simple movement from science to wonder that just started to feel wrong to me. Like, is that the only path a story can take? Around 2012, I ran into a bunch of different stories that made me think, “No.”
One story in particular, where we interviewed a guy who described chemical weapons being used against him and his fellow villagers in the mountains of Laos. Western scientists went there, measured for chemical weapons, didn’t find any.
We interviewed the man about this, he said the scientists were wrong. We said, “But they tested.” He said, “I don’t care, I know what happened to me.” And we went back and forth and back and forth, and make a long story short, the interview ended in tears.
I felt … I felt horrible. Like, hammering at a scientific truth, when someone has suffered. That wasn’t going to heal anything. And maybe I was relying too much on science to find the truth. And it really did feel, at that moment, that there were a lot of truths in the room, and we were only looking at one of them.
So I thought, “I’ve got to get better at this.” And so for the next eight years, I committed myself to doing stories where you heard truths collide. We did stories about the politics of consent, where you heard the perspective of survivors and perpetrators whose narratives clashed.
We did stories about race, how black men are systematically eliminated from juries, and yet, the rules that try and prevent that from happening only make things worse. Stories about counter terrorism, Guantanamo detainees, stories where everything is disputed, all you can do is struggle to try and make sense.
And this struggle kind of became the point. I began to think, “Maybe that’s my job.” To lead people to moments of struggle. Here’s what that sounded like: “But I see — I, like –” “Uh, I –” “Well, so, like, huh –” “That, I mean, I –” “You know — golly — I –”
JA: And that sigh right there, I wanted to hear that sound in every single story, because that sound is kind of our current moment, right? We live in a world where truth is no longer just a set of facts to be captured.
It’s become a process. It’s gone from being a noun to being a verb. But how do you end that story? Like, what literally kept happening is we’d be, you know, telling a story, cruising along, two viewpoints in conflict, you get to the end and it’s just like — No, let me see.
What do I say at the end? Oh, my God. What do you — how do you end that story? You can’t just happily-ever-after it, because that doesn’t feel real. At the same time, if you just leave people in that stuck place, like, “Why did I just listen to that?” Like, it felt like there had to be another move there.
Had to be a way beyond the struggle. And this is what brings me to Dolly. Or Saint Dolly, as we like to call her in the South. I want to tell you about one little glimmer of an epiphany that I had, doing a nine-part series called “Dolly Parton’s America” last year.
It was a bit of a departure for me, but I just had this intuition that Dolly could help me figure out this ending problem. And here was the basic intuition: You go to a Dolly concert, you see men in trucker hats standing next to men in drag, Democrats standing next to Republicans, women holding hands, every different kind of person smashed together.
All of these people that we are told should hate each other are there singing together. She somehow carved out this unique space in America, and I wanted to know, how did she do that? So I interviewed Dolly 12 times, two separate continents.
She started every interview this way:
Dolly Parton: Ask me whatever you ask me, and I’m going to tell you what I want you to hear.
JA: She is undeniably a force of nature. But the problem that I ran into is that I had chosen a conceit for this series that my soul had trouble with.
Dolly sings a lot about the South. If you go through her discography, you will hear song after song about Tennessee.
DP: Tennessee, Tennessee… Tennessee homesick …
I’ve got those Tennessee homesick blues runnin’ through my head. Tennessee.
JA: “Tennessee Mountain Home,” “Tennessee Mountain Memories.” Now I grew up in Tennessee, and I felt no nostalgia for that place.
I was the scrawny Arab kid who came from the place that invented suicide bombing. I spent a lot of time in my room. When I left Nashville, I left. I remember being at Dollywood, standing in front of a replica, replica of her Tennessee Mountain Home.
People all around me were crying. This is a set. Why are you crying? I couldn’t understand why they were so emotional, especially given my relationship to the South. And I started to honestly have panic attacks about this.”
