In Pilgrimage to Dollywood, Morales sets out to discover Parton’s Tennessee. Her travels begin at the top celebrity pilgrimage site of Elvis Presley’s Graceland, then take her to Loretta Lynn’s ranch in Hurricane Mills; the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville; to Sevierville, Gatlinburg, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; and finally to Pigeon Forge, home of the “Dolly Homecoming Parade,” featuring the star herself as grand marshall. Morales’s adventure allows her to compare the imaginary Tennessee of Parton’s lyrics with the real Tennessee where the singer grew up, looking at essential connections between country music, the land, and a way of life. It’s also a personal pilgrimage for Morales. Accompanied by her partner, Tony, and their nine-year-old daughter, Athena (who respectively prefer Mozart and Miley Cyrus), Morales, a recent transplant from England, seeks to understand America and American values through the celebrity sites and attractions of Tennessee.
This celebration of Dolly and Americana is for anyone with an old country soul who relies on music to help understand the world, and it is guaranteed to make a Dolly Parton fan of anyone who has not yet fallen for her music or charisma.
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Pilgrimage to Dollywood
A Country Music Road Trip Through Tennessee
By Helen Morales
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Caviar and Fish Sticks
In the early evening of May 7, 2010, I found myself jostling in a scrum of fevered adults and children lining the Parkway, the main road that runs through the small city of Pigeon Forge, in Sevier County, east Tennessee. We were there for the annual "Dolly Homecoming Parade," a carnival in honor of the city's most cherished celebrity and benefactor, the singer, movie actor, and businesswoman Dolly Parton, who was born and raised in Sevier County. This parade was particularly special: it marked the twenty- fifth anniversary of the opening of Dollywood, the local theme park partly owned by, and modeled around, the superstar and her life story. Most of us had been waiting for hours, the day suspended in anticipation of the few moments when we'd glimpse Dolly Parton. As she does every year, the singer would play grand marshal, heading the parade held in her name.
I had no idea what to expect from the parade or how to prepare for it, so I phoned Dollywood a few days ahead of my journey. The woman who took the call was kindly and proprietorial, as if this were her parade, her Dolly. She advised me to come at least six hours before the 6:00 p.m. start, and to mark my territory with a folding chair somewhere between traffic light 3 and traffic light 6 along the Parkway. "If you stay in one of the hotels along the route," she added, "you can visit the bathroom without losing your place." This was good advice and I took it, bringing with me on the flight a chair from Target (inexpensive and with an American flag design), and booking into the modest but friendly Shular Inn, situated toward the end of the parade route. It was an unprepossessing place to spend a day waiting. Outside the hotel on the narrow strip of grass between the building and the sidewalk was a massive sign in red, white, and blue tinsel declaring GOD BLESS AMERICA. The next building along was a shop that sold only things to do with Christmas. Traffic thundered along the Parkway, undeterred by the clusters of chairs that grew steadily along the roadside as the day wore on (fig. 1).
At midday, sitting low in my folding chair mesmerized by the stream of cars, I felt as ridiculous as I had always thought those families are who park by the side of highways and eat picnic lunches out of Tupperware. What was I doing, choking on exhaust fumes and slowly roasting in the oppressive Tennessee heat? There was one instant where I thought I must have succumbed to the swelter; I thought I saw Dolly Parton, a smudged and stretched Dolly Parton, leaning against the wall on the other side of the road, until I realized it was a transvestite doppelganger, dressed in a pale pink suit, with false bust and shiny platinum wig.
By 4:00 p.m., when the crowds arrived in earnest and people risked falling into the traffic to secure a spot, embarrassment and discomfort had turned into relief. We were an odd bunch. Some I talked to were locals, there to see their children who were in the parade as band players or majorettes. Others had made quite a journey. One couple came every year from Cleveland, Ohio. "We wouldn't miss it for the world," they beamed, as if we were standing on a beach in the Maldives, rather than a sidewalk packed with sweaty adults and fractious children. I spoke to Kate and Dan who had flown in from Perth, Australia. Like me, this was their first time at a Dolly Parade ("We've always wanted to see Dolly for real," said Dan). The warm bond of camaraderie shifted into tense competitiveness as the officious chuffing of a brass band announced the parade's arrival and we all jockeyed for a view (figs. 2 and 3).
