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Hello, Dolly!

A lifelong fan heads to east
Tennessee in search of her country music idol.

I stood frozen in place at Dollywood's Chasing Rainbows museum in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., mere inches from an artifact I didn't know still existed: Dolly Parton's famed coat of many colors.

Fireman's Landing

In title: Dolly Parton's (inset) Dollywood Tennessee Department of Tourist Development

Above: The view looking west from the summit of Clingmans Dome. Brian Stansberry

Below: A statue of Parton sits in front of the county courthouse in Sevierville.

statue

Seeing it took me back to the Christmas when I was 10 years old and my sister gave me my first record, Best of Dolly Parton, a 1975 compilation of hits. I nearly wore the record out playing “Coat of Many Colors.” As I listened, I imagined what that coat must've looked like, raggedy pieces of fabric scraps sewn together. The little garment now housed in a glass case in front of me didn't match the image in my mind. It seemed pretty stylish, with larger pieces of red and golden-yellow fabric neatly sewn together and a button at the top. No wonder Parton loved it enough to honor it in her music.

That personal piece of her life was one of many I glimpsed of my country music idol while on a mission last summer to eastern Tennessee, a culmination of my lifelong appreciation for all things Dolly. Raised in a country-music loving family, I loved many of the singers of that era and genre, but it was Parton's voice and folksy sense of humor that struck a chord with me. Her music seemed to come so easy to her, even plucking various stringed instruments with her long fingernails, so I learned some guitar chords and attempted to emulate her (minus the sequins and platinum hairdo).

Now I had the chance to discover the real Parton. My friend and willing accomplice Alyson Stanton signed on to join the search. Our itinerary played a bit like a country song: Two city girls hit the highway to trace the roots of their music idol, who grew up – and left her indelible stamp – among these hills, where her song “My Tennessee Mountain Home” invokes a life as peaceful as a baby's sigh.

But how does one go about finding Parton? We headed to Dollywood.

Park It

Since putting her stamp on Dollywood in 1986, Dolly's mission has been to share her Smoky Mountains home with people from all over the world, to showcase the area's crafts and cultural heritage, and to bring jobs to her old hometown. The park features thrill rides, but visitors will also find a chapel, a fried-chicken restaurant, and a working gristmill. We bee-lined for the Chasing Rainbows museum, where a Dolly hologram greeted us with the singer's bubbly enthusiasm.

The museum took us on a musical tour of Parton's life, from her childhood growing up with 11 siblings in a one-room shack to her rhinestone rise to country music queen. While I stood mesmerized by the coat of many colors, my friend gravitated to the props and costumes from Parton's role in the 1980 film, 9 to 5.

Viewing other exhibits felt like strolling through Parton's closet: cases filled with her form-fitting jumpsuits and papers scribbled with handwritten lyrics from her song catalog. Gazing at the wall plastered with her album covers, I found myself back in my old room, sitting on the floor next to my record player and belting out “Jolene” duets with Parton.

Outside, we climbed aboard Parton's former tour bus, which became an exhibit here in 2009. Her bedroom and closet are fixed in time, her guitar resting casually on the bed and family photos placed throughout the room. In the tiny dressing room, I could picture Parton applying a fresh coat of bright-red lipstick.

We ducked in to the park's Dreamsong Theater, home of Dolly Parton's My People. “Her people” actually included her people: a sister and a brother and two nieces, among other live musicians who interacted seamlessly with a prerecorded video of Dolly Parton. It was as though we were sitting in her childhood home, listening to family stories of how Parton would sing into a tin-can microphone and bribe her siblings to sing along with her.

Her brother, Randy Parton, greeted show-goers afterward, shaking our hands as though we were old friends. As he put his arms around us for a photo, I realized I was just one degree of separation away from my idol. My head swam as he told us about his favorite places in the Great Smoky Mountains, but when I opened my mouth to reply, only jibberish came out, as though I were a teenager trying to casually chat with Justin Bieber.

Going to Town

Seven miles north of Pigeon Forge, we found quaint-as-a-quilt Sevierville, Parton's hometown (population 16,000). County historian Carroll McMahan, who offers guided history and Dolly-themed tours, met us at Courthouse Donuts, housed in the town's former dry goods store. McMahan, who was a couple of years behind Parton in school, told us that the Parton family had carved out a humble existence in the Appalachian foothills, so Saturday trips to town were a big deal. But even as a youngster, McMahan said, Dolly stood out.

“They were country people,” he told us, “but she always set her own style.”

As we strolled, McMahan pointed out key sites, including the former bus stop where, the day after her high school graduation, Parton boarded a bus bound for Nashville.

“She's most proud of her statue,” he proclaimed, as we wandered up to the life-sized guitar-strumming Dolly Parton statue perched prominently in front of the county courthouse.

En route back to Pigeon Forge, we stopped at Frank Allen's Market and Grill, one of Parton's favorite road-food stops, tucked inside a BP gas station. We asked the waitress what the star orders.

