When it comes to singers with huge gay followings, Dolly Parton has one of the most loyal — and most rabid.
Dolly obsession, explored memorably in the 2006 documentary “For the Love of Dolly,” is at fever pitch these days. The 65-year-old country/pop singer released her latest indie album, “Better Day,” last month and is just starting her latest road outing, the “Better Day World Tour,” which will find her playing dates throughout North America, Europe and Australia. She comes to the D.C. area this weekend with a Sunday night sold-out show at Wolf Trap (wolftrap.org). She’s earned solid reviews for both the new record and the tour’s first shows in her native Tennessee and last weekend at the Hollywood Bowl. (The D.C. stop presents a dilemma for some gay music lovers — Britney is at the Verizon Center the same night.)
Everybody knows gay men love their divas — Cher, Judy, Barbra, etc. — but how has Dolly managed to be the only country singer to attain that level of adulation? We talked to three of her LGBT fans from wildly different walks of life to find out.
Duane Gordon, a 36-year-old gay Jackson, Miss., native now living with his partner in Middletown, Ohio, was entranced with the singer even longer than he can remember. His parents tell him when he was as young as 1 and 2, he would drop everything to stare enthralled at the TV anytime Dolly was on. When Barbie-sized Dolly dolls were issued by Goldberger in the late ‘70s, Gordon begged for one. His parents refused, though they didn’t otherwise discourage his infatuation.
He taught himself to read looking at lyric sheets from Dolly’s albums, which he played on his plastic toy kiddie turntable. At age 3, she was his first concert. His whole family went. His mom says the only time he moved the entire evening was when she took him toward the stage to hand the singer a rose.
“I think she’s always appealed very strongly to children,” he says. “It’s probably the high-pitched voice, the exaggerated appearances. She describes herself as a living cartoon character and I think once you become a fan as a child, it’s kind of imprinted on your brain and you remain a dedicated fan. Almost every really big fan of hers I know became a fan as a child.”
Gordon never outgrew it. He got all her new albums as soon as they were released and when he was 13 and 14, he started trolling vintage record shops for her original vinyl releases. By now, he has them all. The only vinyl issue he lacks is her rare first single “Puppy Love.” When originals show up on eBay, they usually sell for between $2,000-$3,000.
As soon as Gordon got online in the mid-‘90s, he started seeking Dolly fan sites. She had no official site (though she does now) and he soon realized he could do as good a job as those that existed. It debuted as Duane’s Dolly Pages in 1996. By 1998 it became Dollymania (dollymania.net) and is the oldest continually operating Dolly site and the most updated of any. He spends at least an hour each evening keeping it fresh almost every day except Sundays. For several years in the early ‘00s, Dolly and her then-label Sugar Hill, for whom she released several bluegrass records, used it as their “unofficial official” site, sending Gordon exclusive news about album releases and tours.
“It was flattering and very complimentary,” he says. “They appreciated the work I put into it and trusted me to be the primary resource for her to reach her fans.”
Even now, he says, he gets full media privileges at Dollywood, Parton’s Tennessee theme park, and her people make sure he gets questions in at press conferences.
“She always jokes with me that I know her better than she does,” Gordon says. He calls last week’s T-shirt-at-Dollywood controversy (a lesbian was asked to turn her shirt inside out because it said “Marriage is so gay”) a “tempest in a teapot.”
“I thought the gatekeeper was completely in the right,” he says. “They tend to not allow political message shirts on park grounds so you don’t get people getting into political arguments in the park … also the shirt itself was problematic. To appreciate and understand the phrase ‘marriage is so gay,’ one has to have a well-developed sense of irony and sarcasm. … It’s entirely possible that the staff member thought the shirt was … an insult that might offend a gay person.”
Lesbian screenwriter Patricia Resnick knows Dolly in a much different way. She wrote the scripts for two of Dolly’s most famous movies — 1980’s “Nine to Five” and 1992’s “Straight Talk.” She also adapted the former into a stage musical that ran on Broadway for five months and is now on a national tour (its current stop is Fort Worth, Texas). She’d written a sketch for Dolly to do on Cher’s variety show and read in the trades that Jane Fonda was hoping to do a movie about secretaries. She’d previously worked with Lily Tomlin on Broadway.
