Dolly Parton as Uncle Sam
Dolly Parton as Uncle Sam. Library of Congress, Music Division.

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.

Chris Dennis

Chris Dennis is the author of the story collection Here is What You Do (Soho Press, 2019). He holds a master's degree from Washington University in St. Louis, where he also received a postgraduate fellowship. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Paris Review, Playgirl Magazine, McSweeney's, Granta, and Literary Hub.

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49 Comments on “Push Play

  1. Great story. I loved it. It brought back my own memories of being a kid who thought outside of the box. A good story can make you laugh & then end up making you wipe tears from your eyes. Perhaps, this is what is meant by the term,”Bittersweet.”

  2. A fabulous tribute to Dolly & yourself for realizing and understanding the depth in how something that apoears to some, as insignificant.Can have such great and lasting influence. A touching storty I felt could have been a track from my life

  3. Finally, somebody is saying something . School is a scrambled egg beater , and its really hard to get humpty dumpty back together again , but it is do-able, as in this gorgeous writing of yours . I write music , sometimes I sing it … sometimes, I pay a man to sing the words . I think alot about that . My poet self, is staring at reality from a place outside of sexualized ego . One of the biggest songs , I will always love you , that Dolly wrote , was not about love , but about her business manager , and , it was a bit of a f-k off song , if I listen to it that way . It’s amazing to me to read about stories of songs that really influenced peoples actual life philosophy – I loved reading your experience here – and I loved reading the story about Dolly relating to the town whore – as a point of beauty . Wonderful . Thank you for writing .

    1. Your letter is as eloquently beautiful as this guys inimitable writing you so rightly and ringingly praise. School is a crock for the creative. And to all outsiders, you both make a flag we can wave. I am a poet from a family with 14 Ph.Ds. assume the worst. You can be straight, white, male and educated, all of which I am, and identify completely with the writer and your response. There is an Italian saying, Los noe altros (sp?)- “we others.” Thank you both. Boy this Guernica is a hell of a rag!!!! This my “maiden voyage” – but subscribed immediately. The title alone….

      1. Hate this censorship that even the best impose. But I know you gotta screen out the egregious. So go ‘haid on, and mess with my letter. Like I had a choice. Steve

  4. I don’t get this. Honestly. Because you listen to Dolly Parton, you are gay? The young Dolly was, like, a sex goddess to hetero guys like me. Judy Garland? Liza Minnelli? Even a sheltered straight like me knew that they were gay idols. Dolly? I’m lost on that one.

    1. Probably the individual culture that this young man grew up in. For instance, when it was cool just about everywhere else to smoke weed, in my town, in my high school, a person who smoked weed was considered a complete loser.

    2. Dolly kind of straddles the line between Grand Diva and Sex Goddess. If your nephew in the third grade adores her (that’s the age he indicates) and sings along to her songs, don’t be surprised if the car he wants is a powder blue Volkswagen Beetle.

      1. I’m as straight as they come and my father bought a brand new powder blue Bug convertible in 1969. Than car was awesome. I drove it everywhere. WFT does that have to do with being gay?

    3. It’s not you. The author wrote something that is very confusing to wallow through and ingest.

      My best guess is that he’s saying that kids outed him and he was super-uncomfortable with that truth, and all because he requested a tape be played.

      They happened to be absolutely correct about him.

      ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  5. Dolly Parton is a national treasure. Some of her songs from the seventies still make me tear up. In the old pre cable tv days, they had a lot of summer show replacement shows. I think it was 1977 and she was on a special with MAC DAVIS and Donna Summers and they did some of the greatest gospel, you could have ever heard. I did very few drugs so i am sure this a accurate memory.

  6. Hi Chris. A teacher here. I love to play Dolly and lots of other things the that I loved as a kid (well, when school is in session, right?). These songs are played quietly, in the background when kids are working on essays and such. Kids are mean and they mainly like the things they’ve already heard 100 times before. Really, it’s wired into them. Just do some searches on repetition and learning. So, don’t hold on to this old feeling too hard. But great story and thanks for sharing!

  7. This is beautifully written. The author is a gifted writer and has intense insight into something that many if not all of us has experienced some time or another in our life times. Thank you for sharing this.

