When Nadine Hubbs wrote an additional verse to Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ with the lyric: ‘It’s true that my man found you first / You awakened such a thirst / Now you’re the only one for me, Jolene’, the song’s homoerotic and queer subtext became explicit. [i] This was one example of queer reading where ‘contrary use of what the dominant culture provides’ can be a way for an ‘oppressed group [to] cobble together its own culture’.[ii] Perhaps in no other place is this more necessary than the country music industry that continues to marginalise and exclude Black and LGBTQ+ artists. [iii] [iv] [v] Yet as the work of Nadine Hubbs and Francesca Royster remind us, it is important to separate country music as an aesthetic genre from the country music industry and avoid reinscribing homophobia and racism back into the genre, furthering these impulses within the industry and contributing to the erasure of Black and LGBTQ+ voices both as artists and audiences. [vi] [vii]
The focus on Parton’s ‘Jolene’ in this article is not so much for Parton herself, but about the way in which LGBTQ+ artists and audiences have been active in the use of this text to assert their presence in country music within an industry context that has been exclusionary. Parton’s songs can also be considered as evocative objects (as ‘companions to our emotional lives or as provocations to thought’) and as ‘companion texts’ that help sustain queer country communities.[viii] [ix] I will explore how queer reading can interpret this song and demonstrate how this text continues to circulate both through covers by openly LGBTQ+ artists including Lil Nas X and Amythyst Kiah, and how the reputation of this ‘cheating song’ and its titular character have evolved in country music.[x]
https://youtu.be/Ixrje2rXLMA – Dolly Parton – Jolene (Audio)
‘Jolene’ has been written about as being atypical in the sub-genre of cheating or “other woman” songs in country music for being the only song of this kind where the “other woman” is referred to ‘by her name’ in the song’s ‘nonviolent address’.[xi] [xii] The song has been described by scholars and Parton herself as being about insecurity, but there is more to it than that.[xiii] The song’s ‘rhapsodic’ quality: ‘your beauty is beyond compare with flaming locks of auburn hair’ provides the potential for homoerotic readings.[xiv] [xv] Hubbs argues that the song becomes ‘an ode to the other woman’s beauty and desirability’.[xvi] This tone goes beyond an atypically ‘nonviolent’ address to the “other woman” to one that is ‘tenderly detailing her beauty and charms’ as if ‘through the eyes of a lover’.[xvii] [xviii]
Parton’s lucid description ‘tenderly’ picks out details such as the auburn hair that is ‘flaming’ and the eyes are not just green they are ‘emerald’ green.[xix] [xx] This fixation on Jolene’s beauty also acts to demonstrate the protagonist’s feelings of insecurity, yet the excess of this lyricism raises the potential, at the very least, for reading in the song an expression of homoerotic desire. Hubbs poses the rhetorical question: ‘Am I the only listener who imagines her and Jolene getting together if the guy doesn’t work out?’[xxi] The lesbian identifications within ‘Jolene’ are evocatively produced by the lyrics such that queer readings barely need to probe beneath the lyricism of the song as a result.’
https://youtu.be/71WCTLmdN-w – Jolene (Dolly Parton arr. by Amythyst Kiah and Her Chest of Glass)
Amythyst Kiah’s cover of ‘Jolene’ centres the homoerotic desire between a female protagonist and Jolene. Kiah extends the length of the song but keeps the same lyrics and repeats the chorus more times than Parton’s original. With no supplementary lyrical material, this further draws out the sense of the protagonist’s fixation on Jolene. This has been identified by other listeners, such as Sydney Miller who suggests that Kiah’s performance ‘gives the listener the distinct sense that the narrator is actually yearning for Jolene herself’ (2020).[xxii] This response and coverage of Kiah’s performance indicates that Parton’s text is circulating as a queer text.
https://youtu.be/RWjnC8HSRdU – Lil Nas X – Jolene (Dolly Parton Cover) in the Live Lounge
In the Lil Nas X version, performed live at BBC Live Lounge in the release week of the artist’s album Montero, the figuration of desire and sexuality function differently. As an openly gay man, having released several unapologetically queer music videos by this point, the desire directed to the man in this triangle is prominent in the line: ‘please don’t take my man’.[xxiii] Lil Nas X came out after the release of ‘Old Town Road’ and as subsequent songs and videos contained more direct expressions of sexuality, it seemed that familiar tropes of country music were being used as part of a desexualised pre-coming out back story. By performing this recognisable song in the same set as the more overtly sexual ‘Montero (Call Me By Your Name)’, Lil Nas X reinterprets the text of ‘Jolene’ to break down any potential distinctions between a presumed absence of sexuality in Lil Nas X’s country music and to integrate the genre’s aesthetics into his own persona and repertoire.
