by Kevin Crowe
We're sitting in a quaint reproduction of Truvy's Beauty Salon, the center of all the action in Steel Magnolias , starring Dolly Parton as Truvy. The World Grotto is in a state of constant flux, and today, as we sit in cushy salon chairs, more Dolly-inspired art is being brought inside. "Growing up, all I knew was Dolly Parton," says Christopher Hamblin, the artist-in-residence at the World Grotto. "I don't remember not knowing Dolly, really, but my first memory may be the Eagle When She Flies album. I love 'Silver and Gold.' It was the thing you sang with the karaoke track at church. That's probably my earliest memory of Dolly. I always wanted to sing 'Silver and Gold' at church.
"I think Dolly is sort of the Empire State Building of East Tennessee," he goes on. "I think she's just a staple to us. I remember when I was in New York and I'd go to a bar, and they'd play 'Nine to Five' and people would go crazy."
There's a giant Dolly scrapbook on display, spanning decades. Some Warhol-esque paintings of our favorite East Tennessee diva. Purses made from record sleeves. And on Saturday, the Grotto will host the "Night of 1,000 Dollies," which has been inspired by Chi Chi Valenti's cultic annual tribute to Stevie Nicks, the aptly-named "Night of 1,000 Stevies."
"I lived in New York for about three years," says Hamblin. "When I moved back, I said, 'If there can be a night of 1,000 Stevies--if there's enough angry Goth, Wiccan people--if Stevie can have her own night, we can have a night of 1,000 Dollies."
At 8 p.m., an auction will begin, which will include an autographed picture of Dolly. All the proceeds of the auction will be donated to Dolly's Imagination Library, to help buy books for pre-school children. "I just can't even remember a day when I couldn't read or write," Hamblin continues. "I just can't imagine what my life would be like without that.... I like the idea of the Imagination Library sending a book to a kid every month who wouldn't otherwise receive one.
"Dolly's done so much for Sevier County, I feel that Knoxville doesn't get to own as much of its role in her legacy as we maybe ought to. I hope this helps bring her presence here."
Then, at 8 p.m. Jenna & the Joneses will take the stage. At 11 p.m. things will get wild, with Hamblin hosting the event while dressed as Dolly. "We didn't just want to have a drag show," he says. "I really believe in Dolly as an artist, and so much of her artistic integrity gets blurred because of the camp value. I really didn't want to have a night for people to make fun of her, or to have people show up just for the shits and giggles of it.
"I've done a good job of bringing equal parts me and Dolly. I will definitely be visually representing her. I'm not gonna ever look like Dolly Parton, but it doesn't make sense for the Night of 1,000 Dollies host to not be Dolly, so, yeah, I'm gonna be in some Dolly getup. People are saying 'drag queen,' and I just hate that, because for me--there are gonna be drag queens here--it's not what I do. I don't want to look like Dolly, I want to look like a guy trying to look like Dolly."
Knoxville's own Christina Horn will play, so will mezzo-soprano and star of the Knoxville opera, Candra Marshall. The gals of the White Lightnin' Burlesque troupe will put on a show. And drag superstar and Dolly impersonator extraordinaire, Angel Collins, will put on her always impeccable show. Dolly's cousin Jamie Howard will judge the "Biggest Boobs," "Biggest Hair," "Lookalike" and "Tackiest" contests.
And Nashville-based singer/songwriter Rebecca Seaver--Dolly's own niece--will perform. If all goes according to plan, this will be the first of many Dolly-themed nights.
For now, however, Hamblin is still sitting at the fake beauty salon, dreaming of what the night could become. "I was listening to Dolly's song 'Smoky Mountain Memories.' It's a song she wrote for her father, he had gone up to Detroit to work in a factory. He hated it, and he had to come home.
"I just thought about my great grandfather--I just cried thinking about what he had to go through to take care of his children. This evening is so special that my grandmother altered one of her best friend's dresses for me to wear. My little Baptist grandmother, 66 years old, made her grandson a dress. Something really special is happening with this night. It is supposed to happen."
On Friday, at the WDVX noontime concert, Hamblin will perform "Silver and Gold." He adds, "It'll be the first time I get to sing the song."
What: Night of 1,000 Dollies