Jessica Wilkerson | Longreads | October 2018 | 43 minutes (7,851 words)
Dolly Parton was one of two women I learned to admire growing up in East Tennessee. The other was Pat Summitt, head coach of the Lady Volunteers, the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team. One flamboyantly female, the other a masculine woman. Both were arguably the best at what they did, had fantastic origins stories of hardscrabble lives in rural Tennessee, and told us that with enough grit and determination, we could succeed. Queer kids and nerdy girls, effeminate boys and boyish girls who desired something more than home took comfort in their boundary crossing. From these women they learned that they too could strike out on their own while maintaining both their authenticity and ties to home.
For years, I found solace in “Wildflowers,” written by Parton and performed with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris on their record Trio. The song’s instrumentation is spare, with the tinny chords of the autoharp and Ronstadt and Harris’s harmonies. In a near warble, Dolly sang of a “rambling rose” who didn’t “regret the path” she chose.
I moved away from home in ways more profound than the physical leaving, and it sometimes caused me to feel the pain of committing a betrayal. My grandmother Laverne warned me: “Don’t forget where you come from.”
“Where you come from” is a call to home but can also be a way of disciplining. I heard in her words a warning: education would lead me to ask questions, and the answers would change me so that I was no longer recognizable. Where I grew up in East Tennessee, in a rural community of sporadically upwardly and downwardly mobile white folks, nobody had time or patience for questions. Questions got you in trouble or exposed problems that nobody was prepared to discuss. Questions raised doubts, too. Religion, gender hierarchy, who got what and why — these things were off-limits. As a kid I learned to keep my mouth shut and wonder about the world in my own head.
My education required a metaphysical moving away, I learned. A professor who could see me struggling through change asked me what scared me about it. I told her that I worried I would lose something, and she reassured me that I would be OK. But she is a brutally honest New Yorker, so she added, “Besides, you can’t unlearn what you now know.” Her words stung.
“Wildflowers” was the balm. Dolly Parton sang to me. She understood me and all the girls who left home.
I uprooted myself from home ground and left
Took my dreams and I took to the road
When a flower grows wild, it can always survive
Wildflowers don’t care where they grow.
I listened to Dolly’s records on the long drive back home from New York, where I had been in graduate school. I love Dolly’s hits, but her bluegrass songs make me ache. The rhythmic beat of the mandolin, the strong bow of the fiddle, the steady drive of guitar strings, and Dolly’s twangy soprano voice floating above, sliding up until a breath catches. I sang along to The Grass is Blue, her ode to bluegrass after years of pop and country hits. It’s full of songs of unrequited love and longing for home. It’s also about an inverted world, where, once the narrator loses her lover, nothing is as she knew it before: “The sky is green / And the grass is blue.”
The love for Dolly that I learned was one without doubt. To question one’s devotion to Dolly Parton is to turn the world upside-down. Indeed, it is to question one’s investment in, and rehearsals of, mythologies of whiteness, which are rarely spoken, rarely noted as white. “Whiteness is an orientation that puts certain things within reach,” Sara Ahmed writes. Dolly Parton was crucial to my own orientation.
Because my grandma is right — inquiry is seductive — I needed to question Dolly Parton’s meaning in my and our lives.
I needed to confront Dolly Parton’s blinding, dazzling whiteness.
Because my grandma is right — inquiry is seductive — I needed to question Dolly Parton’s meaning in my and our lives. I needed to confront Dolly Parton’s blinding, dazzling whiteness.
I laid on my small twin bed and squeezed my eyes tight. Shadows danced across my eyelids. It was light out, and I had just returned from Dollywood with my family. This must have been in the mid-1980s, when I was 5 or 6 years old, not long after Dollywood had opened. My mother found me in my bed.
“What’s wrong, Jessie?” my mother asked. “Are you sad?”
I nodded my head, and she stroked my forehead.
I couldn’t say, because I didn’t have the language to explain that weight inside my chest. Nothing bad had happened. We had gone with family — cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents — to Dollywood. There I rode down a steep water slide in a fake log, went fake white-water rafting on the River Rampage, and joined my family on the Dollywood Express, a train ride through the real mountains that included a fake robbery.
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What makes Dollywood stand apart from other theme parks is its mystique of history, the immersive experience of being in and of an Appalachia that no longer exists: a nineteenth-century, one-room schoolhouse where my mom had us pose at desks; a white-washed country chapel; a replica cabin called — after a Dolly Parton song — a “Tennessee Mountain Home,” which I was certain was Dolly’s actual home, a place to rest her weary head after a long day of entertaining guests at her amusement park. In my child’s imagination, the park had sprung up around Dolly’s home, like an Alice in Wonderland scene. “It’s all so perfect,” Graham Hoppe writes in his recent book, Gone Dollywood: Dolly Parton’s Mountain Dream.