Am I not the right person for this project?” But then … twist of fate. We meet this guy, Bryan Seaver, Dolly’s nephew and bodyguard. And on a whim, he drives producer Shima Oliaee and I out of Dollywood, round the back side of the mountains, up the mountains 20 minutes, down a narrow dirt road, through giant wooden gates that look right out of “Game of Thrones,” and into the actual Tennessee Mountain Home.
But the real place. Valhalla. The real Tennessee Mountain Home. And I’m going to score this part with Wagner, because you’ve got to understand, in Tennessee lore, this is like hallowed ground, the Tennessee Mountain Home.
So I remember standing there, on the grass, next to the Pigeon River, butterflies doing loopty loops in the air, and I had my own moment of wonder. Dolly’s Tennessee Mountain Home looks exactly like my dad’s home in the mountains of Lebanon.
Her house looks just like the place that he left. And that simple bit of layering led me to have a conversation with him that I’d never had before, about the pain he felt leaving his home. And how he hears that in Dolly’s music.
Then I had a conversation with Dolly where she described her songs as migration music. Even that classic song, “Tennessee Mountain Home,” if you listen to it — “Sittin’ on the front porch on a summer afternoon In a straight-backed chair on two legs, leaned against the wall.”
It’s about trying to capture a moment that you know is already gone. But if you can paint it, vividly, maybe you can freeze it in place, almost like in resin, trapped between past and present.
That is the immigrant experience. And that simple thought led me to a million conversations. I started talking to musicologists about country music as a whole. This genre that I’ve always felt so having nothing to do with where I came from is actually made up of instruments and musical styles that came directly from the Middle East.
In fact, there were trade routes that ran from what is now Lebanon right up into the mountains of East Tennessee. I can honestly say, standing there, looking at her home, was the first time I felt like I’m a Tennessean.
That is honestly true. And this wasn’t a one-time thing, I mean, over and over again, she would force me beyond the simple categories I had constructed for the world. I remember talking with her about her seven-year partnership with Porter Wagoner.
1967, she joins his band, he is the biggest thing in country music, she is a backup singer, a nobody. Within a short time, she gets huge, he gets jealous, he then sues her for three million dollars when she tries to leave.
Now it would be really easy to see Porter Wagoner as, like, a type: classic, patriarchal jackass, trying to hold her back. But any time I would suggest that to her, like, come on. This is a guy, I mean, you see it in the videos too, he’s got his arm around you.
There’s a power thing happening, for sure.
DP: Well, it’s more complicated than that. I mean, just think about it. He had had this show for years, he didn’t need me to have his hit show. He wasn’t expecting me to be all that I was, either.
I was a serious entertainer, he didn’t know that. He didn’t know how many dreams I had.
JA: In effect, she kept telling me, “Don’t bring your stupid way of seeing the world into my story, because that’s not what it was.
Yeah, there was power, but that’s not all there was. You can’t summarize this.” Alright, just to zoom out. What do I make of this? Well, I think there’s something in here that’s a clue, a way forward.
As journalists, we love difference. We love to fetishize difference. But increasingly, in this confusing world, we need to be the bridge between those differences. But how do you do that? I think for me, now, the answer is simple.
You interrogate those differences, you hold them for as long as you can, until, like up on that mountain, something happens, something reveals itself. Story cannot end in difference. It’s got to end in revelation.
And coming back from that trip on the mountain, a friend of mine gave me a book that gave this whole idea a name. In psychotherapy, there’s this idea called the third, which essentially goes like this.
Typically, we think of ourselves as these autonomous units. I do something to you, you do something to me. But according to this theory, when two people come together and really commit to seeing each other, in that mutual act of recognition, they actually make something new.
A new entity that is their relationship. You can think of Dolly’s concerts as sort of a cultural third space. The way she sees all the different parts of her audience, the way they see her, creates the spiritual architecture of that space.
And I think now that is my calling. That as a journalist, as a storyteller, as just an American, living in a country struggling to hold, that every story I tell has got to find the third. That place where the things we hold as different resolve themselves into something new.