July 14--KNOXVILLE -- Sevierville gave Dolly Parton her look, but Knoxville allowed her artistry.
"It taught me how to perform in front of people. Knoxville was my first time when I sang around people I didn't know," says Parton, who'll perform on Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena in her first Knoxville concert in more than 25 years. "I learned how to be around other people for the first time."
Parton often jokes she assembled her world-famous look from the loose women she saw in Sevierville. They had the big hair, the short skirts, the low-cut blouses and far too much make-up. That look has certainly made Parton distinctive.
However, she says she cut her teeth as a performer in Knoxville, where she landed her first major radio gig on "The Cas Walker Show." Over the summer when she was off from school, Parton's relatives would bring her into Knoxville. She'd stay with an aunt and uncle during the week while singing on the radio during the weekends.
Parton would marvel at the sight of the tall buildings in Knoxville. At age 10, she rode the bus to gigs alone and dreamed of what her life might be like if she ever became a star.
"I remember a lot of things about Cas Walker," she says, reflecting on how intimidating the local grocer could be. "I was told that if I wanted to be part of his show I had to go up and ask him myself.
"So I walked up to him -- I guess I was 10 or 11 years old -- and I said, 'Mr. Walker, I'd like to work for you.' And he said, 'Well, you know what? I'm going to give you this job because to my recollection you're the only person who's ever said, "Mr. Walker, I want to work for you." Most people would walk up and say, "I want a job."
"He said, 'If you're willing to work for me, I will give you the job.' I will always remember that."
She took what she learned from Walker and applied it to Nashville, where she landed a job as the so-called "girl singer" on "The Porter Wagoner Show." The rest, they say, is history.
Despite her allegiance to Knoxville, Parton hasn't played here in more than 25 years, mainly because she's given her full attention to Dollywood and its state-of-the-art concert venue. Her fans flock to the theme park each season to see her sing in her native county. But Sunday night, Parton hits Thompson-Boling Arena to kick off her "Better Day" world tour.
Proceeds will go to the Dollywood Foundation, which operates her Imagination Library. The program delivers thousands of books to preschoolers each month around the country to stimulate their desire to read.
Parton will not have an opening act, but she'll deliver all the favorites -- "9 to 5," ''I Will Always Love You," ''Tennessee Mountain Home" and "Jolene," among others. She'll also present cuts from her just-released "Better Day" CD, such as the current single, "Together You and I," and the infectious "Shine Like The Sun."
Why play Knoxville now? It's economics: Parton can raise the same amount of money for her foundation in one night at Thompson-Boling than she could playing three shows in one weekend at Dollywood.
And Parton figures it's time to give Knoxville its due.
"Knoxville is still the big city to me," says Parton. "Back then, when I was a little girl, it was like getting lost. I was just a country girl from way back in those days when I'd go to Knoxville for the first time.
"Why, that was way before we had electricity (at home). For us, going to Knoxville was like going to the moon."