S4, E6: How Dolly Parton Went From a One-Room Cabin to a Smoky Mountains Empire

On this week’s episode of Travel Tales by AFAR, Dolly Parton opens up about her new hotel, HeartSong Lodge & Resort, and the ways travel has shaped her life.

On the sixth episode of Travel Tales by AFAR, season four, Dolly Parton joins us to talk about hotels, her beloved Smoky Mountains, and why travel is the best form of education.


Dolly Parton: But I’m just, like I mentioned before, proud to be a Tennessee girl, certainly an East Tennessee girl, and being part of the Smoky Mountains. I’m the only person that ever left the Smoky Mountains and took them with her. That’s one of my old boob jokes, yeah. Oh Jack, don’t be embarrassed.

Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene, this is Travel Tales by AFAR. In every episode, we hear from a traveler about a trip that changed their life. Plus, this season, I’m sitting down with each storyteller to talk about life’s big travel questions. Well, I’m not really sitting down with them, because I’m recording all this from my houseboat in Sausalito, but you know what I mean.

This week, we have a very special, very sequined guest. Someone you may have heard of: Dolly Parton. Dolly is, of course, from Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountain region. It’s the place that’s inspired much of her life’s work. It’s the place she’s written songs about, the place she goes to recharge and renew. And so she’s spent much of her adult life giving back to the region. She’s championed children’s education there, she’s raised money for wildfire and flood victims, and she’s invested heavily in tourism in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. There is of course her theme park Dollywood, which opened in 1986. In 2015, she added her first resort, called DreamMore.

And hotels are actually the reason we’re here today. Because last week, Dolly unveiled her latest resort, HeartSong Lodge & Resort, two miles away from Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The award-winning travel writer Elaine Glusac flew down for the press conference. And she also got to sit down with the Smoky Mountain Songbird to talk about the hotel, what travel means to Dolly—and what’s next for her tourism efforts.

We’ll hear the press conference that kicked off the hotel’s opening, then we’ll hear Elaine’s conversation with Dolly. But it would not be a Dolly episode without a Dolly song, so at the very end, she’ll say farewell with a version of her 1994 hit, Heartsong, which the lodge was named after. So here’s Dolly.

Dolly Parton: Well, hello everybody! Woohoo! Well, welcome to the HeartSong Lodge Resort and Lodge. How are you liking it so far? Well, I want to welcome all of you. This is a special day for us. Of course, y’all probably been watching me. Oh, look at the girls in their little coat of many colors. I love that. I met you two yesterday, didn’t I? Nice to see you again.

Yeah, well, anyway, we want to welcome all of you. Well, hi, Sherry. Hi, Jack. How’s everybody? Anyway, you know, I’ve been out promoting my rock album. I’ve got a rock and roll album coming out soon. I had a chance to sing with a whole lot of our great, iconic singers, singing a lot of our favorite songs. So, hopefully you’re going to enjoy that.

And, of course, I have the new book out called Behind the Seams: My Life in Rhinestones. Kind of chronicles my whole life, kinda in the clothes that I’ve been famous for, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Ha ha ha! I got such a kick out of putting the book together, looking at all my hairdos and clothes that I’ve worn through the years. And I thought, “Lord, was I serious about that?” But we always are, ain’t we, and we look back.

Hi, Andrew. Hi, Eugene. How are you? Anyway, I’m excited here to open our HeartSong Lodge & Resort. And of course, I’ve been following the construction ever since we started. Been seeing it from the ground up, I really love the idea that we have the lodge here.

It does make you feel like you’re really in the mountains, and I just love all of this, you know, the whole idea of having a lodge versus a, a resort, which it is a resort, but I like having something that’s a little more rustic, but I would say this is high-fashion rustic, wouldn’t you?

I’m just so happy to see that it’s done. We have a few little bitty things to do, but you couldn’t hardly tell it. So people are calling me—what do they call it—hotelier now? Ha ha ha ha! Oh well, I’m not sure about that, but I do think back to Steel Magnolias. Didn’t you ever see that movie?

