Gateways: How Dolly Parton’s Jolene Helped Me Through Queer Heartbreak

Music Features Dolly Parton
Gateways: How Dolly Parton’s Jolene Helped Me Through Queer Heartbreak

Welcome to our Gateways column, where Paste writers and editors explore the taste-defining albums, artists, songs or shows that proved to be personal “gateways” into a broader genre, music scene or an artist’s catalog at-large—for better or worse. Explore them all here.

“Jolene” the song means a lot to people, but for me, it’s Jolene the album that resonates most. Dolly Parton‘s 13th solo studio album was released on February 4th, 1974, winning her more awards and acclaim than ever before—yet it wasn’t until almost exactly 40 years later that Jolene finally won me over and even saved me during one of the toughest times of my life. I’d long resisted the call of the Smoky Mountain Songbird. In my teens and 20s, it felt to me like Dolly Parton belonged to an older generation. And even as someone who obsessed over Britney Spears above all else, there was still something about the Backwoods Barbie that almost felt “too gay,” which I’m ashamed to admit now (internalized homophobia really is the gift that keeps on giving). That all changed for me, though, in February, 2014, not long after I moved to the city of Daegu in South Korea.

My partner of seven years and I, at the time, decided to relocate there so we could save enough money teaching English to buy a house together in England. I quit my 9 to 5—Dolly would have been proud—sold my car and packed up our flat for good. Upon arriving in Korea as a hagwon (private cram school) teacher, your manager—usually an expat—is the one who’s responsible for you. He’s there to help you settle in and help guide you through the transitional move, in case anything goes wrong. What he’s not there to do is fuck your boyfriend and become his new boyfriend, but that’s exactly what happened in my case after just one month teaching at that school.

Around three weeks in to my stay in Korea, I found out my partner (who I wasn’t allowed to share a school-sponsored room with because, well, homophobia) had cheated on me with a local. I was destroyed and probably more angry than I’ve ever been in my life, but I forgave him because I still loved him and, if I’m being honest, I was also terrified of being alone for the first time as an adult—especially in this new city. So I took my ex back, only for him to then leave me a few weeks later to be with my boss. It was like something out of a Dolly Parton breakup song, except the drama she pens is never that cruel. From that point on, I had to work closely with the man who was now dating my ex of seven years, and I even had to rely on him often. Whenever I wanted to go out and meet people at night, my boss would be there too—with my ex—because the nightlife in Daegu is closer in size to my hometown’s bar scene than anything in Seoul.

At a time when it had felt like my happiness depended on, not Jolene, but my ex of seven years, I suddenly had to deal with a life without him in a country where I’d only known my new friends for a month, if even that long. Friends back home begged me to return, desperate to help me through the pain in person, but I refused—because why should I leave when I had done nothing wrong? That’s not to say I was perfect. I had made mistakes too, although I’d never cheated. But still, I’m not proud of the way I handled my emotions in those early days following the breakup, especially.

In short, I didn’t cope well. The expat scene heavily leaned on drinking to socialize, so I’d get blackout drunk three or four times a week, smiling through my Haejang-guk (hangover soup) at dawn with new friends before I’d spend the next day crying in the shower, nursing my makgeolli hangover. I also turned to dating apps for the first time in my adult life, which is not a bad thing per se—I eventually met my husband through Tinder—but let’s just say choices were made, and they weren’t all good ones. Between my work schedule and the time difference, calling my friends back home was almost impossible during the week, so these random hookups gave me comfort in more ways than one. I was still on my own for a lot of those first few months though, crying in between episodes of Arrow—topless Stephen Amell got me through some of the worst of it—and lots of dramatic singalongs to songs, where I looked out the window and mouthed the words like I was in my very own music video. I wish I could tell you I was a teenager at that point but, no, I was 27.

Shakira’s eponymous album and Lana Del Rey‘s Ultraviolence were my go-to’s at the time—”You Don’t Care About Me” and “Cut Me Deep” cut deep, while “Cruel World” and “Sad Girl” both took on a whole new meaning—but I also found myself gravitating towards Jolene all of a sudden. Although I can’t pin down the moment when I decided to first give Dolly Parton’s album a listen, it probably had something to do with the fact that my ex’s mum loved her (and I assume still does). When I lost my ex, it also felt like I’d lost his family too, even though they continued to be kind and supportive for a long time after the break-up. Listening to Dolly—and also Joni Mitchell, one of his dad’s favorites—connected me to a time before every waking moment just hurt for months on end, a time when I didn’t have to pretend I was okay every time I left my apartment. It made me nostalgic for a life I’d once had, a life I thought I’d always have, no matter where he and I were together.

As the second song on Jolene so bluntly puts it, “There’s nothing quite as sad as a one-sided love,” and that was a pretty neat summation of how I felt back then—because I was still in love with my ex, of course. You can’t just switch that off overnight, no matter how much you might want to or try to through nights spent drinking or finding hookups. But that’s the gift of Dolly Parton. Whether she’s ecstatically happy, beaming like sunshine with that signature smile or if she’s heartbroken and begging someone to please not take her man, the Queen of Country always feels every feeling more than anyone has ever felt a feeling before. There’s no holding back, which is fun and kitsch when she’s pouring herself a cup of ambition before cracking on with that 9 to 5. But what about “when someone wants to leave as bad as you want them to stay?” What then, Dolly? The spoken word bridge of “I Will Always Love You” is so sad that it’s actually illegal in several countries, but for anyone who’s been in a relationship where one “doesn’t care at all and the other cares too much,” it’s the album’s second song, “When Someone Wants to Leave,” that hurts the most.

