Chris Hamblin knows he's pushing it.
He chose "Knoxville Has a Whorehouse in It?!?! But We Love Jesus, Too!" as the theme for his second Night of 1,000 Dollies on Friday, April 3. He and acts ranging from the Salome Cabaret Girls, Nancy Brennan and Christina Horn will perform Dolly Parton numbers, Hamblin in a blond wig, a lavish bosom, and high heels.
There will be both a Dolly and a Burt Reynolds look-alike contest for audience members. "And one for the biggest boobs," quips the tall, muscular Hamblin in his deep Southern drawl. "No, they don't have to be real. I don't care how you make them big, just bring big titties."
Hamblin's chosen the Longbranch on Cumberland Avenue as his venue. "At 19, when I was trying to come out and all, I would not have set foot in the Longbranch, I would have gotten my ass kicked," says Hamblin, who's now 28 and a music major at the University of Tennessee.
Yes, Hamblin's pushing some unusual boundaries for Knoxville's club scene—but he's got his reasons. "This is my own personal way of trying to love my life, and my little activism," he says. "It takes balls to walk into the Longbranch in drag. To be visible. It's not always something I enjoy doing. But if we're going to progress as a people, somebody has got to do it."
The choice of the Longbranch was deliberate. "When I came back here in 2006, I started going with some friends, and before you knew it, I was family there," says Hamblin. "It really is a family place—not that you'd want to bring an 8-year-old there—and people there do really care. I know I can go in there in drag at any point and be safe, and I think that‘s a big deal—that gay, tranny, or whatever can go in there and be included."
Ironically, Hamblin says he does not feel the same support at traditionally gay venues in town. "Going there just makes me feel terrible," he says.
That was the norm growing up in Harrogate in rural Claiborne County, too, says Hamblin. "You know Dolly's song ‘Coat of Many Colors'? Everyone can relate, because everyone has been made fun of, has been hurt. But Dolly's mother made her the coat. I feel like I was born wearing the coat. I, who draw attention on the streets of New York, graduated in a class of 88 people. I stuck out a mile. It was not a pleasant upbringing, but it made me who I am. I always say I had to fight to learn who Bernadette Peters is."
Hamblin's lineage included farmers and miners and an unrelenting line of old-school Baptists. "My family was the church I grew up in," he says, "until I was determined to be ‘unfit to aid and worship because of an ongoing struggle with homosexuality.' That's pretty close to the exact wording."
The moratorium also banned him from playing at church services. "Music has always been my worship," he says, "how I connect with what I call God. When that was taken away, they took away my legacy."
A few years back, Hamblin thought there would be a replay. "I worked for one of the Catholic churches for about a year," he says. "About a month after I got that job, I heard the rumor that someone from the church found a picture of me as Dolly. I thought, ‘There went that job!' I went into the director of the youth program's office, waiting for the boom to fall, and she told me, ‘Yes, we did see the photo. And we're glad to have someone with such bold and diverse talents.' That's just one of the small steps you see being made in Knoxville."
Hamblin, who is a member of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, says the shooting there last summer by a man with an anti-gay bias snapped him out of complacency. "I realized the gay community, the queer community, we cannot fight our own battles. We have got to rely on our straight allies, we've got to integrate. We've been segregating ourselves all these years and it's not working."
Hamblin hopes he imitates Dolly's spirit, not just her outward appearance. "My grandmother has made me dresses to be Dolly in. That's how comfortable Dolly makes us feel," he says. "A beer-drinking redneck can sit next to a drag queen and have a good time, and we can all sing along to ‘Jolene.' I hope I can bring the love that Dolly represents into town. And I hope people realize how political it is to step onto the Strip in drag."
And if they don't? "At the worst, you get drunk and have a good time," says Hamblin. "You watch some queen make a fool of himself for five bucks, and how can you beat that?"