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Jessica Wilkerson

Living with Dolly Parton

Mark Humphrey / AP, Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Jessica Wilkerson | Longreads | October 2018 | 43 minutes (7,851 words)

Dolly Parton was one of two women I learned to admire growing up in East Tennessee. The other was Pat Summitt, head coach of the Lady Volunteers, the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team. One flamboyantly female, the other a masculine woman. Both were arguably the best at what they did, had fantastic origins stories of hardscrabble lives in rural Tennessee, and told us that with enough grit and determination, we could succeed. Queer kids and nerdy girls, effeminate boys and boyish girls who desired something more than home took comfort in their boundary crossing. From these women they learned that they too could strike out on their own while maintaining both their authenticity and ties to home.

For years, I found solace in “Wildflowers,” written by Parton and performed with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris on their record Trio. The song’s instrumentation is spare, with the tinny chords of the autoharp and Ronstadt and Harris’s harmonies. In a near warble, Dolly sang of a “rambling rose” who didn’t “regret the path” she chose.

I moved away from home in ways more profound than the physical leaving, and it sometimes caused me to feel the pain of committing a betrayal. My grandmother Laverne warned me: “Don’t forget where you come from.”

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