The first snow of the winter in Appalachia was always a mixed blessing for the coal mining families that settled in the Smoky Mountains. The wintry crystals would create a beautiful white blanket that draped across Eastern Tennessee’s old growth forest, but after sun down, families would endure bitterly cold nights with the sounds of their shivering slumber echoing against the howls of hungry stomachs.
It’s against this backdrop that legendary country singer Dolly Parton tells the story of Christmas in Appalachia with her new musical Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol, produced in association with Red Tail Productions and long-time collaborator Paul T. Couch, former entertainment director at Dollywood who serves as the show’s creative producer.
“We decided to use the (Charles) Dickens story of a Christmas Carol — and of course that mean ole guy Scrooge — because I related to all those people in the family, just struggling and trying to have good things even in the worst of times,” she tells Billboard. “Being from that part of the world, I was from a poor family and remember how we had so little but always wanted to have a good Christmas.”
Running through Dec. 29 at Emerson Colonial Theatre in Boston, Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol is based on a book and adaption by David H. Bell and is directed by Curt Wollan. While Parton doesn’t perform in Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol, she wrote much of the music with songs like “Appalachian Snow” and “Circle of Love” paying homage to those who lived on the margins in the Tennessee mountains. While the musical is set during the Great Depression, the systemic poverty of Appalachia has long captured the attention of Americans and was a key symbol in President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, declaring in his 1964 State of the Union address “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”
Today, Appalachia’s struggles are seen as part of a larger socio-economic challenge facing rural America. Parton tells Billboard that Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol honors the resilience of life in Eastern Tennessee, where the long winters were made more bearable with the smell of mince spices and long shot dreams about the fancy clothes and new toys inside the ‘wish book.’
“That’s what mom always called the the Sears catalog — the ‘wish book’ and i wrote a song called ‘Wish Book’ for this particular show,” Parton tells Billboard. “We were such poor people and as kids we would get handmade toys and at least one store-bought present, even if it didn’t cost much, but we were always looking through that wish book thinking about all the things within those pages.”
Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol is the second theatrical project for Parton in 2019, following the opening of her decade-long hit 9 to 5 The Musical in London, as well as her new Netflix series Heartstrings which premiered Nov, 22 and her hosting duties on this year’s Country Music Awards with Carrie Underwood and
Reba McEntire. That’s on top of her Nov. 26 special on NBC and the BBC celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashvillle, which garnered more than 7 million viewers, and her two 2020 Grammy nominations for “God Only Knows” with For King & Country and “Girl In The Movies” from the soundtrack for her 2018 Netflix film Dumplin’.
Parton’s life story is also at the center of a new podcast from New York Public Radio’s WNYC. Hosted by Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad, Dolly Parton’s America traces the Country Music Hall of Fame singer’s success in music going back to the duets with country star Porter Wagoner and her struggle to eventually break free from his grip, inspiring her 1974 hit “I Will Always Love You.”
Parton says she still remembers the first time she returned home to celebrate Christmas with some money in her pocket after years struggling to make it Nashville, telling Billboard, “the first money I ever made, I started buying things for my family and snuck mom and dad out and paid to decorate the whole house. We bought all new furniture, got new beds for the kids, new stoves, refrigerators and everything else. Any money I ever made, I was always spending it on the kids back home or sending mama money and doing stuff for them.”
It was a rare happy ending for Eastern Tennessee’s most famous daughter and Parton has continued to give back donating millions of dollars to improve the quality of life in the region through her Dollywood Foundation and her Emmy-winning Smoky Mountains Rise telethon which raised $9 million for victims of the 2016 wildfires that spread across Sevier County, Tennessee. She says she hopes Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol helps a new generation of fans under he roots and answer their own calls to return home to see their loved ones during the holidays.
“In the winter, the weather is cold but people’s hearts are warm,” she tells Billboard, “except for ole Scrooge of course — he needs a little help understanding the meaning of Christmas, which is about being with those we love. No matter where you are, whether its sunny Florida with the palm trees or the Smoky Mountains, there’s nothing that compare to being home for Christmas.”
To buy tickets for Smoky Mountains Christmas Carol and to buy tickets, visit smokymountainchristmascarol.com.