Dolly Parton envisions resort and talks Dollywood
Last week, on a drizzly opening day at Dollywood, Sevier County native Dolly Parton talked about the economic growth of the area, changes at her namesake theme park and her hopes for its future.
Midway through the interview, which was edited and condensed for print, she was joined by Bill Owens, her uncle, musical collaborator and first manager. A new exhibit at Dollywood’s Chasing Rainbows museum is devoted to him.
I’ve heard it said that one reason you established Dollywood was as a boost to the Sevier County economy, to help folks get jobs.
Parton: I always thought that if I made it as big as I’d hoped to, I would love to come back and do something great for the whole area and also honor my family. You know how they always say to honor your father and your mother. I also knew that this would be a great business venture for me, and if it was successful, it would be great for the whole county. And it has been.
Looking at Sevier County now, are you satisfied with how it’s developed?
Parton: I think it’s absolutely amazing what’s happened up here, don’t you? I’ve never seen anything grow so much and so fast in my whole life. When I left here in 1964 at 18, there was nothing in Pigeon Forge, just a few little things scattered here and there. Of course, Gatlinburg was always great, and the Great Smoky Mountains, that was always wonderful. But Pigeon Forge has really grown. I love Sevierville. That’s my heart down there. I’m so proud to have even been a small part.
What is your involvement with planning the park?
Parton: We get together two or three times a year to dream and to plan, but I don’t take credit for all the wonderful things we do. I happen to be smart enough to have gotten in business with the partners whose whole specialty is theme parks and amusement stuff. They’re the ones that keep their eyes and ears open for all the things that are trendy, all the things that are happening at other parks. But I always add to it. Sometimes I come up with original ideas they love, or I add to the things that we have.
You’ve written new music for attractions this season?
Parton: Yes. We’re going to do fireworks for the first time. They call it Dolly’s Nights of Many Colors, and I have written a song called “Paint Your Dreams Across the Sky.” They’re building a soundtrack around that. I have written eight or nine original pieces of music for a Christmas show, Dollywood’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” We have a new show called “My People.” It’s kind of the story of my growing up, and I’ve written some original music for that. My Uncle Bill Owens, who was the one responsible for getting me started, he has a whole little area as part of the museum. I wrote a song for it called “Uncle Billy.” It’s a tribute to him from me. It’s been a busy year.
Where do you see Dollywood going?
Parton: We have enough land, and we buy new land all the time, so we can always expand. One of the things we’re hoping to do in the not-too-distant future is to have our own resort. We’ve been wanting to have that for years. We’ll add more rides, I’m sure. We’ll add more areas that are themed. We’re always dreaming. We’ve left ourselves room to grow.
Bill, the exhibit features the guitar you played on [Parton’s 1959 recording] “Puppy Love.” How did that come about?
Owens: That guitar was the first one I know of that Chet Atkins ever put his name on. I was a big Chet Atkins fan, and my brother and the whole family went in together and helped me buy it. It took us a long way.
Parton: My Uncle Henry was stationed in the Air Force in Lake Charles, La., and there was a recording studio next door. Bill was down there living with him and doing some recording. He said, “I’m going to bring Dolly down here.” My poor old grandma was the only person who was available to go with me. We got on a bus and rode down there, and Bill played that guitar and we did “Puppy Love.” That was my first record.
What did you see in your niece that you knew was special?
Owens: I heard her singing one time at the house. She was washing dishes and singing and sounded like she was as happy as she could be. I said, “You really like to sing, don’t you? Would you like to go to Cas Walker’s?” That was a radio station. She said, “Yeah!” I had a car, and we started running back and forth to Knoxville, getting her on TV. The next step was Nashville.
Parton: I’m very proud of Uncle Bill. I’m proud he’s got his own little area in the museum. He deserves it. Without him I wouldn’t be here.