Tuesday, May 04, 2004

THE DIVINE MISS PARTON: I promised a Dolly Parton post a coupla weeks ago. Sorry for the delay. The washing machine ate my post. Seriously. Notes on a piece of paper folded up in my pants pocket and forgotten…

A few weeks ago I caught a little bit of the debut episode of the Jessica Simpson / Nick Lachey variety show. However “of the moment” Ms. Simpson is, she draws quite a bit on ‘70s nostalgia. Cher is obviously a touchstone; the whole husband-and-wife variety show schtick is a conscious ripoff of Sonny & Cher. Also, the show dusted off the old duet “Islands in the Stream,” with the almost lifelike Kenny Rogers reprising the baritone part, and Jessica in the Dolly Parton role of Perky Blonde with Ample Cleavage.

Ah, the multi-media, only-one-name-necessary pop diva. Nowadays, it’s Britney, Beyonce, and J-Lo. In my youth, we had Cher and Barbra and Bette—and, come to think of it, Dolly. Add it up: Recording artist, songwriter, movie star, TV producer (evidence of her business acumen), author (two books). The lady is a multiple threat. These days, while Dolly may not turn up in the pages of People magazine very often anymore, she has moved back to her roots, signing with the respected small label Rounder Records, and making a couple of spare but critically well-regarded bluegrass and gospel tinged albums. She racked up a Grammy award for one of them.

(Pun intended.)

I had been thinking about Dolly Parton anyway (more than I had in years) since the family and I took a trip last month to the Great Smoky Mountains, including a visit to Dollywood, the theme park to which Dolly lends her name.

Dollywood is no tribute to Dolly’s artistry, believe me, but business-wise it sure seems to be a going concern. Long lines and traffic jams? Check. Obscene prices for admission and junk food and crummy souvenirs? Check. But as a pure fun factory Dollywood delivers the goods. My kids don’t know Parton from Salvador when it comes to Dollies, but they all had a fine time. My oldest dragged me onto the Tennessee Tornado, and it is as stomach-churning a roller coaster as any I can remember. (Daddy don’t enjoy coasters like he once did.)

As your white-trash-culture correspondent, though, I kept an eye open for signs of Dolly’s imprint, and they’re not hard to find. First off, there’s an attraction called Chasing Rainbows, “a state-of-the-art interactive museum collection that chronicles Dolly’s rise to fame.” There’s little touches like “the park’s most-visited restaurant Aunt Granny's (named for the nickname by which Dolly's nieces and nephews call her).”

It shouldn’t surprise me by now, but it still does, to go out in public in red-state America and see so many people wearing their religion on their T-shirt. There was a lot of this at Dollywood; the fact that it was Easter week probably added to it. In certain ways, the park signals its church-friendliness: there’s a gospel music exhibit in the park, and the Dollywood mission statement refers to “Christian values and ethics.”

And how often have you said to yourself, “What this amusement park really needs is a house of worship right in the middle of it”? Well, I have good news: Dollywood has got the Robert F. Thomas Chapel, named for the doctor who delivered Dolly at birth. More good news: there is no height restriction to enter the chapel.

Everywhere, you see “authenticity” pushed to the limit and beyond. There’s a train ride, the Dollywood Express, that takes you on a short loop back into the woods behind the park, a five mile trip. The “conductor” makes a point to tell his riders that this is a working narrow-gauge steam engine, actually used in the construction of the Alaska Highway. Nice, but then the train carries you on this groaner of a trip “back in time” and shows you some pseudo-historical trackside displays: the fake hillbilly shack, the fake moonshine still, the little fake fiberglass animals.

There were a handful of live music performances in the park that day, and the one I took most notice of was a band whose name I forget, but they were described as “Celt-a-billy.” It was one guy playing bagpipes, pretty much straight Scottish style, but he was backed by three or four guys playing bass drums and pounding out a huge rock-and-roll backbeat. It was Clannad meets the Broadway musical “Stomp.” Odd. But not all bad. And they had a crowd cheering like crazy for them.

Maybe just to qualify the white-trash joke I made above, I feel compelled to mention that not every person I saw at Dollywood was white. 95%, but not 100%. I never realized before how popular and wide-reaching east Tennessee is as a vacation spot. I believe I read somewhere that Great Smoky Mountain is the most visited US National Park. Judging by the license plates and t-shirts I saw, Dollywood draws folks from Georgia to Illinois. There were loads of people from Ohio (a pretty easy journey down I-75).

As a hillbilly-American myself, I saw a lot in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg that brought me down: roadside litter and out-of-control development marring the natural beauty, the godawful tourist schlock, the dinner theaters featuring sub-“Hee Haw” style comedy revues. Dollywood is not the sole driver of tourism in the Smokies, but it seems the biggest single driver. Maybe Dolly Parton should have to answer for the orgy of Tennessee kitsch. But I can’t condemn her. Every town in Appalachia is struggling to make a living, after all. And Dolly is authentically kitschy, if such a thing is possible. Going back to her Porter Wagoner days, she’s always been the way she is.

It’s a little late now to do my Johnny Cash tribute, but when Johnny died, I thought, is there anybody out there who didn’t like this man? The eulogies came from every direction. Liberal and conservative, urban and rural, casual fan and aficionado—everybody had a reason for loving him. For breadth of appeal, Dolly Parton is almost his match. She knows who she is and is proud of it. She crossed over, but she maintained her integrity. I can see why Jessica Simpson might want to tap into some of that good-old-girl mojo.

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