PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — It’s the T-shirts that tell the story of Dollywood. And what a story it is.
As I walked through the Tennessee theme park on a warm June afternoon, a quartet of gay men in matching yellow Dolly Parton tees and pink cowboy hats strolled by me, laughing and hooting. Shortly after that, I came across a group of parishioners wearing T-shirts with the logo of their evangelical church. More than a few “In Dolly we trust” shirts were waiting in line for the log flume. I was also partial to a “Rebel like Reba, Diva like Dolly” shirt.
But the T-shirt that best told the story read “Dolly/Reba 2024.″ Upon spotting it, I instinctively said, “Hell yeah,” to no one in particular. Because this is Tennessee, I don’t think anyone noticed my outburst.
The idea of a Parton/McEntire presidential ticket is not so far-fetched. Parton is a rare jewel of a human whose coat of many colors includes red and blue states (plus many rainbows). It’s next to impossible to find anyone as beloved across multiple disparate demographics. The bewigged country butterfly has a wing span encompassing all, leaving a trail of love thickly coated in blue eyeshadow and rhinestones.
“I’ve done so many things. I’ve been around a long time,” Parton said in the British documentary “Here I Am.” “I guess it’s kind of like I feel like a family member to most people.”
If Parton is a family member, then Dollywood is where people come to have their family reunion. When I first entered the park, a gate attendant told me to “Have a Dolly day.” I quickly figured out what that meant. Dollywood is an American fantasy land at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains where visitors can escape into a past that looks like the set of a Hallmark movie. Specifically, if that Hallmark movie is about roller coasters and cinnamon bread, both of which Dollywood is famous for.
The 150-acre park takes a deep dive into a comfortable and entirely fictional homespun history, from a district that looks like a freshly-scrubbed 1956 downtown to a quaint 19th-century coal-powered steam train that slowly chugs around the park. Kiddie rides are located in a loop that resembles an old-timey country fair. As I walked around, I encountered bluegrass musicians and a group of women singing uplifting country-pop tunes in front of a tiny chapel. I settled into the Pines Theater to watch a show filled with pop music from the 1950s and 1960s. It’s either wholesome or high camp. Take your pick.
Dollywood is a candy-coated dive into Parton’s subconscious, and it’s delicious. Or at least that was my read after several roller coaster rides that left me feeling like a woozy, moonshine-soaked rag doll. If Parton’s legacy and message of universal love were not attached to the park, would anyone be here? I suspect not.
Her legend began with the rags-to-riches tale of a sharecropper’s daughter, who grew up in a one-room cabin near Dollywood (its location is kept secret) with her 11 siblings. You can see a replica of the tiny cabin at Dollywood. She became a country music star more than 50 years ago, but more importantly, she became a pop culture sensation and a legend. Dollywood celebrates it all.
Jokes about Parton’s ample bosom were a late-night mainstay for decades. But refusing to be a punchline, she told the jokes, too. Meanwhile, the “Dumb Blond” singer was busy creating an empire as a songwriter, actress, theme-park impresario, chef, and philanthropist. She didn’t discover the vaccine for COVID-19, but her $1 million donation to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center for coronavirus research certainly helped.
Her bread and butter may be country music, but Parton has crossed over into the pop, Christian, gospel, club, and electronica charts. Few (if any) musicians have scored number-one hits on both the Billboard Christian and electronica charts. But Dolly is the great unifier. She is a woman who can collaborate on a cake mix with Duncan Hines and design clothes for dogs.
Her broad appeal and aura of benevolence are why Dollywood is one of the rare places in the United States where you’ll encounter a true ideological melting pot. I observed conservatives and queers on the same rides at the same time. I can’t think of anywhere else in the US where these two groups would be enjoying themselves in close proximity.
What I’m trying to say in a very long-winded fashion is that our country needs to be more like Dollywood, with healthier snacking choices. Scrap that. I liked the snacking choices.
I stood in line at the Grist Mill for cinnamon bread shortly after arrival because that’s what people here do. It’s served out-of-the-oven in an aluminum pan that scalds your fingers. I had starved myself in anticipation of this moment, so I didn’t notice the second-degree burns on my hands. I just tore off a piece and dunked it in apple butter. I felt no remorse for eating almost the entire loaf, that is, until it nearly came out again after I rode the Wild Eagle roller coaster. Those with a more delicate constitution can still find thrills on the Daredevil Falls log flume.
While in line to board the flume, I struck up a conversation with a visitor from England who said she only came to Tennessee to see the park. Attendance at Dollywood and its adjacent water park is 3.5 million annually, and it’s the most visited attraction in the state. John Tate and Jason Stein came to Dollywood from Chicago. They stopped on their way to visit family in South Carolina and said Dollywood was also their only reason for a side trip to Tennessee.
“We wouldn’t feel safe anywhere else in this part of Tennessee,” Stein said while waiting in line at one of the many gift shops to buy a Dollywood Christmas ornament and a tote bag commemorating the 50th anniversary of the song “I Will Always Love You.” “I feel like Dolly has always been there for us.”
It is one of the many anomalies of Dollywood. Here’s a theme park devoted to a gay icon in a county where 75 percent of residents voted for Donald Trump in the last election. It’s also in a state where the governor signed a bill banning transgender youth from school sports and who attempted to restrict drag performances. (That law was thrown out in federal court.)
Clipping wings is not on brand for Parton. She professes her deep love of God and shares her spirituality. But her down-home values don’t come at the expense of excluding gay fans and the drag community. She has supported her gay fans for decades.
“[Dollywood is] a place for entertainment, a place for all families, period,” Parton said in a 2014 interview with Billboard magazine about those who are critical of the LGBTQ+ community. “It’s for all that. But as far as the Christians, if people want to pass judgment, they’re already sinning. The sin of judging is just as bad as any other sin they might say somebody else is committing. I try to love everybody.”
Was anyone passing judgment at Dollywood the day I was there? Perhaps. But people were respectful of each other. The only animosity I witnessed happened between a mother and daughter bickering in a gift shop over who would get to wear the “Good Golly, Miss Dolly” T-shirt. Parton’s Appalachian amusement park re-creation of the US may be cornier than Kansas in August, but it’s a place where a wide swath of people are respectful and smiling. Corny or not, that’s a place I’d love to live.