I don’t know when it started exactly, but I’ve always been drawn to Dolly Parton. Growing up in Pennsylvania, my Dad always made sure to expose us to different types of music, and somehow artists like Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton snuck into my heart in a big way. As someone who has been known to apologize to people who have stepped on my own foot, I admire how Dolly Parton is both witty and clever, while never apologizing for who she is.
It wasn’t until a family vacation in 2013 that I was introduced to Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s magical theme park that employs around 4,000 people in Pigeon Forge, and brings in millions of visitors each year. I’m a sucker for a good theme park, and when I first walked past the butterfly-adorned signage, I had a feeling this place would be unlike any other I’d seen. It’s like stepping back in time to when Dolly was a young girl, with her Smoky Mountain Home, and blacksmiths and wood workers making signature souvenirs. I’m also a huge fan of any place that asks you questions like “Did you ever wonder what it’d be like to ride on the back of a Black Bear or on the wings of an Eagle?” I felt like Dolly was speaking directly to me, and I was hooked.
2019 ended up being the Year Of The Dolly for me personally. It was not intentional, at first, but I’ll call it a “happy accident.” Coincidentally, it also ended up being the Year of the Dolly for most people on the planet. There was the release of Dolly Parton: 50 Years at the Opry, Heartstrings on Netflix and the Dolly Parton’s America podcast, which added to the personal aspects of my year with Dolly.
It all started in March, when we went to Dollywood for the International Music Festival. The Dollywood magic was enhanced by musical acts from all over the world including the Invaders Steel Orchestra from Trinidad and Tobago performing a steel drum rendition of 9 to 5. During that same trip, I made a point to take my first trip to Dolly Parton’s Stampede Dinner Attraction. I was chosen to compete in the water bucket race, and running those heavy wooden buckets filled with water on the sand of the rodeo floor was like my own lil’ Smoky Mountain Crossfit class.
My Year Of The Dolly continued when we went to Nashville in August, and attempted to cycle along the Shelby Bottom Trail from East Nashville to the Grand Ole Opry, a good nine miles one way. When we arrived we got a pic on the Opry Stage and toured the building. It was through the posters on the wall that I found out we had missed the Dolly exhibit opening by about a week, and that Dolly herself would be performing on that stage on October 12. Surely it would be crazy to come back to Tennessee a third time in eight months? When I found out tickets were $1,500 a piece, I quietly accepted the much cheaper option of listening in on Opry Radio with friends. After the Opry, we headed to the Country Music Hall of Fame and RCA Studio B Tour to get one last Dolly fix, and then headed home to Pennsylvania.
Flash forward to the Monday in October before Dolly’s big performance at the Opry, when I was watching the Ken Burns documentary Country Music. The episode “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” heavily features Dolly and Willie Nelson, and at that moment I knew I had to at least try to make it to the Opry. Could I figure out a way to see Dolly in a mere five days and 800 miles away? The spirit of Dolly overcame me, and I pictured her saying “Damned if you don’t try!” with a wink and lots of rhinestones. I immediately looked up the concert tickets, and the price was down to a reasonable amount! Everyone who knew me encouraged me to go, and it was the exact nudge I needed. Thank you Universe and thank you Dolly! By Thursday I fully embraced the “Dream more, do more” mantra and bought tickets, a flight and a hotel.
It was always on my bucket list to see Dolly in concert, and it felt full circle to be seeing her at the Opry. There were two concerts that night, and we decided to go to the later one. The Gaylord Opry Resort was buzzing. People were dressed in rhinestones and glitter, and I knew I made the right call. After eating a bunch of German meats at a Brauhaus and meeting people who would be sitting in the same row as us (small world moments are my favorite), we made the final pilgrimage across the street. There were thousands of people who were all very different but all had one thing in common: Dolly. I had never been to a Dolly concert before, and there was magic about it. To see her perform on the Opry stage was so iconic. It was exactly where I needed to be at the end of the decade, and Dolly opened with Joshua, my personal favorite song. And when the special aired a month and a half later, we had a Dolly-themed Friendsgiving so we could all watch together and close the Year Of The Dolly in style.
I didn’t intentionally set out to do so many Dolly-themed things or learn so many lessons from her, but I did. As a mug from Dollywood once told me in pink and black print, “YOLO.” Dream big. Chase things. Be kind to your neighbors — not only at Dolly Parton concerts, but everywhere. Like Dolly, practice what you preach and don’t apologize for who you are. I think my biggest takeaway from my Year Of The Dolly is don’t be afraid to be your own thing. I feel like I became more of myself, more aware of what I want to do and be. So if you have something you really want to do, do it. Perspective is important, and I’m glad I had this journey with Dolly as my spirit guide.