Wildflowers and a Wig
One of the most enduring mysteries of my childhood – and there were many – was Dolly Parton’s wig. My mother mentioned it once in passing, in the car I seem to remember – we spent a lot of time in the car and it was the perfect time for any of Mum’s offhand comments, or one of the seemingly endless facts she possessed, to take flight in my mind. Strapped in and with nowhere to be, I could stare out the window and let the brand-new information settle, fill in the cracks, grow roots. Unlike adults, whose brains are more concrete, immovable, children take a fact and divide it instantaneously into approximately forty-five questions. Dolly wore a wig? Did she have hair underneath, or was she bald? What colour was her real hair, if not that miraculous doll blonde? Mum shrugged, probably brown. Brown? Dolly’s hair was brown? Did she have it on all the time? Didn’t it itch? Did she take it off to sleep? She probably has lots of them, Mum speculated, with the sense of aplomb adults have, decades of making sense of things behind them. Adults forget what is like for everything to be new, for everything to be fascinatingly, unendingly, hugely new. I wondered if Dolly had a room full of wigs and why she even wore one in the first place. Mum seemed to think she wasn’t bald, but why would you wear a wig unless you had no hair? Did she not like her own hair? How many other people were wearing wigs that I didn’t know about? (I had, of course, read The Witches, I knew they wore wigs.) Mostly, though, I wondered what was underneath and if, after a long day singing, she dug her fingers underneath those extraordinary yellow curls and shook out her short brown hair underneath, allowing an entirely new Dolly to sit down at the dinner table.
In 1992, I was seven when Dolly – Greatest Hits was released. The cover was a blue geometric pattern with Dolly in the foreground, resplendent in the tightest red sweater (as Americans said) with those curls set in a perfect sphere above her dimpled face. I can’t quite recall if I was given it for my birthday (January 24th, five days after Dolly’s) or Christmas, but that cassette was the beginning of everything for me and Dolly. It was to become clear that in my seven years, I had never heard anyone sing like her. No one could sing like her. Not Olivia Newton-John (whose cassette of greatest hits, Back to Basics, I also received that year) not even Linda Ronstadt whose maroon-covered Greatest Hits I would later listen to endlessly. Not Dad’s favourite, Joan Baez, not Mum’s favourite Carole King (although we can all agree Carole was a songwriter, not a singer.) Not anyone. I spent hours performing Two Doors Down and Islands in the Stream to the rumpus room sofa, belting out the mournful Here You Come Again, the twanging Applejack. The more energetic 9-5 involved choreography, the pounding beginning and rallying chorus lending themselves to more theatrical scenes my sister would usually willingly involve herself in. It would be years until I would understand any of it – the feminism, the sweet heartache, the bittersweetness of nostalgia, the cleverness of creating an image and letting people buy it, but not you. (And certainly not your music, Elvis.) But something about the songbird from the Smoky Mountains spoke to my seven-year-old soul, growing up on Sydney’s rural outskirts on the other side of the world.
As I got older, I listened a little less to Dolly, although I did get Hungry Again for Christmas and played Blue Valley Songbird over and over again, seduced by the story of the young girl who could sing like a bird and write like a poet. The romance of it all, the adventure, the trilling anger that was the chorus of Salt in My Tears. You cheated, you lied and you hurt me, over and over again. But then there was Hanson to focus on and country music wasn’t particularly cool – although nor were Hanson, and nor was I, really. Then came all the bambi-eyed young girls with their flat stomachs and flat voices and the 2000s took off with a cacophony of mixed messages about women and what it was to be one. The Dixie Chicks arrived and I swapped Wildflowers for Wide Open Spaces. Later, the boys with their shaggy hair and heartfelt vocals and live gigs took precedence. These white boys called Jamie with their guitars and pianos. But Dolly pulled me back. When I was twenty, she came out with Those Were the Days. The theatre of her Imagine is where I first encountered the breadth of her voice and it still makes me cry. That throaty line – I’m not the only one. My God, Dolly, no, you’re not. Then there was the light, running-creek Creep on In with Nora Jones and the full throttle Bobby Mcgee, the banjo-fuelled Both Sides Now. Dolly and I were back.
When I was twenty-five, I hitched a ride with the wind and wound up in an apartment on a tree-lined avenue in Germany’s Bilderbuch Münster. My bedroom was a higgledy-piggledy collection of furniture from my generous flatmate and her generous family, books I had acquired on my travels and a huge old desk from friends. On my walls, I stuck postcards sent to me by the friends I had made that dusty summer on Santorini. They kept travelling after the island, looking for work here and there, or spending the money they had saved for their once in a lifetime trip, winding their way through an autumnal and then wintry Europe. Along with the postcards, I stuck bits of paper with German words and expressions, with zero regard for conjugation. German would elude me for years yet. And on one piece of paper, I wrote, ‘wildflowers don’t care where they grow.’ It was a cutely fitting lyric, a line and it would come to be a mantra during a time in my life I had no idea where I would grow or how. Or indeed, if. I kept that piece of paper when I moved down to Weiden. I packed it away and it stayed safe when I went home to Australia and it came with me when I moved up to Kiel, ready to try and grow in Germany’s north. I still have it, in a little box of postcards and letters and bits and pieces from the past decade.
Of all the Dolly songs I have played my children, Wildflowers is the one they sing to themselves. They’ll hum it when they’re drawing, or stacking cards, or reading. They love Applejack – the idea of an old man and Dolly jamming in a shack somewhere in the Smoky Mountains delights them. But it’s so I uprooted myself from my hometown and left that I always hear, in the quiet of the house, when they’re busying themselves somewhere. It’s like they know. I hope they know. The wind was my friend and I let him decide where to go and he led me to them. May he lead them too.
There is the most beautiful photo of Dolly without a wig. In it, she’s young and astonishingly pretty. It’s a photo from well before the decade I made my acquaintance with her glamour, her big blonde hair on the cassette cover of her Greatest Hits. She’s almost unrecognisable. I remember thinking, when I first saw it, why would you want to change the way you look when you look like that? But of course, I got to know Dolly in her late forties. She’s twenty in that photo. We’re all astonishingly pretty at twenty. For Dolly, often on tour and on stage, wigs were the most practical way of maintaining an image she was fiercely protective and in control of. It has taken me a long time but I think, as an adult, I have solved the enduring mystery of Dolly’s wig. Dolly wears a wig because she wants to wear a wig. Could I have understood that as a child? The inherent control, the protection of one’s self and image, the strength in doing that as a woman in the industry she did? No. Just like I couldn’t have understood the sadness of heartbreak and loss, the resignation of unrequited love, the bittersweetness of nostalgia. But I came to understand it just like I came to grow in a place so far from home. I think we all have our wigs, don’t we.
There will come a day I’ll have to tell the kids Dolly wears a wig. I hope there comes a day they’ll understand why.