There’s certainly plenty of competition on the album for that honor though. “Lonely Comin’ Down,” originally recorded by Dolly’s ex showbiz partner Porter Wagoner, (the man who “I Will Always Love You” was actually written for), is devastating, too. Lines like “I felt the lonely dripping down my face as I realized no one could take your place” shouldn’t really work as well as they do, no matter which era they’re written in—yet Dolly’s undying commitment to stories of the heart, be it a blossoming affection or an agonizing loss of love, moves us regardless through sheer force of will, hitting harder than her goddaughter’s wrecking ball. The best kind of storytelling feels like it was written for you specifically, as if the writer in question lived your life ahead of time and recorded all the thoughts and feelings you were too caught up in to remember yourself. The deep cut “Living on Memories of You” was another example of that for me. Through deceptively simple songwriting, Dolly Parton spoke to me directly and even spoke for me with the words “Your memory keeps blocking my view” and “Your memory just won’t turn me loose.” Okay, sure, it didn’t help that I had go to staff meetings every day that were run the guy who was fucking my ex, but even after my boss left my school—and the country for that matter, too—the memories of what happened still took up a disproportionate amount of space in my brain.

It would be months until I went a day without sobbing so much that my eyes hurt, and it would be even longer until I stopped listening to “Jolene” every day for comfort—because Dolly is sentimental like no other, and crucially, she feels no shame in that regard. As a gay guy who was pretty suppressed for almost two decades straight, beyond terrified at the thought of anyone truly knowing me, there’s something so pure and appealing about the honesty behind Dolly’s craft. “Camp” means a lot of things to a lot of people, but for me, it’s that bold expression of feeling at its rawest—and often most ridiculous, where nothing is too big or loud to be felt and savored. That’s just as true whether the emotions in question are positive and joyful or painful or, even, embarrassing. Because I was embarrassed, deeply embarrassed. How could someone do all those things to you without it being your fault somehow? How could someone cheat so easily and choose the most hurtful way to go about it unless I had done something to deserve it? I know better now, 10 years later, but it took a long time to figure that out—and funnily enough, it was Dolly’s so-called “weaker” protagonists who helped me reach that understanding.

Dolly Parton’s characters are sometimes criticized for letting men call the shots, with “Jolene” perhaps being the prime example of this, yet her fear that someone may take her man is a very human reaction, especially in a world where cheating is, indeed, a thing. There’s always been a strength to Dolly’s musicality, from her business acumen to her commanding stage presence, and that strength is just as evident here in the openness of these lyrics too, if not more so. Because it’s not easy to admit weakness, to admit that you “cannot compete,” but how do you grow strong again if you can’t first admit that weakness to yourself? Before I could even begin to consider moving on from my break-up in any shape or form, I needed to wallow first; I needed to feel incredibly sorry for myself and cry about how life was unfair and that I had it worse than everyone else. That doesn’t feel great to admit, but characters like the protagonist of “Jolene” and also “Highlight of My Life” helped give me the space to feel “weak”—for lack of a better word—before I could build myself back up again.

To be clear, my ex was not the highlight of my life—and no man should be—but “Highlight of My Life” was the song that helped me start reckoning with what had happened from a slightly healthier perspective. I say “slightly” because there was still a lot of anger and hate swirling up in all that pain—I’m forever a Scorpio—but Dolly introduced me to the idea of kindness in a break-up, of relishing the “bittersweet memories” instead of just reveling in pure bitterness. About a year or so later, I told my ex that I forgave him for everything he’d done, that I wanted to move on and be friends. Looking back, I didn’t really mean it at first, not fully at least. I guess I just made that gesture knowing that it would make me the bigger person—and, eventually, it did, in the sense that it genuinely shifted something in me without me even realizing it. We hung out as friends a little bit on-and-off after that—in group settings—until I left Korea and never saw him again.

In hindsight, we weren’t right for each other at all. Or at least, we should have broken up a few years sooner, honestly. Whenever anyone asked us about getting married, even seven years in, we both dismissed it immediately—which is pretty telling now, looking back. I wonder how many mismatched queers from smaller towns end up together just because they don’t know any better. Still, there’s no point regretting anything. There were some good times, of course—there always are. He boosted my confidence at a time when I had none, and we laughed a lot over the dumbest of things. And when we did break up, I evolved more in that one formative year than I had in the entire 26 years that preceded it.

I still listen to Jolene, although to a much lesser degree, but what surprises me about that album now is that it doesn’t instantly transport me back to that time of my life like you might expect. I’ve consumed and devoured that record so much and so often that it’s just become a part of my DNA beyond any specific experience. I eventually moved on to other Dolly Parton masterpieces, including 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs, her collab album Trio with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, and yes, even Backwoods Barbie. And I did so without shame. Each one of those sequin-encrusted gems is a Grammy winner in this house regardless of whether they actually won anything or not—and regardless of how flamboyantly gay they might be, either. In fact, that became a huge part of their appeal to me.

The break-up almost broke me, but it also freed me. It opened up my world far beyond my hometown and my only gay adult relationship up until then. Suddenly, I was in a whole new country meeting new guys and embracing new queer experiences without the shame that had become so automatic up until that point. That came through in the music I learned to embrace, the way I now danced and even the way I spoke about my identity—a topic that I had always felt awkward bringing up in any way. Dolly’s right to say that “there’s nothing quite as sad as a one-sided love,” but, taking a page out of her glittering, relentless optimism, there’s also joy to be found in loving someone like Dolly from afar—and by doing so, learning to love yourself. Cheesy? Yes. But as Dolly Parton taught me, there’s nothing wrong with that.

David Opie is a freelance entertainment journalist. To hear his ramblings on queer film and TV, you can follow him @DavidOpie.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin