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Not Just Fun And Games, A Serious Look At The Story Behind Dollywood

In 'Gone Dollywood: Dolly Parton's Mountain Dream' author Graham Hoppe explores how the country-music star's theme-park is reclaiming Appalachian narratives and uplifting the community.
Courtesy of Graham Hoppe

Dollywood is Dolly Parton’s mountain, dream theme park in Sevier County, Tennessee. On the surface, the concept conjures up images of a kitchy and over-the-top Appalachian amusement park. But a new book by writer and folklorist Graham Hoppe looks behind a narrative of Appalachian stereotypes and reveals a place that has served and nourished a community and family for years.

Hoppe joins host Frank Stasio to speak about his book “Gone Dollywood: Dolly Parton’s Mountain Dream” (Ohio University Press). Hoppe talks about why he felt so pulled to Dollywood and the unexpected stories he discovered there. Hoppe will be at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill on Sunday, June 10 at 2 p.m.


On the premise of Dollywood:

Dollywood is the largest ticketed attraction in the state of Tennessee. It’s a huge theme park and water park and now a resort hotel as well. It has all the sorts of things you’d expect to find at a theme park: rollercoasters, shows, souvenir stores. But it’s all kind of as an accent to Dolly Parton. You can see her touch, her fingerprint, on everything from the rides to especially the shows and to also her museum, which is also headquartered there.

On Dolly Parton’s mythical success story:

She was born into poverty. She was born in a two-room cabin with many, many brothers and sisters, and her parents were sharecroppers in Sevier County where Dollywood is located. It’s her hometown. It’s her homeplace. And you know she grew up and raised herself up and became this incredible country music superstar which sort of imbues everything with kinda this sense of positivity, this sense of chasing your dreams, of finding yourself, finding your voice.

On how Dolly Parton herself is key to the magic of the park:

[It’s] that sense of – whether you want to call it realness or authenticity – genuine caring for her fans and her community. I think if it were almost anybody else who was in charge of this theme park, it would be a theme park, and that’s about it. She likes to tell people in interviews: You know, I put a lot of people in my home county to work. There are jobs here. And she’s really dedicated to making her home county as best as she thinks it could be, whether it’s building a hospital, or promoting literacy, or getting people to graduate from high school there.

On how Dolly Parton addresses Appalachian stereotypes:

I think Dolly is incredibly adept at guiding narrative. I think she understands and is completely aware of the stereotypes. And so she kinda grabs them and pulls them in and then redirects them. So there are hillbilly stereotypes, and so often what we see if you’re looking at Snuffy Sniff, those stereotypes are pushed in a really negative direction. Dolly takes that imagery, and I think pushes it in a positive direction. If Dolly Parton is the smartest person in the room and also a hillbilly, then maybe a hillbilly’s not such a bad thing to be. 


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Laura Pellicer is a digital reporter with WUNC’s small but intrepid digital news team.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.