The Road to Dollywood

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The Road to Dollywood

Dolly’s Tennessee Mountain Home is a small, rough-hewn cabin tucked away in the middle of Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s eponymous theme park at the edge of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. Its very name conveys the all-important, utterly foundational place of Parton’s childhood home in her enduring public persona, the centrality of her impoverished rural upbringing to her art. Two of the walls are papered with the pages of old magazines, a poor family’s substitute for insulation; with no running water, the kitchen is only a wood stove tucked into a corner; there is only one bed and no bathroom. Something about Dolly’s Tennessee Mountain Home evokes the hush of a red-carpeted church sanctuary, the thud of a hymnal slapped shut.

The cabin struck me, despite my usual cussedly literal pragmatism, almost as something of a tabernacle, requiring me to undertake a journey of the spirit in order to properly prepare myself. I visited Dollywood nearly a year ago as a kind of pilgrim, somebody who can’t remember the first time she heard Parton’s voice, somebody who grew up on country music. So I didn’t visit the cabin—the shack, really—until the very end of my two days at Dollywood and its adjoining waterpark. I immersed myself thoroughly in the cosmos of Dolly so that I might enter such a shrine with the proper frame of mind. I prepared myself for nothing less than a divine revelation about America and authenticity.

I hoped to unravel the complex role that nostalgia plays in American life through a woman universally adored. But Dolly’s Tennessee Mountain Home isn’t Dolly’s childhood home at all. When it came time to build Dollywood, the owner of the original Parton family home wouldn’t sell it, and so one of Dolly’s brothers, a general contractor, reconstructed a replica of the cabin just for the park. Maybe that accounts for the curious flatness I felt after all my spiritual groundwork, why my recall of that room remains so airless.

I was certainly thorough in my attempts to prepare myself. I crisscrossed the brain-meltingly weird surroundings of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee: I ate at a Paula Deen restaurant; took in a showing at a Hatfield and McCoy dinner theater, complete with clogging, dogs doing water tricks, and a flag-waving patriotic finale; and very nearly purchased a pastel “Southern Couture” t-shirt proclaiming my own sassiness. I spent a day and a half wandering Dollywood, from the oldest roller coaster in the park—a moldering dark ride themed around late 19th-century American firefighting—to the latest addition, the wilderness fantasyland Wildwood Grove, dominated by a giant artificial tree that pumps out tinkly musical noises and lights up at night. I floated the lazy river at Dollywood Splashcountry. I ate pork rinds and pimento cheese; I bought an airbrushed t-shirt. I wandered a museum dedicated to Dolly and her career, yearning for the sequins on display, and climbed aboard one of Dolly’s tour buses. I glutted myself on all the experiences offered, living my best country-fried kitschy life, readying myself to enter the Sanctum Sanctorum of the cabin, on the theory that if Pigeon Forge is a kind of Lourdes, then the cabin is the grotto-shrine where Saint Bernadette encountered Mary.

But the pilgrim to Dolly’s cabin is given nothing concrete: It’s an echo whatever brought you there in the first place. The cabin is whatever you want it to be: living memory, kitschy fake, your great-grandma’s house, the soul of working-class grit, America when it was great, a great America that might have been. That’s the way nostalgia works. Dolly Parton has built a towering place in the national consciousness on that confused jumble of impulses, a rhinestone palace rising out of our national emotional swamp. I didn’t find any answers at Dollywood—just reminders of what I already know.

The fact that the crevasse of coronavirus lies between then and now, has given those memories an even more surreal, dreamlike quality, shimmering in my mind.

Rolling down Highway 321 into the town’s central tourist strip for the first time, nervously piloting my tin-can of an economy rental car through a thundering herd of towering pickup trucks, I looked to the horizon and squinted in disbelief. I was staring at a replica of the HMS Titanic, beached on a scraped-clean Great Smoky Mountain foothill, baking in the summer sunshine.

The front half of the Titanic, a fiberglass iceberg just off its bow, sat in the midst of several glittering, loudly lit but determinedly family-friendly attractions, all in a sort of sprawling semi-circle around a single stretch of highway, including something billing itself as the Smoky Mountain Opry; the hurriedly rebranded National Enquirer Live!; an upside-down building dedicated to some sort of science type something; and Hatfields and McCoys Dinner Feud, designed to look like a “hillbilly” encampment. I was terrified that I would wreck my rental in a moment of perplexed amazement.

