Amid the nightly summer fireworks, flume boats that go 50 miles per hour and screams from thrill-seekers on rollercoasters, Dollywood (www.dollywood.com), which has become the largest ticketed attraction in Tennessee, lies less than 10 miles from Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
But there’s an oasis of quiet near the Dollywood park entrance. It’s a replica of co-founder Dolly Parton’s rustic childhood two-room home where she and her 11 brothers and sisters were raised. Her original home is still up on Locust Ridge, a handful of miles from the park but a reality away from the opulence of Dollywood. To get there, you have to drive narrow gravel roads that hug hillsides and pass small fields of corn and tobacco and abandoned log houses tangled in wooded forests.
Great Smokies in Dolly Parton’s DNA
The contrast between her childhood home and her sprawling Dollywood complex is a reminder that the biggest thrills are when we take large leaps to follow our dreams, no matter how long the road. When Parton left Sevier, Tenn., in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, she was fresh out of high school and bent on making it as a country singer in Nashville. Despite her incredible success in the last 50 years, she never forgot her hometown. Today, Dollywood is the largest provider of jobs in Sevier County. And she’s also never forgotten the Great Smoky mountains.
“The Smokies are part of my DNA,” Parton said when she became an ambassador for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2009, the year the park turned 75.
Born in 1946, Parton grew up in a household of 12 children where resources were stretched thin. Despite growing up poor, Parton’s mom gave her a guitar when she was young. By age 10 she was performing professionally. By the time she was 25, her song “Joshua” made it to No. 1 country hit list in 1971, followed by a string of other hits like “Jolene,” “I will always love you” and “Here you come again.”
From Hollywood to Dollywood
It was only a matter of time until Parton hit the silver screen. In 1980 she starred in the comedy film 9 to 5 along side of Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. In 1989, she acted in Steel Magnolias, joining a star-studded cast that included Daryl Hannah, Julia Roberts, Sally Field. Shirley MacLaine and Tom Skerritt.
During her time in Hollywood, however, Parton decided to bring a slice of entertainment back to her hometown in Tennessee. In 1986, she partnered with the Herschend family to redevelop a theme park called Silver Dollar City. Visitors have traveled to experience Dollywood ever since.
For Parton, returning to where she grew up has meant something more than just creating a tourist attraction.
In a special edition magazine for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park 75th anniversary, Parton penned a special message, celebrating the place and stunning landscape that have made her what she is today.
“The Smoky Mountains have inspired me and my music since I was a little girl,” she wrote. “They touch my soul and lift my spirits. Let’s celebrate America’s most popular national park, but most especially, join me in making sure its magnificent beauty thrives for generations to come.”