  8. We who are gay, know the great unfairness: we’re born that way, but not born KNOWING we’re that way. We figure it out gradually. Yet there are always those people, who know a little more, not because they’re smarter, but merely because they’ve been alive a little longer, who spot it and recognize it before we even know enough to conceal it, and they use it against us. And what do kids use as their chief tool of identification? It’s the music they like. If yours isn’t in the officially sanctioned pile decided by your local peers, it can get you labelled.

  9. This is beautifully written, for the layered insights. I find it relatable, to love particular songs and be labelled queer or strange for it. Thank you so much for writing this. That your father recognized this in you and welcomed it is a testament to his character.

  10. wow I love your story and the way you captured that searing moment on the school bus….. so much in those few lines.. your bus driver let kids bring their own cassettes? awesome and kind – my own children (your generation) had a few memorable drivers (one known for high rates of speed at the end of the day, another who swore a blue streak with the plea “you f—ing kids pipe down” ) but never one who was ok with the kids music….
    wonderful writing!

  11. That story was an incredible journey. I think most boys have a similar story where they are bullied for something that they truly loved because it is different. Your story brought that memory back for me. A time when I loved to sing, but it was considered “gay” to be in choir. I got in many a fight over that. I was a fierce fighter so I could never understand why someone would antagonize me knowing they were going to get pummeled. Later I learned it was because they liked invoking my anger, and that it gave them control over me when they did it. That was the point I stopped caring what others thought of me. I was not going to let let others influence my behavior. I still sing loudly and proudly in a choir 30 years later. Thank you for sharing your story, and reminding me what true strength really is.

  12. Just for the record, (I’ve written above) I love Dolly, the persona, the person and her great art. She visits little girls with terminal illnesses who’ve asked for her. This doesn’t make the papers, or if so, a short squib on pg. 7. Anyone who listens to “Coat of Many Colors” and doesn’t shed a tear for the bullied, the excluded, the excommunicated, has a soul of wood. And I am straight, white, male educated and all of that. A poet: Ay, there’s the rub. The article and some of the comments are beyond beautiful, even unto liberating. Thank to all,, and to Guernica. Say, do most folks even know whereby you come by that title?

  13. You brought in a tape of Dolly Parton to listen to on the bus.

    Kids screamed that you were gay.

    You felt bad.

    This sums it up, yes? That’s all rather silly. If you’re gay, what you do with your penis isn’t anyone else’s business. If you’re not gay, what you do with your penis isn’t anyone else’s business (both statements apply to consenting legal human adults). Shitty kids said shitty things, it happens.

    It’s unclear why this is being shared. Do we no longer know that shitty kids are terrible? Doubtful. Do we need hand-holding that Jimmy from the bus when you were nine no longer holds sway over you as a forty-something adult male? Geez, I hope not.

    Dolly Parton is like Charro–both look a bit silly and outlandish and it’s easy to see them as bits of fluff. However, both are serious and rigorous musicians in their own right, who happen to play roles that capitalize on what others may want to see in them, or what others may want to limit them to be.

    Do we need reminding that not all things are as they seem? Doubtful; anyone who needs this is beyond help anyway.

    There is no point in what you have written here. You did something “uncool” as a kid. You were shamed (we need to bring back shame, incidentally!). You chose to feel bad over it and choose to be marked by this–or at least had your other differences amplified. If you don’t like something about yourself, change it. If you cannot change something about yourself and cannot conform to your surroundings, and feel you must conform, move.

    I guess you’re saying that you are homosexual. That you prefer to shove your penis inside of men, and have other men shove their penises inside of you. This is of zero consequence in sane circles. If you are in a place where it is, move, as you are in a place that is insane. If you only THINK you are in a place where this matters to everyone, that somehow people only want to talk about the things that you do with willing adult partners, seek treatment for your personality disorder, because the fact of the matter is–see above–people don’t care.

    Your whole writing here distills to one enormous missed opportunity, even now, of demonstrating volition. Do so. Choose your actions, and then accept the consequences of your actions.

    1. The only person here with a personality disorder is you, commenter. The author put a lot of time and energy and thought into his lovely piece, the magazine considered it and decided it merited publishing, and many readers have confirmed this by reading and sharing it. And then you come along and think you somehow have earned the right to come and crap all over it, right underneath it. Well bud, you haven’t; you’re just a jerk who thinks because there’s a comment box in front of you that the world needs to hear your sour and weird ramblings. This is why so many of us are thinking the internet would be better without comments sections at all. The author earned the right to share his thoughts; if you want to share your jerk thoughts, go post them on your own web page, where they can be ignored forever.

