cover_story_2 (2007-08)

2007 Music Issue (continued)

"Desolation" is walking through Dollywood in early February. The Pigeon Forge theme park's vast parking lots are all but empty, its open-air trams parked motionless in one corner as though huddled together for warmth. Gone are the slow-drifting clumps of tourists, with their overstuffed fanny packs, air-brushed t-shirts and screaming children. In their place, a few dead leaves scuttle across the asphalt, carried to and fro on the cold, gray back of some displaced arctic wind.

Past the silent turnstiles, inside the park, dollhouse-esque shops and kiosks are shuttered up and vacant. A dampness displaces the familiar summer scents of funnel-cake and pork rind. Pennies rest on the floor of a dried-up fountain like rusted-over dreams. It's easy to imagine that, in its not-so-distant past, this place was an Appalachian village suddenly evacuated, its quaint country-bumpkin residents driven out by an invasion of locusts or disease.

Clat-a-clunk, clat-a-clunk, clat-a-clunk.

From deep within the park, there comes a low-pitched metallic staccato, as though a flock of wayward cheese graters was scraping its way down the sidewalk, accompanied by a string of mangled Christmas bells. Clat-a-clat-a-clunkity-clat.

Now discernible are girlish voices. Some are giggling; others converse enthusiastically, their trill voices overlapping like the songs of birds on a telephone wire. The clattering grows louder. At last the subjects round a bend in the road and come into sight. There are eight or 10 of them, of all ages, each one saran-wrapped in a sequined vinyl dress with her lips painted the color of pickled beets. The soles of their shoes dangle with taps that appear to be only half-attached.   

Clearly, they're cloggers.  

Troupe co-founder and choreographer Rebecca Lankford is easy to flag down. "We're the Sugar & Spice Cloggers, from Corbin, Ky.," she explains in a drawl as soft as the glossy, egg noodle-shaped tendrils that frame her face. "We just got finished with our audition." Her statement is confirmed by a nearby sign that reads, "Dollywood Auditions, This Way," with a big red arrow pointing in the direction of a pastel-hued theater.

Lankford's daughter McKenzie stands nearby, looking for all the world like a 10-year-old Britney Spears, a Mickey Mouse mug-shot of golden curls and charm to match. When asked to pose for a picture, she instinctively throws her hands on her hips, lifts her heel precociously, and unfurls a 100-watt grin.  

Sugar & Spice won't know until later whether it earned a spot in the amusement park's lineup. There are around 300 dancers, musicians and dancers auditioning here today, and the bulk of them haven't yet had their moment on the stage. Outside the theater, a line of aspiring performers still waiting to register sprawls out into the cold. Some of them are carrying instrument cases--banjos, guitars, fiddles. Others are clearly singers, their faces matte with pancake makeup and their hair perfectly coiffed. Most everyone is wearing cowboy boots.

And everyone in the line has his or her own story. There's Jessica Brumlow, an 18-year-old singer from Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., with blonde, Barbie Doll tresses and glittering eyes. "When I was little, I always came here and watched shows," she says. "That's when I knew I wanted to grow up to be a country music singer."

For today's audition, she plans to sing Reba McEntire's "Fancy," a song about a dying mother who sends her daughter out into the world in stilettos and a revealing cocktail dress ( Here's your one chance, Fancy/ Don't let me down ), as well as a couple of Martina McBride classics. "I always get nervous," she says. "But once I start, everything will be fine."

A couple of auditionees down the line is Jason Nelson, a tall, dark-featured Kenny Chesney fan from Clinton, Tenn. Nelson says he considers Dollywood a stepping stone on the way to his ultimate destination: Nashville. "I told myself I was going to do it, no matter what it takes. You've got to start somewhere, you know?" Up until now, that "somewhere" has been limited to karaoke at Harrison's Restaurant in Anderson County on Friday nights. When asked whether he's considered taking his music to Knoxville, maybe signing up for a singer-songwriter night, Nelson grimaces. "I'm not down with all that new-age rock'n'roll," he says. "I don't call that stuff music. It's not music to me."

