I grew up listening to Dolly Parton, singing along to Jolene and 9 To 5, loving her music, in awe of her philanthropy, her Southern twang, her glitzy guitars and her rhinestone-embellished costumes.
She may have done Glastonbury but I haven’t done Nashville, so I join the Dolly trail in the state of Tennessee, which offers rich pickings on the Parton front, from museums displaying her costumes, instruments and platinum records, to a myriad of stories about her collaborators, song-writing and journey to fame.
This landlocked state bordered by eight others, including Kentucky to the north and Alabama and Mississippi to the south, is famous for its country music and Tennessee whiskey, where distilleries make throat-searing moonshine, the once illegal hooch during Prohibition times.
But it’s Dolly I’m here for so I head for Nashville, known as Music City, the state capital where she lives and where Nashvillians and tourists flock to hear a symphony of sounds in honky tonk bars on the famous Broadway, from country and jazz to bluegrass and pop. Here, even crossing the road is a musical interlude, as unobtrusive speakers in the street pump out country tunes.
Heaving with folk during the day, party buses carry dancing bachelorettes in flashing cowboy hats and mock cow-hide jumpsuits, while other revellers pedal the party bikes, relishing the blaring beats while slurping a variety of byo drinks. At dusk, downtown becomes a neon-lit hub of eating, drinking, country music, pop, blues, jazz and everything in-between.
Dolly may be absent from these regular local night-time festivities, but she’s very much present once you start exploring the musical history of the place at the Country Music Hall Of Fame And Museum, where there are walls of gold and platinum albums, plus memorabilia from a Who’s Who of country stars, including Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Garth Brooks.
Elvis’s gold plated 1960 Cadillac is parked up near cabinets of stage costumes embellished with metallic embroidery, tassels and rhinestones. A Taylor Swift Education Centre has also opened, featuring artwork inspired by songs, and a multi-coloured mural inspired by Dolly Parton’s Coat Of Many Colors.
A short bus ride away at RCA Studio B, opened in 1957, we discover more snippets about Dolly’s journey, the fact that she turned down Elvis’s request to record her 1973 song I Will Always Love You (covered by Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard in 1992) when Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager, reportedly asked for half of her publishing rights for the song, in order for the deal to be struck.
The studio in Music Row, concrete and soulless from the outside, is warmed with a storyboard of stars inside, along with recording equipment and a sense of intimacy. Dolly recorded Jolene and I Will Always Love You here, and Elvis requested mood lighting when recording a plethora of hits, including Are You Lonesome Tonight?
Moving on to the Ryman Theatre, a 19th century former tabernacle and home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1945-74, I imagine the conversations and pre-performance atmosphere during a private tour of the dressing rooms, some of which are still active.
But the Dolly Parton trail spreads far wider than Nashville. As one of 12 children brought up ‘dirt poor’ in rural Tennessee, the Parton clan is large throughout the state.
Her famous theme park, Dollywood (dollywood.com) complete with rides, theatres, an eagle sanctuary and even its own chapel with resident chaplain and Sunday services, employs some of her wider family, particularly performers.
Fans stay at Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa (from $124/approx £101.29 per room for four people per night; dollywood.com/resort/), a large family resort awash with memorabilia including a ‘Dream Box’ housing her wishes for the future, and a final song, which won’t be opened until her 100th birthday in 2046. Another resort, HeartSong, is due to open in 2023.
Travelling east to her home county of Sevierville, where she was born, we come upon Shine Girl (shinegirl.com), an out-of-the-way stylish wooden-clad distillery and bar owned and opened earlier this year by Dolly’s niece, Danielle. It sells moonshine in flavours including red velvet, coconut, lavender and rose. All of her staff are female.
Blonde, feisty and with a wicked sense of humour, the 46-year-old combat veteran and pilot, daughter of Bobby Parton (younger brother of Dolly), looks uncannily like her aunt.
With a family ‘Shine’ history on both sides of the law – some made the illegal liquor while others tried to shut distilleries down – Danielle reflects: “If you’re from this area, somebody from your family at one point or another has been involved with it, but I’m literally self-taught.”
She appears in the TV series Master Distillers on Amazon Prime and while she is fervently aware of the doors the Parton name can open, she has made her own way, at university, in the US military, and in life.
“Everyone says, ‘Oh my God! Dolly Parton’s your aunt?’ I’ve always wanted someone to accost her and go, ‘Oh my God! Are you Danielle’s aunt?”
Visitors are welcomed for tastings, but Danielle never guarantees she’ll be there.
It’s clear she adores her home state. “I love Tennessee. It’s beautiful. I love the Appalachia personality that has trickled down over the years here. We are very much a ‘mind your own business’ culture. People can do whatever they want to do, with whoever you want, just mind your own business and don’t bring it on me.”
Downtown Sevierville nearby is the place to stay if you want a sense of history and old town charm. This is also the place where Dolly grew up.
Our guide, Sevierville county historian Carroll McMahan, went to the same school as Dolly and knew her, as did everyone, he tells us with a chuckle, showing us new murals of the child Dolly enjoying a burger at Red’s Café, her favourite former local eatery, and another of a butterfly, a nod to her hit song Love Is Like A Butterfly.
In front of the landmark Sevierville County Courthouse, built in 1896, we admire the bronze statue of Dolly as a young woman, perched on a rock while casually strumming her guitar, first unveiled in 1987.
The town is within easy driving distance of attractions, including mountaintop adventure park Anakeesta (anakeesta.com) in Gatlinburg, which has the obligatory mountain coaster, but feels like a more natural experience, with its accredited arboretum, terrific views of the Great Smoky Mountains and regular sightings of black bears, red cardinals and American goldfinch.
Its new night-time walk, Astra Lumina, features a variety of colourful light installations and accompanying atmospheric music in each area of the forested trail.
There are other towns to the east of Nashville with Dolly connections. She sang in Knoxville on radio shows and performed there during the 1982 World’s Fair, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
The city’s landmark Sunsphere, which occupies the site and looks rather like a giant microphone, opened last year as a viewing platform, offering 360-degree views of the city and the Smoky Mountains. There are further legacies of the fair to admire, including an amphitheatre, which some say looks like Dolly’s bra.
It’s an artsy town only a mile from the University of Tennessee, highly walkable with its own theatre and a variety of local festivals featuring performance groups, and a 45-minute drive from the Appalachian trail for those who want some country air.
Hotels including The Tennessean (from $199/approx £162.08 per room per night; thetennesseanhotel.com) offer guests a calmer, quieter experience to Nashville, with a charming market square and nearby Urban Wilderness, 1,000 acres of protected wilderness offering multi-use trails.
Downtown, there are nods to the singer everywhere, most notably the dramatic mural of her in Strong Alley off Gay Street. There’s a big LGBTQ+ presence here, along with some whimsical shops including Glitterville, a riot of frivolities with its shimmering crafts and baubles (it even has a pet chicken called Dolly Poulet).
All too soon, my tuneful Tennessee trail is over, but in the words of its most iconic country music songstress, I will always love you…
How to plan your trip
Delta (delta.com) fly from from London Heathrow to Nashville from £479 return (economy) or £780 Delta Premium Select.
For further information on Tennessee, visit tnvacation.com.