“Slaw dog,” was her brief reply, so she served us the same as we took a seat at the counter. Locals zipped in and out, picking up orders and chatting up the waitresses. We spun around on the counter stools, keeping an eye on the gas pumps for Parton's bus, just in case.

Country Life

Dolly Parton was born in 1946 in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, and as our drive took us deeper into the towering trees, it was easy to see why she sings so sweetly of her homeland.

We put our feet up at our home for the night, the Historic Tapoco Lodge, which sits near the southern edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Robbinsville, N.C. At the two-bedroom White Oak cabin, tucked against a hill, we stretched out on our back porch as twilight settled in.

After learning that the Great Smoky Mountains host 30 species of salamanders, animal-loving Alyson convinced lodge employee James Huskey to take us “creek stomping” the next day.

“Salamanders should've been the national park animal instead of the black bear,” he joked, as he gingerly scooped a few of the slimy critters for us to study.

Afterward, we headed for the big views (and a steep, half-mile hike) atop Clingmans Dome, the concrete observation tower at 6,643 feet, the park's highest point, and gazed at the blue-haze enshrouded hills that stretched between two states and more than a half-million acres.

Dolly Day

We had danced all around Parton, from theme park to national park, her home on wheels to her hometown. She doesn't often perform at her theme park, but for our last day, we scored tickets to a Showcase of Stars show at Dollywood's Celebrity Theater. She was raising funds for Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, her charity that provides free books to the county's children. The thought of seeing her perform live gave me a fresh case of butterflies.

On a bare stage with a single spotlight, she casually strolled out in white fringe and began chatting in her cheerful twang.

“It's always good to be back at Dollywood,” she told the audience, and proceeded to roll through the tunes stashed deep in my brain, from “Coat of Many Colors” to an a cappella, chills-inducing version of her lesser-known “Little Sparrow.”

Despite being “raised up here in one of these hollers,” Parton later told the audience, “it was always my dream to stand out on stage.” And as she lived out her dream, she burned through a music store's worth of instruments, from acoustic guitar and dulcimer, to piano and electric guitar.

The sound of her voice pulled me forward in my seat. I tried not to tear up, which I managed pretty well even during “Jolene,” but when the lights came down for “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” I blubbered like that Justin Bieber–crazed teenager again. To me, this was the best place to find Parton, living out her dream – and mine, too.

Carolyn Graham is Alabama Journey's editor in chief.

May/June 2016 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

Let AAA Travel help you plan a trip for your family this spring to Tennessee. Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTik® Travel Planners and TourBook® guides.


 

Better get to livin'

The Pigeon Forge area features entertainment, natural attractions, and activities for Dolly Parton's fans.

Stay

The decor at the 300-room Dollywood's DreamMore Resort leans toward denim and whitewash, with touches of glitter, as though one of Parton's trademark butterflies had dipped in and left a trail of sparkles here and there. It offers a salon and spa, a club for children, and easy access to Dollywood and Splash Country Water Adventure Park via free shuttles. Rates start at $179. (800) 365-5996; dreammoreresort.com.

The Inn at Christmas Place celebrates the holidays year-round with its boughs of holly, Christmas displays, a reindeer mascot, and Singing Santa. The custom Sleep in Heavenly Peace mattresses will almost guarantee you'll sleep through Santa's visit. Rates start at $94. (888) 465-9644; innatchristmasplace.com.

The Historic Tapoco Lodge was built in 1930 as a retreat for Aluminum Company of America executives, and the current owners have created a scenic and restful resort. It has two top-notch restaurants, a range of accommodations (lodge rooms or expansive cabins), a movie theater housed in a historic aluminum building, and access to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Rates start at $200. (828) 498-2800; tapocolodge.com.

Eat

Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede features country music, non-alcoholic drinks served in boot-shaped cups, horsemanship demos, and a whole chicken you eat without utensils. The preshow Mountain Ruckus Bluegrass Stampede Band trio features Dolly's former bandleader and national bluegrass banjo champion Gary “Biscuit” Davis. Tickets, $25–$45. (865) 453-4400; dixiestampede.com.

The Island in Pigeon Forge offers a fountain show, amusement rides, a spa, a hotel, and 17 restaurants, including Paula Deen's Family Kitchen and Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville. (865) 286-0119; islandinpigeonforge.com.

At the Old Mill Restaurant, chow down on fluffy biscuits made from flour ground at the Old Mill, which has been continuously grinding grains since 1830. At the adjacent General Store, you can buy cornmeal, flour, and biscuit mixes made on-site. (865) 428-0771; old-mill.com.

kitchen

Left: DreamMore Resort in Dollywood. DreamMore Resort

Above: Take home some mixes and flour made and ground at the Old Mill in Pigeon Forge. Old Mill Farmhouse Kitchen


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