But there was, of course, more. Paula Deen has both a restaurant and something called a Lumberjack Feud, which offers both thematically appropriate stunt shows and a ropes course for adventurous families. Jimmy Buffet has a neon-blazing Margaritaville Hotel, despite the fact that Pigeon Forge is hundreds of miles from any coast. My feeling of astounded distraction continued when I sat down to brunch one morning at one of Pigeon Forge’s numerous pancake houses. I noticed idly that the lights had gone down, and before I knew it, animatronic chickens all around me with names like “MiLAY FRYus” and “Willie NelsHEN” were doing a musical routine.

Dollywood is a great honking cubic zirconia sparkling in an elaborate setting. It’s situated in East Tennessee, about an hour’s drive from Knoxville, in an area that has a long history as a tourist destination, thanks to the presence of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The neighboring town of Gatlinburg is similarly touristy, but not quite so rhinestone flashy. Pigeon Forge crosses the kitschy ambition of Las Vegas with the raggedy hucksterism of the county fair, and the results are a New South fever dream.

What gives Pigeon Forge its specific local character, distinguishing it from any other lightly zoned tourist-trap town in America, is the strong evangelical focus of many local attractions. Sprinkled among the entertainment were such attractions as Biblical Times Dinner Theater (“Good Times, Good Food and the GOOD NEWS!”) and the Buttonwillow Civil War Theater, “family-friendly and Christian-based.” My personal favorite was “Parrot Mountain and Garden of Eden,” a bird sanctuary and Christian experience promising “hundreds of tropical birds in a Garden of Eden surrounding.” The brochure brags: “The Duggars Love Parrot Mountain!”

Dollywood, by comparison to the rest of Pigeon Forge, is downright coherent. “Dollywood is a theme park—it’s centered in the 1800s, and it’s to preserve the old Smoky Mountain heritage,” Parton explained to David Letterman, when she was first promoting the park in the 1980s. It’s been greatly expanded, and these days it ranges slightly afield from the 19th century. There’s a section that riffs on the traditional Southern institution of the county fair, though it lacks the cheerful sleaziness and ambient libidinal energy of the real deal, and there’s a generically 1950s “Jukebox Junction,” with a slight bootlegging flourish in the form of the hot rod themed wooden roller coaster. The latest addition to the park, Wildwood Grove, goes full Disney fairy-tale fantasy and includes meet and greets with fairy characters for kids. The theme park’s overall rubric remains quite simple, though: nostalgia.

The first thing I heard as my shuttle pulled up to the entrance (I’d parked in section D/E, or “Dolly’s earrings”) was appropriate, given the long-standing tropes of country music: The sound of a train whistle. It’s one thing to know the sound of a coal-fired locomotive’s whistle from its stylized appearance in classic songs, but the sound of the genuine article is piercing, almost unbelievably mournful. It was the “Dollywood Express,” one of the coal-fired locomotives that wind through the park on multiple trips daily.

The train is the ghost of the original attraction upon which Dollywood was built, “Rebel Railroad,” which opened to tourists in June 1961—the same year many towns in the south were commemorating the centenary of the Confederacy. It was a looping railroad journey, pulling riders in Civil War-era carriages behind genuine 19th-century coal-powered locomotives chugging through a “Confederate” landscape encountering Union patrols and “Yankee snipers.” A grainy YouTube video suggests that visitors also got cap guns to fire back. The ride was surrounded by a “‘haunted mine,’ blacksmith shop, tintype photoshop, saloon serving root beer, and a country store.”

The Confederates and Yankees disappeared quickly in favor of “cowboys and Indians,” a rebrand in keeping with America’s great postwar pop-cultural preoccupation: the Western. In 1970 it became Goldrush Junction, but the train ride remained—in another YouTube video, you can see a man dressed in fake buckskin yank a prairie dress off a fleeing woman as part of the performance. By 1977 the site had been transformed into Silver Dollar City, one of two parks by the same name run by the Herschand family. (The other still operates under the name in Pigeon Forge’s spiritual twin, Branson, Missouri.) When Dolly started talking about building her own theme park in the 1980s—at the time, Opryland USA was thriving outside of Nashville—she and the Herschands ultimately decided to join forces and Silver Dollar City was remade, once again, into Dollywood.

