America’s country music heartland
The drive from Tennessee to Virginia is full of beautiful landscapes and iconic country music. (Myles New)
In the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, the people of the small Tennessee town of Pigeon Forge are sitting in wait. Hundreds of them are gathered by the roadside, and the weather is warm despite the waning evening sunshine. A couple in a matching pair of folding chairs sip from ice-cold cans of cola while a father guides his kids under the shade of a giant restaurant sign that offers ‘45 types of breakfast’. There is an air of anticipation, and those with cameras hold them at the ready. A parade is about to begin.
Uniformed police on Harley-Davidson motorbikes appear, weaving in and out with their lights flashing, clearing the road and becoming part of the show as they do. A school marching band wearing outfits of festive red and yellow is behind them, its members looking equal parts nervous and bored as their cymbals crash, tubas boom and batons twirl.
Their instruments announce the real reason that everyone’s here – the band are playing 9 to 5, one of the signature songs of the Great Smoky Mountains’ most famous daughter. Perched on top of the wings of a yellow biplane mounted on a truck and wearing a sort of countrified version of a Biggles costume – leather jacket and fringed white scarf teamed with cowboy boots – is the self-styled ‘Queen of Country’ herself, Dolly Parton.
‘We love you, Dolly!’ shout a group of women in chorus. ‘I’ll take a hug, Dolly,’ hollers a man close by. She responds with relentless and enthusiastic waves of her extravagantly manicured fingers, her smile implacable. It is still there hours later, as she sits, perky and unfazed, among a crowd of fans and journalists. After making my way through the clamour, I am lucky enough to meet her in person. ‘I love coming home and I love these mountains,’ she enthuses. ‘This area is in my DNA, and this part of Tennessee is one of the most beautiful in the country.’
It’s a stretch to describe Pigeon Forge – its main drag a collection of diners, motels and year-round Christmas shops – as beautiful, but it is lovably kitsch. The town is the gateway to Dolly Parton’s family theme park, Dollywood – an eccentric combination of funfair rides, local crafts and country music.
A half hour’s drive to the south of Pigeon Forge, Dolly’s praise for the beauty of rural Tennessee begins to ring true. Townsend lies on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – 1,300 square miles of protected land and home to deer, wild hogs and black bears. Meadows with rickety barns and roadside barbecue stalls give way to forested green hills hugged with the morning haze that gives the park its name.
This is America’s most-visited National Park, but it doesn’t feel that way. On a morning walk along some of its 800 miles of marked paths I pass only one other person – an angler stood patiently by a mountain stream. Aside from the whir of his fishing line, the sounds are of rushing water, birds hidden high above in the treetops and the crunch of leaves underfoot.
It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to picture those who walked these lands before – indigenous Cherokee Indians, Ulstermen and German Mennonite settlers who came from Pennsylvania in the 1700s, the English who trekked from the coast, and runaway slaves. Over time, their different instruments and ballads began to blend, evolving into the gospel, ‘old-time’, Appalachian and bluegrass music styles – which together gave birth to country.
Music is still what brings people together in Townsend. I arrive to find the Old Timer’s Day festival, one of two annual events, in full swing. There’s no sign but, following the sound of banjos, I find 200 or so people crowded into the front yard of a house by the main street. The banjos on the veranda are joined by the low boom of a double bass and jaunty pitch of a fiddle and guitar, the audience nodding along to the beat.
A rhythmic clack-clackety-clack summons me to the back of the house. Here, young and old take turns tap-dancing, or ‘flat-footing’. Behind them, people wait in line at food stalls selling barbecued meat, burgers and candy floss. Nearby, music fans in baseball caps listen to the band on the main stage. Sat in their camping chairs, members of the audience are impassive save for a bouncing foot or a thigh-slapping hand.