Saturday, January 10, 2009

Dollywood Is Brash And Irrepressibly Cheerful, Just Like Its Patron, Dolly Parton, Who Was Designed As If For The Nose Cone Of A B-17 Bomber

Do country singers resemble their theme parks? Sadly, the vogue for musicians to represent themselves as tourist attractions seems to have waned, but I did once stand outside the gates of Twitty City, the resort/home of the country crooner Conway Twitty, and can confirm that Mr Twitty (real name: Harold Jenkins) sold himself short when he adopted the logo of the Twitty City Tweety Bird. The House Of Cash, in which Johnny Cash displayed his wife’s collection of antique bedsteads, was more representative of The Man In Black’s practical side, a feeling which was amplified by the presence in the souvenir shop of Johnny’s mum, who did not look thrilled with a life of selling fridge magnets.
But Dollywood is something else. It is strident and cheap and almost hysterically cheerful. It is America in all its brash glory, a place dedicated to thrills and consumption. Its pleasures are democratic. You can ride the wooden rollercoaster and experience double G-force; a sensation akin to an explosion of sherbet in the brain, which is eased only by the certain knowledge that one is about to be decapitated.
Or you can eat funnel cake. (The result is similar).
Dollywood is the architectural embodiment of Ms Parton’s old joke that “it cost a lot of money to look this cheap”: a section of the park is dedicated to a re-creation of 1950s’ America, with a diner, and a garage with a lot full of old Cadillacs, and a theatre. The air is heavy with syrup and rock’n’roll.
Meanwhile, over in Craftmen’s Valley, men in dungarees whittle as if the 20th century never happened. A modest horse-drawn wagon can be had for under $3000, while the Brakeman Station serves shaved ice and frosted nuts (a mix best ordered sober). There are demonstrations of sheep-shearing and wheat-weaving, and dachshunds made of tin. For those in search of a novelty porch decoration, it is very heaven. There are T-shirts pledging allegiance to God, John Deere, and Turtletown, Tennessee.
Of course, not all of this is down to Dolly. The park has existed at the gateway to the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee since 1961, when it was called Railroad Junction, and consisted of a steam train, a general store, a saloon, and a blacksmith’s. In 1966, it was renamed Goldrush Junction. In 1977, the Western theme expanded, as the park was twinned with Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri. Dolly’s involvement – a matter of investment, marketing, and rebranding – occurred in 1986, when Parton bought into the business.
Unlike the late Conway and his beloved Twitty City, Parton does not live on the premises. She visits once or twice a year, playing charity shows and announcing her presence with a regal procession through the park. Fortunately, my visit coincided with one of Dolly’s, so I took up a position behind the plastic tape which marked her route, and waited. The crowd wasn’t quite a full cross-section of the American South - I counted only two black people, and one transvestite – but there was a broad spectrum, from bikers and Christians and extended clans of overweight hillbillies with mullets and ballcaps and chubby children in vests, to wiry senior citizens and a great many women of a certain age. As we waited – this glad patchwork of pop-drinking humanity - a scarecrow walked past holding a flower. A woman called “Tracey” – she wore a nametag – flitted by in a flowery vintage dress. Banjo music wafted from inside a fibre-glass rock. A train whistle blew.
Finally, Dolly appeared, waving from the red banquette of a vintage car driven by a man in a brown top hat. Parton has often said that her look was a country girl’s idea of glamour, but up close she seemed oddly cartoonish, like a Hanna-Barbera version of a forces sweetheart. She would look good painted on the nose cone of a B-17 bomber. She is pretty, but tough.
I caught up with Dolly at one of the Dollywood theatres, where she was soundchecking for her evening performance. By now she was dressed more formally, in expensive rags. It wasn’t the hair which caught the eye, or even the famous bosom. It was the legs. They were the legs of an 18-year old. (Dolly Parton is 62.)
“Where I was born and raised is probably not more than 10 miles from here,” she said, crossing those disconcerting pins for emphasis. “Country miles! Ten to 15 country miles!” She uncrossed the legs, then coiled them together again. “That’s like sayin’ ‘wider than the mountains’. It seems like you’re in another world, but it’s very close.”
