Beauty and Ruin in Pigeon Forge

by Sam Worley


In May, Dolly Parton returned from promoting her new album, Blue Smoke, to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, for the celebration she hosts every year: the Dollywood Homecoming Parade. Thousands gathered along the stretch of U.S. Route 441 known as Dolly Parton Parkway, from stoplight number six to stoplight number three. The devoted sat in strategically placed lawn chairs; the less eager watched from roadside hotel balconies. My boyfriend and I stood in the median of the parkway, opposite a spiraling bumper-car attraction, and watched as the first few floats passed: veterans, students, and an official contingent from the City of Pigeon Forge. A marching band played “9 to 5” and then “Islands in the Stream.”

Then, there she was: a bright yellow flare in the distance, her arrival prefigured by ranks of superfans moving up the side of the road, wearing matching T-shirts. Dolly, in a button-up yellow minidress, braided blonde wig, and long red claws, advanced into the foreground atop a float advertising the FireChaser Express, a firetruck-themed roller coaster at her amusement park, Dollywood, a few miles up the road. “Hi, Dolly!” people called up at her. Cops and bodyguards walked alongside. She waved and passed. The parade went on. The next float was a giant horse’s head rising from an American flag — another ad, for Dixie Stampede, Dolly’s four-course dinner theater.

The Dollywood parade is the centerpiece of a new book, Pilgrimage to Dollywood: A Country Music Road Trip through Tennessee, by Helen Morales, a classics professor at the University of California–Santa Barbara and a lifelong Dolly Parton superfan. Morales’s father was a Greek Cypriot immigrant to the U.K., where he ran a restaurant; he told her when she was a child that Parton’s music, much of it rooted in an experience of poverty and a determination to overcome obstacle, was “our music.” Because she felt then like an outsider, Morales took solace from the Parton oeuvre:

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.”)

Morales isn’t a critic, just an effervescent observer, and a delightful, slightly goofy narrator. She writes more to satisfy herself than with any particular thesis. In Pilgrimage, a sort of travelogue, Morales flies her family to Memphis before they sweep eastward to Pigeon Forge, with Morales offering various observations along the way, ranging from the deeply banal (“To think about Elvis is to think about America: its history and its values”) to the totally interesting, like when she locates roots of the phrase “white trash” in a series of old pseudoscientific research called Eugenic Family Studies, which sought to prove that poor white people were inferior due to mixed-race ancestry.

Morales is moved by a general dissatisfaction with Santa Barbara, which she finds too sunny, too shiny — “where quinoa is considered a food group, and camping a moral imperative.” Funny, then, that she would latch onto Dolly Parton, who projects an undimmed sunniness — although Parton is distinct from California insofar as in California, the sun is real. But Morales believes that there is something meaningful beneath the facade, or perhaps because of it. Parton’s visual aesthetic isn’t separate from her music, her lyrics, or her various business concerns — an early practitioner in the fine art of image management, she’s constructed the whole package work to her favor, while still maintaining an aura of relatability. “My image get in my way?” Parton once said in response to an interviewer’s question. “Ya gotta be crazy. It’s my image that gets me most everything I want. I created the whole thing.”

Parton’s skill at being many things to many people accounts for the diversity of her fan base, capacious enough to hold drag queens and the sorts of hard-core emotional supplicants depicted in the documentary For the Love of Dolly, as well as the more mainstream country fans who surrounded us at her parade, which kept going long after Parton had fled the scene. There were county-fair beauty queens, classic cars, and young girls dressed up like porcelain dolls — a distillation of the Parton look, at least, if not the spirit of the overall Parton endeavor. But even this was an eclectic affair. There was a van advertising Parrot Mountain and Gardens: “See, Touch and Feed God’s Beautiful Tropical Birds.” There was a fake country church, and a real church congregation, on top of a trailer. There was a guy dressed as Batman, who shouted at the crowd and waved: “How y’all doin’!”

Farther down the road from the parade, straddling the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, was the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of the eastern U.S.’s premier natural attractions. You can tell it used to be pretty there, all rolling hills and pristine woodlands; in a sense it still is, but in the gauche, unchecked way of Las Vegas. Opportunities for wholesome recreation abound on Route 441: a knife museum; zip lines; helicopter rides; the Parton Family Wedding Chapel & Antiques; the World’s Largest As Seen on TV Superstore; WonderWorks, an upside-down building which also serves as a liftoff site for hot-air balloons; a Titanic-shaped Titanic museum, the cousin of a similar attraction in Branson, Missouri; and a Mount Rushmore replica engraved with the faces of John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, and Elvis Presley. A Ferris wheel turns behind the Parkway. A chimney in front of a barbecue restaurant sprays steam meant to mimic smoke.