But the aftermath of Dollywood left me low-spirited. I was nestled into a cozy room in the log house my dad built on top of a ridge, where we lived. From the peak of that ridge, I could stand and see the Smoky Mountains, where Dolly Parton grew up and where she built a simulacrum of her mountain childhood. Hers felt more real than mine. I was sad, but jealous, too. I lived in the real world of Appalachia. A world of layaway stores and packaged foods, bleary-eyed workers and stressed-out mothers. I longed for the simulation.
The first place I remember really listening to Dolly Parton’s music was in the back of my grandfather Carson’s Lexus. I sat in the backseat with my cousin, my grandparents in the front of the gleaming white car, my grandfather’s prized possession. He had graduated to Lexuses from Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs sometime in the early 1990s, and he never looked back.
My grandparents often let us spend the night with them. If it was a Friday night, they would promise to drive us into town the next morning, to the Hyatt Regency in downtown Knoxville where they would treat us to a “fancy” breakfast. “Fancy” to us meant the kind of breakfast only available to rich people. I now realize that, by the early 1990s, there was nothing appealing about the Hyatt, a concrete building in the shape of a right triangle that was built in the early 1970s. On the wrong side of the highway development — separated from the actual downtown — the hotel sat on an island between the interstate and the dirty, brown Tennessee River. I also doubt that people with substantial wealth had any interest in it. Nonetheless, the gray hunk of hotel and its weekend buffet of mushy fruits and stale pastries was a symbol of prosperity for my upwardly mobile grandparents. On the way to the hotel, we listened to Dolly singing about her childhood in “Coat of Many Colors,” Grandpa’s favorite. Like hers, his rural youth was impoverished but full of love, and Grandpa told us that Dolly may as well have been singing about him.
Carson was raised by his farmer mother. His mother’s first husband died in a coal mine explosion in Virginia, and her second husband, Carson’s father, died of typhoid fever when he was 6, leaving his mother to raise six of her eight children (two had left home already). He grew up in the Depression and remembers those years, as many older white people do, in the sepia tones of nostalgia. His family worked hard on the farm, all the kids performing chores to earn their keep. When the United States entered World War II, my grandfather was 17 years old and begged his mother to sign a waiver to give him permission to join the Navy. When he asked for her signature, she slapped his face hard. When he turned 18, he raced to the recruiting office, signed up for the Navy, went to training, and soon boarded a ship for the South Pacific. He didn’t see much of the war — perhaps none at all — spending his time instead as a cook in the mess hall of the ship. The pictures I’ve seen from his military service show him with an upright bass, a member of a bluegrass band that entertained the men. Tall, string-bean slender, with a long face and big grin, he looked happy.
When the war ended, he set out on the hillbilly highway from the mountains of Tennessee to Michigan, where the auto manufacturers promised to share the postwar wealth with working-class white Americans. He hated the job, mostly because he hated handing over some of his paycheck to unions. He had no patience for the collective; he was a hard worker and wanted every penny he earned all to himself. He met a pretty, blond woman at church — my grandmother Laverne — and they soon married and started having babies, my father the second of five. Carson quit his job and moved his young family back South, where he tried his hand as a door-to-door vacuum and encyclopedia salesman, before moving on to selling windows.
Back home in Tennessee, Carson cooked up a plan: He would go into the window business and ride the wave of the postwar housing boom, drawing upon his own determination and the perks of white manhood to secure a small-business loan. He opened a window factory, and two of his brothers soon joined him. They used the latest technology of vinyl casing, a mix of polymer and other chemicals. Vinyl was one of many postwar inventions that promised efficiency and affordability, and it would soon make the brothers rich.
Carson built a cabin on the nearby lake, bought a speedboat, took vacations at resorts, and purchased nice cars. He and his family joined a large Southern Baptist church, where white businessmen and their families made up the congregation. His business soared with new connections. His brothers died relatively young, one in a plane crash and the other of emphysema, and Carson bought out the business and became sole owner.
By the time I was growing up, Carson’s “rags-to-riches” story had been cast in amber. He grew up when times were tough and people like him worked themselves out of poverty and into the good life, just like Dolly Parton.
As he aged into his 60s, Carson seemed to yearn for his farming youth, so he sold his rancher home situated in a subdivision and built a new, brick home on a 100-acre farm that was once an orchard. He paid the girl grandkids to pull up the irrigation hoses that snaked through the fields while the boys worked on fence rows. Then he put in a vegetable garden, purchased a tractor and a backhoe, brought in cattle, and got three horses. The property had two ponds fed by bubbling creeks and one that was so large that we called it “the lake.” Fields stretched across the front of the property, and the land behind the house rose up to form a ridge and split into separate hollers, where as a kid I spent many summer days wandering.
Nature could not do the symbolic work of displaying upward mobility all on its own however, so Carson put in a swimming pool behind his house. He also bought a golf cart that he used to travel from house to barn and back and that the grandkids used to create their own versions of roller coasters. Simple enough: Situate the golf cart on top of a very steep hill, let off the breaks, and lean forward. It flies.
