It’s one of my favorite origin stories: In the 1950s a young Dolly Parton comes down from the mountain at Locust Ridge with her family—to get groceries or maybe to attend church in the small community of Sevierville, Tennessee—and she sees, on the street or in the store, what she later describes as the town whore. The woman’s hair is big and her clothes are tight and she wears what must have been an uncommon amount of makeup for the conservative, poor people who lived in this modest mountain town. Dolly’s immediate, innocent impression of this lurid presentation of femininity: she has just encountered the most beautiful creature on earth. Dolly’s mother says to her, “That woman ain’t nothing but trash.” And young Dolly thinks to herself, “That’s what I want to be when I grow up. Trash.”
A decade later this instance—like a fingerprint pressed into wet concrete, even with thousands of other days on top of it—will still be visible, despite Dolly having seen, by this point, the many other obvious ways for a woman to be in the world. This was the interaction that left the deepest mark, the one that she felt most alive in, the one that mattered more than all the others. She fashioned an entire identity around it, and made it her own.
Another one of my favorite origin stories is the geological history of the county where I grew up. Most of Southern Illinois is leveled farmland interrupted by little towns. But on the east edge of Saline County, where the Shawnee Forest begins, the earth creases into a chain of hills and mountains—a stunning disruption in an otherwise unending flatness. This oddity in the landscape tells a violent story about ancient earthquakes splitting open the bedrock. Deeper into the hills, if you hike up through the inclining forest, sandstone boulders stand higher than houses. East of Williams Hill, one of the steepest ascents in the state, is a half-mile cluster of sandstone formations towering like a long cliff, the rippling rocks shaped under the weight of prehistoric glaciers that melted into a vast inland sea that dried up millions of years ago. In every direction, under the constant canopy of oak, hickory, white pine, and elm, there are clear springs sliding and pooling over more exposed sandstone, funneling into underground caves that branch chaotically in the startling dark of inner earth. Driving down the interstate, or past the boredom of strip malls in the nearest towns, you’d never know there was this mesmerizing reminder of deep time merely miles away. And it’s precisely the rarity of it that makes it such a powerful place.
Throughout most of our lives, we toggle restlessly between the safety of conformity and the live wire of rare beauty. We align ourselves with some predominant pattern to alleviate not just our own loneliness, but the perceived loneliness of others around us—until some wild, original thing appears and, against our simpler nature, we leap for it. What makes the difference? What childhood occurrence stands out from the rest, enough to build an origin story around?
In the fall of 1986 I turned seven years old, and my father gave me a used black Magnavox boombox. It was sitting on the coffee table when I came home from school. “Push play,” my dad said, and the look on his face confused me, until I realized that the surprise—the actual gift—was the cassette tape he’d already put in the player. So I pushed play. Looking back, it’s obvious that he had fast-forwarded to the song he knew I would immediately recognize and want to hear, because I’d heard it on the radio in the car several times and sang all the words. But when I pushed play, I suddenly felt embarrassed, uncertain, because I loved the song very much and the gift meant that my dad knew: that he saw me, and approved of my loving it. I couldn’t have articulated it then, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted my dad to understand me in this way. I had some ineffable sense that loving Dolly Parton might be something I should hide.
The song, “Two Doors Down,” was first released in 1978 as a single off Dolly’s album Here You Come Again, but later included on her Greatest Hits, which was the album my dad had bought me as a birthday present. The song is about a woman at home alone who longs to attend a party two doors down from her own apartment. Spoiler alert: she goes to the party. It’s a pop country song, with elements of disco, sing-song-y verses, and a chorus that seems to sit right at the joint where Motown and country diverge from gospel. The lift between the verse and chorus is a classic Dolly move: a forlorn, aching lyric and melody that explodes into sudden strength.
I have to stare back with an uncomfortable intensity through the vortex of years to name the ways I once thought a boy should be, to imagine again the ideas I held about how to be my father’s son. The rules of gender were vague, but I could sense, even then, that there were accepted boundaries. My dad is a 6’7” auto mechanic who loves rebuilding hot-rod cars. He is covered in tattoos, from his hands, up his arms, and onto his neck. When I was young he rode a Harley Davidson motorcycle, and most of his friends were bikers too. He was a drummer in an outlaw-country-and-Southern-rock band that played the dive bars around our hometown every weekend. He sold cocaine and marijuana, but had studied the Bible as a young man with the conviction of a theologist.
