This past May, I had the opportunity to take a road trip from Cleveland to Knoxville, Tenn. to see Ms. Dolly Parton perform a benefit concert at the University of Tennessee’s (UT) Thompson Boling Arena.
I’ve never been to Tennessee. I only had two frames of reference: the country glitz of Nashville and the country grit of the Smoky Mountains. My people on my mom’s side of the family are from Kentucky, so I expected Tennesseans to be just as friendly as most of my kin are, but other than that (and possibly finding some good cooking) I had no idea what awaited me.
We had a quick trip to Knoxville planned, with just a day and a half to explore before we moved on to our next destination, but we sure made the most of it.
After we checked into our hotel, we decided to walk to downtown Knoxville, have a little dinner and check out what was going on in Market Square, since I read there would be some free live music in the evening. (If you don’t want to walk, Knoxville Area Transit offers free trolleys that run around the downtown and UT area. Check out their website for current trolley routes and times.)
The first notable site we came across was the World’s Fair Park, which was hard to miss with a glittering gold orb, dubbed the Sunsphere looming overhead. Not much was going on while we were there, but there is an amphitheater and convention center within the 52-acre park. When there aren’t events scheduled, there are walking paths, green space and a children’s playground for people to enjoy.
We continued our walk around downtown, seeing the Tennessee Woman’s Suffrage Memorial, honoring those who campaigned for the passage of an amendment to the United States Constitution (it took 72 years, but eventually Congress came around…)
Eventually, we stumbled upon the Tennessee Theatre, where we learned B.B. King was playing that night. I considered seeing if there were still tickets for the show available, since I know he’s still killing it at age 89 (I saw him a couple of years ago at Cleveland tour stop). But, our desire for a good meal after our day-long car ride won out.
We ambled back to Market Square and found the Tupelo Honey Cafe beckoning to us. Reviews of the Tupelo Honey Cafe say to expect a wait; it was busy, but the restaurant gods were working in our favor and we were seated right away.
Oh my stars, I can see why this place is hoppin’! I ordered the Venerated Veggie Bowl. You can’t see it in the picture, but beneath a heaping helping of fried okra and sauteed greens, there are black-eyed peas and the creamiest cheesy grits I’ve ever had (the goat cheese is the key)! Everything was expertly prepared (from scratch) and that, paired with my tasty bourbon cocktail, left me very happy, indeed.
After the meal, we headed back to our hotel to sleep off our food comas, which was a bit of a shame because it looked like the square was starting to get lively as the band was setting up.
The next day, we returned to check out some of the shopping opportunities that looked interesting, but were closed by the time we arrived the previous day. We spent a long time browsing Mast General Store. Too much time, because we ran out of time to go to the East Tennessee Historical Society, which we had hoped to have time to visit.
I found Knoxville to be rich in music and art and highly active in preserving the area’s historical heritage. A day and a half is definitely not enough time to take it all in. Next visit, I’ll plan better and check the City of Knoxville Things to Do website for more must-dos!
Seeing the Dolly Lama
Finally, it was time for the main event: The Dolly concert! We had been looking forward to this event since we bought our tickets six months earlier.
I had read that Dolly has a very devoted following, but it didn’t really hit home until we got there and started talking to people while we were waiting for the show to start.
There was a group of people sitting near us that followed her from concert to concert and they had gotten to know other Dolly superfans. When they saw each other, they greeted each other warmly; the atmosphere felt more like a family reunion than an arena concert.
Next, we got to talking to the family sitting in front of us, they told us they had come from North Carolina and had bought their tickets as a 15th birthday present for their daughter (they said Dolly was playing a show closer to home, but it was at a casino which had a 21-and-over age restriction). It was awesome to get to see the girl experience the concert. When Dolly walked on stage, the girl was so overcome with excitement, she burst into tears. It was touching and I was so happy for her that her parents were able to give her the opportunity to come to the show.
As expected, Dolly cranked her performance up to 11. For over two hours, she performed old favorites, tunes from her new album, told stories and joked and flirted with the crowd. When the show was over, I definitely wanted more Dolly. Good thing I planned a trip to Dollywood the next day!
Welcome to Dollywood!
Since Knoxville is so close to Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and we were still basking in the glow of the Dolly Parton concert, of course we had to take a trip to Dollywood.
I had learned a cool tip before we arrived: If you come to the park after 3 PM, you can use your ticket for entrance the next day, too. (If you’re planning a trip, check the ticketing website or call the park to make sure this policy is still in effect.) This is an excellent option, whether you plan to ride the rides (I wasn’t) or you just want to take in the shows and bask in all things Dolly.
The park is very family friendly and there is something there for nearly everyone to enjoy–whether you’re a fan of Dolly or not. Nearly every employee was very friendly, most notably this sweet older lady who was working in a little store that wasn’t attracting much business. She gave us her pitch about the store’s products and then chatted us up for nearly a half hour. I felt like gained an adopted Meemaw and she gave me a lot of good information about the park.
But, really, I was just there to see the Chasing Rainbows museum, which is described on the Dollywood website as a place Dolly created “To share the results of her decades of dreaming, and to inspire others to follow their own.” Plus, it includes tons of memorabilia from Dolly’s life and career.
When you enter, you go through a gallery of photos of Dolly with celebrities she met (or worked with) over the years. You’re then led to a place that’s described as Dolly’s Attic, and you’re welcomed by Dolly herself, in the form of a “Dollygram.”
After your welcome, you continue through an exhibit detailing her youth living in the Smoky Mountains, you see bits of memorabilia (like love letters from her childhood beaus, audio and video of a 12-year-old Dolly performing, her high school band uniform) and the piece de resistance, the famous Coat of Many Colors:
I have to admit I’m skeptical this is the coat, since kids are usually hard on clothes (and since Dolly was number four of eleven children, I assume other siblings would have worn it, too), but the song lyrics–written on the back of two dry cleaner’s receipts–look legit. It was an interesting peek at her songwriting process.
Next you’re led into the shrine of Dolly’s celebrity years. You see examples of her stage costumes from the 60s to the present, the robe she wore when she was awarded an honorary PhD by the University of Tennessee and gave a wildly popular commencement speech, and you get to see Dolly Parton’s other awards, so, so many awards.
You could spend days looking at everything in this museum (and I tried), there is so much to see! For me, it accomplished its mission–I left feeling I could achieve anything I set my mind to and worked hard at. There’s no better feeling than that.