Carson’s farm was, in a sense, his own version of Dollywood. It paid respect to the struggles of his youth, when his family was dirt poor, but with the symbols of prosperity that separated him from that past. In my family, his is a story of a noble whiteness, where hard work alone — not benefits, not luck, not an economy that was made precisely for him — framed his success.
Carson’s farm was, in a sense, his own version of Dollywood. In my family, his is a story of a noble whiteness, where hard work alone — not benefits, not luck, not an economy that was made precisely for him — framed his success.
When I was in college, before I left home for graduate school, my grandfather offered an annual gift of a trip to Dollywood to the men who worked at his window factory. They brought their families, and he brought his — his children and their spouses, along with 13 grandchildren. When we ran into the workers and their families at the theme park, it was palpably awkward. I remember the social distance, the gradations of class, even if on a small scale, marked by clothing and teeth. We only ever met in Dollywood, where Dolly Parton had crafted a shared fantasy of a hardy Appalachian past.
I had grown up on boot-strap stories, but graduate school jolted me. Only after I traveled hundreds of miles away did I learn fully a different kind of class story, one of my maternal grandparents’ activism in the Southern labor movement. That history had been all but silenced by the 1990s, despite my grandmother Fay, widow of a union organizer, helping to raise me. I faced up to the harsh realities of my own parents’ working lives. They worked all the time and never got ahead. I gulped and took on more and more student loans in order to afford graduate school, adding to the ones that had helped me go to college. I lived on beans and rice and my partner worked three jobs at a time to support us. I soon gravitated toward working-class stories and Appalachian labor histories, my family’s history that had been suppressed but that Fay saved in her basement in the form of books and papers and that she gave to me when I asked her about that history. Dolly Parton’s story continued to fit the script. A girl born to dirt-poor farmers in the hills of Tennessee, Parton had her own working-class story of triumph, one that she shared with pride in her songs and stage performance.
About 10 years ago, I was doing research in Harlan County, Kentucky, on a militant miners’ strike in the mid-1970s, in which many women participated. I called a local man, Ed. He was a retired miner and the husband and stepfather of two women who had been outspoken leaders in the strike. They had both died, and I hoped to learn a little more about their lives.
As we chatted, he asked me where I grew up. I told him East Tennessee, and he promptly asked, “Who do you prefer: Dolly or Loretta?” I laughed and told him that I loved the music of both country singers, but that my loyalties were with Dolly. She represented home to me. He told me his answer: hands down, Loretta. “She is pro-union and Dolly is anti-union,” he informed me. “Really?” I gasped.
I had never heard that, and what about “9 to 5,” Dolly’s song and the film it inspired about secretaries who join together and overthrow their sexist, autocratic boss? It was based on real-life secretaries who organized for labor power. As I brought up the film, I realized how absurd it was to treat it as though it was about Parton herself. I promised Ed I would look more into Parton’s labor practices.
We agreed that I would call him the next morning to figure out a time to meet. I called over and over, letting the phone ring dozens of times. He never answered.
I never spoke to Ed again, left wondering if, in some parts of Appalachia, answering “Dolly” when asked “Dolly or Loretta?” was the wrong answer. I have not been able to figure out Dolly Parton’s stance on unions, and I don’t know why Ed thought she was anti-union, mostly because she seems to have never stated a position. Parton is a genius at carefully moderating her speech so that she rarely makes an explicit political statement that might alienate a wing of her fan base.
I have thought about this exchange in recent years as the legend of Dolly has grown and her fan base has spread, especially among educated white women who care about class inequality and identify by their own working-class or rural backgrounds, or who proclaim feminist values. White feminists swoon over Dolly Parton’s concerts, which they declare “girl power” and gender-bending extravaganzas, and the heart rates of class-conscious fans speed up when she sings about her rural, working-class roots in Appalachian Tennessee. I am one of those white, class-conscious feminists who has uncritically pointed to Parton’s creative work as evidence of her progressive politics. I avoided an obvious question: What does she take from and expect of the workers tasked with building and maintaining Dollywood?
I am one of those white, class-conscious feminists who has uncritically pointed to Parton’s creative work as evidence of her progressive politics. I avoided an obvious question: What does she take from and expect of the workers tasked with building and maintaining Dollywood?
Dolly Parton opened her theme park Dollywood to wide acclaim in 1986. With the Herschend Family Entertainment company, Parton maintains co-ownership of Dollywood and all related attractions through the Dollywood Company. Dollywood helped to spark an explosion of tourist attractions, cheap amusements, chain restaurants, and outlet malls that litter the path to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited in the country.
It also filled a growing chasm.
Former Dollywood employee Maggie Jacobi was born in a rural community in Hancock County, Tennessee, in 1939, about 70 miles north of where Dolly Parton was born seven years later. Her parents died when she was a girl, and her aunt and uncle raised her in Morristown, Tennessee, a small Appalachian town in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. During the years she was coming of age, the region was experiencing an industrial boom.
