In my first real job after college, I was fortunate to work in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. This meant regular visits to the national park, working in an area that was absolutely beautiful, and that one time when I met Dolly Parton.
Part of the beat in working in that area is Dollywood, one of the biggest attractions to the East Tennessee region. Because we were the local newspaper, Dollywood officials would let us come to the park a few days before it opened each season so we could get a look at whatever the big new thing was for that year (during my time at the paper there was a new roller coaster, a new show, and a new resort hotel).
Reporters would also often get a chance to interview Dolly Parton, the theme park’s namesake, on the opening day of the park’s season each spring.
My co-workers spoke of this as a rite of passage. Everyone who works in Sevierville has to interview Dolly at some point. So, in my first year, I got picked as the reporter to cover Dollywood’s season opening.
I’ve never been a huge country music fan, but everyone knows who Dolly Parton is, so I was still super excited to get the chance to meet her.
After I got to Dollywood and flashed my credentials to get into the media area, I found myself in a room with other journalists. We would sit at a round table (with name tags in front of our seats) and wait for Parton to arrive.
I struck up a conversation with the others and immediately realized I was out of my element a bit. Some of the people there were actually Dolly Parton fan blogger, and obviously they were die-hard Parton fans, but so were the other journalists. So, when I told everyone that I wasn’t necessarily a huge fan, they reacted as if I told them my favorite scent is spoiled milk.
Before Parton came into the room, her bodyguards walked in with some Dollywood media people (who, as an aside, were always among the best public relations people I ever worked with in my career). The media people told us the ground rules: Parton would let each one of us take turns asking one question, and she would go around the table and address each person so they could ask their question. Everyone would get one question, some people might get more than one. It was up to Parton.
Parton walked in and immediately lit up the room. Sometimes you meet a famous person and they disappoint you because they don’t live up to what you imagined them as when you saw them on TV. This was not one of those times.
She made it a point to ask each of us questions before she let us ask. She wanted to know our backgrounds, how we ended up in a room here. That’s what stood out to me more than anything else.
When she got to me, she had some fun. I don’t remember what I asked her. Something related to the local community–something I could milk a separate story out of, for sure. But her answer to that question was not the takeaway for me. It was what she said before I got a chance to ask the question.
“Old?” she said as she read my last name on my name tag. “Now, I know you’re not from Sevier County, I’ve never seen a last name like that in my life.”
I explained to her that I wasn’t from East Tennessee, but that I was a Tennessee native. She laughed, and later in the interview session, she brought my name up again.
“That is such an unusual last name,” she said.
Part of me knows she just saw a funny last name and made some jokes to help ease the tension of how awkward that whole thing was (for our sake, anyway; I’m sure she was more than used to that sort of situation by then). Another part of me hopes that she was being completely genuine and would remember seeing the funny last name even now (spoiler: she definitely would not).
So, after the interview was completed, one of the other people at the table piped up: “Can I ask you just one more question?”
I noticed one of the Dollywood staffers in the room look visibly uncomfortable and start toward the table, presumably to announce that once Parton had ended the interview, that was all there was to it. That Dollywood staff member did not make it to the table before Parton responded.
“Of course!” she said in a voice that only Dolly could, booming yet welcoming all the same.
The woman who asked the question pointed to another one of the journalists at the table and said, “it’s his birthday, and I was wondering if you would wish him a happy birthday.”
The birthday boy looked profoundly embarrassed, yet you could see a gleam in his eye. Nothing in the world was going to make this guy’s day quite like Dolly Parton wishing him a happy birthday.
“It’s your birthday?” Parton asked him. His face was red and he shook his head yes.
“Well, we have to sing you happy birthday,” Parton said.
I will never forget the expressions on the faces of everyone in the room as Parton said those words. The other journalists at the table had an astonished look, as they realized what was coming next. Dollywood media personnel were grinning because they knew this was another classic Dolly Parton moment, where she was going to leave an incredible impression on everyone in the room (and, of course, get some great press for Dollywood in each of our write-ups as we no-doubt would recount this experience). The body guards had a stoic look as they just stared straight ahead and made eye contact with no one.
“Haaaaa-py Bir–now, come on, y’all, you have to sing with me!” Dolly said as she started to sing “Happy Birthday.”
“I’ll sing with you—Haaaappy Birrrrrthday–” I started into the song and Parton joined me. Soon after everyone chimed in and we sang the song together.
Before she left, Parton even let us get a group picture with her. True to my brand, I stood awkwardly to the side.
I went back and shared the story with everyone in the newsroom, and not a single one of them had any trouble believing it. In fact, they had stories of their own of interesting interactions with the country music legend.
How many people can say they sang a song with Dolly Parton after she made fun of their last name? Probably not many.