When I played a hairdresser, my character was named Truvy. And when I got a second beauty shop, I said, “I’m a chain!” So now, we got two hotels. I’m a chain! But I promise you, we’re just getting started. So, I don’t know all that I should know about everything. I like to act like I know everything, but I really don’t. But I know somebody that does. Eugene, why don’t you get up here? He’s our president, Eugene Naughton.

Eugene Naughton: Hi, Dolly. We’re so thrilled to be able to fulfill this dream for you. HeartSong is obviously a big milestone for not only Dollywood Parks and Resorts, but for Herschend [Enterprises]. Three hundred rooms that reflect your love of the Smoky Mountains. But what’s a game changer for us? We added 26,000 square feet of convention space to the building.

Dolly: That’s gonna be good. That means you can bring businesspeople from all over the country, all over the world, really. You can have your family reunions here. I know you said it’s big, but is it big enough to hold my family?

Eugene: Oh, for sure. And we can’t wait to host them. We cannot rest on our success. So, we have a big refresh planned for DreamMore.

Dolly: I know!

Eugene: Right after we break for the holidays.

Dolly: I think that’s great for DreamMore. I love that place. You know every few years I get a little facelift, a little nip and tuck myself. So I think it’s only right that we should do the same for my favorite hotel.

Dolly: Hi.

Elaine Glusac: Dolly Parton, it’s great to meet you.

Dolly: Thank you.

Elaine: So we wanna talk a little bit about your projects here. I read that Dollywood celebrates, quote unquote, “the Smoky Mountains way of life.” Can you define that for people who are not familiar?

Dolly: Well, it’s a simple way of life. It’s an easy way of life. And in some areas, it’s a very rustic way of life. And we tried to, uh, with our new HeartSong Lodge, kind of create some of that rustic living. We’ve kind of saved as many trees as we possibly could and built the lodge as deep into the hills as we could so people would actually get the feel of that. And we’ve put balconies on the rooms where you can step outside, hear the birds sing, and hear the hoot owls or whatever it may be at night.

So it’s really, to me, it’s just a simpler way of life, and I love these mountains. I grew up here as a kid. So it’s nice to have the conveniences though of a nice hotel, but to kind of pretend that you’re out in the wild.

Elaine: I love that. I was going to ask about your experiences at hotels. Like, what’s, what do you look for in a hotel, and how did that translate?

Dolly: Well, I just like to be comfortable. I always like to have a nice bathroom, you know, and I like to have a nice bed. A good clean bed and, you know, even like when my husband and I used to travel a lot in our little RV, we would just pull up to these little down and outer motels, but we’d just pull up to the door. We didn’t care as long as the bed was clean. And the bathroom was clean and we, you know, we’d stay there.

But of course, through the years, uh—which we still love doing that in our little RVs when we travel around—but to actually be able to stay at a place like our resort, whether it be the

DreamMore or this new HeartSong Lodge, it’s just nice to have all the conveniences of home but to have that feeling of what do they call it, glamping? In a way, sort of that. Yeah.

Elaine: I wanted to ask you about the Dolly Parton Experience, which is coming next year. It’s sort of a comprehensive personal museum. What will visitors take away from that? What, what don’t they know about you that you hope they take away?

Dolly: Well, I think people know a whole lot about me, especially the fans. There are a lot of people that do come that are not that into me personally, but that do love going to a great theme park where we have something for everyone. But the people that do go through the experience that we’re offering, it will chronicle my life in every way from the childhood to the church to, to the home memories, of course. And then my journey in life as, as an artist and a star and using a lot of the new technology to really make things more interesting, bigger and more impressive, more radiant, more colorful, and all that. So this is going to be really real exciting, uh, kind of bringing my past into the future, so to speak, and making it more interesting.

But before people can really go away, to answer your question, I want them to go away feeling informed for one thing, but feeling inspired for another. And think, “Wow, that was, that was a great experience. That’s a good name for it.”

Elaine: Yeah, I wanted to ask about inspiring children, which you do with your Imagination Library. That is a nonprofit that you do to work on childhood literacy, so you’ve made enormous investments in that, as well as investments in tourism here. And I wondered if you see any connection between, sort of, education and the educational possibilities of travel. Like how are you hoping to affect youth?

Dolly: Well, I really do think if you’re lucky enough to travel—because I didn’t get a big education myself—but I learned so much more after I left home than I would have ever learned by just staying here because I’ve gone to every country in the world.

