Though it's been half a century since Dolly Parton left Sevier County, Tennessee, where she grew up "dirt poor," her influence on the area remains huge. There are businesses and buildings and charitable programs named for her, and her image gazes out from framed photos and billboards and T-shirts across the landscape. She is to Sevier County what Kim Jong-il is to Pyongyang, or Jesus Christ to the Vatican.
If you were to visit the Sevier County town of Pigeon Forge, you could hit up the Chasing Rainbows museum, a Dolly-centric attraction located inside Dollywood, a Dolly-themed amusement park, before stopping for dinner at Dolly Parton’s Stampede a few miles down the road, and ending your day by climbing into bed in the Dolly Suite of the Dollywood DreamMore Resort and Spa. If you wanted to really get into it, you could drive over to the LeConte Medical Center in Sevierville and treat yourself to a mammogram at the Dolly Parton Center for Women’s Services. You would almost certainly encounter someone during this day who has benefited from the charity work of Dolly, who has pumped money into a variety of programs across the area.
"I’ve been in this job for 30 years… and I can’t think of anybody else who’s impacted [this area] more than Dolly Parton, to be honest with you," said Leon Downey, director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism. "Her theme park is now the most ticketed attraction in the state of Tennessee [and] the largest employer in our city. And then when you think about all the things she’s done through her philanthropy, she’s a one of a kind person, I’ve never met anybody like her. She’s just one of the finest people I know."
I visited Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Gatlinburg (the main tourist towns in Sevier County) towards the end of the 2018 summer season to take a look at Dolly's impact on the area. Here's what I saw:
One of the big draws in Pigeon Forge are dinner theaters, of which there are about a dozen. Whether you're a fan of God, or disgraced TV chefs and disagreements between people who chop down trees, there's one suited to your tastes (Biblical Times Dinner Theater and Paula Deen's Lumberjack Feud, respectively).
There are two Dolly-themed and owned dinner theaters on the town's main strip. During my visit, I ate at the newest one, Celebration! Dinner Show, which opened in 2017.
The show's promotional material, in which Dolly is quoted as saying, “There are many things I remember growing up, but none more than the celebrations my family shared,” led me to believe it would be some kind of celebration(!) of celebrations.
I'm not totally sure if that was the case. The performance featured time travel, Cirque du Soleil-style stunts, clowns, projections, fire jugglers, and people aerial dancing to Dolly’s version of “I Will Always Love You." At one point they paused the show to give a shoutout to “some of the hardest working people in our great nation,” first responders and veterans. There was never a point in the show that I came even close to understanding what was happening, but also never a point I was bored.
The random-seeming jumble might be the result of the negative backlash that hit Dolly’s other Pigeon Forge restaurant, Dolly Parton’s Stampede, which, until recently, had a much clearer theme. It had previously been called Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede, but dropped the "Dixie" and tweaked some aspects of the performance in 2017, not long after a lengthy Slate review described it as “a lily-white kitsch extravaganza that play-acts the Civil War but never once mentions slavery.”
In 1985, Dolly invested in a small amusement park in Pigeon Forge called Silver Dollar City, changing the name to Dollywood, and giving some attractions a Dolly Parton theme. According to Dollywood’s director of public relations, Pete Owens, attendance to the park doubled in its first post-Dolly year.
In the years since, it’s expanded to include a waterpark (Dollywood's Splash Country), a cabin rental facility (Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Cabins), and a 300+ room hotel (Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa). According to Owens, the attraction brings in 2.7 million visitors annually, and provides work for 4,000 mostly seasonal employees.
While, for the most part, the park looks like the majority of other theme parks—it has a fake main street, a log ride, roller coasters, and kettle corn—there are references to Dolly throughout. Some, like the full-size recreation of her childhood home, are obvious. But there are also more subtle ones, like the hotel's "stone soup," which is based on a soup her mom would bulk out with a rock in times when food was scarce.
In November 2016, wildfires broke out across Gatlinburg, about ten miles south of Dollywood. Fourteen people died, and around 2,500 structures were damaged or destroyed.