      1. “The author put a lot of time and energy and thought into his lovely piece, the magazine considered it and decided it merited publishing, and many readers have confirmed this by reading and sharing it. And then you come along and think you somehow have earned the right to come and crap all over it, right underneath it.”

        All of us have “earned” the “right” to opine. Isn’t that the beauty of reasonably-free thought and expression?

        I’m not sour in the slightest; the author has done something far worse than being “offensive” or “disagreeable” or somehow “making me mad” (people’s guesses are so very non sequeter!). The author has been confusing.

        Assuming that the author is writing about his own experience, it can be distilled to: “I am homosexual. When I was young, I brought in a tape and kids ‘called [the author] “Dolly” or “faggot”’ and somehow nailed-in-one doubts that I had had about myself. That disrupted my life.”

        The truth hurt the author, I guess. When he was a child. And one of the glorious parts of growing up is deciding that we can choose to be hurt or not hurt by what people say.

        This is a skill that serves us well in the grown-up world. Maybe you’ll discover it someday, Scott.

        Funnily enough, I’d be willing to bet that the AUTHOR of the piece, having a drug conviction that sent him to prison, is more familiar with this than you, Scott. “Reality on reality’s terms” is a phrase used in rehab circles, and for good reason. This phrase would serve us all well in this era, it would seem. I would hope that the author ultimately returns and can leave less cryptic text.

        1. You’re obviously a super tiresome, tedious person (which makes your criticism of the piece HIGHLY ironic), so rather than indulge you further I’ll just quickly rebut this point:

          All of us have “earned” the “right” to opine. Isn’t that the beauty of reasonably-free thought and expression?

          If you STILL haven’t learned the fallacy of this statement as it relates to the internet, you haven’t learned much in the past 25 years. Free speech doesn’t give you the “right” to an audience. You can say what you want, but no one owes you THEIR platform to say it (even though many websites have been cowed into acting like they owe readers one, in the name of getting eyeballs). If you’d spent days and days working on a painting, proudly put it up on an easel for all to see, and then some random person came along and spray-painted “this sucks” along the bottom, how do you think you’d feel? Not very good I expect. But that is EXACTLY what you’re doing here.

          And that was waaaay more time than you deserve, mister I-believe-in-free-speech-but-only-when-I-don’t-have-to-use-my-real-name.

          1. You are the only one making the assertions you do–about a right to an audience (don’t read the comment, then), about not learning much in the past 25 years (I’ve been on the Internet, and Veronica/Archie/WAIS/Gopher/FidoNet/EchoNet services for far longer than you, I’d wager), about the other ad hominem attacks (amusing in their wrongness).

            I’m going to address your failed understanding, because I suspect you’re much more dim and just aping language, so maybe you’ll learn something:

            If I spent days and days working on a painting, proudly displayed it, and someone spray-painted “this sucks” on the bottom how would I feel?

            I’d feel like you’ve missed major articulations here and are incapable of making a simple analogy. This is what has actually happened:

            Chris spent some time creating this. It’s a confusing melange of imagery. Maybe it’s a collage, maybe it’s just a black canvas. But it’s not good or bad–it is, first and foremost, confusing. Why should such a thing exist? What does it do? Any why are we expected to gather around this monolith without asking, “what exactly am I looking at here? What merit has this?”

            So. If I had painted such a thing, and someone spray-painted “this is confusing” along the bottom, I’d feel bad that I’d created something so, but also amused that it was reliving as a sort of performance-art piece.

            As a writer, or someone who at least puts words into the world for money, being confusing is an intractably difficult position to come to or maintain.

            I suppose you are doing the best you can with what you have. And this is why your SUPER EMOTIONAL RESPONSES (wow, caps are fun, I guess) are probably not-unsurprising.

            I’m not surprised or upset when my dog cannot grasp physics and higher-order mathematics. Similarly, you have exposed your own limitations here, and I’m not upset with you, dog. You are simply not capable of more, and that’s reality. And I’m finished investing time into you; you aren’t capable of anything else, and I’ve loads of people who are capable of more to invest time into.

    2. There is no point to what you have written here. You read an article. It seemed to make you angry. You wanted others to read your reaction. But people don’t care.

      1. The article didn’t make me angry in the least.

        The author chose cryptic bloviation over direct exposition, which is always an odd decision, but “angry” is about the furthest thing from my mind.

