- “Jolene,” Genre, and the Everyday Homoerotics of Country MusicDolly Parton’s Loving Address of the Other Woman
Recently a Billboard feature highlighting Dolly Parton’s support of her gay fans rocked Facebook and Twitter. The combination of themes is nothing new. For years the National Enquirer has periodically blared that the curvaceous blonde hyperfemme country icon is gay. Dolly, for her part, has responded graciously and nonhomophobically. To the recurrent allegation that she is carrying on a secret relationship with her lifelong friend Judy Ogle, Parton answers, “Well, I’m not gay, but if I was, I would be privileged to have Judy as a partner!”1
I’m not here to question Dolly Parton’s sexual identification. But I will discuss her signature song, “Jolene,” in relation to homoerotic address and genre bending and will link this to certain questions about country music and its meanings in American culture.2 Parton wrote “Jolene” and recorded it in 1973, and in early 1974 it went to number 1 on the country charts. Since then “Jolene” has had many lives as a cover song recorded by a variety of mostly female artists in a dazzling range of styles; in 2011 it posted at number 219 on Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”3 [End Page 71]
“Jolene” presents various features that might attract listeners and lure musicians to cover it. One that has long intrigued me is the song’s relation to a subgenre of the country Cheating Song that I will call the Other Woman Song. Typically when female country artists sing to or about the other woman, the address is adversarial, if not downright menacing. Examples include the Loretta Lynn classics “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” (1966, number 2) and “Fist City” (1968, number 1) and Carrie Underwood’s 2006 number 1 hit “Before He Cheats.” In “Fist City” Lynn warns the other woman, “You better move your feet / If you don’t wanna eat / A meal that’s called Fist City.” She refers to her heterosexual rival as “trash,” a slur that Underwood also invokes, along with “tramp,” in imagining hers.
“Jolene” throughout is a direct address to the other woman. Far from adversarial, the lyric starts as a plea and quickly turns rhapsodic, an ode to the other woman’s beauty and desirability. Parton’s narrator rehearses the incomparable qualities of Jolene’s hair, skin, eyes, smile, and voice. She proclaims her vulnerability to, and even contingency on, Jolene: “My happiness depends on you.” And she addresses the other woman by her name, repeating it again and again, seemingly fixated—like the hypnotic, bluegrassy, finger-picking riff that introduces the song and repeats throughout each chorus until the final fade, tracing and retracing a short, circular path stepwise up (do–re–me) and down again.
In her scholarly survey of country hits from the 1980s and 1990s, Maxine Grossman notes that these songs’ lyrics often present homosocial intimacy and leave space linguistically for listeners’ homoerotic identifications. Surprisingly, the conclusion she draws in connection with this is that country music erases any possibilities of sexuality beyond the hetero sphere (she locates racial, religious, and sexual difference outside “the true” of country music, which she views in exclusively white, Protestant, and heterosexual terms). Grossman thus bolsters widely held views of country music as retrograde culture, and, along lines I have elsewhere discussed, she bolsters notions, prevalent from the 1970s up to now, of the American white working class as a discrete “bigot class” and prime source of homophobia.4
It’s true that Parton’s narrator in her candor betrays no homophobic anxiety, whether or not this signals the erasure of homosexual existence. Speaking of Jolene’s appeal to the man they share in common, the song’s narrator attests, “I can easily understand,” and her admiring litany has already convinced me. Am I the only listener who imagines her and Jolene getting together if the guy doesn’t work out? Or a fourth verse that finds this love triangle dissolved into a three-way? Even if we argue that the narrator’s eroticization of...