Driving along the main thoroughfare of the Great Smoky Mountains Parkway in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, you pass signs for Wild West-themed shopping centers, an arcade, an Egyptian Tomb attraction, the Biblical Times Dinner Theater, candy shops, outlet malls, seafood buffets, Fantasy Golf, old-timey photo shops, and endless signs for roadside motels with names like the Valley Forge, the Mountain Breeze, and the Americana.
Finally, you reach the parking lot of the Dixie Stampede Dinner Attraction, next to a Best Western, a Texas Roadhouse Steakhouse, and a Days Inn. You could be anywhere in the United States, but you are not. Up ahead is a sign for Dollywood and Dollywood’s Splash Country, and the hedges that line the parking lot have been cut into the shape of stars and decorated with blue lights.
You are in the childhood home of Dolly Parton.
Although the town was named for its nineteenth-century iron forge, today it is primarily a tourist destination, a place designed to entertain and divert. When I visited not long ago, the town was already in full Christmas swing, its parking lots crammed with tour buses and SUVs, out of which poured visitors in Santa hats and Christmas sweaters.
The author went to Dollywood – and got this postcard. Photo by Susan Harlan.
The rodeo-inspired Dixie Stampede Dinner Attraction is just one part of the ever-expanding Dolly Parton brand that also includes Dollywood, Dollywood’s Splash Country, and Dollywood Cabins, as well as Dollywood DreamMore Resort, which will open next summer. The website for the Dixie Stampede declares it “The Most Fun Place to Eat!” as well as “A fun-filled, action-packed extravaganza that everyone should experience.”
‘Fun’ is a big part of the Dolly brand, and the website is no stranger to hyperbole or exclamation marks. Dollywood is “The Friendliest Place on Earth,” a space in which conflict is inconceivable, even forbidden. Of course, all amusement parks create a space apart from reality, but part of Dolly’s appeal lies in her ability to convince her fans that this world is real. This sense of real is largely grounded in her childhood poverty, which informs her public persona as much as her adult musical career, and many of her most famous songs like “Coat of Many Colors” retrospectively imbue this childhood with a wistful sense of nobility. Poverty as character building.
It’s easy, and in many ways important, to critique this position, but there is no doubt that Dolly effectively negotiates complex issues of class in the U.S. She is an adored queen who presents herself as a down-home gal, and in a world of inauthentic celebrity performances, it’s hard not to believe her. Her love of “roots” and her refrain that she never forgets where she came from is the best advertisement Pigeon Forge could possibly desire. The town becomes no less than the embodiment of rural American authenticity and potentiality, with a benevolent guiding spirit watching over it.