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Dolly or Bust

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Though Dollywood is much more interesting than the surrounding town, a visit there will not help you achieve Dolly’s waist size. Steve Summers, Dolly’s creative director, tries to make me eat fried baloney at an establishment called Aunt Granny’s, where everything seems to be fried, even the waffles. My stabs at resistance are met with suspicion. “I eat your sushi when I’m in New York,” says Summers. Though I have ground my supply of Lipitor into a paste and swabbed it over myself as a shield against ambient cholesterol, I feel my defenses beginning to crack.

Dollywood (and Dolly) will do that. They give sophistication a bad odor. The theme park, which she owns with a regional entertainment company and which is now in its 24th season, is surprisingly untacky. I suppose I expected a vanity village, or at least a straightforward exploitation of the Dolly brand, with cleavage rides and a Burt Reynolds Toupee Toss. But except for Chasing Rainbows—a jaw-dropping museum of her origins and career—and the signature butterflies used everywhere as decoration, the place isn’t really about Dolly at all. It’s about what she loves and cares about or thinks the park’s 2.8 million annual visitors will enjoy. That means roller coasters and thrill rides (which she’s never been on; she gets motion sickness) along with a strong overlay of Smoky Mountain culture: wainwrights, luthiers, smithies, potters, gospelers, bluegrass pickers, guitarists, and a chapel.

“I’m creating jobs. I’m like Obama. O-Dolly and Obama!”

My plan is to tail her closely as she descends on all this and makes her rounds the day before the opening. Great, except that by noon I’m exhausted. Granted, I don’t have a retinue, but then hers—Summers, Ogle, assorted assistants, and security—can hardly keep up with her either. Summers, who started at the park as a performer, and whom Dolly sent to F.I.T. for additional training so he could design her wardrobe, reels off the part of the schedule that Dolly already completed before I joined them: a 5 a.m. interview for a syndicated news show. A photo shoot for Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede—the chain of three dinner theaters she owns with the Dollywood people. A voice-over at a recording studio. A photo shoot for the Penguin Players (a live-action show for the Imagination Library, her early-childhood reading initiative). Recording a segment of a documentary about the itinerant preacher who delivered her and was paid with a bag of cornmeal. Taping a “pick up the trash” public-service announcement. Accepting a DAR good-citizenship award. Filming two songs for the Imagination Library. She will go on this way a few more hours. She will wear fifteen outfits. And this is typical of the twenty or so days a year she’s at Dollywood.

It soon becomes clear that while Dollywood may be a good place to see what Dolly has become, it doesn’t have much to say about how she got there. She was not born in a theme park. And while the house where she really was born is not far away, there’s no point in trying to get to it. She owns it and has renovated it, and it’s off-limits. You can see a replica of part of it at the Chasing Rainbows museum, with the newspapered walls and twig cradle and lard-can lunch pail, but it’s a meticulously edited copy of an interpretation of a memory. As is often the case with Dolly, there are lot of metaphysical booby traps between her and us.

And that sort of pun, which she relishes, is one of them. She puts her bust front and center; she calls its components Shock and Awe. There is rarely an appearance where she doesn’t make a joke about them or acquiesce in someone else’s. A weatherman conducting a remote interview the next morning pulls this one out of the trunk: “Here they are, Dolly Parton!” She laughs—that donkey-wheeze—and all but slaps her knee. Is it genuine? Are they genuine? They are certainly a work of art and perhaps, as such, defy the question. They also seem to defy physics. A moderate volume of the World Book encyclopedia, say M, could fit nicely in the gap and stay put. At the museum, as I study the swan-shaped bodice seams on some of her archived outfits, I wonder if I misheard Summers when he mentioned F.I.T. He must have said M.I.T.

It’s as if her body were not a part of her but a gift she’s made to the nation. When she appears at the Dollywood opening of an acrobatics show preposterously called Imaginé, she is wearing a skintight gold-lamé gown; the audience laughs (with her), as she tries to bow without toppling over. “I’m the only person who ever left the Smoky Mountains and took them with her,” she says.


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