The girl singer has songs to break your heart.

Dolly Parton back when she was just the girl singer.
Dolly Parton back when she was just the girl singer.

The bus begins picking up its passenger in the early morning hours while the frost still lies heavy on the fields around Nashville. The sun, hanging above the tree line like a large gold coin, has chased the clouds from the sky but has not been able to work its way through the chill.

The passengers are cold, sleepy, worn out, and worn down by the miles they have left behind them, by the miles they still have to go. Sleep is the only stranger that has climbed on the bus with them. None would dare leave it at the station. Sleep is the only worthwhile commodity they still possess, and it is often as fickle as a broken heart and a broken guitar string in a broken down beer joint on either the right or the wrong side of town. It’s difficult to tell them apart anymore. The star doesn’t even try.

He will play any stage of any size in any town. He’ll sing to a crowd that’s packed to the last row, hanging from the rafters, or barely filling the benches down front. But he won’t play a club. Not anymore. Not even a hefty payday can lure him inside. The star likes to sing a hymn every now and then. The message is lost when a tear-stained cross is misplaced or tossed aside in a beer-stained bar.

The bus ambles through the morning, dipping past dip signs and pine trees, and strips of rubber tires that trucks have left behind, lying useless and crippled by the side of the road. It is rolling down a highway that has no shortest distance between two points. It grinds past a no-passing sign, and the fiddle player wonders if he’ll ever pass this way again, or if it’s the third time he’s passed it this week. He’s lost count.

The star is the tall man, the thin man, the man who can sing a sad song with the best of them. Porter Wagoner sings about the lonely and frightened man who awaits a guard and a sad old padre, a man who waits to walk at daybreak and dreams, once again, about the green, green grass of home.

He sings of the girl who was crying when he met but cries harder today, and he tells us not to blame her because life turned her that way. He sings of the day Walter Browning died in the Carroll County accident, and don’t forget the matchbox circled by a rubber band that held the golden wedding ring from Walter Browning’s hand. He wants us to remember the cold, hard facts of life and the forgotten, forsaken dreams of Sid Row Joe.

He can sing a sad song. It’s what he does best and what he does as many as two hundred and fifty nights a year. On one tour of the east, he and his Wagonmasters performed twelve nights in a row, and all of the shows were at least eight hundred and seventy miles apart.

It’s a tiring, a demanding, and an unforgiving business. The road takes no prisoners and heals no pains. No one likes it. No one wants to go another mile. No one would ever quit the chance to feel the warmth of that spotlight in their face one more time.

He sings the sad songs.

He can make hard hearts cry.

The sad songs make him a million dollars year.

I leave the star on the big bus where he belongs. He’s the man. He has the hits.  The bus is the height of luxury and country sophistication. It’s much like a den and bedroom on wheels. It would be on silk stocking row if buses were allowed.

The bus heads toward sundown. It goes on without me.

I’m with the girl singer, and she rides behind the bus and the big boss man in a small RV that’s little more than a wall-to-wall mattress. It’s all she needs. She lies there propped up on a pile of pillows, strumming her guitar, singing news songs, old songs, and songs she’s making up, writing down, and, more than likely, throwing away. The lyrics come easy. So do the melodies. The road gives her plenty of time to try them all, make a few changes here and there, keep the ones she likes, and determine which words fit which melodies. She has just finished writing a song she likes a lot. It’s called “Jolene.”

She is striking. Her smile can melt or break any heart, and it’s done both. Her eyes are penetrating. They laugh even when she doesn’t. Her massive blonde hair falls in waves and completely overwhelms the pillow. Anyone who has seen her will not forget her for a couple of reasons.

The time has come when the stars all needed a girl singer. The ladies have names. They have talent. But they are only known as the girl singers.

I try to sit down as the RV rolls along. There is no chair, only a mattress, a wall-to-wall mattress. I lean back against the bed frame as we top the mountains, descend into the valley, and click off the miles to Scottsboro. It’s a long ride.

She fills the miles with her recollections. No, she says, she doesn’t mind riding alone in a little RV behind the big bus. Yes, she says, she has always wanted to be a country singer. No, she says, she’s not jealous of the star. Yes, she says, she is quite happy just being the girl singer in the band. Yes, she says, she grew up singing in church. Yes, she says, she started singing on the radio when she was ten years old. Yes, she says, she graduated from high school on a Friday night, then boarded a bus and left Saturday morning for the misfortunes and misconceptions of Nashville. Yes, she says, she brought a guitar and a suitcase with more songs than clothes along with her. No, she says, she did not know what she would do when she hit town. No, she says, she never doubted that somebody would listen to those songs and let her sing a few. She tosses her massive wave of blonde hair, smiles a warm smile, wraps her arms tenderly around a guitar, crosses her legs, and says softly, “Of course, being a girl didn’t hurt any.”

The shadows of a late afternoon are climbing down the mountains when the bus at last groans to a stop. The tires have lost their whine and the rhythm of the road. Porter walks toward the gym in his Nashville Nudie suit encased with enough glittering rhinestones to make the fading stars hide their faces in shame. He is the only star who counts on a Saturday night in Scottsboro.

The girl singer steps down from the RV, dressed, as always, in a country dress that barely covers her petticoats. Lord, she has lots of petticoats. Porter is the star. Her smile out-glitters his rhinestones.

We have left the wall-to-wall mattress behind. She turns, places her arm gently around my waist, and whispers with a musical twist to her giggle, “Now you can tell all of your friends that you’ve been to bed with Dolly Parton.”

I nod.

I just did.

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