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Dolly Parton: East Tennessee's Hometown Treasure



Dolly Parton is more than a household name in East Tennessee– she is a way of living and respecting others for the community members who admire her. Her name and visage manifest themselves in many ways, from her music to the theme park, Dollywood, which stands as an economic epicenter in Sevierville and Pigeon Forge.


Charity and Contributions


Parton makes a point to reach out to every crevice she can within her hometown community. East Tennessee State University Appalachian Studies professor Ted Olson is one of many community members who have been given the opportunity to collaborate with Parton. Specifically, he was involved with her charitable efforts, making a fundraising album called On Top of Old Smoky: New Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music in which Parton has a feature called, “Little Rosewood Casket.” Olson reached out to several artists to produce a traditional Smoky Mountain music album to raise funds for the Smoky Mountain National Park in 2016.


“He (Parton’s manager) approached Dolly, and she immediately said of course, so she contributed a beautiful performance of one song for that album,” said Olson. “She recorded it expressly for this project and brought in some traditional musicians to make the record, even though she was recording a country album at the time.”


Parton realizes the importance she holds within East Tennessee communities, and she upholds that validation through projects like Olson’s and other community endeavors.


“She understood immediately that the album was about traditional sounds, so she changed her band structure for this recording session,” said Olson. “It was all about giving to the cause. She volunteered the track freely and generously without a question.”


Parton is quick to contribute to the betterment of her hometown. Her local impact is beyond measurable with efforts on conservation, economic and humanities fronts, starting with the launch of the Dollywood Foundation in 1988. The impact began at Parton’s very own stomping grounds of Sevierville, in which she put forth successful efforts to lower dropout rates among local children. Her charitable outreach expanded ever further through the years of her career with the creation of efforts such as The Imagination Library, now a global effort that strives to increase children's literacy until the age of 5; the development of the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary in 2003 that resides inside of Dollywood, which harbors un-releasable eagles and other birds in a state-of-the-art aviary; and many more.


“She has a heart of gold in terms of wanting to represent East Tennessee and Appalachia in a positive light,” Olson said, expressing the same feeling shared by many community members on Parton and her contributions. “Some have quibbled with her image, but I think it’s fair to say her image is to gain the public’s attention and respect, then use that attention for public good.”


Dollywood


Before the establishment of many aspects of Parton’s career, Dollywood came to fruition in the backyard of Smoky Mountain National Park. Dollywood’s history can be traced back to the early 1960s, but the attraction did not dawn Parton’s name and essence until the 1980s. The park soon rose to fame as being one of Tennessee’s most visited attractions, along with being on the top 50 list of most-visited theme parks worldwide. How does a park based within the personality of a single celebrity manage to stay creative through over 20 years of operation?


“The essence of who Dolly Parton is, is always here and it’s about making people feel welcome, treating your neighbors like you would want to be treated, making people feel like they’re coming into your home, greeting people with a smile, just being kind, and helping people make memories that will last far beyond when they leave and go back home,” said Ellen Liston, Public Relations Manager at The Dollywood Company.

Liston says Parton “instills” the trait to be the best person you can be and treat others as so. “These Appalachian customs of sharing a sense of comradery are what make people feel like Dollywood is their ‘home away from home,’” said Liston.


It is not just the warm spirit that Dollywood provides that East Tennesseans celebrate, but the economic feats that Dollywood provides to surrounding areas. A 2021 study from the University of Tennessee found that the yearly economic impact from Dollywood itself produces more than $1.8 billion, and the park alone has helped create more than 23,000 jobs for the Appalachian region. Tennessee can also thank Dollywood for roughly 3 million tourists a year.


Hometown Treasure


The region looks quite different today than it did to a younger Parton and her 11 siblings, who were raised with a poor upbringing in Locust Ridge, Tennessee. Parton’s humanities reach out to people who may be growing up like her within the same community by providing opportunities for musicians in her park. Parton creates an opportunity economy in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg by contributing jobs and scholarships and leaving Appalachian upbringings as a core part of her image.


Parton has made it an essential part of her career to give back to the world, especially her hometown. She has stated that her family is always carried with her in her heart and mind, despite growing up with rising fame. Parton’s family often performs at Dollywood, raising the status of their names through Parton’s platforms and essence.


There is something special about what Dolly Parton shares of the Smokies with the world -- it is not just the booming tourist destination and economic increase, but the essence of Appalachia that she continuously entwines her music with. Parton pairs recognition to East Tennessee through her songs that have details of her upbringing, traditions and culture. She put Appalachian culture into the minds of many through songs like Coat of Many Colors and Tennessee Homesick Blues. Even through over 50 years of show business, Dolly Parton still holds Appalachian values to her core and provides a platform for people and culture in the little nook of East Tennessee Appalachia.



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