Dollywood Values

This recent Economist article about Dollywood is making the Tennessee blog rounds. It's a somewhat amusing look at Southern/Appalachian culture from a British/European point of view. Characterizing Dolly Parton as the "backwoods Barbie", the article observes:

People do not fly to Dollywood; they drive there in big cars full of squabbling children. East-coast accents, let alone foreign ones, are rare. The park is thus an excellent window on what people in this part of the American heartland like.

It goes on to note that the main attractions at Dollywood are patriotism, Christian faith, and celebration of folk culture and music. Oh, and food:

NO ONE goes hungry at Dollywood. The cake stands at Dolly Parton's theme park in Tennessee sell slices of apple pie that weigh three pounds each, and that's before you bury them in ice cream. The mixed appetisers at the best restaurant consist of a heap of battered and deep-fried cauliflower florets, a mound of deep-fried cheese sticks and a pile of potatoes slathered in melted cheese. The next course might be a vast platter of southern-fried chicken.

They say that like it's a bad thing?

The article notes that there are two tiers of American theme parks -- "destination" parks like Disney World that attract international visitors, and the smaller regional theme parks like Dollywood. They say that "To learn about the real America, you have to look at its smaller theme parks -- the ones only Americans visit."

So, what about this notion that you have to visit theme parks to learn about the "real America"? By that logic, having a Bass Ale at the Florida Epcot UK Pavilion's Rose & Crown Pub tells you everything you need to know about British culture, and a visit to the Paris Las Vegas Hotel Casino is as good as a trip to France. Besides, how can you learn everything you need to know about Southern Culture without attending a NASCAR event?

The point being of course that all of these, including Dollywood, are artificial illusions designed to offer temporary escape from the ordinary, so in that sense they are "extraordinary" as in not a true reflection of our culture.

Some of the same folks who salute the flag and buy Bibles at the Dollywood Christian shop cheat on their wives and their taxes, have a few too many at the pool hall on Fridays after work, and drive big gas-guzzling SUVs which isn't all that patriotic given our current national security and foreign policy situation. At least with a NASCAR event, all of this is proudly and unapologetically on display. That's just America, and it's the same all over. (Please hold your cards and letters -- it's a good-natured jab with an element of truth, OK?)

The other thing the article misses is the changing demographic of the South. With Rust Belt refugees migrating to Southern manufacturing jobs created by generous state subsidies, retirees fleeing hurricanes in Florida and taxes up North, the growing Hispanic and black population, and professionals from all over seeking a better quality of life, the South is becoming increasingly more culturally and economically diverse. This wouldn't necessarily be obvious to someone "not from around here" visiting Dollywood.

But with all of that happening, perhaps it's a good thing that we have Dollywood (or better yet cultural centers such as the Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center in Townsend TN and the Museum of Appalachia in Norris TN) to preserve some of our Southern Appalachian flavor. There's nothing wrong with that, just like there's nothing wrong with Southern fried chicken and apple pie (consumed in moderation, of course).

Where the article gets it right is Dolly Parton as a symbol of the Southern work ethic, and Dollywood as a metaphor for her success. Noting her humble upbringing and her accomplishments, the article concludes:

Most important, Dollywood offers a rags-to-riches tale with a simple happy ending. Ms Parton was born among the poorest whites in America. She had talent. She worked hard. She became fabulously rich and famous.

It's a great article, and well worth a read. (Bonus: for a local's humorous take on Pigeon Forge, home of Dollywood, see here.)

In related news, The Dolly Parton Imagination Library is expanding overseas to the UK:

Ms Parton unveiled her Imagination Library project at a former steel mill, the Magna Science Adventure Centre, in Rotherham on Wednesday.

Every child in Rotherham will be sent a free book every month from when they are born until they are five.

The multi-millionairess met parents and children when she visited the centre.

Wearing a grey suit, the singer shouted: "Well hello, everybody" to a crowd of dignitaries, public and media outside the centre as she got out of her car, flanked by security guards.

About the Imagination Library:

In 1996, Dolly Parton launched an exciting new effort to benefit the children of her home county in east Tennessee. Dolly wanted to foster a love of reading among her county's preschool children and their families. She wanted children to be excited about books and to feel the magic that books can create. Moreover, she could insure that every child would have books, regardless of their family's income.

So she decided to mail a brand new, age appropriate book each month to every child under 5 in Sevier County. With the arrival of every child's first book, the classic The Little Engine That Could, every child could now experience the joy of finding their very own book in their mail box. These moments continue each month until the child turns 5 -- and in their very last month in the program they receive Look Out Kindergarten Here I Come.

Last year, the 95th and last county in Tennessee signed on to the program, with assistance from the Governor's Books from Birth Foundation. There are more than 330,000 children enrolled in the program, which distributed more than three million books last year.