No folly with Dolly

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.

I own a Dollywood mug just like this gorgeous thing.

Doing the Charleston

History throbs and threads through Charleston, South Carolina, a city I haven’t visited for about 16 reasons, the biggest being I just haven’t made it down there yet. Part of that is because I feel I got my Deep South fix some years ago during a greatest-hits southern road trip with my brother in a brazenly purple Saturn sedan rental. It was a blast.

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Filled with barbecue, catfish and boiled peanuts, we shoehorned as much as we could into five days, pit-stopping in Nashville; Memphis; Sun Records; Graceland; Asheville, N.C., which is tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains; Montgomery and Birmingham; the dewey-eyed Dollywood Theme Park in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee; as well as Thomas Jefferson’s digs at Monticello in Virginia on our way back north to Brooklyn. For much of the journey we listened to the operatically twangy “A Country Boy Can Survive” by Hank Williams Jr., an aching ode to hillbilly pride suddenly apt for these puke-making MAGA days, which dominated the local airwaves. (Listen HERE. It’s impossibly catchy.)  

A native Californian who survived more than a decade in Texas, I’m now an inveterate Yankee. As much as that maiden journey was an eye-opening kick, the South doesn’t come naturally to me. On a later road trip I circumnavigated coastal Florida, from St. Augustine to Miami and the Keys, St. Petersburg to Panama City. (We cut through Alabama and landed in New Orleans, La.) I found Florida gauche, grubby and at times noxiously racist. You couldn’t bribe me back.

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Enter Charleston, S.C., above, a stately midsize city swathed in Civil War lore and, just as intriguing, boasting gourmet gold. I leave in two weeks for a fast three-day trip. Here’s Lonely Planet on the burg’s historical heft:  

“Cannons, cemeteries and carriage rides conjure an earlier era in this lovely city. Signers of the Declaration of Independence puffed cigars and whispered of revolution in historic homes, and the first shots of the Civil War rang out over Fort Sumter. The city was built on slave labor, and several sights are among the nation’s most important educators on the long-standing oppression of African Americans.”

This is a small jaunt — a two-hour flight (free, thanks to airline credits) and a reasonable if flavorless midrange hotel in the Historic District. I’m taking a walking tour of the cobblestone-paved historic hood, including the French Quarter, but I’m not overly excited about the glut of antebellum mansions — silk sofas don’t thrill me — sprawling parks or even fabled Fort Sumter, surefire soporifics I’d rather read about than actually visit.

In my sights is the Old Slave Mart Museum, which “recounts the story of Charleston’s role in the interstate slave trade by focusing on the history of this particular building and site and the slave sales that occurred here.” And I’ll meander through and photograph the history-rich spreads of St. Philip’s Graveyard and Magnolia Cemetery, morbid musts.

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Called the Holy City for contested and not necessarily pious reasons, Charleston keeps accruing accolades as the “friendliest city” and “best city to visit” and other breathless superlatives glossy magazines can’t help bestowing on every cool town (hello, Austin). 

Part of its cachet derives from its evolution as a culinary epicenter, with drooled-over fine dining spots like Fig and McCrady’s, which offers a rarefied tasting-menu experience — “inventive cuisine fresh from the farm” — with only 22 seats.

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Supreme southern chef Sean Brock

The McCrady’s kitchen is run by award-winning chef Sean Brock, who’s been extensively profiled on “Chef’s Table” and “The Mind of a Chef” on Netflix. Brock also co-owns the more casual Southern food destination Husk, where the crispy fried chicken skins are legend (and not always on the menu, drat). Brock and his famed dishes are a big reason I’m going to Charleston. Oysters are also a pull, with Leon’s Oyster Shop and its exalted shellfish and scalloped potatoes firm on my gastronomic itinerary. 

Call it my foodie expedition, brevity be damned. It’s also my overdue return to the South, a region rather alien to me, a cluster of unvarnished Americana, verdant beauty, rampant Republicanism and Confederate fervor that, if nothing else, will impart salutary exposure to the unusual, surprising and startling — a whole new world, exactly why I pack up and go.