It all then happened very quickly, like a film in fast-forward. Two proud boy scouts bearing a banner with the Dollywood logo, pinky-orange butterflies (butterflies are one of Dolly's chosen motifs) and the words
Welcome to the 25th Anniversary of
Dolly's Homecoming Parade
May 7, 2010
Proudly Presented by
The City of Pigeon Forge
Next, purple-clad children of the Sevier County High School Band, struggling by this stage of the march, and, behind them, the flash of an enormous silver and turquoise butterfly, antennae bobbing menacingly as if poised to swoop down and gobble up a flagging tuba player. The insect blocked the view of the silver truck, and then: there she was. Under an aquamarine parasol, perched on a white cube atop a three-tiered, silver- sashed wedding cake of a float sprinkled with silver, blue and purple butterflies, was Dolly Parton. I fought to take in the shimmering lavender and silver lamé dress, the silver fairy wings, silver high heels, and blonde wig. The blonde wig. Unmistakably Dolly Parton, smiling and waving at the yelling throng. ("Dolly! Dolleeee!!!") She made eye contact just for a second, then turned to wave to the other side. ("Dolly! Over here!! Look at Me!!!") And then she was gone. Sevier County royalty: the Queen of Country Music.
This book is about my quest for Dolly Parton, my journey to learn more about her and her music, and the places important to both of them. It is not a biography: I have never met her (and would likely be gauche and clumsy if I did), nor would I feel comfortable prying into her private life. Calling her "Dolly" feels overly familiar, but as she is rarely referred to in the press as "Ms. Parton" or "Mrs. Dean," I am going to follow popular convention. My interest is partly intellectual. More than a performer, Dolly Parton is a cultural phenomenon. As an artist who "crossed over" into pop music, she changed what was possible in country music. She is a prolific songwriter, the largest employer in Sevier County, and creator of a theme park to herself; all of this invites analysis. However, this is also very much a personal project. This is not a book written from the Olympian heights of an objective observer: I confess up front that I love Dolly Parton and her music and have ever since I saw her in the movie 9 to 5, when I was eleven years old.
I had planned for the journey to start in Memphis, with a visit to one of the most celebrated modern pilgrimage sites: Graceland, the former home of the late Elvis Presley. The paths of Elvis and Dolly intersect (or fail to) at significant moments in their lives. It is impossible to tell a narrative about country music without including Elvis, the star who, so one story goes, nearly caused the death of the genre. Moreover, I was keen to see how Dollywood, a celebrity site created with the input of a living star, compared to Graceland, a home turned into a memorial to a star after his death. From Memphis, I had mapped out a route by car to Nashville via Hurricane Mills. Nashville is the "city of music": home of the Grand Ole Opry, the star-making concert that has been broadcast on the radio since 1925; the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which honors the elite in the business (Dolly Parton has been a member since 1999); and the city where Dolly Parton has both a home and a gift shop called Trinkets and Treasures.
Hurricane Mills lies roughly halfway between Memphis and Nashville. It is a town that consists of little other than buildings owned by Loretta Lynn, the country music singer-songwriter whose success foreshadowed that of Dolly Parton. At Hurricane Mills we were promised a tour of Loretta Lynn's house, a museum of her life and memorabilia, and something Americans call a "dude ranch." After Nashville, it would be a straight drive to Pigeon Forge to see the parade and explore Locust Ridge, where Dolly grew up, and to take in Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede Dinner Attraction ("The Most Fun Place to Eat in the Smokies!") and—the climax of the journey—to see the Dolly Parade and visit Dollywood. That was the plan. And then the floods came.
