NY Conversation April 2011

There are moments when you find yourself reassessing your life. Such as, for instance, when you find yourself watching four small children pursue four terrified chickens around an arena as 1,000 people cheer and stamp their collective feet.

Welcome to the strange, strange world of Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. As mentioned a few months back, NY Conversation has managed to cultivate a sideline in travel writing, and while such sideline hasn’t exactly financed downpayments on the Ferrari just yet, it has provided the opportunity to travel to weird and fascinating destinations. Like Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

This is Dolly country – she grew up here, and the area is full of Parton-related attractions. In terms of sheer cultural strangeness, however, the Stampede is hard to beat. After all, who’d ever have thought a hokey and very loose retelling of Civil War history – featuring horse-riding stunts, “indoor pyrotechnics” and a gargantuan meal for every attendee – would be the recipe for packing out a 1,000-seat arena every night for 24 years?

The arena is housed in a large building that looks like a super-sized theme restaurant. When you first enter, you’re ushered into a well-lit hall where everyone is sitting at long tables, watching a bluegrass band play novelty covers like YMCA and Smoke on the Water. It feels like a huge school assembly hall. Waitresses are happy to serve you soft drinks (and only soft drinks – no booze here) in a “FREE* Souvenir Boot Mug”!

*with every $5 purchase

Once the band finishes, you migrate into the main arena, where you’re cautioned against taking photos, divided along some imaginary Mason-Dixon line that bisects the arena into either North or South, and encouraged to boo at our new enemies on the other side of the sandy performance area. (Thankfully, NY Conversation ends up in the Union.) Then the lights dim and a rough history of the Civil War starts to unfold, accompanied by a bunch of stunts featuring animals and riders dressed in mock military uniforms.

Some of the stunts are undeniably impressive – one girl manages to ride two horses simultaneously, with one foot on each saddle, smiling happily at the crowd as both horses fly at breakneck pace around the arena. The history is less palatable – slavery isn’t mentioned at all, an omission that would be more surprising if you hadn’t noticed that the audience here is 99.9% white. Native Americans are dealt with via a strange dance scene, which features day-glo paint and a woman dressed as a bird, before “harsh reality intrudes” and the first white settlers arrive, looking merry and full of pioneering spirit. The Native Americans are not heard from again.

Meanwhile, harsh reality for vegetarians intrudes in the form of the menu. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof – there’s only one “supper” to be had here, and it’s Dolly’s famous rotisserie chicken. Everyone gets one each. One. Entire. Chicken. Plus baked potato, creamy vegetable soup, corn, a “home-made biscuit” and some pork for good measure. The website does make vague allusions to a vegetarian option if you phone in advance. No-one seems to have done so.

That healthy menu in full

So as the horses go round and feet are stamped endlessly, NY Conversation starts counting. There’s about 12 people per row between each aisle, by five rows, by eight aisles… That’s about 480 people on each side of the arena. Which means about 960 people in total, plus a few at the back… Say 1,000 all up. Which means that according to such rough estimates, about 8,760,000 chickens have been basted with Dolly’s special seasoning and roasted over the course of the Dixie Stampede’s lifetime. And this is one of three venues. And sometimes they do several shows a night. I start to feel slightly ill.

Back in the arena, it’s audience participation time. And so we arrive at the chicken race, where four children are extracted from the crowd and encouraged to chase their assigned chicken to the other end of the arena to earn a medal for the North or South. Quite what it must be like to be one of the chickens being chased – pursued by something several orders of magnitude larger than you around an unfamiliar environment that smells like the roasted remains of a thousand of your own species – doesn’t really bear thinking about. But then, it appears that NY Conversation is the only one doing any such thinking. Everyone else cheers raucously. The chickens are followed by a pig race, more horse-related stunts and then a final points tally. Tonight, the North wins. Yay! The slaves are freed!

And then, finally, there’s an appearance by Dolly herself – on video. A film is projected onto a giant screen at the back of the arena, and Video Dolly explains that the lesson the Civil War taught her is that there are no borders, no North and South – because we’re all of us… Human beings? Born equal? No! We’re all Americans! As Video Dolly breaks into a song called Color Me Red, White and Blue, proclaiming the virtues of a country that stands for freedom and justice for everyone (except for chickens, obviously), a large portion of the crowd stands and looks earnest. NY Conversation slips quietly toward the bathroom. Something – either the patriotism or the chicken – is making us feel just a little queasy.

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