        It’s a missed opportunity. Chris could have been direct and made an interesting point about how one-offs (even over several months) in our childhood can have lasting effects. Instead, he went this route, which is confusing and a little sad.

    3. Yes, I suppose you could sum up his story that way, but it actually saddens me that you lack the capacity to recognize the clarity in his experience and how beautifully it was written. Maybe that’s not fair to say because we are all allowed to choose what’s beautiful to each of us. I only recognize your arrogance bc I too am guilty of knowing everything. I guess it just bothers me when someone shares courageous vulnerability just to be shamed for feeling shame.

      1. Lots of words were used to create something that was ultimately muddled.

        This is a missed opportunity, as we’re left guessing. See another one of my comments regarding the missed opportunity here. (It is this: “It’s a missed opportunity. Chris could have been direct and made an interesting point about how one-offs (even over several months) in our childhood can have lasting effects. Instead, he went this route, which is confusing and a little sad.”)

        I’m not sure how you get from “missed opportunity” to “I know everything” and am arrogant; your path here has been non sequiter. I’d be interested to see your articulation and the route you took to get there.

    4. “If you cannot change something about yourself and cannot conform to your surroundings, and feel you must conform, move.”

      I do not think that’s fair to tell everyone who has a problem with gayness to move.

      Prejudice is caused bu our primitive impulses of survival. Sometimes changing the environment can help provide different perception but to really deal with the primitive impulses of fight or flight responses one has to change from within.

      1. Interesting point you make about it being “not fair” to tell everyone who “has a problem with gayness to move.”

        Let’s look back at the context.

        “You chose to feel bad over it and choose to be marked by this–or at least had your other differences amplified. If you don’t like something about yourself, change it. If you cannot change something about yourself and cannot conform to your surroundings, and feel you must conform, move.”

        This last bit comes, clearly, as a fall-back position that no fully-formed and sane adult person finds themselves in. And yet, in this world, here we are.

        If you love to blast country music, and people in your area stab and kill others playing country music, you have some options:

        1. Stop liking country music.
        2. Stop playing country music.
        3. Play country music, but conform to your surroundings (e.g. don’t play it in the agora).
        4. Move.

        It’s not worth being harmed (either directly and externally, or indirectly and/or internally) over being unable to curb something you like and unwilling to not express it in the agora.

        I think it a fair ask to present logical solutions to people that will improve their lives when they are unable or unwilling to change. Rather than fighting the sandstorm, it is better to move on.

    5. It’s rather obvious from the many empathetic responses to this article that lots of people saw the point, related to the story, and appreciated that it was shared in such a lyrical and emotionally intelligent way. What is more mystifying is how it is that you could see all of these responses indicating that so many other people did ‘get it’, but still feel that the lack of clarity here came from outside of yourself. I wonder if it’s possible that your confusion and very strong emotional reaction indicate some unfinished or unaddressed business within yourself?

      1. Echo-chamber effect.

        And, naw dawg, no finished or unaddressed business here. Just a fan of clarity and not reading entities that miss opportunities.

  14. Strange how so many of our stories are so very similar. I was a little bit ahead of you; 11-years-old when my mom took me to the theater to see “9 to 5”. I became an instant fan, collecting every album of hers I could find and covering my bedroom walls with them, along with pictures I had clipped from magazines. The record department at our local Sears had a life-size cardboard cutout of Dolly to promote her latest album. I remember begging mom to ask the store manager if I could have it once they were finished with it (he said no, it had to be returned to the record company.) When I got a little older, my obsession turned from Dolly to Diana Ross. Imagine being a teenager at a Catholic all-boys high school and your favorite singer is Diana Ross! For obvious reasons, that was not information I shared with any of my classmates. Childhood conditioning is very difficult, if not impossible, to break. Even today, in my 50s, I find myself reflexively turning down the car stereo when another car pulls up at a stoplight. That instinct to feel embarrassed and to hide the music, movies, TV shows and books we like is a sad but tenacious burden we carry throughout our lives.

  15. Beautiful writing on one of the most brilliant singer-song writers with radical heart and spiritual authenticity to give wing to social and emotional justice. Awesome, thank you.

  16. Really lovely, evocative writing. Took me back. Also, your dad sounds amazing. Aren’t people so stunningly unexpected in their insights and impulses? Thanks for this.