“I’d written the Cher show and I knew Dolly from that, so I just thought, ‘Oh, this is a natural.’ I auditioned for the job to write it and I got it,” Resnick says during a phone chat from her home in Los Angeles.
Resnick worked with Dolly extensively in the last several years as they adapted “Nine to Five” to the stage. Early on, Dolly was excited to write the music and did.
“The musical was definitely the most time we spent together and it was great,” Resnick says.
She says, as have many others, that the public Dolly is much the same as the singer/actress is even when she’s not “on.”
“What you see is very much what you get with her,” she says. “She’s very much who she appears to be. She’s charming, very, very funny, incredibly generous, kind, professional. She used to bake brownies for the cast and crew on ‘Nine to Five’ and bring them in. She’s just absolutely fantastic to work with. I couldn’t say a negative thing about her.”
Resnick says the only difference is that privately, Dolly’s “a little bawdier” than she is on stage or TV.
“If you talk to her about something important, she’ll say, ‘Well, let me go pray on it.’ None of what you see is bullshit. She’s the real deal.”
Resnick caught Dolly’s show last weekend at the Bowl. She says while Dolly is well liked in the LGBT world in general — she was nominated for a 2005 Oscar for contributing the song “Travelin’ Thru” to the “Transamerica” soundtrack — most of her fans are gay men.
“It’s a very diverse fan base but just eyeballing the crowd last weekend, I think it’s definitely more gay men than lesbians.”
So what of Resnick?
“Well, I’ve always said I’m like a gay man in a lesbian’s body,” she says. “I love Marilyn, Judy, show tunes. I don’t know what that is, but it’s just who I am. It probably has something to do with why I’m single at the moment.”
Twins Larry and Gary Lane, both gay and North Carolina natives, also figure highly in the queer Dolly fan universe. They wrote a script (“Full Circle”) for her and made a documentary, “Hollywood to Dollywood,” about their cross-country trek from North Hollywood, where they’ve lived for 10 years, to Dollywood’s Pigeon Forge, Tenn., location to deliver the script to her — they hoped — in person. The film follows their adventures. Their gay pals Chad Allen and Leslie Jordan make cameos. “Milk” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black helped them with their script and is also in the movie.
Though their interactions with Dolly have been brief, she’s been supportive of their efforts and even let them use her image for their movie poster and granted them licensing rights to use several of her songs in the film.
The twins say Dolly has long been an inspiration.
“We had a hard struggle growing up gay in North Carolina,” Gary Lane says. “We just related to Dolly on so many levels. I remember seeing her talk once on CNN about her support of gays and it just made us love her even more.”
They won $50,000 on ABC’s “Wipeout” to finance their documentary and are trying to raise more for distribution. Visit kickstarter.com and look for “Hollywood to Dollywood” to help or watch the trailer. Their project also has a Facebook page. Several festival showings — at gay and general indie film festivals — are also on the calendar.
Larry says Dolly has strong gay appeal because she’s always been herself, which gays, he says, find inspiring.
“She’s never cared what people thought of her,” he says. “She’s always done her own thing. If people didn’t want to come out for Gay Day at Dollywood, she just says, ‘Well y’all have 364 days, come then.’ She’s always had that attitude. She just loves everybody. Every fan that’s ever bought a ticket from Baptist ministers to drag queens.”
Gordon agrees. He says gay rights issues are one of the few hot button political issues she’ll discuss.
“I think a large part of that came from her being under Sandy Gallin’s management in the ‘70s. They became the closest of friends and even shared an apartment together in New York. That friendship helped mold her into a gay rights advocate. By the mid-‘90s, she was saying things like she believed gay rights were human rights. She’s had friends and family members who are gay or bi and had staff members who’ve had gender reassignment surgery. She’s a very open, loving and accepting person and you can’t help but see that.”
Resnick says Dolly bucks the country trend when it comes to her pro-gay beliefs.
“Some country singers, the more quote-unquote Christian they are, the less accepting they are of gays and Dolly is just not like that. If you listen to her songs, there are a lot of mentions of God and it’s clear that’s very important to her, but it doesn’t seem to in any way affect how she feels about people’s rights to be who they are. She’s very embracing and has lots of gays around her. She clearly has no problem with it.”