Here’s something I’ve never told you: until the age of ten, country music was my life. That, and banana Popsicles.
My stepfather was a Truck Drivin’ Son of a Gun, and would come back from Six Days on the Road with shiny pieces of the big world: two-dollar compilation tapes he would find in the truckstops that scatter America. Loretta Lynn in a Waylon Jennings and Dave Dudley sandwich; harmonies so sweet and rich and warbly; the religion of Johnny Cash. I knew things beyond my years, like how to bust out of Folsom Prison, and why there was A Tombstone Every Mile.
My stepdad — I just call him Dad — delivered these secrets to me in cassette form, my only connection to his mysterious, big-rig life outside the house.
Though I couldn’t figure out why he often brought home the same songs on different tapes.
I remembered all of this while pissing in a truckstop bathroom in East Tennessee a few weeks ago, listening to Ghost Riders in the Sky, draining out Jack & Coke from the night before. My dear friend, author and photographer Reed Massengill, had just shot me wearing nothing but a wrestling helmet, my ass lit up like Christmas by a rotating disco ball. I’m a big little boy who still loves to play. Could I learn to love country music again?
We had to visit Dollywood to find out.
Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like: I was going to visit the shrine Dolly Parton, the Queen of Country, built for herself in the Great Smoky Mountains.
The stomach-churning thrills of Dolly’s Demolition Derby, Tennessee Tornado, and Mystery Mine hold nothing on the Chasing Rainbows Museum and its tools of emotional rape: The Coat of Many Colours that her Mama stitched from rags, endless pics of her with dead legends like Dom DeLuise and Michael Jackson, an ‘Ask Dolly’ screen where she spills her deepest PMS secrets, and more Grammy trophies than you can fuck in a lifetime.
And it’s where the rocks sing to you. Dolly harps from camouflaged speakers in the surrounding forest about being “on a highway headed south, somewhere to Dixie.”
Funny how Dad never brought her home.
This lady has serious, queer street cred, not even counting Dollywood’s gay day. She wrote and performed the theme song for the gender-busting road movie Transamerica, delivering a message of acceptance and love through the grace of “sweet Jesus.” And while peers like Tammy Wynette were preaching sexual fidelity to bad lovers in songs like Stand By Your Man, Dolly confessed in a BBC interview that she patterned herself “after what they called the town tramp. My mama said ‘She ain’t nothing but trash’, so I thought, ‘that’s what I want to be, Mama!'”
Good chops for sex workers and nonmonogamists, on either side of the Smokies.
Bear in mind that Dolly’s empire sits just east of Rhea County, the Buckle of the Bible Belt, where in 2004 officials voted unanimously to ban homosexuals (it didn’t work). Can we blame her for using Jesus to stop the buckle from giving us a big, honking welt?
But Dolly, why did you have to fleece us? Reed and I first got soaked by the rain, and then by industrial fans misting us with water. Our solace? Walk-in, family dryers that cost three clams! Then we had to run past a bald eagle trained to collect cash donations. “He’s been known to turn down singles.” The exit is pure business genius, forcing you through miles of gift shop.
Where does all this moolah go?
A large chunk of it, I was pleased to learn, goes to the Dollywood Foundation’s Imagination Library, a literacy program that distributes millions of free books annually to young’uns under the age of five across the US, Canada and the UK.
Dollywood got me thinking about Dad. He’s functionally illiterate, for the most part. For as long as I can remember, he would get halfway through a sentence, hit a word that baffled him, and then pull the Jake Brake. He used to tell me about uncaring teachers who would give him passing grades in English, just to get him out of their class.
Maybe that’s why he had bought the same tapes over and over again: he couldn’t read the song titles.
Dolly would want me to call him.
“It has occurred to me,” I said to Dad over the phone, “that I haven’t done enough to help you become a better reader.”
Silence on the end of the line. I shocked myself, too, because I so rarely express regret.
“Where is this coming from?” he finally said.
“It’s just that I’m writing all this stuff and you don’t get to read it. I could come over and help you. You know, if you’re into it.”
I was terrified, and I was ecstatic. I dreamed of playing the old cassettes with him.
“Sure. What would we do?”
“I’d bring over some material, and we can read it out loud, go over the difficult parts. What do you want to start with?”
“Playboy and Hustler, that kind of stuff.” He laughed.