In the 19th century that Dollywood is designed to evoke, the train whistle was the embodiment of movement and of change. That wail recalls the massive factories that inspire so much longing now that they’re seemingly gone, the sound of industrial capitalism announcing its arrival. In fact, rail connections made possible the music business that would coalesce a wide variety of influences into something eventually called “country.” Jimmy Rodgers, one of the first country stars, was a railroad worker marketed as the “singing brakeman,” who posed for early promotional photos in his railroad cap. He was reflecting the lived experience of many of his listeners in the 1930s. But coal-fired locomotives fell out of favor in the 1960s, replaced by diesel engines, and the train has become a figure of nostalgia—hence its place at Dollywood. Dolly would later get her first solo Grammy nomination for her cover of Rodgers’s “Mule Skinner Blues,” in 1970.

For what it’s worth, these particular trains aren’t actually from the 19th century. The two locomotives that constitute the “Dollywood Express” were built in 1938 and 1943, originally for use along Alaska’s White Pass and Yukon railroad line, when it was already somewhat antiquated. The sides are open and people cram into bench seats tighter than modern budget airliners, but their massive engines strike an unsettlingly material note in the fantastical, enclosed world of the theme park. A coal-fired locomotive produces a plume of sooty smoke, which churned out from the smokestack to linger briefly overhead, a black cloud that dissipated gradually in the headachy summer heat of August. I kept catching it out of the corner of my eye, like spotting a woman wandering the hills in a long, black veil.

The relationship between Dollywood and the Appalachians, which loom so large in country music generally and Dolly’s work specifically, is an uneasy one. Much of the park is filled with cartoon renderings of the dangerous, extraction-oriented industries built into the landscape. Logging and sawmilling appear repeatedly, represented as the flume ride Daredevil Falls and the section of the park dubbed “Timber Canyon.” And then there’s the “Mystery Mine” ride, which had the steepest drop of any roller coaster in North America when it opened in 2007. (In the spring and fall, they sometimes have to shut it down due to bees and wasps.) Riders travel through a haunted, abandoned mine, and the ghosts trigger some sort of mine gas explosion. There’s a brief blast with heat from a flamethrower, then a furious hurtle through a steep drop and a full barrel roll. A jocular sign outside announced that anybody caught mistreating a mule would be fired, because “the mule is worth more than you are.” In the gift shop—adjacent to Dollywood shirts in the style of the Supreme logo—were pink miner’s helmets.

While West Virginia and Kentucky are better known for their mining industries and accompanying fierce labor unrest, Tennessee has a deep history in the business, ranging from coal to heavy metals. (“Did you stop for gas somewhere literally called ‘Alcoa?’” my husband asked after I’d returned home, looking at a receipt bearing the name of one of the world’s largest aluminum producers.) These rides are funhouse versions of the conditions under which many Tennesseans on the Cumberland Plateau and in the Great Smoky Mountains worked and some still do. But it’s worth remembering that while country music’s own relationship with the two industries may be steeped in regional pride, it’s hardly uncomplicated: Johnny Cash’s 12-year-old brother died in a sawmill accident, and Loretta Lynn’s father died of black lung before he reached his mid-50s.

It’s beyond obvious that amusement parks are fake, from Dollywood to Disneyland; that’s the point. Their defining characteristic, though, is the fakeness cozied right up against the gestures at “authenticity.” At Dollywood, that tension cut closer to the bone than I anticipated. The landscape suggests a bridge, cheerfully cheesy but nevertheless heartfelt, between eras, between the world of my own great-grandparents and myself, a seductive sort of telescoping. I grew up two miles down a dirt road, and Jezebel’s office, where I worked before covid-19 drove me out, overlooks the impossible neon pocket universe of Times Square—which is to say that I’m plenty susceptible to the mythos of the old home place, the story of roots.

But a simple act like walking into the park’s functioning old-fashioned gristmill that sells cinnamon bread and buying something that would have likely constituted a week’s caloric intake for the average poor Southerner at the turn of the 20th century makes it clear how false that impression of continuity really is. It bears about as much resemblance as Cracker Barrel does to any old country store that ever existed. Nobody’s great-grandparents ever knew anywhere quite like Dollywood, which is a product of the modern world just as surely as Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

But if it weren’t for the revered name of Dolly Parton, Dollywood would be at best a beloved regional fixture, rather than an international object of fascination. It’s the association with the woman herself that defines the park, from the name to the marketing to the attractions within.

