Dolly Parton Wants to Take You Back in Time With the Dolly Parton Experience

kicking off cma fest a special conversation with dolly parton hosted by rachel smith
Dolly Parton Wants to Take You Back in TimeTerry Wyatt - Getty Images
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It’s an odd, almost indescribable feeling when you sit down face to face with literally one of the most famous people on the planet. It’s equal parts surreal and humbling, a fever dream that’s served with a side of “Oh em gee! Did this really just happen?” But it did. And Dolly Parton, the real Dolly Parton beyond the big blonde wigs and makeup, surprised me in many ways.

“I still feel like that little girl growing up in the mountains,” Dolly shares from what’s called the Acoustic Lobby, a sort of shrine to the icon à la Planet Hollywood with museum-style glass cases displaying famous tokens from her careers, like glittery outfits and guitars. The venue is located in her second upscale-leaning hotel—that’s right, she’s a chain, y’allDollywood’s HeartSong Lodge & Resort, next door to her very own theme park, named Dollywood (of course!). And in what must be a true full-circle moment, it’s situated mere miles down the road from the two-room log cabin she shared with her 11 siblings and parents while growing up.

But none of that seems to faze her. Not one bit.

Regardless of the room we are sitting in located in the town literally built by Dolly, she is nothing if not genuine. Perhaps it’s a testament to her level of star power, but moments in her calm stature make the bright lights and numerous onlooking team members seemingly fade away. She has that uncanny ability to make everyone around her feel seen on the same level. But I have to admit that I’m soooo glad she waited until the end of our interview to tell me I had a “sweet face.” (I’m still blushing and will be for the foreseeable future, tbh.)

And if it weren’t already abundantly clear, Dolly Parton puts in a whole lot more than the “9 to 5.” The chart-topping music icon—who has sold more than 100 million records worldwide becoming one of the best-selling artists of all time—is also a movie star and passionate philanthropist. Nbd!

Somehow still finding time to film movies like 2012’s Joyful Noise, in her spare time (does she even have any?), she also became a roller coaster collector of sorts. No, you will never catch her riding one—that would almost certainly mess up her perfect hair—but she’s amassed a number of world-class, record-setting roller coasters at her Smoky Mountain theme park, aptly named Dollywood.

Dollywood, her very own Disneyland of the South, is situated in the idyllic mountain town of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, set in the foothills of the stunning national park—and next door to her hometown of Sevierville. Since opening in 1986, the resort has grown to include a theme park, water park, dinner shows, an award-winning spa, and two four-star resorts. No longer small potatoes to say the least.

atmosphere at the dolly parton experience at dollywood on may 23, 2024, in pigeon forge, tn © curtis hilbundollywood
Curtis Hilbun/Dollywood

It’s a magical place, unlike any other theme park I’ve been to in the world, pairing thrilling attractions with a hefty dollop of Southern hospitality. The atmosphere is utterly Dolly, with sparkles abound and a live band everywhere you turn. And when Parton comes to visit, which she does annually for a you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it parade of just her around the park, it’s like the second coming of Jesus for her sea of fans clad in shirts depicting the icon’s face and catchy phrases like “Good Golly, Miss Dolly.” That’s the thing with her. She hasn’t forgotten where she’s come from and that she has her fans to thank. And the unstoppable blonde firecracker keeps delivering.

“I have a lot of things coming up,” the 78-year-old Parton enthusiastically and confidently shares with Cosmopolitan like it’s no big deal, making even the overzealous go-getter feel a wee bit lazy. Of note, this includes the upcoming 40th anniversary of Dollywood and an adaptation of her life story into a Broadway musical, of which Parton is penning new original songs. “I’m just always out there working, doing something, making new dreams come true.”

But beyond the countless accolades and accomplishments—it’s a laundry list the length of a Walgreens receipt times 10 and then some in case you were wondering—the “Jolene” singer is perhaps most known for the impact she has had on others, both fans and family, from her charity work to funding of the Moderna vaccine. And that holds especially true in her own community as she brings entirely new meaning to the phrase “pay it forward.”

In her Smoky Mountain home, things look a little different than they did back when she was a child. And whether Parton admits it or not—she’s a bit coy about it—she has played a vital role in landing the area on the map, evolving the charming small town into a bona fide destination. “The Smoky Mountains were here long before me, but I do feel like a proud parent,” she says humbly.

