Our always useful GPS quickly and easily helped us navigate to Dollywood, located on the eastern side of Pigeon Forge, past the impressive Dollywood's DreamMore Resort, and through what seemed like miles of almost empty parking lots. The Park itself had opened for the season only a couple of weeks earlier, and the we were early for the soon to come vast summer crowds. We easily navigated the ticket booth....
...and stepped onto the Main Street of another era created to reconstruct the imagined world of hillbilly life enriched by rides, shops, eateries, and, what we had come for, performance venues. We quickly discovered that we had almost certainly aged out of the pleasures of the multi-purpose amusement park that now promises a thrilling, and tiring day for, as the circus ringmaster used to say, "children of all ages." I think we may have graduated to museums. The world depicted, never, of course, existed, but it is clean and well-shaded, offering a variety of opportunities from thrilling rides to quiet places to sit and listen to music.
Every place you see the musical note on the map is a venue where some kind of musical experience reflecting the interests of visitors and the regional culture of Appalachia is represented in an elementary, though informative fashion reflecting the tastes the designers of the park and the spiritual, as well as actual, mother of this theme park, singer/songwriter and entrepreneur: Dolly Parton.
The Smoky Mountain String Band is a very good bluegrass band. It's personnel are all experienced players who have played with some of the best. It presents a half hour of pretty traditional bluegrass music representing what a person who might attend a concert or festival with something that would never be out of place in either setting. At the same time, it doesn't challenge the audience with controversial or unusual music or subject matter. There's no pushing for innovation here, just good, solid bluegrass music. All four pickers in the group represent the qualities expected from their instruments in fully professional and satisfying ways. And in this setting, that's what's called for. The audience came to enjoy a bluegrass show as part of the whole Dollywood experience without devoting a whole day to the music, always knowing that there was more to do than could be accomplished in a single day. In other words, they delivered what was expected with skill, providing tuneful fun for their audience.
Ashley has played with a variety of bands and served in a range of roles during her thirteen years at Dollywood. She has a warm, well-modulated, and pleasing voice, which blends with other members of the band nearly perfectly. She'd be a strong addition to any bluegrass or country band.
We've enjoyed Roger as a featured performer with other bands, so we knew what to expect here. He's equally adept on the banjo, Dobro, and guitar, playing a variety of kinds of music adapted to the setting and the song. He's always a pleasure to see and hear.
Bands like The Smoky Mountain String Band always raise a question in my mind about bluegrass bands specifically, and, more broadly, about musicians and bands. How many fine musicians and highly entertaining bands are there that we never, ever hear of? As we've traveled the bluegrass trail for what's now exceeded fifteen years, we hear the same litany almost everywhere. "You should hear the _______________ Bluegrass Band! They're as good as any band on tour." Usually, the statement isn't completely true, for there's no substitute for the daily grind of touring and the practice it provides. But just often enough, we encounter really good local bluegrass bands, which would do just fine on tour. Many musicians we've met have spent their time on the road before opting for a more reliable life, a steady job, and the home fires. They've had the road experience and decided to stay closer to home. An outstanding example which comes quickly to mind, is the Grass Cats, a North Carolina Band which seldom strays from home, but whose recording career and media support suggest a possible much wider audience. There are lots more, too!
As we moseyed towards the gate, tired and increasingly aware that we are getting a little old, we strolled past some of the other attractions of the park.