I remember like it was yesterday. It was 1986 and by way of my membership in the Sevier County High School Band, I had been invited to play at the opening ceremonies of Dollywood.
Lots of important people attended. I vaguely remember them, trapped in the periphery of my vision as my gaze absorbed the fabulous splendor of Dolly Parton.
As an impressionable 16-year-old, I was enamored with Dolly for all the reasons one would expect from a teenage boy. And by pure chance, or perhaps the grace of God, I had been stationed mere feet from her, putting her squarely in my field of vision throughout the entire event. I strained, but failed, to keep from blinking, just to savor every moment.
Well into the event, someone joined Dolly in holding the oversized scissors, and she laughed her trademark laugh as they sliced through the ribbon that christened Dollywood and put into motion events that would bring millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs to Sevier County over the next three decades.
At that exact moment, I had no idea what a treasure Dolly Parton was to Sevier County, but it didn’t take long for me to learn.
Later that summer, I traveled with my Pop, as was customary when I was out of school. We spent the week in Alabama, the southernmost point of his sales region. Standard Coffee Service had opened up new routes in the area and needed Pop to go in and establish accounts. Most of the trip was centered in Fort Payne, home to none other than country megaband Alabama. Alabama was in the prime of its career when we hit Fort Payne, and I have to admit, Pop and I were both excited to see their hometown. As we rolled into town, we were greeted with…
I don’t know what Fort Payne looks like today, but in 1986, it looked like the sock factory capital of the world. Seriously. I mean one sock knitting mill after another. It was knitting mill this… sock makers that. Some were deceptively named but you walked in the door and, yep, it was a sock factory too. I’m pretty sure Fort Payne had the capacity to provide every human being on the planet with a new pair of socks every week for eternity.
As we drove through town, we planned our sales route the next day and hoped that sock makers liked coffee. Turned out they did.
Nestled at the end of town lay the Alabama Museum and Fan Club, a quaint but strong reminder that we had something in common with these people. Like them, we hailed from a small hometown put on the map by a famous recording artist.
Now, Pop’s best quality as a salesman was that he had a genuine interest in people. Of course he wanted to sell a product, but he also was sincerely interested in getting to know folks and understanding their stories. It’s a good thing he was a good salesman because he spent a lot of time “shooting the breeze” – even after he had clinched the sale and finished the paperwork.
I suspected a major topic of conversation would be how living in Alabama’s hometown differed from living in Dolly’s.
Boy did it.
For two days, we called on sock factories, garages, beauty shops – you name it. In each one, Pop asked them about the band, and to our amazement, we were universally met with disdain and contempt. I was dumbfounded. Across the board, the responses to Pop’s inquiries were, “They’ve forgotten where they came from.” “They left and never thought about a person in this town again.”
I mean, we found literally no one that had anything good to say about the group. I suppose if we had searched hard enough we would have – maybe the curator of the Alabama Museum and Fan Club – but it never opened the entire time we were there.
It was truly eye-opening for me and made me realize just what a blessing Dolly Parton is to the community where she was born and raised and, in matters of the heart, seems to have never really left.
I think about the Imagination Library, started right here in in Sevier County, placing book in the hands of every single child, every month of their lives until they reached kindergarten. Today it has expanded to give over 70 million books to children all over the world.
I also remember my brother proudly holding his certificate upon graduation, standing next to a friend as they together had earned a scholarship from Dolly to attend college. That was how it worked: They had to continue to push each other to graduate – if one failed, neither got the scholarship. Both those kids were fired up about it. Dolly understood how to motivate people and has sent a lot Sevier County kids to college.
I think about how all three of my kids were born in The Dolly Parton Birthing Center right here in Sevierville. The ways Dolly has given back to her community are truly immeasurable, and the love and appreciation of the community she shares is shown by the street with her name that we drive on every day, the statue adorning our courthouse lawn, and most importantly, the smiles on our faces when a stranger comes to our town and gives us an opportunity to tell them what it is like to live in Dolly’s hometown.
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© Michael L. Collins