May Day 2010 slammed middle and west Tennessee, along with south and west Kentucky and north Mississippi, with a wall of torrential rain that lasted the best part of a week. It was called a one-thousand-year flood, suitably biblical terminology given the flood's cataclysmic effects. The Cumberland River burst its banks and twenty-one people died. In Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry House and the complex that it was a part of, the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, were devastated. The Gaylord Opryland Hotel was flooded by ten feet of water. On news footage it looked like a set from The Poseidon Adventure, with tables and chairs floating in half-submerged opulence. Photographs of the parking lot at the nearby Opry Mills Mall show one large expanse of water, punctuated at precise intervals by tufts of treetops breaking the surface, as if the city were signaling its distress into space using Morse code. The music, of course, still played on: Marty Stuart performed at the city's War Memorial Auditorium instead of the Opry. However, on May 4, president Barack Obama declared Nashville a major disaster area; by the end of the week, almost a third of Tennessee received the same status.
In the circumstances, it was impossible to make my journey that week. I briefly entertained the idea of sticking to my plans as I watched the catastrophe unfold on CNN. After all, a pilgrimage was supposed to be arduous: a test of the devotee's strength and determination. However, fantasies of "writer on Jet Ski rescues stranded family (and dog); all kept warm by singing 'Love Is Like a Butterfly,'" soon gave way to a more realistic assessment of the situation. It also occurred to me that, even though west Tennessee was less badly affected, given the forecast of more rain moving westward, the Dolly Parade might well be canceled or postponed. I telephoned Dollywood and was put straight through to the lady who had earlier advised me on preparation for the parade. She was not impressed by my question, and reassured me that "nothing will stop the Dolly Parade: Miss Dolly wouldn't allow it. If it rains on Miss Dolly's parade, folks will carry umbrellas." So, even though it was to spoil the romantic cliché of a pilgrimage as an unbroken and teleological journey, I resigned myself to changing my plans. I decided to do the parade on May 7 (flying in and out of Knoxville and staying overnight in Pigeon Forge), and then to return a month or so later and spend ten days doing the pilgrimage properly, from Graceland to Dollywood. This would prove to be a blessing in disguise. Not only did it make me more reflective about why I was doing the journey and what I wanted to gain from it, but it also saved me from what would have been in hindsight a major error: staying at the Heartbreak Hotel, rather than at the Peabody. I will be forever grateful to Angela, the wise cab driver who took me from Pigeon Forge to the Knoxville airport, for advice on where to stay in Memphis. But that is to get ahead of myself: at this point some background to the project might be useful.
I had wanted to visit Dollywood ever since I learned that such a place existed. I was fascinated by the audacity, the sheer outrageousness of an adventure park themed around Dolly Parton. I imagined (rightly as it would turn out) glitz and glamor, and all things Dolly. However, I had not acted on my desire to visit Dollywood, despite having the time and resources to do so. Often the formative journeys that we take require a sense of what the ancient Greeks called kairos, which means the right time, the opportune moment which must be taken advantage of for something special to happen. Kairos came for me in the summer of 2010.
The year before I had moved from Cambridge, England, to Santa Barbara, California. The move was a life-changing opportunity for me. I am a classicist by profession and was teaching and researching ancient Greek and Roman literature at the University of Cambridge. Tony, my partner of a decade,was living in Santa Barbara and working, also as a classicist, at USC in Los Angeles. We have a child, Athena, then nine years old, and the long-distance relationship had been tough on all of us. The offer of a position at the University of California, Santa Barbara, meant goodbye to being a Cambridge don and single parent, and hello to a united family. It was also a move away from the largely elite student body studying classics at Cambridge, to the more diverse student population created by the American liberal arts education.