The list goes on. There's a family string band called the Jason Gross Trio; "We do this for the glory of God," the father explains. There's 17-year-old Rachele Hall, a soft-spoken young woman who hopes she'll be cast in Dollywood's '50s revue, Dreamland Drive-in . And there's Jason Given, a banjo player who's been performing at Ober Gatlinburg for the last two years. The Sevierville tourist industry is in his blood, he says: His mother has worked the Tennessee Tornado roller-coaster here for the past eight years, almost as long as his sister has held down a job at the Smoky Mountain Jamboree. "You've got to be persistent," Given says. "You've got to stick with it. You've got to want to do it all the way."

For aspiring performers like Given, gigs at Dollywood are serious business. Every year nearly 2,000 singers, musicians and dancers vie for around 100 available positions, the seats vacated by the 30 percent or so of Dollywood performers who, at the end of the season, move on to pursue careers elsewhere. Auditions are held not just at the park but in major metropolises like Atlanta as well, so that the judges have available to them the cream of the talent-pool.

Inside the massive theater where auditions are taking place, a young girl of 8 or 9 steps timidly up to the microphone. She's wearing a baby-blue velour jumpsuit, her caramel hair tied back in a messy ponytail. While the judges make notes on their scorecards, the girl glances around to get her bearings. In the audience, there are dozens of other auditionees still awaiting their turn, and the judges sit stage left. The girl hands a technician her audition tape, a Top 40 pop-punk single, and when it begins to play, she begins to sing. Very quietly.

It's clear the girl is nervous. She twists the microphone cord around her fingers, and though the words on the tape aren't dubbed out, she starts skipping words, and then entire lines. The judge signals the technician to turn the tape off, and suggests that the young singer try another song. She nods, staring at the ground. But the next song doesn't sound much different from the first, and once again, she loses her place and drops out. The tape clicks off, and the girl puts her head in her hands, awaiting judgment.

"You have a really nice voice," the head judge, Dollywood Director of Entertainment Paul T. Couch, says with a smile. The girl raises her head in surprise and meekly smiles back. From the audience, there comes a wave of thunderous applause.

The show of support is refreshing, especially compared to the brutal audition atmosphere glorified by the likes of American Idol , the popular prime-time television program in which well-intentioned but untalented performers are routinely ordered off the stage--albeit via verbal ridicule rather than a giant cane. Judge Simon Cowell is notoriously vicious. "I've been known to call someone the worst singer in the world," Cowell once remarked to a sub-par contestant, "but you by far are the worst singer in the universe."

There's no room for such humiliation here at Dollywood. During lunch break, Couch explains Dollywood's audition philosophy. "Dolly Parton was a dreamer," he says, referring to Dollywood's famously upbeat, philanthropic and well-endowed founder. "We're not here to step on anybody's dreams. That's not what Dollywood is about. We're here to encourage people."

Much of the time, though, such encouragement is well-deserved. Several of today's auditionees turn in flawless performances, their talents emboldened further by a charismatic, confident stage presence. "Stage presence is the trick," Couch says. "It's the difference between a good singer and a great singer--the way you present yourself."

The performers seem to sense that their stage presence is on trial, and they deliver. From teenage girls covering Carrie Underwood to burly men covering Johnny Cash, from bellowing church hymnals to just-out-of-high-school barbershop quartets, the audition pool's diversity is almost as astonishing as the talent it contains.

Walking back outside into the cold, the ghost town that is Dollywood in the wintertime seems a little less bleak. Seated on a bench beneath a heart-shaped lattice, a lanky teenager in a cowboy hat strums his guitar, lost in thought. Nearby, a young woman in a puffy red parka paces back and forth, singing scales to warm up her voice. Inexplicably, a line of ducks waddles across the road, maybe searching for an alternative to their dried-up fountain, looking more determined than depressed.

One could make the argument that our most important dreams, the ones we hold closest to our hearts, are infused with a kind of anti-freeze, not of a chemical but of a metaphysical variety. It lowers   our dreams' freezing point just enough to get them through the rough patches, the moments of self-doubt, intact. And spring is always just around the corner.

2007 Music Issue (continued)