In the last few years, America has taken its relationship with Dolly Parton to a new level, heightening even further her mass appeal across all cultural divides, even as those divides grow deeper. She celebrated her 50th anniversary on the Grand Ole Opry with a big blow-out show; she’s had her own Netflix series; she’s gotten the podcast treatment with Dolly Parton’s America; she appeared in Hallmark’s seasonal lineup with Christmas at Dollywood. In November, the New York Times announced in a big feature on her enduring appeal: “Is There Anything We Can All Agree On? Yes: Dolly Parton.” Her fans run the gamut from socialists to Tucker Carlson viewers. If anything, her stock has only risen after the recent months of turmoil, with a petition asking Tennessee authorities to replace statues of Confederate soldiers with statues of Dolly—“the woman who has worked her entire life to bring us closer together,” in the words of the letter—gathering 20,000 signatures. Dolly Parton’s greatness is the rare American consensus and, as such, she’s become a safe place for a broad cross-section of Americans to park their nostalgia. That impulse runs riot at Dollywood.

She is, of course, everywhere in Dollywood. She’s on a billboard at the turnoff for the park, laughing with a fake bear to promote Wildwood Grove. She’s in the church in Craftsman’s Valley, wearing a lacy white dress. There’s an entire museum full of her clothing, right across the way from a store called “Dolly’s Closet.” (“What’s her style?” I heard one tourist ask another, who replied: “Tacky.”) Her relatives perform an entire tribute show in another dedicated theater where an enormous image of Dolly looms over the entrance in a way that cheerfully evokes the kitsch of a 20th-century totalitarian.

“You know how dictators have huge pictures of themselves?” I heard a southern man’s voice ask as the crowds filtered out of Dolly Parton’s Stampede, underneath yet another portrait of the woman herself, head cocked, hands propped jauntily on hips, clad in what appeared to be a cowboy-adjacent brown leather jumpsuit, megawatt smile beaming. The floral border tipped the scales into near Stalinist imagery.

Dolly Parton is a secular American saint, and Dollywood functions as a pilgrimage site for multiple types of fan—for there are multiple Dollys, each serving a subtly different purpose, each with her own order of devotees. “Her true genius is in how she has created multiple personas at once so that her fans can choose one that slips easily into their own stories and desires,” explained professor and native East Tennessean Jessica Wilkerson in a 2018 piece at Longreads.

There’s gay-affirming drag queen Dolly, who refuses to condemn LGBT fans despite the conservative elements of her fanbase, as well as longtime speculation about her own sexuality and rumors about her closeness with childhood friend Judy Ogle (which she denies). There’s feminist icon Dolly, author of the anthem “9 to 5,” who built a career despite the pervasive sexism of the entertainment industry. There’s hipster Dolly, who performs at Glastonbury and is thought to have a body covered in tattoos. There’s the unashamedly, forthrightly, glamorously trashy Dolly, who speaks to the woman made to feel cheap because she’s poor. My personal favorite Dolly is the slightly overblown, rose-scented, boudoir Dolly of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas era; this Dolly embodies cheerfully immense appetites.

But there’s also the hardcore country Dolly of the white Baby Boomers who grew up watching her when she was the “girl singer” on The Porter Wagoner Show; the “family-friendly” Dolly who draws the evangelical church groups you’ll see wandering the vicinity; and nostalgic Americana Dolly, best embodied by her Stampede show just outside the park, a dinner theater show that features horseback riding tricks and an unnervingly friendly cheering contest between North and South. Formerly the “Dixie Stampede,” it was rebranded after a 2017 visit from then-Slate writer Aisha Harris, but there’s still an entire musical number where dancers in antebellum garb whirl around a gazebo, eventually becoming a swirl of lights in a darkened arena. As I pulled up to the venue, I caught the unmistakable sight of a hoop skirt at the entrance and quietly, involuntarily, moaned “oh, no,” to myself; getting closer, I realized that this costume was actually designed as some sort of deeply confused red, white, and blue American flag homage. Even without any explicit Lost Cause mythologizing, it’s a dinner theater show dedicated to a sweeping, romantic view of America, playing nothing but the hits and the victories.