Somewhere beneath the hair and the feisty chat, there may be an ordinary woman, but the extraordinary Dolly is smart enough to know that being humble is the key to her success. She was humble before she was successful, so has it down to a fine art. Her Tennessee mountain home was the subject of a 1973 album, embroidering her mythology, from being “a little bitty child” in a family of 12, to global stardom. That sense of geography. Since turning 60, her thoughts have been turning to memories of home.
“I love this area. To me the Smokey Mountains is just the most beautiful place in the world. It’s natural for people to feel that way about their home, but I really do, and I’ve been all over the world.
“I love the fact that I came from a great place where there are great people. And then to see what Dollywood has become: to see how it has added so much to the area, and to know that I had some small part in that does make me feel good.
“As you get older, you tend to want to migrate back to home. I find myself spending so much more time here now than I did in the past. Mom and dad passed away not long ago, and I got their old farm, so I’m just kind of fixing up all the old family places. I buy up all the old stuff, where any of our family lived, and I share it with the rest of my family. So it’s real special to me, and I find that I spend a lot of time here. Maybe I’ll wind up moving back.”
She added – not, perhaps, for the first time – that if she hadn’t been a singer she would still have been in the people business. “I would have been a prostitute or a missionary. But if I’d been a prostitute I would have got in the missionary position!”
With that though weighing heavily on my mind, I went in search of the reproduction of Dolly’s Tennessee mountain home which is hidden in the centre of the park. Parton was raised on Locust Ridge in the Smoky Mountains, where her father tended a tobacco patch. The replica house is life-size, but tiny, crammed with beds and patchwork quilts, and far from the romantic picture evoked by Parton in the song, of chasing fireflies in the evening shadows, and a “life as a peaceful as a baby’s sigh”. But then, Parton has always been an optimist and a romantic. My guide, Ruth Miller, pointed to the soap by the sink in the Spartan kitchen. “Do you have lye soap? That’s made from when you would kill your hog in the fall. It’s made from the pig fat. It’s supposed to be good for if you’ve got poison ivy or any kind of athlete’s foot.”
I walked the park some more, past the clothes shops: Dolly’s Wardrobe for adults (specialising in the whorehouse madam look), Lil’ Dolly’s for children (with racks full of Betty Belle dresses). There was a queue at Aunt Granny’s restaurant, and a group from the New Beginning Church, with T-shirts reading “He’s The Way, the Truth and The Life”, pondering fried green tomatoes at the Tater Patch.
Over in Craftmen’s Village, I bumped into Dollywood’s master carver, Lee Warren, a self-assured character who started out as a stuntman in Ford Lauderdale, Miami. Fist-fights, knife fights, he did them all. He then progressed to gunfights in western theme parks, and came to Tennessee to help build the flooded mine in the park’s Silver Dollar City period. One day he walked past the wood-carving shop, saw a wooden cowboy, and switched careers.
Dollywood, he said, is different from other theme parks. “Other theme parks don’t tend to think of dad. It’s mainly the children or mom, doing rides or shows, or getting something to eat. Dollywood is unique in that the crafts are something for dad to do. He can look at woodcarving, wagon-making, blacksmithing, and it can interest the kids as well.
“One of the best compliments I ever got was from a guy from Louisiana. I was carving on the porch and he walked up, and his children collected around, numbering in the tens, and he says: ‘You know, y’all impress me with my own children.’ I says, ‘Is that right?’ He says: ‘Yeah, I thought they would just be on the rides and going to shows. They actually want to watch you guys make something.’ He says ‘You’ve impressed me with my own children.’ What’s better than that?”
And it’s true. Dollywood does have fairground rides, with river rafts and abandoned mines, and, by 2009, Adventure Mountain, with a waterfall, a gorge, mountain trails and canoeing. But it is memorable more for the way it exists in an uncertain time. You can meet a hillbilly and a shepherd and remain unsure which, if either, of them was in fancy dress. It is a patchwork quilt of a theme park in which the only coherent idea is nostalgia for a kinder, gentler America.
The mission statement of the craft village is “to recapture the experience of a simpler time, when working with the hands was a way of life which provided both the necessities of life and the pride in their creation.” The vague sense of religion comes wrapped in the flag. Dollywood also hosts an Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, which looks after injured bald eagles – the American national bird.
You can quibble. Or you can shave your ice and frost your nuts and get on with it.