#301: Dolly Parton, "Coat of Many Colors" (1971)

I don’t know how or when I am getting home. This work trip is ill-timed; we manage to arrive in Charleston during the only disgusting part of the year—January—and stay just long enough to catch a winter storm enveloping the greater part of the East Coast, just in time for the weekend. The storm is so big that it hasn’t arrived, but our morning flight out is canceled more than 24 hours in advance. Our airline offers flights two days from now, but can’t guarantee that my two colleagues and I can get on the same plane. We work our evening event and go back to the hotel, where I call up the airline again. The operator gives me even bleaker news, just as we’re getting ready for bed: no flights for three more days. My anxiety is through the roof and I struggle not to panic as I settle into a bed in the room I am sharing with one of my coworkers, because it’s been the kind of trip where there are no moments to yourself.

I can’t sleep. I start looking up rental cars. It is late but I am moments away from a full panic attack, my stomach tied so completely in knots that it is a wonder I don’t throw up. I text my boss and run the idea of a rental by her. It’s only eight hours’ drive. If we leave right when the rental car company opens, we might make the trip north before the storm hits our hometown. I expect my boss will shoot down the idea, but she confesses that they have their car ready and are planning to leave before dawn. I call my coworker in the next room over; we are all in agreement that we’ll only do it if we can rent a car with four- or all-wheel drive. There is one car available at the airport, so we order a taxi.

On the way to the airport, it’s already raining. It’s not even gone 6 o’clock yet and none of us have eaten, or had coffee. We beat the car rental employee to her desk. It is shockingly simple to sign our rights away and acquire the car, which is parked so far away that we are drenched with rain by the time we sling our bags into the trunk. I drive first. In the dark the rain feels like too much, but I white knuckle my way out of Charleston proper with my tongue stuck so hard to the roof of my mouth that it goes bone dry. I’m too nervous to drink water. At some point, I start to wonder if what’s hitting the windshield is rain or sleet. About an hour outside Charleston, we stop at a rest area. I barely make it to the toilet in time to relieve myself, making this the closest I’ve ever come to shitting my pants.

My more confident coworker takes the wheel. I get in the back and take small sips of water. We playfully argue about the radio. The energy in the car is forcefully cheerful. We flip animatedly between the XM radio stations. There’s one that always seems to be playing Adele, and the pop one with all the Panic! at the Disco, and for one really brief moment there’s Dolly with “Coat of Many Colors,” before my coworker in the passenger seat exclaims, “Ugh, I HATE country,” and flips back to the previous channel. There is definitely snow on the road.

We make it three more hours before the road is so thick with accumulated ice that we can’t do anything but coast to the exit with the nearest hotel and roll gingerly into the parking lot, tires crunching. I book one room for the three of us and sit on the phone with a rental car agent what-if-ing about what will happen when we can’t return the car within 24 hours. I learn that we are in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. I learn that there isn’t much to learn about Roanoke Rapids. It used to be a mill town, but the mills closed. ~16,000 people live here. A cursory Google search turfs up the unemployment rate—“nearly 13%.”

There is one good scandal: Carolina Crossroads, an entertainment development aimed at bringing more tourism to the area. Roanoke Rapids is about halfway between New York and Florida; it’s close enough to Richmond and Raleigh, just off I-95. Back in 2005, they need a guy to be the face of the entertainment area. We’re talking hotels, shopping, movie theater, aquarium, amphitheatre for live acts….$20 million dollars’ worth of plans. They hire Randy Parton, brother of Dolly herself, to manage the whole setup and hand over $3 million for him to oversee. They find out not long after the theater opens that Randy has spent a fair chunk of the money on himself and hosted unauthorized events in the theater, like his daughter’s wedding reception. Back at my hotel, the receptionist calls Randy a “first-class swindler” when I ask her about Carolina Crossroads. I get the feeling it is still something of a sore subject, 10 years later. I ask her what her favorite Dolly Parton song is, and she says “Jolene.”

“Jolene” clocks in at #219 on Rolling Stone’s “Top 500 Songs of All Time,” while Coat of Many Colors only rides the album list down to #301. This album is a short one, and it’s over before you’re ready. None of the songs run over three and a half minutes. The entire record is under thirty minutes long, total. It is small and gutsy and while it’s not lyrically complex, this is not a record that shies away from grappling with issues. In the span of a half hour, Dolly’s childhood and adolescence are over. In the first song, her mom makes her a coat of rags, like Joseph’s; in the second, her mom runs away with her boyfriend. I listen to this album alone in our one hotel room while my coworkers are doing work down in the lobby. I stifle a really stupid sounding giggle when I realize the last lyric in the album is, “Everybody take your brother's hand and sing my song with me.”

I think one of the reasons we make it home the next morning—after spending an hour cracking away at the inch-thick layer of ice encasing the car—is telling stories. We leave the radio off. The plows have tried to work overnight. We know it’s about three hours home and we try to shoot for the gap in the weather on brown, slushy roads that are, in all honesty, barely passable. I sit in the back seat and tell every ridiculous story I’ve ever heard, interrupting myself to suggest that my coworker merge to the other side of the road; it looks slightly clearer over there. I tell them about the episode of 99% Invisible with the pigeon milk. I tell them about DJ Khaled getting lost on a jet ski and using Snapchat to call for help. I tell them about Randy Parton and Carolina Crossroads. The road goes all white about ten miles from our exit.

By the time we make it to Charlottesville, everything is so blanketed in snow that we can’t see the turn for the exit, but we coast into town, rolling past people in the streets on skis, until we get to the garage and park. We’re not dressed for the weather, and two of us aren’t even home yet. My coworkers make tracks to a restaurant staffed by locals happily pouring shots at lunchtime. My partner walks a mile in the snow carrying water, whiskey, and a pair of hiking boots; we make it back home, cold, disbelieving, and just beginning to feel the warmth from the booze.

It’s easy to mythologize the past; you can tell one side of something that happened long enough ago that there isn’t anyone around to tell you no. This holiday season, Dolly Parton will reprise the role of herself in the made-for-TV special, “Christmas of Many Colors,” the story of her humble beginnings sewn into a narrative about a Christmas miracle loosely based in her life’s story. The city of Roanoke Rapids has a Wikipedia page that spends more time dragging its way through the city’s brief association with Randy Parton than on the hundreds of years of history before and a good ten years since. I write down my side of this story without telling my coworkers, because it’s simpler or because I think my version is right, I don’t know. What does Dolly owe to her past, or Randy to Roanoke Rapids (aside from $3 million), or me to these women? I don’t know. But I do giggle when Dolly sings the last line off the last track on Coat of Many Colors, “A Better Place to Live”: “Everybody take your brother's hand and sing my song with me.”

—Helen Alston