Sociologist Eve Weinbaum charts the history of the boom and its subsequent decline in East Tennessee in her important book To Move a Mountain: Fighting the Global Economy in Appalachia. During her research she learned that town boosters touted low unionization rates in Appalachian Tennessee (among the lowest in the state), the lowest minority population east of the Mississippi, which they believed to be an attractive feature to companies, and “flexible” workers willing to labor for lower wages than workers in the North.
While in her early 20s, Jacobi, who is white, got a job at a Magnavox factory in Jefferson City, not far from Morristown. Maker of radios, TVs, and VCRs, Magnavox was once Tennessee’s fifth largest employer. It joined a host of factories that produced furniture, textiles, electronics, and footwear in East Tennessee. These were often the best jobs in working-class communities, providing stable wages and benefits. One sign of that stability: Jacobi was able to participate in the budding leisure economy, taking her children to Silver Dollar City, the theme park that would eventually become Dollywood.
But within a few decades, the economy underwent a sea change. East Tennessee was hit hard by plant closures and factory layoffs beginning in the early 1980s. When plants closed down or relocated, communities were left reeling.
Magnavox began closing East Tennessee plants in 1979 and shifting production to their factories in Mexico. Jacobi moved to Florida.
In the documentary Morristown: In the Air and Sun, one worker describes arriving for her shift at Magnavox, only to find all of the equipment boxed up, ready to be sent to a factory in Mexico. That’s how she learned she was losing her job. At the same time, small family farms were displaced by large agribusiness that hired Latino migrant laborers for unconscionably low wages. East Tennessee was experiencing the churn of the global economy.
Plant managers often closed factories suddenly, with no warning to workers. As documented by Weinbaum, in 1989 a General Electric warehouse, also in Morristown, laid off 200 workers two weeks after an unsuccessful union vote. GE soon closed down the distribution center and moved 30 miles down the road, where it could subcontract labor and slash wages by half. The managers also refused to hire anyone from the old warehouse. Before it moved, GE had been a coveted job with the highest wages around. Plus, GE hosted special events for workers to show appreciation: Each year, the company sponsored a family picnic for workers and their families at Dollywood.
Runaway companies were not new in the 1980s. It was just that workers in East Tennessee had previously benefited from plant relocations, as factories in the North and Midwest sought the South’s tax subsidies, cheaper labor, and a union-free workforce.
Dolly Parton began building her empire in the same years that workers watched the regional manufacturing economy crumble with every plant closure. So when Dolly Parton announced her decision to invest wealth in her home community, many cheered. Many, including Jacobi, saw her as saving the local economy.
Dolly Parton has explained the reason she longed for the park in the first place: “I always thought that if I made it big or got successful at what I had started out to do, that I wanted to come back to my part of the country and do something great, something that would bring a lot of jobs into this area,” she told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2010. And those jobs, anchored to place, could never be packed up and shipped to another country.
Weinbaum charts the policies that led to plant closures in East Tennessee and the workers’ grassroots efforts to combat them, although they were ultimately unable to turn the tide. She sums up the development ethos of local officials: They see the public interest best served by investing public resources in private enterprises, which will in turn bring about economic development. Of workers in East Tennessee, officials believed they “are willing to do any kind of work for any wages — and that they will be better off than they were before.”
This model did not change drastically as the local economy shifted from manufacturing jobs to the service industry, fueled by Dollywood. When Parton came up with the idea for Dollywood in the mid-1980s, she called on state and local government for assistance. In 1986, she opened Dollywood with a $1.6 million investment from the state and $600,000 from her home city, Sevierville, to develop the infrastructure needed to support a 150-acre theme park situated in the Great Smoky Mountains. With public resources and workers in need of steady work, Dollywood would eventually grow into one of the largest employers in the region, employing upward of 3,000 people at the theme park, and about a 1,000 more at the water park Dollywood’s Splash Country and the DreamMore resort and spa, the latest addition to the empire.
In 1998, Jacobi returned to East Tennessee and got a job at Dollywood. When she started, she worked full-time in the merchandising warehouse, where workers received and tagged items to be sold in Dollywood’s array of shops. She later moved into a cashier position at the Dollywood glass shop, where glassblowers demonstrated their craft and she sold glass ornaments. The work was seasonal, with Dollywood open 10 months out of the year.
Jacobi appreciated the flexibility of working at Dollywood. After her daughter had her first child, Jacobi cut back her hours so she could provide childcare. She watched her grandchildren Monday through Wednesday and worked at Dollywood at the end of the week. “I had a good manager,” she explained. “Dollywood is known to work with you, because they need the help.”
Jacobi worked at Dollywood for 18 years. For her years of service, she received a lifetime pass. She also has a group picture with Dolly Parton, and she got the coveted spot next to the icon. Jacobi’s retirement was short-lived however. At the age of 80, she works at a women’s clothing store in Sevierville, where most of her customers are tourists, drawn foremost to Dollywood. “I didn’t mean to go back to work, but I do,” she said.
When I asked her what Dollywood means to workers, she explained, “Well, I think people that work there that have been there for years and years and years, it’s been their home for so long, [they] enjoy working there. You know, it’s a thing that you get pleasure out of. You work, but you get pleasure also.”
She also sees Dollywood as the salvation to the local economy. ‘If it wasn’t for Dollywood, Sevierville would be on the unemployment line, I’m sure.’
She also sees Dollywood as the salvation to the local economy. “If it wasn’t for Dollywood, Sevierville would be on the unemployment line, I’m sure.”
I grew up learning that Dolly Parton is good to the people she employs.
But Dollywood workers technically work for Herschend Family Entertainment (HFE), which operates Dollywood, along with 22 other amusement parks around the country. Parton initially partnered with the Herschends because, according to Dollywood media director Pete Owens, she shared values with the theme park entrepreneurs, especially when it came to “bringing joy to families” and helping them “create memories.” While Parton acts as “chief creative officer,” HFE oversees the operational functions of the park.
The Herschend family describe themselves as making “more than a few silver dollars,” a pun on the name of their original theme park, Silver Dollar City. But the Herschends are being modest. In fact, in 2014 they were the 170th-richest family in the United States according to Forbes. (They’ve since not made the list.)
Along with joining the ranks of the wealthiest families in the country, they have become leaders among Christian businessmen and women, who merge free market principles and the prosperity gospel of evangelical Christianity. CEO Joel Manby calls on HFE employees to “lead with love.” “HFE trains our leaders to love each other, knowing that if they create enthusiasm with their employees, the employees will in turn create an enthusiastic guest experience,” Manby claims. When one leads with love, the logic goes, God will reward him financially.
Manby adapted this principle from 1 Corinthians 13 (“Love is patient, love is kind”) following a stint on the reality TV show Undercover Boss, during which he was supposedly shocked to learn that many of his employees at HFE’s Branson, Missouri, theme park were facing hard times. Manby started a nonprofit called Share It Forward to help struggling workers employed by HFE, although you won’t find any talk of wages in the program. For Manby, the solution was much more simple: Get employees to help one another. Employees are called on to donate dollars, which are matched by the company, and, when in need, workers can apply for hardship or childcare assistance or take “life skills” classes.
The “Lead with Love” principles also make up the core of Dollywood’s “personality/attitude requirements” in job descriptions for low-wage roles, from “Merchandise Team Member” (cashier) to “Attractions Team Member” (ride attendant) and “Food Service Specialist” (cook). HFE’s training manual, Herschend Family Values, is the primary text at worker orientations, providing real-life examples of how workers should apply the “Lead with Love” principles while on the clock.
To work at Dollywood, workers must “display” and “live out” the principles: “patient, kind, humble, respectful, selfless, forgiving, honest, and committed with a positive attitude and good judgment to make sound decisions.” Along with asking workers to “lead with love,” Dollywood’s operators refer to the workers as “hosts.” According to Vice President of Human Resources Tim Berry, “we want to treat [visitors] like they’re a guest in your home.”
Like many corporations, Dollywood has adopted language that obscures the fact that the theme park is a site of labor. Yet Dollywood requires strenuous and monotonous physical labor. Job advertisements describe a workplace where workers will be asked to sit or stand for long periods of time, survive temperatures between 0 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and be prepared to stay late, leave early, or work overtime as the tides of the theme park demand. On top of that, their managers ask them to perform the emotional labor of hosting people as though in their own home, or, better yet, Dolly Parton’s home.
Dolly Parton promised jobs to her community; she did not promise well-paying jobs. And while Dollywood does not pay the worst wages in Sevier County or in the theme park industry, the wages are significantly lower than those they replaced as the economy shifted from manufacturing to tourism.
Dolly Parton promised jobs to her community; she did not promise well-paying jobs.
Weinbaum documented that East Tennessee’s factory jobs paid up to $12 an hour in 1988 — about $25 in 2018 dollars. According to Tim Berry, Dollywood pays front-line workers a starting wage of $9.25 per hour, although some jobs start at or around $11 an hour. Seventy-five percent of Dollywood’s labor force is seasonal and part-time, made up of work campers (semiretired people who travel the country in RVs and perform seasonal labor), employees over 55, public school teachers who need a summer job, and high school and college students. For the majority of non-career employees, “there’s no intention that this is a sustainable career,” Berry said. He is among the minority who have made the job a career; he started as a ride attendant the year Dollywood opened and has been with the company for more than 30 years. For those seasonal employees who return year after year — and many of them do — Dollywood rewards them with “loyalty wages,” an hourly wage increase after three years.
Berry says that Dollywood’s pay puts them in the middle of the pack in the regional industry but that they have become the leader in benefits offered. On its website, Dollywood touts as employee benefits events where workers are treated “like family” and the experience of “working with friends.” In material benefits, they offer access to a 401(k) program for qualifying workers, and, for full-time, year-round staff and full-time seasonal workers, health insurance options. All workers, regardless of hours, can access a health center maintained by Dollywood, which offers general primary care, and their immediate family members can use it, too. They also offer free tickets to workers and their families so that they can visit other HFE theme parks, like Silver Dollar City in Missouri, Adventure Aquarium in New Jersey, Stone Mountain in Georgia, or Pirates Voyage in South Carolina.
All of this sounds relatively generous, but questions remain about how Dollywood workers — most of whom do not have year-round or full-time employment — actually manage.
All of this sounds relatively generous, but questions remain about how Dollywood workers — most of whom do not have year-round or full-time employment — actually manage.
Dollywood claims that few people who work in front-line positions expect to work long-term or with wages and benefits that keep up with the costs of living. In particular, they argue that Dollywood is a great place for seniors, a group they define as 55 and older and who make up half the seasonal workforce. Setting aside the fact that workers in their 50s and early 60s don’t yet receive Social Security and won’t qualify for Medicare until age 65, Dollywood argues that older workers take jobs to supplement Social Security and pensions, or because they are looking to stay active. The argument is akin to those that, for decades, company owners used to depress women’s wages, which were seen as supplemental to the breadwinner wages of husbands and fathers.
The “elder index,” produced by the National Council on Aging, suggests a different story. According to 2016 findings, half of Americans 65 and older who live alone and one out of four older adults living with a partner do not have enough money to pay for basic needs. Moreover, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center report, more older Americans are working now than since before the Great Recession, and they are spending more hours a week at work. They do so for a variety of reasons. They are living longer, many lack pensions, and others are making up for losses incurred during the recession.
For those Dollywood workers who rely on their wages to support themselves and their families, and no doubt many of them do, they face an uphill battle. Typical of tourist-industry work and reflected in the per capita income in Sevier County, the pay places non-managerial Dollywood workers at or below the federal poverty line for a family of four in 2018. In Sevier County, an adult with one child needs to make $21.14 an hour, full-time and year-round, to meet basic living expenses. Since the 2016 wildfires that swept the Great Smoky Mountains, workers have also faced a housing shortage, which exacerbated problems long in the making. The Dollywood Foundation provided assistance to 900 residents in the six months following the fire, but charity has not been sufficient in fixing the structural barriers to affordable housing.
On employee reviews across several websites, some workers suggest a gap between Dollywood’s vision of a seasonal labor force that is working to supplement other income and workers who are struggling to make ends meet.
I learned that managers and full-time workers might get paid sick leave, but “you really don’t get any” if you are part-time or hourly. “I had a hard time getting off for when I had my second baby,” one worker reported, without a hint of bitterness. It was just a matter of fact.
Several workers described grueling work days. One complained that sometimes they worked 12 to 13 hours with only a 45-minute break and a single trip to the bathroom. “They work the living heck out of people for minimum wage basically. They make millions and pay pennies for the people that make them successful,” one worker stated, summing up the American economy. Others wrote that they scraped by because they didn’t get enough hours, for instance if the weather was bad or the park was slow. At a recent job fair, a full-time employee reported that she was looking for a second job because she did not get enough hours to manage.
Many people, like Maggie Jacobi, loved the job. In fact, even when people complained about some aspects of the work, they generally gave it an average or above-average rating on review sites. And according to Tim Berry, Dollywood scores well on the Gallup Q12 survey, which uses 12 questions to measure employee satisfaction. Sixty-four percent of Dollywood workers feel engaged at work, compared to 30 percent nationally. Positive experiences are also reflected in online reviews. “Dollywood!! A perfect first job for teens!” one exclaimed. “You really feel like you are at home when you are there,” another offered. Another worker spoke to the camaraderie: “The staff is friendly and would give the shirt off there [sic] backs for u everyone was supportive.” A performer wrote of the “honor” of working at Dollywood, where she was treated “like family.”
One person who identified as a current employee, wife, and mother praised her managers and wrote, “I love my job.” But she also captured the conundrum of working for a place that you cherish but that undervalues your labor: “I wish the pay was more of course because … I have a family to worry about and help support but at least it is better than minimum wage, I just wish it would go up to keep up with the cost of living.”
In her history of Walmart, To Serve God and Walmart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise, Bethany Moreton explains the paradox of Walmart Moms. They are the women from the Ozarks who entered the service industry workforce in the 1970s. Early Walmart built its reputation on the idea that its workers were the descendants of white, yeoman-farm families who practiced Christian servanthood in the department store aisles. “Reliant on low-wage, part-time women’s work,” Moreton explains, Walmart “nonetheless enjoyed an almost unshakeable reputation as a ‘family’ company … that could command the loyalties of many with little in their pay packets to show for their devotion.”
Dollywood practices a similar sleight of hand. Over the years, Dolly Parton has explained that her own family members work at the theme park and that she opened it to bring jobs to the region. Many are loyal to the company, including the 90 percent of seasonal workers who return after one season. Parton has cast Dollywood workers as “my real people,” the hillbillies from which she sprang and to whom she is giving back, while HFE touts itself as a successful family business that follows Christian values. Dollywood has helped to make Parton one of the richest women in the music industry, all to a soundtrack of growing up poor. Workers get to be a part of something bigger, a world of luck and pluck and hardworking mountain people whose moral center will never be shaken.
Dollywood has helped to make Parton one of the richest women in the music industry, all to a soundtrack of growing up poor.
On a recent morning, my partner texted a photo, the kind that carried with it no explanation but an implicit what-the-fuck. The image captured the back of a beat-up, white work van traveling down Highway 6 in Oxford, Mississippi, where I live and work. Construction ladders were strapped on top, and a small, faded Mississippi state flag, with its Confederate emblem in the corner, adhered to the back window. It would have been a very generic scene except this van had a special touch. Its crafty owner had pasted a large, homemade bumper sticker to the back of the van: DOLLY CAN HAVE THE STAMPEDE I WILL TAKE DIXIE. The words Dolly, stampede, and Dixie were in red, and the others were in black, so that from afar you might read “Dolly Stampede Dixie.”
I knew exactly the meaning of the bumper sticker, as I had followed the articles on Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede by Aisha Harris, a black woman and writer.
In August 2017, Harris had written about the Lost Cause–themed dinner attraction in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, also a joint venture between the Dollywood Company and Herschend Family Entertainment. Like all Lost Cause attractions, it is, as Harris described it, “a lily-white kitsch extravaganza that play-acts the Civil War but never once mentions slavery.” The week she witnessed the campy show in which the audience members “pick sides” and watch farm animals race for their respective “teams” of North and South, white supremacists marched on Charlottesville, one of their members killing a white woman, Heather Heyer, and others beating bloody a black man, DeAndre Harris, both of them peaceful protesters. But in Pigeon Forge, the show — and the conjuring of Dixie — was supposedly all in good fun, where audience members could experience the Civil War as a simple contest that resulted in everybody coming together at the end. Harris concluded that the show continues the long tradition of allowing white Southerners to rewrite their (and the country’s) history: “Even though the South is built upon the foundation of slavery, a campy show produced by a well-meaning country superstar can make-believe it’s not. We’d prefer to pretend, to let our deepest sins be transmuted into gauzy kitsch — and no one blinks an eye because that’s what they truly want.”
The Dixie Stampede’s public relations director responded to Harris’s article, telling her they would “evaluate the information” she provided “accordingly.” The spokesperson did not say according to what or to whom, but Harris making explicit the linkages between a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, in which rally participants claimed a glorious memory of Robert E. Lee, and Dolly Parton’s celebration of the good old days in Dixie, surely made them squirm. Early in 2018, the media team announced they were changing the show’s name to Dolly Parton’s Stampede, and, as of April, the show’s producers edited out over-the-top references to the North and South, but they left in caricatures of Native Americans. In the press release Dolly Parton stated that the name change would help to mitigate against “any confusion or concerns about our shows and will help our efforts to expand into new cities.”
Parton’s fans responded in two ways: by doubling down on Dixie as part of their heritage or by changing the topic to Parton’s philanthropy through her Dollywood Foundation. (Notably, the progressive wing of her fandom was relatively quiet.)
Thousands voiced their response — hundreds in anger — over the name change on social media, and about a dozen protested, waving Confederate flags outside the theater the day after it opened for the season.
The Knoxville News-Sentinel published a letter by Michael Garrett of Alabama, who argued that the removal of “Dixie” from Dixie Stampede is a systematic persecution of white people. He asked, “What about the feelings of millions of Southerners who are offended by the erasing of our history? Do our feelings not matter? Where will it all end, with the banning of Gone with the Wind?”
Yet, as Appalachian historian Bob Hutton pointed out, the claim that “Dixie” somehow represented East Tennessee’s history was specious. Sevier County was “one of the most ANTI-secession and ANTI-Confederate single counties in Tennessee, let alone the Confederacy,” he informed local media.
News-Sentinel columnist Greg Johnson thought Harris’s article unfair because it failed to dive into Dolly Parton’s biography and philanthropic enterprises. “Not one word of Dolly’s efforts to advance literacy. … Nary a mention of Dolly’s generosity toward victims of the 2016 wildfires in Sevier County.” Following the same logic, University of Tennessee student Megan McCormick opined that Dolly Parton can’t be racist because racist people are bad, and Dolly Parton is not a bad person because she gives away books through Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. (Just to be clear, this “library” is not a library at all, but a network of affiliates, called “Champions,” who partner with the foundation to set up the book gifting program, which requires thousands in donations.)
These latter responses rehearsed “the toggle between nothingness and awfulness,” as Nell Irvin Painter has described understandings of whiteness. They use Dolly Parton’s biography as a proxy to avoid any conversation of the content of Dixie Stampede, or to engage meaningful conversation about how racist myths persist and the work they do in the world.
Like Dolly Parton’s defenders, I grew up learning the myth that Appalachia was the home of white settlers who weren’t marked by the sin of slavery and thus were not responsible for America’s racism and, conversely, that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery in the first place. My ancestors worked hard as farmers. They built grist mills and lived in log cabins. They are the Appalachians of the American imagination — pure Anglo-Saxon. Dolly Parton rehearses this myth, and I imagine she was raised on it. Her Appalachia is pure and white and heroic; her Appalachia is drained of white America’s sins.
Her Appalachia is pure and white and heroic; her Appalachia is drained of white America’s sins.
In her recent book Dolly Parton, Gender, and Country Music, Leigh H. Edwards examines Dolly Parton’s complicated and transgressive gender performance. Leigh explains that Parton combines “two opposing stereotypes,” the “‘pure’ mountain girl with ‘poor white trash, hillbilly hooker.” Dolly Parton’s gender performance is important; it’s been liberating and inspirational for many.
But her true genius is in how she has created multiple personas at once so that her fans can choose one that slips easily into their own stories and desires. She’s embraced by feminists and queer folks at the same time she is declared a queen by Confederate apologists. Dolly-as-mountain-girl anchors her to an ancestral white home in the imaginations of white people, while her class-conscious and gender-transgressive performance of whiteness becomes a signifier for white progressives who embrace gender fluidity and working-class iconolatry. She exhibits worldliness at the same she cloaks herself in the symbols of white nationalism.
Dolly Parton has built her empire on and with the debris of old, racist amusements and wrapped it in working-class signifiers and feminist politics. I ignored that fact for a long time because it didn’t fit the script of the feminist, working-class heroine I had conjured. But I also ignored how others’ attachment to Dolly is exactly because of her embrace of Dixie and her complex celebration of whiteness. And I have ignored how whiteness clings.
Dolly Parton has built her empire on and with the debris of old, racist amusements and wrapped it in working-class signifiers and feminist politics. I ignored that fact for a long time because it didn’t fit the script of the feminist, working-class heroine I had conjured.
I have ridden many times the Dollywood Express, originally “Rebel Railroad.” In 1961, a family incorporated a locomotive — abandoned by a logging company — into an attraction that eventually became one of the centerpieces of Dollywood. During the original amusement, actors pretending to be federal troops raided the train and, according to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of Culture and History, children were encouraged “to bring weapons and help fight off marauding Yankees.” When I was a child on the Dollywood Express, what did they ask me to do and to pretend?
In the 1970s a company bought the train and built new rides to create an Old West theme, but a few years later Herschend Family Entertainment acquired the park and Silver Dollar City was born. Their park traded Dixie for the old-timey Mountain South of grist mills, woodworking, and log cabins, but everybody knows how the two images can fold into each other.
Dolly Parton’s mythical story-songs of a mountain childhood and her witty and glitzy hillbilly performance were the secret ingredient to Dollywood’s success and expansion — an expansion that requires the ecological demise of the mountains, that gobbles up tons of water, land, and bodies in order to simulate a white Appalachian past of real hillbillies that Americans love. Is Dollywood, as Jean Baudrillard wrote of Disneyland in Simulacra and Simulation, an “imaginary” that is “neither true nor false”? Is it “a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate the fiction of the real”? Does Dollywood and Dolly Parton herself rejuvenate whiteness, fueling it so that it rises up again and again in its Dixie-forms and in its Appalachia-(Scots-Irish-Anglo-Saxon-mountaineer)-forms?
I saw Dolly Parton perform live once.
My best friend and I were late to the show. We walked into the darkened auditorium, and my heart swelled. I heard her crystalline voice before I saw her, a woman in the shape of a Barbie mold wearing a neon pink, sparkling gown. Bright and beautiful, she looked like a hologram.
Parton sang her classics, the songs I had grown up on. She sang her pop hits, the songs that disco pioneer Nile Rodgers refused to praise because he heard them as appropriations of Black artistic innovations. Meanwhile, Black artists continued to face barriers to entering the country music genre, one that they had helped to create. She rapped, in a minstrel-style performance to promote her movie with Queen Latifah. She closed with an energetic performance of “9 to 5,” her feminist anthem. And I let stick to me the Dolly Parton that I wanted to love and pretended that the world she had created for us was fine.
But as Dolly Parton herself sings:
Truth is a lie
I’m perfectly fine
And I don’t miss you
The sky is green
And the grass is blue.
Listen to Jessica Wilkerson read an abridged version of “Living With Dolly Parton” on The Longreads Podcast.
Born and raised in East Tennessee, Jessica Wilkerson is assistant professor of history and southern studies at the University of Mississippi. Her forthcoming book To Live Here, You Have to Fight tells the story of women activists in 1970s Appalachia.
Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact checker: Samantha Schuyler
Copy editor: Jacob Gross