When Dolly Parton looks out from her traveling two-story stage Wednesday night, she?ll see one of the most diverse crowds this region has to offer.
Young and old, gay and straight. Castro drag queens in platform shoes beside Sonoma County ranchers in Wranglers and boy-howdy belt buckles ? all singing ?I Will Always Love You? while gathered under the same roof for a Valentine?s Day hootenanny.
?When you go to one of her shows, homophobia just disappears,? says Gary Wilson, an accountant and fifth-generation Healdsburg resident whose family was one of the first to plant grapes in the Dry Creek region back in the 1880s.
At the other end of the spectrum, 23-year-old gay Web designer Chris Walls is flying out from Manhattan for the kickoff of Parton?s latest tour at the Grace Pavilion. He?s been maintaining www.dolly on-line.com ? the largest Web site devoted to the country singer ? since he was 13. Her greatest hits album turned him on at the age of 8.
?Hands down, she has the most diverse audience at her shows,? he says. ?You have everyone from the elderly who followed her since the ?60s ? the grandma crowd ? to the younger crowd like me and the middle-aged gay crowd and the rednecks. There?s literally someone representing every section of society.?
It?s old news to Dolly.
?Even drag-queen ranchers,? she says, taking a break from the recording studio in Nashville. ?I bet I got a few of them.
?Sometimes I look out and see Dolly look-alikes ? drag queens who look more like me than I do. But it?s always so funny, those drag queens usually they?re about 6 feet tall, plus they put those high-heels on and they?re about 6-foot-5. I?m a tiny little ol? thing. I think that?s my dream of what I oughta look like.?
A gay icon and a country legend, all propped up under the same wig, she?s accustomed to a circus wherever she goes.
?I love them all. The little kids kind of relate to me because my name?s Dolly and my voice is squeaky and little and I have a childlike nature and I?m cartoonish looking.
?The middle-aged and older people relate to my stories from rags to riches and my spiritual background.
?And the gays and the lesbians and the drag queens, they love me for accepting everybody as they are.?
For decades, Parton has scoffed at gay rumors second-guessing her relationship with her longtime personal assistant. When People magazine asked her about it in 2003, she made it clear: ?We?re not lovers. Never have been. I love men.?
Especially gay men. More than any other Nashville star, she?s managed to cultivate a huge gay following in a genre that?s never been accused of being particularly gay-friendly. Ask singer k.d. lang, who started out in country back in the ?80s before fleeing to pop in the ?90s when country fans and radio stations didn?t really take to her. And country music icon Willie Nelson?s 2006 recording of ?Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly (Fond of Each Other),? almost revolutionary in its title alone, was more of a ?Brokeback Mountain? joke than a confession.
But, at 61, Dolly?s appeal transcends genre. Five decades into her career, the Smoky Mountains songbird is as relevant today as when she hopped on the Grand Ole Opry stage at age 12.