From the July/August 2009 issue of National Geographic Traveler
Larger than life and as authentic as Tennessee hickory, Dolly Parton is one of country music's most successful citizens—she's played with all the greats, scored 25 No. 1 singles (more than any other female country musician), and puts the grand in Grand Ole Opry by virtue of her flamboyance, brash enthusiasm, and quick wit. She lit up the big screen in such movies as 9 to 5, owns a production company that produced the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has scored a Broadway show, and has been a philanthropic tour de force, especially in the Smoky Mountains, where she was born—in Sevier County, Tennessee. She has also had a huge impact on the area's tourism industry—23 years ago, she launched Dollywood, an amusement park that attracts 2.5 million visitors annually. I lived in the Smokies for 15 years and visited Dollywood with my then adolescent son. I was charmed by her practice of populating the park with genuine Appalachian craftspeople, musicians, artists. That was rare back then—but she's always been a trendsetter.
Why did you decide to hire people with traditional Appalachian skills at Dollywood? I wanted people working there who were connected with the land and the local culture. They made it real, not phony. It made me feel comfortable. And I guess I thought it would make the visitors feel that way, too.
Are you worried that Dollywood will eventually lose the real in favor of the commercial and packaged? We need to remain true to what we have. In the Smokies, there's always been so much know-how—that pioneer spirit. I'm keen to maintain the soul of the place. To celebrate God's beauty—that means go for a nice walk, smell that air, feel the temperature, hold on to the sense of the moment, take a drift on a trail, look deeply into the stream. That means so much more than all the artifice in the world.
Great Smoky Mountains is one of our most iconic and visited parks. Are you concerned about the health of a national treasure that has been a part of your life for decades? Absolutely. We've just got to pay closer attention to life—and the life of the park. I've written this new CD—with a lot of help—that taps into the park's native heritage. It's called Sha-Kon-O-Hey!—which is Cherokee for "Land of Blue Smoke." The songs reflect on who this land originally belonged to. They were the people who first loved this place. The Indians have a spirit that just makes sense: Close to the land. I wanted to honor that. We worry more about keeping trash away from the bears than we do about the history and environmental quality of the park itself.
You made your fame as a musician. But Dollywood has probably touched as many people as your records. It sits in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, not exactly poster children for sustainable development. How has your tourism philosophy changed since Dollywood's opening—what would you do differently? I really wouldn't do anything differently. Because, quite frankly, all I can really do is help people to care. I'm not in charge of policy—and certainly not able to change what's happened in the past. We have to try to balance giving people what they want and not giving away the store. We all know our places are challenged by too many people wanting to see them. So there's no simple, perfect answer. We just have to raise awareness and sensitivity. The national park is 75 years old, and it needs friends. I'm one of them. We want to bring people in. The area needs the revenue. And they want us—a wonderful problem to have. This is a land of opportunity and tourism. How do you know when to stop? It's not within my expertise to have the answer.
What kind of traveler are you? I like to get down to it. My husband and I travel a lot by RV. I guess that's because I grew up on tour buses. We'll go from east Tennessee—the mountains—to west Tennessee, which is flat as a board. They play to different moods, and we love them both. We like staying in cheap hotels—heck, if I can sneak into a Day's Inn, I'm there. We'll picnic on the riverbank, pull off on the side of the road. You don't need to be fancy to travel well. You just need to be curious and willing.
Where are some of your favorite retreats in Tennessee and elsewhere? Well, I have that mountain home in Chattanooga, and I've spent a lot of time in Hawaii—I had a house and restaurant in Honolulu. I've been all over Europe the last two years—by bus, of course. I love Old Hickory Lake in Nashville—a wonderful inspiration. Another place that's special is Graceland. I went there early one morning and it was magical.
When you're touring—what are your favorite spots on the road? Come on—every place is wonderful. I'm a gypsy. I just love places that are different than I am.
Where are the best venues to hear authentic country music? Any place that you feel connects in a way that's honest. I can't get into naming venues. I can't remember them, anyway.
Where do you go shopping when you're traveling—and for what? I'm a truck stop girl. Honest. I'm not an act. I go into Cracker Barrel and browse the shelf. Mostly I look for real stuff. My husband and I pull off the road to look at any old antique store. It's "Dolly is coming"—I blow in there, fly into the room, and get something wonderful that says I've been there. I just love my junk stuff. Wigs are what people think of when they picture me. But what I really look for is what my Daddy would love.
What are the most common misconceptions about Tennessee? Oh, gosh, that we're just a bunch of rednecks. And we are. But that's okay to tell each other. We know who we are. That just means we see the world differently. And seeing the world in a different way isn't a bad thing.
Keith Bellows is the editor of Traveler.