I’m reminded of something her full-time wig wrangler, Cheryl Riddle, said at the Chasing Rainbows museum, standing at a computer kiosk that lets visitors “try on” Dolly’s signature hairstyles. While there are 30 to 40 wigs in circulation at any one time, they vary only a shade or two, and beneath them Dolly keeps her real hair just about the same color and length. Steve Summers made the same point when I asked him what Dolly looks like when she isn’t being “Dolly in quotes.” “There is no ‘Dolly in quotes,’ ” he insisted.
People make the mistake that such a complicated authenticity is imitable—hence the Dolly impersonators and seat-belt-licking fans. And seeing where she came from is illuminating in some ways: When you get lost in the heavy mist for which the Smokies are named, you suddenly understand the landscape of wraiths and lonely women that populate her songs. I nearly missed my plane trying to drive through that mist, but the words of her great bluegrass lament “Little Sparrow” made deeper sense to me. The “precious fragile little thing” that nevertheless flies over the mountains has done something amazing, like Dolly herself: With its small head, big chest, and long talons, it has soared on pure instinct to the world beyond its home.
Which is why the real Dolly can’t be found at Dollywood. It was only in the New York recording studio—in the isolation booth—that I felt I really saw her free. Singing “We both know that I am not what you need,” as a thousand tossed-off licks and curls drifted to the floor, she was completely alone with someone, maybe the only one, who completely understood her.