Remembering moments with the Daughter of Sevier County and their unexpected connections to my life in law
Almost everyone who lives in Sevier County has a story about its favorite daughter—internationally known singer, songwriter, movie star, businesswoman, and philanthropist Dolly Parton. Few, if any, in the United States today equal the success and popularity of this talented woman. Her pathway from rags to riches serves as a shining example of the American Dream. Her famous line, “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap,” illustrates a self-effacing sense of humor which so endears her to fans all over the world. With the arrival of 2022, Dolly reaches the ripe, but no longer so old, age of 76. Through a healthy diet, regular exercise, and the wonders of modern medicine, she still looks to be in her twenties.
Of all the cherished memories my fellow Sevier Countians can share about Miss Dolly, few have got more mileage out of a relatively modest relationship than yours truly. Yes, we were students together at Sevier County High School from the fall of 1962 through the spring of 1964, but by then her story was quite well-known locally. She had grown up in a large, loving family in a small home on Locust Ridge, she had attended Caton’s Chapel Elementary School, and as a child gained some notability by appearing on WBIR’s Cas Walker morning show—singing and playing guitar with Uncles Bill and Louis Owen. My younger brother Sid became an ardent admirer during Dolly’s senior year in high school. As a freshman, he made sure he got to sit by her in band practice—he, blowing on the trumpet, and Dolly, of all things, playing on the drums. As for me, just a sophomore, I was more than satisfied to simply stand in awe as she walked the school hallways between classes and occasionally nodded and smiled in my direction as I passed by.
After graduating in the spring of 1964, Dolly caught a bus to Nashville confident that one day she would become a country music star. Before long, she caught on with the Porter Wagoner television show, often performing duets with the star and regularly cutting record albums as his sidekick. Never one to forget her roots, by then she had begun to schedule a concert at her alma mater each year in order to provide much needed funds for her Smoky Bear high school band.
Meanwhile, I found my way to the University of Tennessee, spent seven years there, and found my way back home with a license to practice law. Three years later, I had the honor of being elected town mayor, a position which I later learned was sort of like drawing the community’s short straw. Most of the local wags say that my main purpose in that role was to field complaints about late garbage pickup and barking dogs. The home telephone calls as to the former usually came in the early mornings before I went to work and, as to the latter, the complaints usually came after supper, either just before or just after I went to bed. Nevertheless, there was one perk in the job that made it all worthwhile.
The previous mayor had always been called on to emcee the annual Dolly concert for the band and I inherited that role, became reacquainted with the budding celebrity, and began a long-distance relationship of sorts.
As she continued her generous support for our school band and climbed the ladder of show business success, the “city fathers” (there being no women on the board at the time) asked the Tennessee Department of Transportation to name the newly constructed section of Highway 411 east of our downtown in honor of our favorite daughter. The General Assembly approved, and then Commissioner Bill Sansom instructed his crew to construct and display an appropriately “curvy” sign for
the Dolly Parton Parkway, one of the flattest stretches of road in the county. Every politician within driving distance attended the accompanying ceremony,
and Dolly and I cut the yellow ribbon, opening what eventually became one of the most traveled routes in East Tennessee.
A few days before this event, our city, mindful that Dolly was scheduled to appear on The Tonight Show, had sent a letter inviting the show’s host, Johnny Carson, to attend the ribbon cutting. When Dolly appeared as guest, Carson read the letter of invitation—which included the names of all the Sevierville board
members—to his national television audience. Our little community proudly enjoyed a good fifteen seconds of fame. Dolly was one of Carson’s frequent and favorite guests. A genuine television star in his own right, he is remembered by many of his fans for his overt admiration for the enormity of Dolly’s most obvious assets.
“I would give a year’s pay (which was considerable at the time) for just a peek,” he remarked, to the delight of both Dolly and his live audience. There were TV censors in those days, but they let this one pass.
In one of Dolly’s many appearances on this popular nighttime show, she talked about her past relationship with the young mayor of her hometown. While claiming as fact that we were high school sweethearts, she revealed that the two of us had spent a lot of time together in my father’s Chevrolet pickup truck. This tale became a bit more exaggerated (much to my surprise – and tacit approval) in an interview she gave a few months later to People Magazine. Now, just to set the record straight, everyone in town knew that my father never owned a pickup truck. Moreover, most knew that Dolly was over two years older than me and that no self-respecting female high school senior would dare be seen with a fuzzy-cheeked sophomore—especially one who had neither a driver’s license nor a vehicle. Because, however, Dolly’s fun-filled remarks were in writing and appeared in a national magazine, they caught the attention of my dear wife. She did not approve—ready to end the nonsense.
