By James Barker, Staff Writer
When I heard that Justin Hiltner (International Bluegrass Music Association nominee) was releasing some Dolly Parton covers, I knew I had to cover them. Justin was kind enough to give us an exclusive premiere on one of them, “Wildflowers” (at bottom), and chat with us about the making of these tracks.
You may remember Justin’s appearance on the “Dolly Parton’s America” podcast, where he talked about particular queer resonances within her songs. For Hiltner, his covers of “Wildflowers” and “Silver Dagger” perfectly describe milestone moments in a gay man’s life, specifically his.
“Wildflowers” was originally recorded by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt for their phenomenal album “Trio” in 1987, and Hiltner’s version pays homage with Marcy Marxer and Cathy Fink recreating that sublime three-part harmony, with Hiltner’s voice embodying Parton’s characteristic vibrato in places.
At the same time, Hiltner truly makes “Wildflowers” his own, with his distinct tone that retells the song’s story to one that truly fits queer experiences. Hiltner explains, “The entire narrative, which parallels Dolly’s own story, oozes of queerness and queer ideals — of leaving something behind to strive for something more.”
As one of the pioneers within queer country over the past eight years, with a reputation for playing excellent “sad, gay banjo songs”, Hiltner’s high energy, Scruggs-style picking, not to mention his fantastic voice, has gained well deserved recognition across newgrass, country and folk. With a full album coming this fall, these songs will have to be enough to tide us over. The good news: they are.
Hiltner also agreed to talk with us ahead of the songs’ release. As a big Dolly geek myself, I had some burning questions to ask, and his in depth responses were some of the most compelling words on queer country that I have ever encountered.
JB: I remember you speaking on “Dolly Parton’s America” and you spoke about both “Silver Dagger” and “Wildflowers”. What is it about these songs to you that you think LGBTQ+ listeners can relate to?
JH: What’s funny is that when Shima and Jad, the producers of “Dolly Parton’s America”, reached out to me to speak about the homoerotics – or more simply, the LGBTQ+ themes – in Dolly’s music, “Wildflowers” was first on the list and “Silver Dagger” wasn’t on the list at all! But through our conversations and interviews together, Shima helped me realize that “Silver Dagger,” the first Dolly Parton song I ever learned on banjo, was actually a pretty good analog for my own experience coming out of the closet and the ways my parents tried to keep me sheltered and sequestered from queerness and my identity.
My parents were holding me under a version of their own silver dagger, their own beliefs and traumas being used to hem me in and hold me back from living my truth. I’m so grateful to the podcast, not only for including me in their incredible storytelling, but for helping me unpack a little more of my own story through the lens of Dolly’s music. “Silver Dagger” means so much more to me now, and the queerness inherent in a masculine-identified person singing “She says that I can’t be your bride” hits me so hard, now.
“Wildflowers” is much more obvious to me, the way it parallels so many queer experiences. Queer folks know so viscerally the feeling of being choked by our natural surroundings and wanting a place to spread out, breathe, and grow into our true selves. I’ve found so much comfort in this song over the years after I left home and moved to Nashville, and the more I sing it and return to it the more I feel it typifies the nomadic tendencies of queerness and our constant craving for a place that feels like home, a place to put down roots – while still sowing our oats.
JB: Your recording of “Wildflowers” is a three-part harmony with Marcy Marxer and Cathy Fink. What was it like recording this song and what do you hope audiences get from it?
JH: The more I work with women in the studio, in the control room, and in mastering and engineering, the more I realize that toxic masculinity has always held me back in music – consciously and subconsciously. I’m so grateful to Cathy and Marcy for their mentorship, for their talent and expertise, and for the ways they enabled me to come into recording these singles – and my upcoming solo album debut, 1992, which I also tracked with them – totally unencumbered and unanxious.
Plus, it means so much to me to point a spotlight on folks like Cathy and Marcy, who blazed the trail for folks like me in bluegrass. We have to tell these stories of cross-generational activism in roots music! We have to make sure people know that queerness in roots music is not a product of the 21st century, queer folks have always existed in these spaces.
JB: When Parton is discussed in relation to her significance to LGBTQ+ audiences, sometimes it is her more pop material that gets highlighted, so having the focus on her more bluegrass, country folk material is refreshing. Was this something you were conscious of doing when you were recording these songs?
JH: I’m not sure I would phrase it quite this way myself, because it’s not that I’m simply conscious of that fact, necessarily, but instead it’s that my entire existence in music is colored by these exact assumptions about roots music – that roots music “belongs” to white, rural, southern, Christian straight folks first and foremost and that LGBTQ+ folks can only lay claim to urban places, electronic and pop and hyper-pop music that centers on dance, and so on.
Like I said earlier, queer folks have always existed in roots music and in rural locales – 35% of queer folks in this country live in the South and in Appalachia. So, while most of the queer community and most queer stereotypes don’t allow for the possibility that queerness could be interwoven into these rootsy cultural and artistic expressions, I started playing banjo when I was seven years old; my existence is positive proof that queerness isn’t just tangential to Dolly’s country and bluegrass music, it’s central to it – just as Dolly’s performance of campy femininity is couched firmly in rootsy, rural culture.
I interact and engage with queerness and homoerotics and gay themes in Dolly’s more folky, rootsy, bluegrassy music – and others’ – first and foremost! Which is not to say her more mainstream, disco, and pop outings aren’t also dripping with queerness and queer coding, they are, but the country stuff is too, and it deserves that recognition for sure.
How do you think Parton is relevant to conversations within country music at the moment, and, speaking as someone writing their PhD on Dolly Parton, do you think there is a danger of focusing too much on her, potentially over LGBTQ+ and BIPOC artists?
JH: I love this question, because a couple of years ago when Kacey Musgraves swept the Grammy Awards, I wrote an article entitled ‘Kacey Musgraves is Country’s New Queer Icon, But These Roots Artists are Actually Queer.’ Historically, especially in roots music, there have been so few queer forebears that we naturally look to women like Dolly Parton and Kacey Musgraves to give ourselves a means to access these musics and these communities, but that does indeed end up eclipsing the stories, perspectives, and music made by actual queer folks in these spaces, who don’t have the economic access, networks, and means to make as big of a splash as these bigger artists.
I’m constantly trying to point people to queer artists and musicians in these spaces. Especially queer folks like myself who have been out for our entire careers – and not just using coming out as a tool for slingshotting a record release into the PR stratosphere. While the masses flock to Dolly, Kacey, Brandi, Orville, and these flashier, famous, rhinestoned queer country divas, I want to make sure that our communities are also including the red dirt, back roads, flat bed pickup, homespun, family band, pulled up by their own rainbow bootstraps queer musicians who have been carving out communities and livings for themselves in roots music all along, whether the “industry” has known about them, included them, or excluded them.
There are hundreds of us! The narrative just doesn’t really allow for our inclusion all of the time. Dolly is an entry point, but the world of queer country, old-time, and bluegrass is expansive and worth exploring beyond just the biggest, brightest, flashiest divas and superstars in cowboy boots. You can find a family here, too, a community and a support system. My favorite feeling in the world is tripping over/into a new queer country friend – I hope that my music and this release can at least serve as a connection point for growing that community!
“Silver Dagger”/“Wildflowers” will be available April 30th on all major platforms.