Inside Dolly Parton’s new resort lodge in the Tennessee mountains

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee CNNWhen a petite blonde known for high hairdos and even higher heels is expected to be in a certain corner of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, the devoted start making travel plans.

Crowds of people gather, with their necks craned and cell phones held high, seeking recorded proof of this life force with a wide smile and an infectious laugh. A master singer-songwriter, a savvy businesswoman and all-around beloved entertainer who’s not afraid to make a boob joke at her own press conference.

That’s the atmosphere Dolly Parton’s presence brings to the Smokies, where she’s just opened her second resort hotel connected to the Dollywood amusement park complex in eastern Tennessee. Her longstanding business partnership with Herschend Family Entertainment, stoked by Parton’s star power, also has an estimated annual direct economic impact of $1.8 billion, and there are plans on the horizon for more Dollywood resorts and attractions to fuel the state’s growing tourism industry.

The 302-room HeartSong Lodge & Resort had its grand opening Friday and Parton came out to launch the property, Dolly-style, with some snappy jokes and a few minutes of singing and strumming – verses from 1994’s “Heartsong” – to pay tribute to her rural Tennessee roots that the rustic lodge draws on.


Parton’s sparkling, spangled persona doesn’t dominate the resort’s aesthetic, which she called “high-fashion rustic.” But the 77-year-old star herself delivered plenty of glam at the opening, taking the stage in a bold print dress with black ruffles at the hem, black beading draped at the waist and a signature plunging neckline that elicited this quip: “I’m the only person that ever left the Smoky Mountains and took ‘em with her.”

But it’s warmth and hospitality, not flashy adornment, that are on display at HeartSong.

“I’m just a down-home person and all the people I grew up with are just likable, easygoing people. And I guess once you’ve kind of had that instilled in your whole psyche, in your whole being, that does follow you,” Parton told CNN Travel in an interview after the launch event. Employees across the Dollywood empire greet guests with a smile and are quick to ask how they can help.

“When you grow up in a big family, you cater to one another, you cater to your neighbors, you cater to your friends, even on Sundays when the preacher comes over, you’re always kind of giving and we kinda have that spirit (at Dollywood resorts),” said Parton, who grew up rich in music but without material wealth as the fourth of 12 children.