It is now mostly unclear why I thought it was a good idea to bring Dolly Parton’s Greatest Hits to school with me. Like most children, I was still standing in the messy way-station between my own limited worldview and everyone else’s. But our bus had a radio with a tape player, and the bus driver, Mrs. Connie, would allow us to take turns bringing cassettes. It’s likely I’d really wanted to hear “9 to 5” after breakfast and there just wasn’t enough time, since I’d spent too long deliberating whether to wear the black or brown velveteen shorts that my mother had made for me by hand. I’d like to quote another country queen, Barbra Mandrell, and say, “I was country when country wasn’t cool.” But I don’t think country music was the central issue with my schoolmates that morning when the entire bus erupted in near-universal outrage. A Dolly Parton track from six years earlier was not the music of the youth in 1986. The kids demanded to know whose tape it was. I sat quietly, on fire with embarrassment, holding the cassette case in my lap. After only a few seconds Mrs. Connie turned the music off. When she handed the tape back as I exited the bus at school, she said, “I’m sorry. Maybe bring something else next time.”
I’m sure I’d heard the word “faggot” before, but this was the first instance where it gathered a tangible meaning. A brutal link was forged, and on the other side of it, a child’s version of self-awareness. The sudden shame I felt about my own joy at and adoration of a certain kind of music was confusing. It’s hard to comprehend the level of disgust or discomfort the other children had then, but it was enough that, in a matter of days, many of my classmates at Eldorado Elementary School either called me “Dolly” or “faggot.” This would be the way for years. The names would almost become synonymous. How did they know already, and how could this have been the thing, in the third grade, to make my difference visible? The uncertainty I had felt about my father knowing that I loved Dolly Parton had doubled back on me. He had just shown me it was okay to love it. I didn’t know how to tell him he’d been wrong.
The male club-winged manakin bird plays a song with the bones in its wings, gliding them across one another like a bow quickly striking a fiddle string. The result is a short, low bleat. The females adore the sound, and mate most often with the bird who has the most resonant wing-song. But the better music comes from the males with the heaviest wings, which also means they aren’t so good at flying, or escaping predators. This preference is possibly breeding them into extinction. The whole idea goes against biologically advantageous sexual selection—the female chooses a mate not because he is faster or stronger, but because he makes the most beautiful music. Perhaps I’m taking this too personally, but the idea of being inexplicably drawn to a phenomenon that is ultimately destructive is, well, heartbreaking and uncomfortably relatable.
So many of the things we love as children seem silly in hindsight—baffling, even. Their relevance is eventually papered over with newer attractions. The context of our interests transforms thoroughly with time, and it’s hard to see what was behind them in the first place. But some loves endure, are always so solidly rooted in the depths of our identities that time only lays more meaning over them, expanding even a childhood affection into a mature, profound relationship with our own convictions.
There’s a mesmerizing and ironic artifice to Dolly Parton—a sincere and relatable duality. She’s one of those icons in whom seemingly opposing forces naturally connect: poverty and folksiness against the power of enormous success, vulnerability and tenderness against effervescent self-assuredness, a story of honesty and heartache under an image so artfully plastic it seems to turn in on itself. Her brand of iconography feels so aware of its own longing for beauty that it somehow trips over superficiality and falls back into the deepest reverence. What else is her appearance but a lie she’s telling us because she knows we love to hear it? “I think part of my magic, if I have any at all,” she once said on Australia’s 60 Minutes, “is that I look totally fake but am so totally real.” I couldn’t have known any of this as a boy.
I had a dream a few years ago that Dolly Parton had died. Winter was half-over, a foot of snow packed under a layer of ice. The bare sun hit everything outside, so that the light was almost white as it poured through the little window in my bedroom. The dream stayed with me for the rest of the day, the world refusing to take on any real shape. I felt embarrassed that I cried, even as an adult. But in the end, this is a story about shame. What happens when loving something or someone comes at a great social disadvantage? How long do we persist? What happens when someone can’t reconcile their identity with their environment?
Wynton Marsalis said, “Music is the art of the invisible.” It’s like there’s an unseen fossil record buried in our memories, and it signals—often inexplicably—to the landscape of our future self. Whatever has lived and died in the deep time of our existence determines a habit of self that has yet to come. Often it is the most uncanny, unpredictable things that attach to our earliest years. They bloom there, or rot, cultivating some fascination or decomposing into a fuel that drives a strange desire—any old, random moment printed on the brain like the arteries of a petrified leaf. I’m lucky that one of those moments, for me, was Dolly Parton—that I heard a song on the radio about a woman who wanted to go to a party, and although no one invited her, she decided to go anyway.