Dolly Parton’s new HeartSong resort is ‘high-fashion rustic.’
PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — Dolly Parton took her rightful place before a giant stone fireplace at the new HeartSong Lodge and Resort. Orange flames flickered inches from her skyscraper heels. An iron screen prevented rogue sparks from alighting on her braided blond locks. After greeting her fans gathered ’round the fire — “Oh, look at the two girls in their coat of many colors. I love that. I met you two yesterday, didn’t I?” — she ran down her recent projects for those who had lost track. There was her first rock album, a book about her illustrious wardrobe and the new resort that she was christening in true Dolly style — with self-deprecating humor and a heartfelt song. “People are calling me a hotelier now,” she said, laughing at the notion. Drawing a parallel to her “Steel Magnolias” character who owned a pair of beauty shops, she added, “Now that I have two hotels, I’m a chain!” On Nov. 3, Parton officially opened her second resort in the Dollywood sphere, the theme park complex co-owned by the star. Her first, DreamMore Resort and Spa, is a loud anthem to the queen of Nashville. HeartSong, by comparison, is a tender ballad to her childhood stamping grounds in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains. “I am proud to be a Tennessee girl, and certainly an East Tennessee girl, and be part of the Smoky Mountains,” she said. To hammer home this sentiment, she slipped a guitar over her head and sang the resort’s namesake song, slightly altering the nearly 30-year-old lyrics for the occasion. “Heartsong. I just came to sing about my Smoky Mountain lodge. Heartsong.” ODE TO THE MOUNTAINS Upon arrival at HeartSong, guests will typically notice the black bears gamboling behind the check-in counter before they discover the towering photo of Dolly by the fireplace, a testament to the Dreamer in Chief’s vision for her resort. “I wish our house had looked like this. This was the house I dreamed of,” Parton said during the opening, referring to the simple tworoom cabin she grew up in. “I really love the idea of having the lodge here. It does make you feel like you are really in the mountains. I like having something that is a little rustic, but I would say this is high-fashion rustic.” HeartSong is made of heartier stock than the fairytale-like DreamMore. The 302-room property, which was sold out on opening weekend, evokes a mountain lodge. A video of Smoky Mountain landscapes and wildlife streams behind the front desk, and nature photos turn the elevators into a scenic ride. In the atrium, monarch butterfly wings rendered in stained glass hover overhead. Synchronized fireflies, which visit the national park every summer looking to hook up, appear on the hallway carpeting and the bathroom mirrors in the rooms. For $319 a night and up, guests can fall asleep to a symphony of crickets, rushing water, birdsong, bonfire and pelting rain on their room’s sound machine. Unlike Dolly’s breakneck musical career “Rockstar” is the 77-year-old’s 49th solo album — Dollywood and its satellite sites have expanded at a slower pace. The theme park opened in 1986, replacing its predecessor Silver Dollar City, which was owned by Herschend Family Entertainment. The Atlanta-based company, which owns a variety of attractions around the country, stayed on as a partner. True to its name, Dollywood weaves the country singer’s personal journey and affections for her home state into the park’s mainstays: the rides, live performances and food. For instance, visitors can bounce between the Tennessee Tornado, the world’s first spiral-loop coaster; a replica of her childhood home, with decor by her mother, Avie Lee; and the Grist Mill, which sells hundreds of loaves of cinnamon bread a day. In July 2015, the company unveiled the 300-room DreamMore, which allowed fans to stretch their Dolly experience beyond the park’s operating hours. Similar to Disney’s arrangement, guests receive perks for staying in the family, such as a free TimeSaver pass and trolley ride to the park, which is about a mile away. Plans to announce the new HeartSong resort in March 2020 were derailed by the coronavirus. However, construction stayed on schedule after the groundbreaking in fall 2021. Two years later, Dolly was singing her heart out before the roaring fire. Though HeartSong’s overarching theme is the Smokies, visitors can still find a few shrines to Dolly. The photo of the singer-songwriter strumming her guitar is on giant Buddha scale and commands a similar level of reverence. The Acoustic Lobby, a public hangout spot when it’s not reserved for private dinner parties, contains several of her instruments and handwritten songs as well as the outfit she wore at a HeartSong event in June. At the Honeysuckle & Pine Storied Goods Mercantile, her face gazes out from T-shirts, sweatshirts, perfume boxes, mugs and magnets. “This is her down-home place,” said Peggy Montgomery, a retired teacher who drove 10 hours straight from Alabama to arrive in time for the opening. “I am going to add this to my Dolly universe.” ON LOOKOUT FOR DOLLY Dolly shows up for milestone moments at Dollywood, a tradition that fans will use for their vacation-planning purposes. She attended the launch of the Big Bear Mountain