Pigeon Forge was not a singular product of Parton’s success — it had long been a weird, plastic tourist mecca when, in 1986, she became a co-owner of Silver Dollar City, the prior theme park, and reshaped it in her image. The town was established by white settlers in Sevier County along the floodplain of the Little Pigeon River, which runs through it. The other part of the name refers to a short-lived iron forgery; because of limited avenues for transporting iron out of the region, and some deficiencies in the local ore, the industry that emerged in the nineteenth century was subsistence farming, though other business opportunities became available too. Neighboring Cocke County is famous for its moonshine, an industry that boomed in response to the transportation problem: It was much more profitable to move corn out of the area as liquor than as cobs and kernels.

Parton’s family had roots elsewhere in the Great Smoky Mountains, but moved to Sevier County when locals were displaced to make way for the national park, which opened in 1940. Because it was envisioned as a natural reserve, the people who lived on the land were bought out, or forced out by eminent domain, in the largest such removal in Park Service history — more than a thousand families all told. The opening of the national park began a decades-long tourist boom that was abetted in the nineteen fifties by the construction of U.S. Route 441; as nearby Gatlinburg, located at the park’s gates, became saturated, development began to snake up along the highway. By 1963, the Pigeon Forge City Council had passed an ordinance banning livestock odors on the grounds they would be “offensive to the citizens and visitors of the city.” Today, Dollywood is the largest employer in Sevier County.

After the parade, we camped several miles away at the headwaters of the Douglas Dam, a Tennessee Valley Authority project completed in record speed to produce hydropower for metal production during World War II. On the map, Douglas Lake looks like a snake that’s been run over by a car, spindly and bulging, with tiny branches trickling off on every side. The land slips so smoothly into this seventy-year-old body of water that you are moved to imagine the terrain beneath it. The many reservoirs that have replaced valleys throughout the South (we stayed at another, in eastern Kentucky, the following night) are a weird counterpoint to the way sites like Pigeon Forge operate, as places that look natural — water, shoreline — but aren’t. The construction of Douglas Dam flooded the fertile fields at the bottom of the valley, on the shores of the French Broad River; this too, in the bashful language of a 1958 study, “necessitated considerable adjustment of the population.” One hundred and eighty families were forced out, part of a larger wave of southerners headed elsewhere. “In recent years,” that same paper noted, “the paved highway, the automobile, and the radio have opened up one mountain fastness after another.”

It’s hard to conceive what this all must look like through Parton’s eyes. She was born in 1946 in a house that’s said to be back in these hills somewhere, though Morales, for one, wasn’t able to find it, and afterward she felt “prurient” for having looked. In any case, there’s a replica at Dollywood and there are, in the national park, a few remnants of prior settlement displayed as historical attractions. In a pretty excellent burn, a 2000 article on vernacular architecture and country music by Michael Ann Williams and Larry Morrissey argued that the Dollywood version “achieves something the National Park Service typically fails to do: it gives the tourist a feel for how the house was lived in.” Unlike the park’s well-preserved specimens, the Dollywood house is cluttered, looks well used, and was arranged based on memories offered by the Parton family.

As Morales points out, an irony occurs at the intersection of Parton’s lyrics, which idealize pastoral living and denigrate the grind of the city, and the reality of Pigeon Forge, a place that Parton has had a hand in shaping, which also idealizes the pastoral, sort of, albeit within the context of being a very large strip mall. “Why not put a Titanic museum in the Appalachian foothills?” somebody once asked.

Dollywood itself actually figures into Pilgrimage quietly; it comes last, after Morales and family have visited the Smoky Mountains and found them unsatisfying. “I am aware of the irony that the packaged nature of the amusement park was more pleasurable (for us) than the oppressive experience of unrelieved forest in the national park,” writes Morales, sounding like she’s finally having the authentic American experience she was looking for. The theme park features rides and junk food, some quiet oases, and at least one thing that sounds truly stunning: a thirty-thousand-square-foot bald eagle sanctuary. Somehow the unifying narrative is Parton’s rags-to-riches story. But the park inspires Morales, at the end of her book, in a cinematically cheesy moment. She feels good about Dollywood, she feels better about America: “Through its omissions as well as its attractions, Dollywood helped me see the dream country to which I can be loyal. In that sense, I suppose, I did what Dolly Parton tells us to do in her refrain at Dollywood to ‘celebrate the dreamer in you.’” Amid the hubbub, she offers a silent thank-you to Parton.

This kind of emotional encouragement isn’t cheap — admission to Dollywood is fifty-eight dollars. We didn’t go. But we stayed at the parade for a long time. The Sons of Confederate Veterans came along, waving their flag, followed by Santa Claus sitting on the back of a tinseled flatbed truck. There were many antique tractors; there were many more majorettes. One of them stopped in the middle of the parade — everybody else kept moving — and gestured skyward, as if there was something there. Nobody paid attention. The parade went on. Finally somebody looked up, and then we all did. There was a rainbow directly overhead, though the sky was mostly blue and there had been no rain. “Dolly brought it — that’s the truth,” a woman standing in front of us said.

Samuel Worley is a freelance writer and editor in Ohio.

Photo by Jen