When I explain to people where I am from, I typically receive a response similar to, “Oh, yeah! I think I’ve been down there before on a mission trip.” To those who have little knowledge of the region, this uncanny association with poverty and all its social side effects—deprivation of education, lack of health resources, intolerance toward various groups, etc.—are sadly what most of Americans use to perpetuate the stereotype of Appalachian people but this is not always the case. There is one Appalachian in particular whose success and attitude has impacted Appalachians in a plethora of ways—Dolly Parton. Ms. Parton’s rags to riches success story—or, rather, a coat of many colors to a coat of sequins and glitter—is one that has gained national and regional recognition. Although she is a household name, Dolly has remained rooted in her priorities by employing her financial and social assets to provide better economic opportunities to her native Sevierville, Tennessee.
I have fond memories of childhood holidays and field trips in Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge, roaming the theme park known as Dollywood. My grandparents lived close to the area so my family always had season passes. I remember my parents even reminiscing their childhood vacations spent in the Smoky Mountains by pointing out rides that were still around from Dollywood’s former iterations, Goldrush Junction and Silver Dollar City. For many of us, this is the closest thing to Disney World we have, as many families can not afford the high ticket prices and travel expenses that Disney and other major theme parks charge. Not only is this theme park accessible, but it feels like home from the moment one enters the gates. The restaurants feature Southern comfort food, the speakers blast bluegrass instrumentals, and the rides and shows generally have some tie to Appalachian culture. Growing up, I anticipated growing taller each year so I could graduate from the kiddy rides to the towering rollercoasters. I distinctly recall spotting the cabins located high in the mountains when climbing up Tennessee Tornado and learning about new cultures during the Festival of Nations celebration in the summer. It was as beautiful as it was thrilling.
To outsiders, an Appalachian theme park may sound ridiculous but, besides providing a source of entertainment, Dollywood has created significant economic opportunities for Sevier County and surrounding communities like my mother’s hometown, Newport, Tennessee. Dollywood, along with other business endeavors like Splash Country Water Park, Dreammore Resort, and Stampede to name a few, has created a significant number of jobs for locals. From the time my parents were knee high to a grasshopper to the time I was old enough to drive, the area has grown to become a major travel destination, attracting visitors from all over the nation—think of it like the Myrtle Beach of the Smokies.
Dolly’s philanthropic outreach extends beyond the entertainment industry. Her project Imagination Library is a book gifting program that mails books, free of charge, to young children in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and the Republic of Ireland. Dolly’s drive to provide educational opportunities to children through literature was inspired by her own father’s inability to read. Dolly’s goal of ensuring every kid in the world has access to books and other resources so that illiteracy becomes obsolete is an act of genuine kindness. Since the start of Imagination Library, Dolly has delivered 133,899,247 books to children all over the world and, who knows, may have inspired the next great writer, engineer, artist, or doctor. In April of this year, Dolly gifted Vanderbilt University Medical Center $1 million to aid in the creation of a vaccine for COVID-19.
It is no secret that Dolly has a knack for dreaming big. She does not care about what others think of her and has paved her own way in this world through her talent as a performer and songwriter. Dolly has never let critics of her appearance or choices get in the way of her decision making. Thanks to the media, Dolly gained this novel persona of being a plastic, big-haired blonde with a cute accent but those of us who grew up going to Dollywood, listening to her music, and watching her movies know a different side of Dolly. I have watched countless interviews in which Dolly was publicly berated about her appearances—inquiring about very personal things such as weight, plastic surgeries, relationships, etc. Nonetheless, Dolly’s responses are always witty, intelligent, never degrading and prove that this woman cannot be reduced the way the media portrays her—seriously, if you have yet to do so, look up some of her quotes or watch her speak in interviews.
As a young Appalachian woman, Dolly is the ideal role model and so much more than Hannah Montana’s cool aunt or a “Backwoods Barbie,” a title she coined herself. She cares about where she comes from, is a talented and successful singer-songwriter, and has a heart of gold. To this day, I refuse to dream small because of the successes she has made. Thank you, Ms. Dolly, for paving the way for little girls and boys growing up in the mountains, and for teaching us from an early age to dream bigger than our bouffants, to love every moment, and to appreciate every color of the rainbow.
Erinn Sweet is writer, Communications Specialist for the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition and the Events & Promotions Coordinator for the Corporation for Findlay Market. Originally from Whitley County Kentucky, she now resides in Covington, KY with her wonderful partner and two cats – leaning out for love and will lean that way forever.