In an increasingly polarized time, the country can still agree on at least one thing: Dolly Parton is a treasure. The queen of country music earned widespread acclaim in 2021 for two new albums, a book, her first perfume and—oh yeah—the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, which she helped fund. While it will be tough to top those accomplishments this year, it’s still a wonderful time to spend a few days learning more about Parton and the musical heritage of her neck of the woods, both in her home state of Tennessee and in neighboring Alabama.
Best Driving Vacations 2022:Four Stunning Road Trips from Columbus
Stop 1: Nashville
Travel from Columbus: 380 miles, 5 hours and 42 minutes
Start your music-themed trip with a six-hour drive to Nashville. Spend a day in the downtown area, walking to destinations such as the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the National Museum of African American Music and the Musicians Hall of Fame. You can also stroll along the Music City Walk of Fame, which pays tribute to performers across multiple genres who’ve made significant contributions to the music industry.
While most of your Nashville experiences can be spontaneous, you should plan a tour at the historic RCA Studio B or Hatch Show Print, where you can see decades’ worth of woodblock print posters for bands and performers. You will want to get a taste of the sights and sounds of Nashville’s famed entertainment districts, where neon lights and music spill into the streets. Lower Broadway, SoBro and Printer’s Alley are brimming with restaurants and bars like the Listening Room Café, where you can enjoy free live music and grab a bite to eat. Round out your trip with an evening show at one of the iconic venues like the Grand Ole Opry House, the historic Ryman Auditorium or the Bluebird Café, the launching pad for many Nashville musical greats.
Stop 2: Muscle Shoals
Travel from Nashville: 134 miles, 2 hours and 29 minutes
It’s not as renowned as Nashville, but Muscle Shoals is a musical mecca in its own right. In the 1960s, a multiracial core of musicians, songwriters and producers—led by Rick Hall, described as “the father of Muscle Shoals music”—turned this small town in the northwest corner of Alabama into an international recording hotspot, attracting the likes of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Willie Nelson, the Rolling Stones, Etta James and Bob Seger.
Start your visit at the recording studios that were the heart of the Muscle Shoals scene. Tours through Hall’s Fame Recording Studio, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio (founded by The Swampers, the famed Muscle Shoals rhythm section) and the Cypress Moon Studio (the second location of Muscle Shoals Sound, in neighboring Sheffield) can fill a day.
Also be sure to schedule a few hours to tour the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, with exhibits that showcase the accomplishments of native Alabamians WC Handy, Hank Williams, Tammy Wynette and more. Another option is to take the Roots of American Music Trail cellphone tour. It includes directions to the top venues and side stops, along with information about the melodic influence of the Tennessee River on American music.
You can work in food stops to Champy’s World Famous Fried Chicken, Swampers Bar & Grille and Rattlesnake Saloon or just follow your sense of smell to a random roadside barbecue restaurant that has likely been in business for decades.
Stop 3: Pigeon Forge
Travel from Muscle Shoals: 312 miles, 5 hours and 10 minutes
With trip-themed tunes on your playlist, the roughly five-hour drive to Pigeon Forge will go fast. Set up base at the Dollywood DreamMore Resort & Spa near the Pigeon Forge Parkway or book a cabin in the woods surrounded by the serenity of the Smoky Mountains. Your Pigeon Forge visit will focus on the influence of Dolly Parton, one of country music’s most profound and influential entertainers, who was born in this area in 1946.
During your stay, sample some of Parton’s themed entertainment, including the Dollywood theme park, where you can see some of the behind-the-scenes memorabilia of Parton’s life and music career in the Chasing Rainbows Museum and step inside a replica of her two- room childhood home, which had no running water or electricity. Many local attractions center around Parton, like Dolly Parton’s Stampede, with equestrian performances and a four-course meal.
Plan some browsing at the historic Old Mill Square that has shops with local artisans and the boutique Old Forge Distillery, where you can pick up a jar of chocolate moonshine. The Old Mill restaurant is a must-visit for breakfast, a chicken dinner or an afternoon slice of homemade pecan pie. In operation since the 1830s, the mill is where Parton’s father used to get corn for the family.
Spend one day at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in nearby Gatlinburg. As the most visited national park in the country, there is a lot to do, from hiking the trails, soaking in the views from scenic overlooks or driving through Cade’s Cove, where you can see native wildlife.
Spend your last night enjoying the regional sounds of bluegrass music under the dark Tennessee skies as you pull up a chair on the plaza at The Island in Pigeon Forge before heading back to Columbus.
Where to Stay
Gaylord Opryland Resort: A unique resort experience not far from downtown Nashville with entertainment, SoundWaves aquatic attraction and sprawling indoor gardens
Hutton Hotel: Boutique hotel near Music Row with music packages available
The Dive Motel & Swim Club: Part dive bar, part motel, with unique rooms that come with a party switch to activate the room’s disco ball and Dive Radio channels
Dollywood Dream More Resort & Spa: Dolly Parton’s premier resort and spa provides an upscale, front-porch-style ambiance that is characteristic of the Smoky Mountain lifestyle.
This story is from the February 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.