On Dolly Parton and Being Seen

(Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)

At Guernica, Chris Dennis reconciles his love of Dolly Parton despite her ironic combination of down-home folksiness, vulnerability, and painted artifice.

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.

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