It was “Jolene” that did it, of course.
“Jolene.” “Jolene,” “Jolene,” “JolEEne.”
As if woven by the delicate hands of the Moirai themselves, the song ... of all that could have been plucked from my massive library of playlists ... was the one that began to play during the short morning drive from our home to Arlie’s school.
On its own, Dolly Parton’s 1974 classic heartbreaker might not have unearthed the horrifying revelation about its author that was to follow. But I so rarely have a captive audience that wants to hear me pontificate about music. My wife doesn’t want to hear it. She’s got those velociraptor smarts and has, for reasons I may never comprehend, stuck around me long enough to recognize any statements I make about pop culture as the bloviated stabs at pseudo-intellectual commentary that they are.
Arlie, on the other hand ... heck, she’s only been around for five years, one of which has been wasted in near total social isolation. She has neither the life experience nor the psychological wherewithal to identify when I’m full of it. That makes her the perfect target for my chiffon-thin musings on beloved country music songs.
So, as that longing guitar lick carried us from the chorus into the second verse, I made known my own opinion of the well-established fact that it was “One of the greatest songs ever recorded.”
“It is?” my tiny daughter said from the backseat, her voice filled with wonder.
“Sure is,” I said with the confidence of a man who has opinions he never has to defend.
“Why?” she said.
This, I must admit, caught me off guard. I’m not sure why. If there’s one word that’s always on my daughter’s lips ... one question that’s always set to be asked of any statement, order, off-hand comment or request ... it’s “Why?”
“Well,” I said, struggling to find my reasoning on the fly. “Because it’s beautiful. And it’s one of those rare songs that’s both sad but somehow not depressing. It’s kind of a toe-tapper, a head-bobber. You want to sing along.”
“Who sings it?” she said.
“I love her,” Arlie said.
That one made me smile. Who doesn’t love Saint Dolly?
“So do I,” I told her.
Arlie’s next question should have been another obvious one. So of course I didn’t expect it.
“Well ... um ... She’s a woman.”
“And she has hair?”
“Yeah,” I said. “According to the song. Auburn hair.”
“Oh,” she said, seemingly satisfied. “Why is she going to take Dolly Parton’s man?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Because she can.”
“Well ... uh ... She’s beautiful, I suppose.”
“And Dolly Parton’s not?”
“Sure she is. Sure she is. But I suppose, in the story of the song, Jolene is more beautiful.”
Arlie silently contemplated this as Ms. Parton continued the chorus a few more times. As the music grew quieter, her voice rose into that final, haunted falsetto wail of “Jolene” before fading into silence.
“Can I hear the song again?” Arlie said.
“I suppose so,” I said, tapping the track button on my steering wheel. The guitar lick started again.
“Daddy? Is Jolene a bad guy?”
This one really gave me pause.
“I don’t think so,” I said, feeling my way through the answer to a question I’d never really considered. “I don’t think she’s done anything other than be who she is. The song never says she does take Dolly’s man ... only that Dolly knows she could because she’s so beautiful. That and because he apparently dreams about her. But, I mean, there’s no indication that he’s going to leave Dolly for Jolene, or that Jolene is even interested in him if he wanted to. Dolly’s just projecting insecurities about her own physical beauty onto Jolene, which doesn’t really seem fair.
“So, I guess, if there is a ‘bad guy’ in the song, it would have to be ... um ... Dolly Parton. I suppose.”
I pulled into the line of cars and stared as innocent children jumped from the vehicles. Reality seemed unmoored and spinning out of control. I felt nauseous.
“But, Daddy,” Arlie said. She sounded distressed. “I like Dolly Parton.”
“So did I,” I whispered to myself.