roller coaster in May and the season opening of Dollywood in March 2022 and ’23. Last weekend, their antennae picked up strong signals that she would be in Pigeon Forge for HeartSong and the kick off of the Smoky Mountain Christmas, one of Dollywood’s most wonderful times of the year. “It’s made us become the best Christmas place in the world‚” Parton said 52 days before the holiday. All facets of Dolly — her park, her music, her love of Christmas — draw people to the state, which set a record last year with 141 million visitors spending $29 billion. Dollywood has a direct economic impact of $1.8 billion each year, according to a 2021 Tennessee Economic Impact Study. “We have people coming to Nashville and to East Tennessee to find out more about Dolly,” said Mark Ezell, the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. “We love the visitor spending, but we also love that those people are being changed by someone of deep character.” A few hours after Dolly’s morning appearance by the roaring fire at HeartSong, a group formed outside the Acoustic Lobby. The fans kept one eye on a roped-off hallway lined with Christmas trees and the other on their intel — updates on Facebook fan clubs and group texts. They remained at their post even when the resort staff wheeled out a cart of free wassail. “We heard that Dolly was going to be here this afternoon. Do you know anything?” Kristi Casey, a diamond season pass-holder from Tennessee, asked a bystander. Visitors from Germany and the United Kingdom drew closer for the answer. The barely-in-the-know guest delivered the regrettable news that they had missed Dolly. However, they might glimpse her as she walked to her waiting vehicle, a Scooby-Doo-looking van with her signature on the side. “Usually if you find the crowd of security guards, you can find her,” said Casey, a first responder during the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York who described Dollywood as her family’s sanctuary. A wave of excitement started to swell when several people spotted a woman in a black grommet jacket and a curtain of blonde hair inside the Acoustic Lobby. “It’s Lainey Wilson!” someone exclaimed before a burly man eclipsed their view of the singer who, five days later, would sweep the Country Music Association Awards. At a long table near Songbird Market, Aspen Jones was bent over a “Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede” coloring book, weighing crayon choices for the horse’s saddle. Earlier in the day, the 5-yearold Knoxville resident had met Dolly when the fashion maven noticed her outerwear — a coat of many colors inspired by the 1971 album — and mouthed, “I love your coat.” The stylish pair posed for a photo that was captured by a paparazzo who answered to “Mommy.” Just after 5 p.m., Aspen’s mom, Hanna, rounded up her daughter and 3-year-old son and led them outside. A crowd was assembling on the sidewalk, a strong indicator that a Dolly sighting could be imminent. Aspen’s view was blocked by a forest of legs, but Casey was front and center when Dolly walked by her, waving and smiling as she gripped the arm of her security guy. CHRISTMAS COMES EARLY On the first morning of the Smoky Mountain Christmas, the line for the trolley stretched from HeartSong’s side door to the elevators. On the short ride to the amusement park, the driver amped up the passengers like a warm-up act for a headlining artist. “Can you see the Wild Eagle?” she asked, pointing at a roller coaster rising in the distance. “I recommend sitting in the front seats. I call them the Jesus seats. There’s nothing between you and the sky.” Once inside Dollywood, fans learned that, despite earlier reports, Dolly would not ride through the park in a vintage car. As a consolation prize, they could see a niece and cousin perform in “Heart of the Holidays” at Dreamsong Theater, near the construction site for the Dolly Parton Experience, an interactive attraction scheduled to debut in May. (A fair assumption that Dolly will attend.) “We always hope to see Dolly,” said Aubrie Holcomb of Asheville, N.C., who was celebrating her recent elopement with a group of girlfriends. “Dolly gives good vibes,” added her wife, Maggie Holcomb, who was wearing heart-shape sunglasses and a “Wife of the Party” sash. The beaming Tennessee sun muted the 6 million lights hung for the holidays, but as evening encroached, the park cranked up its wattage. Trees sparkled as if they had been dusted with a fine coat of sequins. Polar bear sculptures floated on ice floes. Giant snowflakes twinkled like crystallized stars. At the Wonderful Christmas at Wilderness Plaza, an LED light show projected on a 50-foot-tall artificial tree followed the adventures of cousin bears — one black, the other polar — who must overcome obstacles to spend the holidays together. The spectacle ended with a flurry of fake snow that sent Jordan Smith, a 20-year-old from North Carolina, into the blizzard, spinning under the white flakes. The 10 hours of holiday cheer closed with a drone show. The flying objects took formation as jingle bells, a Christmas tree, a dove and a globe wrapped in a red bow. Dolly’s disembodied voice wished everyone a happy holiday as the drones’ parting message, “Merry Christmas, Love, Dolly,” burned bright before vanishing into the Smoky night.