Some years ago my brother and I took a road trip through the Deep South, a six-day vacation doubling as a brush-up on American history and twangy regionalism. Civil rights, the Civil War, Graceland, Sun Records, the Lorraine Motel — we squeezed in a lot. Much of it moved us, spiritually, morally and musically.
But there was one stop that did its own crazy thing. It awed, confounded and regaled. There were history, banjos and biscuits. There were rollercoasters, glass-blowers and fiddlin’ fools. There were fried catfish and frilly cowboy boots. There were lots of overalls.
We had found ourselves deep in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee in a gilded wonderland made of corn dogs and mascara. We were at … Dollywood.
That is, of course, Dolly Parton’s personal theme park, 160 acres of thrill rides, country cooking, burly craftsmen, glitzy shows, nostalgic displays, Dolly shrines, all with a pinch of Christianity and patriotism. At opening hour, the National Anthem is blared before patrons, hands on hearts, can enter.
And there’s ole Dolly, her rhinestone-studded likeness beaming around every corner — that shiny blonde bouffant, dimply red-wax smile and those famous Frankenboobs — in all its campy resplendence. Luckily she’s in on the joke or the place would be unbearable in its lack of self-awareness. It would be a cruel punchline, not a family paradise.
But for us wiseacre city boys it was something else. Like an anthropological artifact unearthed in the soft southern soil to be puzzled over. It was our duty to stifle our snickers and suss out what makes this deeply red (politically), aggressively white (racially), boot-kicking (musically) environment tick.
Well, we never did get to the bottom of it, not surprisingly. We got too swept up in the nine rollercoasters and the luxuriantly bearded dudes doing woodwork and the beans and brisket and the dewy video presentations about Dolly’s fabulous rags-to-riches life.
Dolly’s no dip. Self-aggrandizement is her kryptonite; she never pulls a Kardashian, despite being something of a glam ham. She’s a giver, not a taker. Indeed, she pays full college tuition for all the park’s employees. That’s on top of her other well-documented, deep-pocket altruism.
Dollywood’s no joke, either. It’s the number one theme park in the country, according to TripAdvisor (really?). Along with the nine rollercoasters (nine!) there’s a water park, wads of wholesome live shows, 25 dining spots and a trillion shops (I bought a gaudy Dollywood coffee mug with my name on it). Go when the fall leaves turn in the scenic Smokies, or now when light snow falls. I’m starting to sound like a Parton pitchman.
Condescension is too easy, and Dollywood is too big a target. Have your fun — we did — then surrender to the facile charms of another bombastically artificial playland that at least offers a different theme than the formulaic movie characters of Disneyland and Six Flags. It’s rustic, it’s corny, it’s unassuming. (A spokesman recently told The Times that they’re working on the park’s lack of diversity. So there’s that.)
It’s not unlike Kenny Rogers Roasters (where we actually ate in Nashville), Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo (where I will never eat), Reba McEntire’s Reba’s Place or Billy Cyrus’ Car Wash and Detailing (now I’m making stuff up). Branding is hot, but Dolly — who smartly took a moment to invent a clever name for her venture — started Dollywood in the ‘80s. Ahead of the curve as always, working way more than 9 to 5.
So there we were, part-way through our whirlwind tour of the American South. Dollywood was on our list. We made it. At first we chuckled, assuming the camp quotient would be too delicious. We weren’t Dolly diehards — I did like “Jolene,” “Here You Come Again” and “9 to 5” — but our respect for the country icon was true.
Hokum is what we sought. But we were wrong. The craftsmen stuff was mildly interesting — whoa, he just carved out a birdhouse in like five minutes! — the Dolly stuff was tasteful if sometimes maudlin, and the overall setting was handsome and top-tier.
I spotted one of the bigger, meaner rollercoasters and we ran for it. I noticed that water sprayed up on some of the turns and curves. I hate that. I don’t like getting drenched at theme parks, not even on those splashy log-ride thingies.
We got on. It was a corker, a great, rumbling ride. I was having a blast. Until the end, the final corkscrew. The goddam thing soaked me good. The joke, at last, was on me.