  17. That was lovely and I enjoyed it as much as anything I’ve read since starting quarantine. I don’t usually read advertised pieces on the internet, nor have I read Guernica before today. I made a great choice today and I thank you.

  18. Last year, an episode of the (then) Fox series “The Orville,” a gentle parody of the Star Trek universe, had a truly unusual episode. One of the bridge officers (I’ve forgotten people and planet names and don’t feel like looking them up now) is from an all-male planet where the standard family is two men and their artificially conceived and born (no details given) children, and in fact he and his civilian husband reside on the ship with their pre-teen son.

    In this episode, the Orville rescues a refugee member of their species from a shuttlecraft, who turns out to be a female. The secret they don’t normally share with outsiders is that children who are born female are subjected to forced gender reassignment, and those who escape this are persecuted as criminals (as are the parents who allow it). The refugee is from an exile planet where a rebel population of escaped females and female-allied males are hiding from their government. The episode will, of course, end in a battle, but that’s not the important part.

    The captain (played by Seth Meyers, creator of the series) is a fan of ancient Earth culture, and introduces the refugee, while on the ship, to a recording of Dolly Parton’s “Nine to Five” song (I’m not sure, but I don’t think the movie was shown to her). After playing it over and over, she becomes a leader of her species’ feminist movement, and asks for Union (like the Federation in Star Trek) protection of her exile colony from the home planet’s government.

    So there are more ways to look at Dolly Parton, or any artist or entertainer, than the obvious!

    [And about that origin story: “THE town whore?” Must have been a SMALL town!]

  19. This is just beautiful writing. Thank you, Chris, for exploring your pain and your heart in such an eloquent way. You made me pick up my laptop and write again. I haven’t had the courage since the quarantine started. I don’t know why. Nervousness? Panic? Fear? Too many people in my house too much of the time? I really don’t know what was keeping me from my story. Your story inspired me though. It caused a visceral reaction in me that I must put down in words. Thank you.

  20. My son has recently come out as gay and I’m trying to learn how to be loving and supportive. This essay was beautiful. In ways I cannot yet even bring to words, this writing helped me so much. Thank you.

  21. Your article touched my heart. I am saving it to read again. I may even try to write a reflection of my own young life. Sincere thanks.

  22. A great, quick, tender read about many beautiful things; Dolly Parton, a father’s love, a bus driver’s coolness, the power of music that makes a difference to our souls, and literary talent, while at times juxtaposed with the ugly in people, especially bullying– thereby amplifying the beautiful things.

    That goes for the piece itself all the way down to the last comment. People who take the time to be rude really perplex me. I honestly don’t get it. Didn’t Thumper’s mom’s lesson sink deeply enough?

  23. Having worked in childcare that involved bussing children around relatively often, my main take away from this article is that your bus driver sucked.

    If everyone gets a turn, everyone gets a turn. He should’ve pulled the bus over and told all the kids that they were free to not like the music but they needed to be quiet about it because everyone gets a turn.

    Stopping the music after a few minutes only taught all those other kids that even adults and authority figures will cave to the peer pressure of them and their classmates.

  24. This demonstrates, as do so many events, that school is just imperialism’s device to cure childhood. Being a child is a disease treated by boring lives through 12 grades of school, each grade wringing our home grown and backyard ideas from us; un-degree-d ideas are not only without merit, they’re destructive and must be derided, destroyed, replaced by ideas made popular through our Owners’ instructions of what to care about as transmitted into us all by school and church.
    Church teachings are those lovely sensations collapsed into ‘get ahead’, succeed – in the capitalist structure, the greatest crime hu/Man commits.
    We have to supplant school with living together. We have to end ‘failure’; it’s a major tool of oppression – from school to church – we must all know of ourselves that we succeed all the time.
    We must end ‘opportunity’, the climb which when we can’t make it brings down upon us the charge we ‘failed’, it’s our fault, not the fault of the environment surrounding the attempt. We must be permitted to do what each and all of us want and need to do, no measure of that ‘deserving’ crap. We all deserve every good thing. 510 526 3968

  25. Chris, thank you so very much for your story. It brought back memories of my childhood that I had forgotten. Children can be cruel, thank God you had such an awesome father. After reading this I might start writing again. Don’t ever listen to mean spirited criticism. By definition it comes from a place of “perceived” faults or mistakes. I thoroughly enjoyed your story and believe we will be reading more stories by you in the not too distant future.

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