Redemption and Dollywood

Melissa Ann Sweat

© Copyright 2018 by Melissa Ann Sweat

Photo of the Dollywood entrance sign.

My essay describes my first trip to Dollywood and the surrounding Smoky Mountain region, while reclaiming my own creative spirit and musical ambitions through the living legend that is Dolly Parton.

After leaving Asheville in the first part of my trip, I headed west on I-40 to my next destination:  Pigeon Forge, TN for a long-awaited pilgrimage to — you guessed it — Dollywood. I’d always enjoyed Dolly Parton’s music and persona as an entertainer growing up, but I became more obsessed with Dolly as a person when I happened to pick up her autobiography, Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business, at a used bookstore in a nearby town when I was living in Joshua Tree, California, a few years back.

At the time, I was preparing to release my last album, Miracles, and found myself delightfully drawn into Dolly’s stories of her humble upbringing in the Smoky Mountain “hollers” where she grew up in a two-room cabin with her twelve siblings and parents. I loved reading about the many tales from her childhood, like the personal story behind the “coat of many colors” that inspired her hit song, of graduating high school and moving to Nashville to pursue her dreams, of her early success and later struggles with collaborator Porter Wagoner, and, of course, her exponential rise to country music and global stardom.

Despite her artificial appearances, Dolly is the real deal. Her rags to riches story is one of truth, not legend, as is her creative legacy and generosity through her many causes, including one of my favorites — Dolly’s Imagination Library, which mails free books to children from birth to age five in communities within the US, UK, Canada and Australia and has served over 1.1 million children.

I have felt “starstruck” and smitten by Dolly in another way, too — besides being a young, aspiring female musician — as a fellow, consummate Capricorn and businesswoman, I greatly admire Dolly’s keen business acumen and success; she always seems to know the right next move, how to surround herself with the best people and friends, and has been perpetually unafraid to take risks in her image, film work, and expand her empire to, yes, even an entire amusement park named in her homage. If that doesn’t make Dolly the queen of not only country music but American entertainment culture as an enduring (and still prolific) icon, I don’t know who is.

So before moving back to California and living in the south for what would most likely be the last time in my life, Dollywood was one southern mecca I just had to see.

The drive through the Appalachian mountains in the fall was more beautiful than I had imagined. Several times along the gently winding highway, my car was showered with a sudden rainfall of bright orange leaves that made my jaw drop at the beauty of it.

My jaw dropped, as well, when I got into Pigeon Forge and it was so much stranger than I'd thought. Once I passed through the quaint, “old town” area with an historic mill along the river and the gorgeous smokies in the backdrop, I was stunned to see for miles and miles stretching down the main parkway a slew of kitschy carnival rides, go-kart racing and arcades, Hollywood wax and other weird “museums,” and all kinds of dinner-and-a-show establishments ranging from a shoot-‘em-up Hatfields and McCoys feud to god-only-knows-what at the Biblical Times dinner theatre. I came to learn that all the amusement and attraction businesses started popping up in the 50s after the Smoky Mountains were made a national park and more and more tourists flocked to the area. One entrepreneur created the first dinner and show theatre in town and the rest was history.

But I wasn’t here for the sideshow — I was here for the main event.

As I drove up to the park entrance, the little girl in me took over and I couldn’t help letting out a squeal of delight. I paid the $15 for parking, parked my car in section D/E marked “Dolly’s Earrings” (squee!), then the tram came to pick all the families and kids and little ol' me up and take us to the ticketing station.

By the time I got into the park I was pretty much giddy. As I expected, Dollywood was fun and tasteful, a bit like a very small Disneyland with everything designed just so. I was surprised though to find — except for a section off to the side — the absence of Dolly’s image or a Dolly theme throughout the park. The park itself could have been any small amusement park save for the one Dolly section.

Truth be told, I was feeling fairly tired from my trip already and the drive, so I just went on one ride that afternoon, a little old-school car ride, then took my time walking around the park, enjoying the music performances, live American eagles display, the people-watching (there is no drinking in the park, by the way, but smoking is allowed and was aplenty), and the awesome pumpkin carvings and special Halloween section. As I circled back toward the entrance of the park, I got myself a double-scooped ice cream cone (strawberry and pecan), then finally went into Dolly’s section to go inside her old tour bus and “Chasing Rainbows” museum, and to indulge in the star I came all the way here for.

After walking through a tour of Dolly’s amazing life, I couldn’t help but feel an even greater sense of awe, wonder, and gratitude for this incredible woman. Dolly Parton is one of the brightest examples we have of what can happen when you are true to yourself and follow your heart and your dreams. It’s as simple as a country song, but true.

I couldn’t help but also feel a kind of serendipity with the release of Dolly’s first children's album, I Believe In You. On the cover, Dolly is pictured in blue butterfly wings, which is appropriate as she seems to me a kind of country-fied fairy godmother to all who dream big dreams. “I believe in you,” is a line I also used in one of my own songs, “Miracles” — a song I was hesitant to even put out because of it’s idealistic, hopeful message I was afraid would appear naïve.

It’s not.

My own sense of hope has sprung from my own deep darkness. And visiting Dollywood for me as a creative person at this time in my life was indeed a kind of redemption, and renewal.

Yes, I still do believe in miracles, and I still do believe in the power of our dreams. And as I’ve come to know on my own creative path — and like Dolly reminds us — making dreams a reality takes a lot of hard work, both grace and gumption, and yes, a little bit of fairy dust.

Melissa Ann Sweat is a writer, artist, and singer-songwriter whose music project Lady Lazarus has been featured at the New York Times, NPR, Pitchfork, Interview, and many more. Her writing has been published at Impose Magazine, Dangerous Minds, and Skirt! magazine, among others. Melissa lives by the beach in Santa Cruz County, CA and is currently finishing up her first novel, writing new songs, and performing shows in the Bay Area. 

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