I Beg Your Parton?

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 28, 2002

PIGEON FORGE, TENN., would make a perfect field trip so urban planning students could see what happens when development runs amok. Billboards and neon signs along the main drag advertise the town's outlet malls, miniature golf courses, racetracks, Laser Tag parlors and country music theaters. There's even a billboard signed by God that asks if you know where you're going.

The town is one big, tacky, Ocean City boardwalk, with a little touch of Vegas, which is probably why we had so much fun there.

Besides, if America at its base middle begins to wear the senses, it's a short drive from Pigeon Forge to the area's more majestic, tranquil side, in the unspoiled Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

For our part, my family and I were drawn to the area by the season's grand opening of Dollywood, the amusement park/country jamboree owned by Grammy-winning, movie-starring Dolly Parton. Dolly (as everyone calls her) was scheduled to give a free concert on opening day.

Dolly's stage presence, like some of her body parts, is bigger than life. Yet in stature she's tiny. It's a heady combination. Seen up close and personal, the 56-year-old makes Barbie look potbellied and flat-chested.

Dolly changes outfits each time she appears at different areas of the park, and we catch her in a tight, sparkly yellow dress at lunchtime for a promised short interview about the region. To her credit, she plugs the surrounding mountains more than the park.

"This area is the best place to visit," she says. "It's the most-visited national park in the country and has got to be one of the most beautiful places in the whole world."

Dolly was raised in these mountains in a little house wallpapered with newspapers, along with five sisters and six brothers. She has homes in Nashville, Los Angeles and New York, but says she comes here often. "All my family's here," she says. "I bought the old home place and fixed it up. This is my Smoky Mountain DNA. I anchor myself here."

The mountains, she says, have the power to restore. She does most of her songwriting here and immerses herself in her spiritual side during visits, she says.

I pump country music's reigning bombshell for travel tips. She recommends going fly-fishing with a guide on rivers and streams that crisscross the town and the national park. She suggests hiking in Clingmans Dome in the national park. Don't skip the park's Cades Cove, she adds. "I tell everyone not to miss Cades Cove. It has a beautiful river, and wildlife, and old houses and churches that show how people used to live. It's like a sanctuary of beauty."

She cooks for herself when she's home, she says, and can't really recommend restaurants in town, except to say we should look for catfish. And Dollywood, she adds, has good country food, like ham and beans, fried green tomatoes, biscuits with gravy, and barbecue. We'll take her advice on trying the barbecue and Cades Cove, but later. For now, Dolly has a show to give.

She hits the stage, offering an old favorite of her fans, "Coat of Many Colors," about a coat her mother made from rags. The coat itself is one of the items exhibited in a Dolly museum next to the theater.

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