America was not, I thought at the time, an unfamiliar place. Previously I had lived for short periods in Arizona and in Washington, DC. I also have a Texan ex-husband, a kind and placid man whom I met when he was serving in the US army in Portogruaro, Italy, where I was teaching English as a foreign language. He introduced me to supermarkets where you do not have to pack your own groceries (as you usually do in England), to the chaos of Las Vegas and the quiet of the desert, to supersized sodas, and to pamphlets from the army base urging you to "wear your military eyebrows with pride." I thought of America as home away from home. However, in the ten months since our relocation to Santa Barbara I had not settled in well. Southern California is initially dazzling: dazzling sea, dazzling sun, and dazzling smiles. But beneath the beauty and the flash I found a lack of connection, as if all the energy here is used up maintaining the surfaces of things and there is not enough left for meaning, recognition, and intimacy. It was also a period marked by the economic crisis, furloughs, and university "restructuring." I was unexpectedly anxious and agitated, and rather lonely. In retrospect, I think that it was this growing sense of restlessness and unease that stung me to think seriously about taking the journey that had previously been only a fantasy.
Reflecting back on my life I realize that I have often had this feeling of not belonging. I suspect that everyone feels this sometimes, but not everyone looks to Dolly Parton forconsolation. She is the poster girl for not fitting in but being fabulous anyway. My late father, a Greek Cypriot who immigrated to England as a teenager to work in restaurant kitchens and send money back to his family in Cyprus, also used to listen to Dolly Parton. "This is our music," he would say when "Jolene" came on the radio. When as a child I felt too large, too loud, and too Greek, with a fondness for wearing sparkly tops and rainbow leg warmers, I never felt that I would be too much for Dolly, who often quips that she is "flashier than a drag queen's Christmas tree." She has also said, "I've always been a freak and different, oddball even in my childhood and my own family, so I can relate to people who are struggling and trying to find their true identity. I do not sit in the seat of judgment. I love people for who they are." This attitude, together with her exuberant sense of style, is what has made Dolly Parton a gay icon, and it was through a couple of gay friends at university, who owned every album Dolly had made, that I really got to know and appreciate her music, as well as her persona. I loved my university days. I had brilliant teachers and inspiring friends, but Cambridge was initially a strange, and estranging, environment, for a girl from a seaside town whose father (by this time) ran a fish and chips shop. I would often feel, to quote the lyrics of Dolly Parton's song "Fish out of Water," like "they're caviar and you're fish sticks." (It was a while before someone explained to me that "fish sticks" is American for "fish fingers.") And now in California two decades later, despite a PhD, publications to my name, and a wonderful partner and daughter, here I was feeling like a bloody fish stick again. The time had come to make a pilgrimage to Dollywood.
Is pilgrimage an affected, pretentious term for the trip I was about to take, especially when referring to Dollywood, whose name manages both to parody Hollywood and to connote little girls' toys, a far cry from the gravitas of Lourdes or Santiago di Compostela? Is pilgrimage a fancy word for holiday, and pilgrim a gussied-up term for tourist? I was pushed to ask these questions as some of my friends greeted news of my trip with hilarity and derision, a snobbishness that I suspect would not have been provoked by my going to the annual Bayreuth opera festival, or even to the shrine of the Lady of Guadalupe. Indeed, I would soon discover that for many people, especially but not only academics, neither Dolly Parton nor theme parks have sufficient social status or highbrow connotations to make them worthy of attention. Conversely, those in the country music business are often hostile to analysis and comment by outsiders, at least to judge from the reviews in the music press of the relatively few academic books that have been written about country music. Whatever terms I used, I realized, I would have little cheerleading to send me off on my travels.
Excerpted from Pilgrimage to Dollywood by Helen Morales. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents1 Caviar and Fish Sticks
2 A Series of Cravings
Graceland and Other Shrines, Memphis
3 Country Is as Country Does
Loretta Lynn’s Ranch, Hurricane Mills
4 Music City, USA
5 Tennessee Mountain Homes
Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Sevierville, and Locust Ridge
6 Color Me America
Dixie Stampede, Pigeon Forge
7 Sifting Specks of Gold
Dollywood Amusement Park, the Great Smoky Mountains
Doing the Pilgrimage