Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • 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 --

  • (Audio) 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.

  • (Music and electric sounds)

  • 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:

  • (Various voices) "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:

  • (Various voices) "But I see -- I, like --"

  • "Uh, I --" (Sighs)

  • "Well, so, like, huh --"

  • "That, I mean, I --"

  • "You know -- golly -- I --" (Sighs)

  • 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:

  • (Audio) Dolly Parton: Ask me whatever you ask me,

  • and I'm going to tell you what I want you to hear.

  • (Laughter)

  • 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.

  • (Music) DP: (Singing, various songs) 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 --

  • (Dolly Parton "Tennessee Mountain Home")

  • "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.