“The electricity went out, the wind started getting really high, and my eldest son, who’s 16, looked out of the door and our house was surrounded by fire,” said David Reed, who lives in the mountains on the outskirts of town. “I remember looking out of the door and it didn’t seem real. It just seemed like this was a movie, like I was on a movie set and the director was going to yell cut and we’d all be OK.”
Without grabbing a single item, Reed and his family got into their car and drove down through the flames to safety. The next day, they learned their home and everything in it had been destroyed.
Forty-eight hours after the fire, Dolly established the My People Fund to help people affected by the wildfire. It would go on to raise over $12 million.
"That shows the kind of person she is," said Downey, of the tourism board. "She gave all those people [who lost their homes in the fire,] a thousand dollars a month, and then when they came in for their last check, they each got, if I’m not mistaken, another $5,000 check… That says a lot to me, that she cares that much about the people here in Sevier County, where she grew up, and the people who work in this community."
Reed's family received $10,000 of the money raised by Dolly, which went towards building a new home on the site of the old one. They were also given funds to build a well on their property. “This is where God put us," said Reed. "People questioned, ‘Are you sure you wanna build back there?’ It was never a question. Of course we’re gonna rebuild, and we did, so here we are.”
Karaline Bailey is a student at East Tennessee State University. Her education is funded, in part, by a Dolly Parton Scholarship—a $15,000 grant, funded by Dolly's charity, that’s awarded to a student from each high school in Sevier County.
One of the requirements for getting that scholarship was to answer an essay question that asked “How are you similar to Dolly Parton?”
“I’m in school to be a speech language pathologist, and one of my things is I want to come back to Sevier County and work with stroke victims because I don’t think they get a lot of support,” said Bailey. “That’s what I said I relate between me and her: that we have such kind hearts and we want to give back.”
In 1995, Dolly launched a charity called Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library to give free books to any child living in Sevier County in an attempt to raise local literacy rates (Dolly's dad was illiterate). The program has since expanded, and now offers books to children across the US, as well as in Australia, Canada, and the UK. According to their website, they’ve given out almost 110 million books to 1.3 million children.
When Dolly was born in 1946 as the fourth of 12 children, she was delivered in her family’s single-room home by the local doctor, who is said to have traveled by horse, foot, and jeep to make as many as 1,000 house calls each year. According to Parton, her dad paid the doctor a sack of cornmeal for her delivery, as it was all he could afford.
Healthcare in the area has changed a lot since then, and much of that change has been helped along by Dolly, who has donated so much time and money to the local hospital that they’ve named two departments in her honor: the Dolly Parton Birthing Unit and the Dolly Parton Center for Women's Services.
A few miles down the road from Dollywood live Patric Parkey and Harrell Gabehart, who moved to the area from Houston nine years ago in order to fully immerse themselves in Dolly.
Without fact-checking, I'm pretty confident in calling Parkey and Gabehart the biggest Dolly Parton fans on earth. Every surface of their three-story home is occupied by Dolly-related objects, from blankets to wigs to dolls to Pepsi bottles. They even have her old bed and a chunk of the house she grew up in. They estimate that they've spent a quarter of a million dollars on Dolly stuff.
When the wildfires hit, the couple decided against bailing, instead staying home to duct tape garbage bags to their windows in the hopes of keeping the smoke out.
“Now, it got close,” Parkey told me. “A police officer come and knocked on the door and said, ‘Come on, we’re evacuating, you need to leave.’ I go, ‘Nuh uh.’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Nuh uh, I’m not leaving.’”
According to Parkey, the cop allowed them to stay after being taken inside and shown the size of the collection.
“You could see the burning, the glow of the fire on the horizon,” he said. “It got to the top of the hill—if it had started coming down the hill it would’ve been like a waterfall.” The fire never made it to their house.
Many of the items they've obtained for their collection were auctioned off by Parton to raise funds for charity—something Parkey has directly benefited from. About ten years ago, the couple donated money at a fundraiser that Dolly appeared at. That money was used to buy new defibrillators for the area.
According to Parkey, when he had a heart attack in 2015, his heart was restarted using one of the machines he’d helped purchase. “It was kind of emotional,” he said. "It felt good. Like, you did this, and it saved my life."
See more photos below: