Dixieland on the Down Low

by Derrik Chinn

The words “ Florence, y’all!” boldly painted across a giant water tower announce our official arrival into Dixie, and I’m instantly thrown into culture shock. Roadside churches boast monstrous neon-lit crosses. Billboards convincingly advertise, “Jesus Loves You.” I’ve already lost count of the many fireworks supermarkets by the time we pass the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Without surprise, it’s a farm. Welcome to America’s heartland: the South.

Winding through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, I’m looking forward to a weekend excursion in Appalachia. After the end of another dreary urban winter, a change of scenery is long overdue. So, with a full tank of gas and a charged iPod, my two travel companions and I are out to discover one of Dixieland’s gayest hotspots: Dollywood.

As we pull into Pigeon Forge, Tenn., that evening, I’m unaware that I’m on the verge of adding another stereotype to my already lengthy list of homosexual nuances: an obsession with Dolly Parton. What I expect from this trip isn’t much more than a few kitschy T-shirts, a cowboy hat and perhaps a pair of authentic Cherokee moccasins. These are my priorities, and I plan to accomplish each one… eventually. Right now I’m too distracted by the fact that everything here is outlined in seedy neon lights, which I love. It reeks of such intense tackiness that I’d be a fool to think otherwise.

A monotonous loop of tourist traps set along the densely crowded main strip consists of go-carts, mini golf, bumper boats, bungee jumping and helicopter rides. I’m immediately sucked into an alternate universe where I’m piloting a wood-paneled station wagon with my family of four. The kids are whining about wanting to pan for gold while the missus reads her romance novel in the passenger seat. On the surface, it seems as though this is for whom Pigeon Forge exists – the average American family, which leaves little room for anyone else.

The three of us stumble upon a restaurant that claims its barbeque is finger-lickin’ good, so we decide to pause for dinner. Not long into the meal my mind trails back to the woodie, and my doubts about the weekend begin to swell. Maybe the glares from the neighboring table of Army rejects are what set off my feelings of insecurity. I’m already well aware Tennessee isn’t exactly the most exotic destination among gay travelers. Sure, it’s no South Beach, but how bad can it be? As I fork through what remains of my pulled pork, I decide such an overabundance of bright lights and cheap thrills can only mean one thing: Even three fags like us are bound to have a blast.

The morning brings my first encounter with Dolly. Today marks the 20th year anniversary since Dollywood first opened its gates. And, to commemorate the event, Dolly has invited a swarm of VIPs as well as a select group of media. I sit in an auditorium of anticipation, as the group waits for its local hero to emerge on stage. The excitement is obviously contagious; I’m dying to see what she’s wearing.

To the people of Pigeon Forge, Dolly is more than a local big-name celebrity; she’s on the verge of sainthood. Dollywood employs about 2,000 people in a town with a population of less than 5,500. Dolly once decided she wanted to build a theme park in her hometown as a way to create jobs. Twenty years later, the park welcomes more than 2 million guests annually, and Pigeon Forge grossed more than $700 million last year. To say thanks, Dolly is a common face on many Pigeon Forge billboards, and a life-size bronze Dolly Parton statue stands outside the town’s courthouse.

A tiny woman who’s just a bit taller than the wig on her head finally appears from behind the curtain. It’s difficult to see her clearly because of an overabundance of teased hair in the next row, but she’s wearing a black miniskirt suit trimmed with sparkles. Of course Dolly is wearing sparkles, I think to myself, as if it should have been expected. With her lacquered nails, heavy makeup and gargantuan curves, it’s obvious why this woman has described herself as a living cartoon. After she shamelessly compares herself to a drag queen in her first of many wisecracks, I’m in love. It suddenly becomes clear why she’s held so highly in so many hearts, gay and straight alike. Such a flamboyant appearance would capture anyone’s attention, but it’s her humble honesty that steals my heart. With words coated in a Southern accent that’s as sweet as sugar, Dolly tells us the tale of how her dream of helping her hometown became a reality.

A tour of the park gives us an opportunity to graze upon Dollywood’s 125 acres of rides and attractions, which includes two roller-coasters and even an adjacent water park. But I’m more interested in the less glitzy points of interest. A replica of Dolly’s childhood log-cabin home sits in the center of the park, stocked with personal items from her youth. Further on lies a rustic chapel dedicated to the family doctor who delivered Dolly, which actually holds a non-denominational service on Sundays.

I wander through rooms of Dolly relics in Chasing Rainbows, a museum that chronicles the singer’s journey to fame. I eventually stroll upstairs to a makeshift attic that’s packed with dusty items from Dolly’s past – guitar cases, sequined costumes, dated exercise equipment, high school yearbooks, a marching band uniform and even her famous Coat of Many Colors. The story says Dolly’s mother, too poor to buy her daughter a winter coat, stitched one out of rags. As she worked, she told Dolly the biblical story of the coat of many colors that Abraham gave to his favorite son, Joseph. Her classmates teased her for the mismatched fabric, but Dolly remained proud of her mother’s labor of love.

Our time in Dollywood gradually fades. We spend the remainder of the afternoon enjoying the rides, including a mountainside trek on a lethargic 1943 locomotive, and splurging on Dolly Parton bric-a-bracs in the many gift shops. One in particular, Dolly’s Dressing Room, would be a definite drag queen favorite, as it’s filled with racks of lacy fashion comparable to Dolly’s own stage-savvy wardrobe. Outside, the cool mountain air keeps us from venturing over to the waterslides of Splash Country, but I reassure myself there’s always next time.

We pile back into the car, dreary from all that we’ve taken in, and return to the hotel. We’ve one day before we head north once again, and I’m looking forward to whichever neon-lit tourist trap catches my attention (and wallet). I’m still without my cowboy hat, moccasins and tacky T-shirts, but those don’t seem to be as important as when we began our journey into Dixieland. Besides, I’m too dumbfounded by my unexpected head-over-heels fascination with a certain mountain girl’s charm to even bother.

The experience finally comes together when I remember noticing what’s written above the park’s museum: “If you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.” It’s a subtle hint for sure, but it’s one of many scattered throughout Dollywood. I’m sure they carry different meanings for different folk, but I’d like to think these messages speak the loudest to any gay visitor who’s willing to listen, like me. Especially when they’re the words of Dolly, the diva of Dixieland.

Derrik Chinn is the associate editor of the Out in America Cities Network, the largest city-based GLBT destination on the Internet. For news, features and more, log on to www.outinamerica.com.

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

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