I’ve seen all the cultures. I’ve seen all the different foods and all the different rules that you have to go by. Makes me appreciate America, too, because I’ve been to every country, you know, pretty much in, in the world. And you, you’re always a little hesitant because you don’t know what the rules are and you don’t want to make any mistakes.

Whereas you can come home and, uh, you know, know pretty much what your freedoms are. I mean, no, no matter how many problems we may have, America is still the greatest country in the whole world. Not just because I’m an American, but because I’ve been everywhere and I know that to be a fact. But also, in America, I think there’s something for everybody.

I don’t think you have to even go to foreign countries, although I think you become educated just by being in the areas that you go to, to learn how even just in, in towns and cities in the United States, everything and everybody’s so different. But I’ve loved traveling for the education that I have gained just from just being made aware of so many things I didn’t know.

Elaine: Well, I’m going to bring it back home and ask you about this area—what you love about it and what do you like to do apart from Dollywood?

Dolly: Well, of course, when I come back to this area, I love the Great Smoky Mountains. I grew up here and the Great Smoky Mountains. A lot of people don’t, people don’t realize it or don’t even believe it when I say, it is the most visited national park in the United States.

People don’t realize it. They say, “No, that would be Yellowstone.” Or, “That would be this.” No, it’s not. It’s the Great Smoky Mountains. So I’m proud of that fact, but I’m also proud of the fact that it’s absolutely beautiful here. We have so many wonderful things. We have the biggest assortment of trees in all of North America. That’s why the leaves are so beautiful in the spring and the trees. And that’s why they’re so beautiful in the fall. And I love the rivers and the streams and all the things that we have around here. Myself, I grew up in, up in the woods, so to speak, with the little running streams and, and all of that to where I just felt like part of nature.

We grew up feeling like part of the, you know, the rocks and the trees and the woods, we were just little country children. And I carry that inside of my soul and in my psyche. And that’s part of what keeps me anchored and keeps me sane. It’s like a medicine to me. It’s like I can, when things get crazy and chaotic, I can always just kind of go back to that simple way of life and, and it’s healing to me somehow and restoring.

So I find that when I come back home, I, I come home to, to be restored lots of times when everything else has got crazy.

Elaine: Nature’s true medicine. So, hiking or driving?

Dolly: I drive. I used to hike when I was more of a tomboy. I mean, we used to romp these hills like you wouldn’t believe, as kids. But that’s before I got so sissy and thought I had to have high heels and, and, and long nails and all the stuff that ain’t, ain’t really good on a hike.

Dolly: Why don’t I sing a little song? You know, I wrote a song. They name a lot of the stuff here after songs that I’ve written. And, you know, I have a song called Heartsong. This is a little song that I wrote, and I did this also when we talked about opening the lodge, well, a long time back, and now here we are, opening the lodge. It’s just a little piece of, of it. It’s not a whole song, but Eugene took up all my time, so I only have just a little bit of time now to sing a little bit of a song. Alright, it goes like this.

A heartsong melodyPlays like a symphonyThe sweetest music I have ever knownA song of joy and painThe mountain angels singA bittersweet refrain of my Smoky Mountain homeHeart song

Now this Smoky Mountain girl Has been all around the world But it makes no difference Just how far I roam I still cling to that part That is so dear to my heart My faith in God And memories of home A heartsong melodyPlays like a symphonyThe sweetest music I have ever knownA song of joy and painThe mountain angels singA bittersweet refrain of my Smoky Mountain homeHeart song

Yeah, I just came to sing About my Smoky Mountain Lodge

Aislyn: That was Dolly Parton. Thank you, Elaine, for making this happen. And thank you, Dolly, for sharing your time. We will link to Dolly’s new book and all the details about her hotel in the show notes.

And we’ll also link to Elaine’s website and her body of work, as well as her social media handles. She’s a wonderful writer and I highly recommend following her. Next week we’ll be back and I will be telling my own Travel Tale for the very first time. This summer, I had the opportunity to essentially eat and drink my way through France and I will be telling you all about that.

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This has been Travel Tales, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composed and produced by Strike Audio.

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