Nevertheless, the fictional relationship contained yet another chapter, one that with a bit of a stretch might fall into the broad category of this column—Jurisprudence. By 1987, Dolly had her own television variety show on one of the three major networks. In August of that year, her producers brought her to Sevierville to film a Thanksgiving special in conjunction with a reunion of her Class of ’64. At the same time, I had been nominated for an appellate judgeship, a highly competitive position in the state courts. Her reunion show was to take place on the day before my interview with the nominating commission. On the day of filming, I could see from my office window that Dolly’s crew was hard at work trying to make a hot summer day look like the fourth Thursday in November. Bales of hay, cornstalks, and pumpkins galore decorated the courthouse staging area and grounds. At the front portion of the yard stood the newly erected Dolly Statue created by sculptor Jim Gray. Considered to be a showpiece in the filming, the artwork depicted a bluejeaned Dolly strumming her guitar with her signature butterfly perched on the top fret.
About an hour before taping was to begin, Dollywood General Manager Ted Miller burst into my law office, which was located no more than 50 feet from the statue. “Dolly needs a boyfriend for the show, and you fit the bill,” he explained, “Can you come right over to rehearse in Dolly’s trailer?” Who could say no to that? Ted escorted me to the trailer, unlocked the door, and there was Dolly in the flesh. She greeted me warmly and handed me a script. For a full minute, I was literally struck dumb! National TV with an audience in the millions? After a partial recovery of my wits, I was able to nervously read my lines aloud. Dolly read hers perfectly. I did not.
In fact, I couldn’t remember then and cannot today recall the content of our proposed on-camera exchange. Mercifully, Dolly suggested, “Let’s wing it, the scene just lasts a few seconds.” I readily agreed.
Within minutes, filming began. We joined her 100-plus classmates seated in the courthouse yard. As I remember it, the director announced that the scene of the reunion would have “one take.” Interviews with a few from her class proceeded without a hitch. When it finally came to my part, Dolly, who in the year before had lost some weight for her new television show, approached me as her “old boyfriend,” and with hands on hips, proudly displaying her svelte figure, asked, “Well, what do you think of me now?” Because of the buzz of the cameras and microphones, I could not hear my answer, but I do remember that it went something like this, “I think I liked you better when there was more to love!” Whatever I said seemed to satisfy the directors, and for me and all of those ’64 classmates who had taken the time to appear in this section of the show, that one scene pretty much constituted our collective TV debut.
That should have been the end of the story. My interview with the judicial nominating commission took place the next morning. Distinguished attorneys and legislators from all over the state had assembled inside a crowded conference room in Knoxville. Each of the several other candidates had completed their interview before my name was called. Being a “W” in the alphabet, I was last—and increasingly nervous. The first thing I saw upon entering the room was the Knoxville News Sentinel.
A reporter had covered the filming the day before. “Above the fold” and in bold letters on the front page appeared the only line I had in Dolly’s Thanksgiving Special: “I think I liked you better when there was more to love — former mayor, Gary Wade.” My heart sank. Whatever opportunity I had to receive the nomination was gone, I thought. Surely an “honorable” judge would never say anything like that—at least in public. Thankfully, the Commission members had senses of humor. There were a few smiles but not a word was said about the newspaper article. Later, two of the commissioners quietly informed me that my words to Dolly were a plus. Not all judges had to be stuffed shirts.
Roll the clock forward another 19 years. My name had been one of three candidates sent to Governor Phil Bredesen for a vacancy on the Tennessee Supreme Court. As the background investigations were in the process, Governor Bredesen happened to make a joint appearance with Dolly to plug her Imagination Library initiative. At the conclusion of the press conference, Dolly reportedly whispered in the governor’s ear that her old boyfriend might make a pretty good justice. So, whatever success I have enjoyed in my 28-year judicial career, I may just owe to Miss Dolly.
All of this reminds me of an experience the late Senator Howard Baker claimed to have had while he was new in the law practice in his native Scott County. An agitated man who had unsuccessfully represented himself in General Sessions Court burst into his office wanting to hire Howard and demanding an appeal. “Why so?” asked Howard. In response, the man insisted, “They swore lies on me! And proved some of them!” Well, my Dolly stories contain a little bit of truth, but most of it qualifies as the droppings of a male bovine.