“It is special for me because these mountains and this place have meant so much for me throughout my whole life. I grew up here and the things I learned and the life I experienced have all shaped me to be who I am now. I’ve kept those experiences close and you’ll hear them in every song I write and every movie I make. So to be part of a place that makes people from all over the world want to come visit this area is one of my most proud accomplishments.”

a stage with a sign and lights
Dollywood

Now, we’re treated to a never-before-seen glimpse into the petite powerhouse’s seven-decade (!!) long career, in Dollywood’s newest attraction, The Dolly Parton Experience. The state-of-the-art, multi-space exhibit takes a deep dive into the life of the megastar, from her early days in the mountains to her affinity for fashion, through interactive experiences. You can bet there’s a ton of glitter and butterflies (her unofficial symbol of sorts!) along the way.

And if you hoped that the pop culture phenomenon would gush about her fashion secrets, then you’re in luck. Behind the Seams is poised to be one of The Dolly Parton Experience’s most anticipated aspects, peeling back the metaphorical (and sequined) curtain on the blonde’s signature style and offering a glimpse into her private costume archival. It will also honor the creative team who’s tasked with making the icon look like an icon.

a room with a shelf and a bookcase with objects on it
Dollywood

And while she describes her own personal style as simply “Dolly,” it’s impossible not to notice her unabashedly bold approach to fashion. She shares that she never has bothered following any trends, even if that means looking back and not knowing exactly what she was thinking at the moment.

“I don’t have that kind of mindset to work that hard to try to keep up with something,” she offers up. “So I just always wanted to be comfortable in my own skin and in my own clothes. I didn’t care if it was out of style. I might wear a new blouse with a pair of pants I’ve had for 20 years. I just believe that everybody should wear what they feel comfortable in. Be you. I try to be true to myself and who I am and that’s why I tell everybody I think they should do the same. Be proud of who you are and be your own unique self.”

washington commanders v dallas cowboys
Brandon Sloter - Getty Images

As is evident in the exhibit, family is everything to the superstar and she doesn’t just talk the talk, she walks the walk too in sky high Christian Louboutins to boot. Many may be surprised to learn that around the theme park, the Parton name is much more than just Dolly. On any given day, you can spot family members working throughout the sprawling park, including her niece Heidi who carries on the family music tradition as a longtime Dollywood performer since the age of 4.

“Well, they’ve been with me for all these years and are part of what has made me successful, so I feel like they need to come along for the ride too,” Dolly shares. The exhibit pays special tribute to her Uncle Bill Owens who helped the burgeoning star transition from an adolescent beaming with potential to household name. “They’ve been such a big part in all of this—my career, my music, Dollywood—that I want them to get to experience it too. I hope they’re as proud of me as I am of them and everything we’ve done here at Dollywood.”

On a more serious and noble note, her exemplary philanthropic work is also celebrated in the permanent exhibit, including Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Since its inception in 1995, the organization has gifted over 232 million books to children across the globe.

“I don’t know any other way to do it than to give,” Parton states matter-of-factly. “Now, I like to receive, too, don’t get me wrong. But there’s nothing better than that feeling of when you have something to give and something you have that you can share and do some good with. That is the greatest feeling in the world.”

The charity is extra special to Parton, whose own father was never taught how to read or write and served as inspiration.

“So many of our relatives didn’t get the chance to get an education because they had to work. Just being able to give back in any way. When you have it to give, you should do it.”

dolly parton's imagination library donates 100 millionth book to library of congress
Shannon Finney - Getty Images

But unlike the many roller coasters that fill her hometown amusement park, with Dolly Parton, there’s no final climatic loop and throttling finish into the station. Her force is simply too great. And we all have a front-row seat to what’s next.

My time with Parton was short, because, of course, she has to run off and do a million other things that a legend of her level has to do on any given day. But it was impactful, and not once did she break eye contact or show even an ounce of distraction. She did, however, leave me with a gem of advice.

a room with a wall of art
Dollywood

Dolly may be warm-natured, but her advice to others looking to pour their own cup of ambition is point blank, an insight into the entertainer’s unwavering fortitude.

“You should nourish those dreams,” she says. “You should prepare for it. A wish is not a dream. You can just wish it all day, but if you don’t put legs, arms, and wings on those dreams, they are not likely to come true. You gotta be willing to sacrifice the time and the effort. And if you really have the talent, stick with it. You can’t just say, ‘I want it,’ and then not work for it.”

The Dolly Parton Experience is now open at Dollywood.

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