The greatest irony of Dollywood is that, when Dolly came to build it, she had crossed over so thoroughly into the pop music mainstream that the launch secured her the cover of People magazine. (“Peppery talk from the slickest country girl ever, as she opens her $20 million hillbilly park back home in Tennessee.”) Up until the 1990s, being a country musician was often grueling and the money was nowhere as good as pop or rock. She rose to prominence in the 1960s on The Porter Wagoner Show and through a series of duet albums with Wagoner, a prominent country figure who wore glittering Nudie suits. Together they did songs like “Daddy Was an Old Time Preacher Man,” as well as a fair few numbers about drinking and the travails of married life, heavy on the steel guitar. (She had already married Carl Dean.) But since cutting Porter loose—he had essentially controlled her career—Dolly had gone fully Hollywood, to the point of appearing in 9 to 5 with Jane Fonda. It is hard to imagine anybody less popular with the audience of The Porter Wagoner Show than “Hanoi Jane” Fonda in the late 1970s.

But nostalgia has always been an important part of the appeal for a large segment of Parton’s audience. Look at her catalog, full of songs like “My Old Tennessee Mountain Home,” “The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad),” and “Tennessee Homesick Blues,” which mirror her constant disclaimers that she’s a straightforward country girl who hasn’t changed a bit, not in the ways that matter. And that element of her persona was waxing, once again, when she opened Dollywood. Her latest big-budget Hollywood effort, Rhinestone with Sylvester Stallone, had bombed; she was already working on her country throwback collaboration Trio with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt.

Over the decades, Dolly has stubbornly resisted attempts to pin her to a particular political ideology. She deflects everything with a joke and a laugh, like when duet partner Kenny Rogers compared her to Donald Trump. (“Me and Donald kind of have the same hair.”) People see what they want to see in Dolly and—as Wilkerson corroborates—a fair few people want to see a rosy all-white American past that never existed in the first place. There’s a lot for them in Pigeon Forge. If all the various Marian cults of Dolly converge at Dollywood, one wins out: First Church of Dolly, Orthodox.

Years ago, toying with the notion of writing a piece about the foundational place of the Carter Family in country music, I took a road trip to their home in Maces Spring, Virginia. It’s just over the line from East Tennessee; the trio would travel into Bristol in 1927 to record for Ralph Peer of the Victor Company as part of a series of sessions that would acquire mythical importance in their genre, the closest thing to an origin story.

It’s a destination, now, but a much rougher-hewn one than Dollywood and Pigeon Forge. The cabin where Carter Family cofounder A.P. was born has been relocated and restored—though it’s still unquestionably rough—and parked next to a venue called the Carter Family Fold, which was founded by a descendant and has been hosting old-time musical concerts since the mid-1970s on Saturday nights, just like the much slicker Grand Ole Opry. It’s a giant barn of a building, reminiscent of a Chautauqua-type meeting hall, and as the night went on, the floor down front filled with clogging locals of all ages.

Dolly’s reconstructed cabin started off as something similar, with a “Back Porch Theater” built off it. Originally, it hosted a group composed largely of Dolly’s relatives. Now they perform in the higher-tech “Dreamsong Theater,” with a show that weaves many of her hits together into a narrative about the importance of her family and home and features the performers interacting with a prerecorded Dolly on a large screen; there was a very good interlude of gospel music that featured video elements that I could best describe as evangelical screensaver clips, culminating in the golden gates of heaven swinging open, leaving me absolutely slack-jawed at the literalism.

Across the way from “Dolly’s Tennessee Mountain Home” was a home design store inside a sort of faux gristmill, the paddlewheel on the side churning endlessly, but too far off the water to actually touch. And besides, you wouldn’t put a gristmill in a pond without an outlet, because you need moving water to grind anything. Items available for purchase inside the store lead heavily on chic farmhouse decor in the mold of Chip and Joanna Gaines, but significantly more colorful. Offerings included a satisfyingly heavy decorative pumpkin made of very soft and luxurious green velvet which I realized, after a moment of holding it in my hand, evoked a testicle. It retailed for $21.99.

While the cabin’s presence in the park is meant to convey the authentic hardscrabble countryness of Dolly’s childhood, all I could think, standing there, was that it must be in much, much better shape than the original. Dolly admitted as much to People when the park opened: “Our house never looked so damn good, I’ll tell you that,” she said. There are even recessed lights built into the ceiling, the scene of hardship well-lit for visitors. “No amount of money could buy from me the memories that I have of then,” Dolly sings in “The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad).” “No amount of money could pay me to go back and live through it again.”

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