A further way that ‘Jolene’ as a text has circulated is through its title character and the way that the “other woman” is represented in country music, often used in connection with tropes around sexuality, shame, and stigma in the genre. In Parton’s own output, Jolene becomes a character who inspires empathy. In the ‘Jolene’ episode of Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, Parton plays the character ‘Babe’ who runs a bar and is friends with the Jolene character. Jolene is humanised and embodied through this transmedia storytelling.[xxiv] There are also changes in representations of the “other woman” in country music with more songs, including by Parton herself, from the perspective of the “other woman”.
https://youtu.be/zPG1n1B0Ydw – Sugarland – Stay (Official Video)
A particularly interesting representation of the “other woman” is Sugarland’s ‘Stay’. Although written as a response to Reba McEntire’s ‘Whoever’s in New England’, the reputation of Parton’s song as an “other woman” song makes ‘Jolene’ a key reference point.[xxv] The visceral close ups in the music video and direct emotional address to the listener in Nettles’ vocal performance make this portrayal of Jolene unflinchingly human, singing: ‘I’m so tired of being lonely’.[xxvi] This expressiveness creates potential for empathy, solidarity and perhaps a queer resonance in the negotiation of stigma and shame.[xxvii] [xxviii] For fifty years Jolene has been desired and represented in the abstract, through the ethereal description in Parton’s song. In ‘Stay’ Jolene is given a voice and is unapologetically human. Jolene is queer not just as a queer object of desire, but as a queer subject.
The kinds of circulation discussed in this article around the text of ‘Jolene’ can help sustain queer country community. Treating ‘Jolene’ as a text with this kind of sociability shifts the spotlight from Parton herself and refocuses the emphasis within scholarship from reifying country stardom’s white and heteronormative biases onto the active participation of LGBTQ+ artists and audiences. There does need to be more research on how queer reading as a method, both interpretatively and politically, intersects with race (there is forthcoming work in this area by Francesca Royster). Queer reading offers generative potential for rethinking and enacting forms of inclusion, belonging and community in country music.
[i] Nadine Hubbs in Dolly Parton’s America [Audio Podcast Episode] Series 1 Episode 6 “The Only One For Me Jolene” Jad Abumrad & Shima Oliaee (Hosts) aired 29 October 2019. WYNC Studios.
[ii] Richard Dyer, “In Defence of Disco,” in Only Entertainment (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 151-160, 153.
[iii] Tressie McMillan Cottom, “The Black vanguard in white utopias: Country music speaks to white sentimentality, but Black women pioneer ‘and continue to pioneer’”, The Undefeated, 31 December. 2021. <https://theundefeated.com/features/the-black-vanguard-in-white-utopias/>
[iv] Amanda Martinez, “Redneck Chic: Race and the Country Music Industry in the 1970s,” Journal of Popular Music Studies; 32.2 (June 2020): 128-143.
[v] Jada E. Watson, “Redlining in Country Music: Representation in the Country Music Industry (2000-2020),” SongData, 11 March 2021. <https://songdata.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/SongData-Watson-Redlining-Country-Music-032021.pdf>
[vi] Nadine Hubbs, Rednecks, Queers and Country Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).
[vii] Francesca T. Royster, “Black Edens, country Eves: Listening, performance, and black queer longing in country music,” Journal of Lesbian Studies, 21.3 (September 2017): 306-322.
[viii] Sherry Turkle, (ed) Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2007), 5.
[ix] Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2017), 16.
[x] Lydia R. Hamessley, Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton (Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2020), 119.
[xi] Nadine Hubbs, ““Jolene,” Genre and the Everyday Homoerotics of Country Music: Dolly Parton’s Loving Address of the Other Woman,” Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture, 19 (2015): 71-76, 72
[xii] Hubbs, “Jolene”, 73.
[xiii] Hamessley, Unlikely Angel, 120.
[xiv] Hubbs, “Jolene”, 72.
[xv] Dolly Parton, “Jolene”, Jolene (RCA, 1974).
[xvi] Hubbs, “Jolene”, 72.
[xvii] Ibid. 73.
[xviii] Ibid. 75.
[xix] Ibid. 75.
[xx] Parton, ‘Jolene’.
[xxi] Hubbs, “Jolene”, 72.
[xxii] Sydney Miller, “Ten Supremely Sapphic Songs,” Country Queer, 9 October 2020. <https://countryqueer.com/stories/list/the-most-sapphic-songs-from-your-favorite-lesbian-artists/>
[xxiii] Lil Nas X, “Jolene”, (BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge Cover, 2021).
[xxiv] Leigh H. Edwards, ‘Twenty-First Century Jolene: Dolly Parton’s Netflix Reimagining’ (Conference Paper) International Country Music Conference 5 June 2021.
[xxv] Lindsey Roznovsky, “The story behind Sugarland’s Stay”, Country Music Television, 2 January 2008. <https://web.archive.org/web/20090803190851/http://www.cmt.com/artists/news/1578707/20071228/sugarland.jhtml>
[xxvi] Sugarland, “Stay”, Enjoy the Ride (Mercury Nashville, 2006).
[xxvii] Leigh H. Edwards, Dolly Parton, Gender, and Country Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018), 31.
[xxviii] Sally R. Munt, Queer Attachments: The Cultural Politics of Shame (Aldershot, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008).