By BEN R. WILLIAMS
Several years ago, I saw Unknown Hinson perform live.
There aren’t too many nationally touring musicians that I make the effort to go see, but Unknown was one of them. The alias of a North Carolina native and studio musician named Stuart Baker, Unknown (named after his father … get it?) is a talented guitar player who combines psychobilly rock with comedy and dresses like Dracula’s country cousin, complete with a black suit, big sideburns, and a pistol full of blanks.
I saw Unknown Hinson at Awful Arthur’s at Towers Mall in Roanoke. Awful Arthur’s is gone but my memories from the show live on.
It was the first time I’d seen Unknown live, and I had a blast. His set was great. I met a couple of folks that I remain friends with to this day. I bought an Unknown Hinson T-shirt and got my picture taken with the man himself. Perhaps most notably, I got to listen to “Torture Town,” my favorite Unknown Hinson song, while standing directly behind one of my ex-girlfriends. That wasn’t exactly fun but it was certainly poignant.
And then, last week, something deeply unfortunate happened.
A friend of mine — one of the same friends I first met at the Unknown Hinson concert, in fact — posted a series of screenshots from Stuart Baker’s Facebook page, the real-life guy behind the Draculated alter-ego.
In these posts, Mr. Baker responded to a recent Billboard interview with country icon Dolly Parton. Dolly was asked whether she supported the Black Lives Matter movement, and she did not mince words.
“I understand people having to make themselves known and felt and seen,” she said. “And of course black lives matter. Do we think our little white a**** are the only ones that matter? No!”
While you probably noticed that I censored a word in Dolly’s quote, Mr. Baker’s rebuttal is not worth quoting at length, both because it is harder to censor while still maintaining the meaning and because it is pointlessly cruel in a way that does not bear repeating. Suffice it to say, he had some offensive words directed toward Dolly, followed by a comment suggesting that anyone upset by his words is “un-American” and is “forsaking (their) own race, culture, and heritage.”
In a prepared statement that inevitably followed once the backlash hit, Mr. Baker apologized for his words and any offense he may have caused. Although he also said in the statement, “I don’t know what else you want from me. If you’re not satisfied with my apology, just tell me what else you want.” That sounds less like an apology than like something you would yell at your wife after she got on your case about how you took drunk and threw up at her garden party.
In any case, I am of the firm belief that once you hurl cruelties at Dolly Parton, you have crossed a point of no return. The woman is a saint. Even ignoring her considerable musical talents and her acclaimed acting career, this is the woman who established Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which mails free books (one per month!) to 850,000 enrolled children from the time of their birth to the time they enter kindergarten. This is the woman who founded a theme park just because she wanted to do something nice for her home county (and today, with 3,000 employees, Dollywood is the number one employer in Sevier County, Tennessee). If I were to list in this column every good deed that Dolly Parton has ever performed, you would need a forklift to pick up this newspaper. She is objectively one of the best human beings alive today.
Stuart Baker could not have picked a worse time and a worse target, and the blowback was swift. Reverend Guitars immediately ceased manufacture of their Unknown Hinson signature model. Cartoon Network unceremoniously dropped Baker from the cartoon “Squidbillies,” despite the fact that he has voiced the lead character for 15 years. To make matters worse, he recently had to stop touring due to osteoarthritis making it difficult to play the guitar.
There are those who will say that this is an example of “cancel culture.” They will say that oversensitive, progressive-minded dweebs love nothing more than to see famous people publicly destroyed.
Well, I’m here to tell you that I don’t agree with any of Mr. Baker’s past comments, but there’s nothing about this situation that I’m enjoying. Mostly, it just makes me feel depressed.
I’m sad that a man whose creative output I greatly enjoyed managed to throw away his career in a span of seconds. I’m sad that this same man’s health issues will prevent him from continuing to pursue his passion, or at least limit his ability to do so.
But I’m also sad that Mr. Baker’s comments have sullied my memory of a great experience in my life. I’m sad that I won’t be able to think back on that wonderful show or listen to “Torture Town” without immediately thinking of his hateful words. Maybe some people can separate the art from the artist, but I’m not one of them. I can’t even watch a Tom Cruise movie without wondering if he’s checked his body thetans lately.
We are living in the most polarized period in our nation’s history since the Civil War, and for me and so many people I’ve talked to, situations like this have been the hardest part. It’s difficult to find out that someone you know and respect harbors a level of hatred in their heart that you had never conceived of, that someone you like believes large swaths of humanity are undeserving of basic human decency —and if you don’t agree with them, then you don’t deserve decency either.
At times like this, I try to seek out the wisdom of someone wise. Someone kind Someone who wants the best for all people.
Someone like Dolly Parton.
In 2018, Dolly Parton changed the name of Dollywood’s “Dixie Stampede” dinner show to “Dolly Parton’s Stampede.” When asked why, this is what she said:
“When they said ‘Dixie’ was an offensive word, I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to offend anybody.’ This is a business. We’ll just call it the Stampede. As soon as you realize that (something) is a problem, you should fix it. … That’s where my heart is. I would never dream of hurting anybody on purpose.”
Thanks, Dolly. I couldn’t have said it better.