Former Dollywood Performers Share Lessons Learned in Pigeon Forge

Each season at Dollywood, singers and dancers entertain park guests from a variety of themed stages. Many cast members are fresh out of high school when they take the same first step toward a career in entertainment as contemporary country megastar Carly Pearce.

“Dollywood was a vessel for me to get out of my hometown and sing, which is all I ever wanted to do,” Pearce told Wide Open Country. “My time there taught me stamina, the value of hard work and made me understand how much I really wanted this life. I’m forever grateful for those lessons and for having the opportunity to learn them at such a young age.”

Others to pass through Pigeon Forge, Tenn. range from Suzy Bogguss, a featured vocalist at Dollywood in the mid-1980s who’d soon become a mainstream hitmaker, to a long list of talents who’ve applied skills honed at the park to other aspects of the music business.

Nashville-based music publicist Aaron Crisler (Conduit Media Solutions) worked at Dollywood in the late 1990s. While there, he witnessed the faith-based kindness of the park’s namesake, Dolly Parton.

“I think the biggest takeaway from working at Dollywood is seeing how much Dolly, her team and the people she has placed in leadership at the park really do care about their employees, the guests and the entire community of Pigeon Forge, Tenn. and the surrounding areas,” Crisler said. “Everyone knows that Dolly has a big heart and that she does a lot of philanthropic work that people know about. But, many times, what she and her charities and companies do never makes the headlines. She truly doesn’t do it for the credit, she does it because God has blessed her, and she wants to be a blessing to others. You can feel this through every property and everything that Dolly has a part of.”

Dolly Parton and former employee and future duet partner, Aaron Crisler

Ron Davis/Getty Images and Courtesy of Aaron Crisler

Crisler reconnected with Parton during a gospel singing career that followed his time at the park.

“A few years later, I recorded a gospel CD as I was performing gospel music on the road with a group,” Crisler recalled. “I wrote her a letter, told her I was singing a gospel song she’d written called ‘High & Mighty’ and asked her if she would sing on my CD with me. All my friends said, ‘You are crazy. She’s never going to sing with you!’ My thought was: ‘Well, the Bible says you have not because you ask not. So, what’s the worst she could say? No? And she might say yes.’

“And she did!,” Crisler continued. “I will never forget that day in the studio. I was living in Atlanta at the time. I took my mom with me, and we drove up to Nashville for the recording session. This icon made me feel like the special one, asking me if she was singing everything like I wanted it, and just going beyond what I could have ever imagined. Dolly Parton is a class act, one of the most genuinely kind people I have ever met and a true professional who gives of herself more than anyone truly knows.”

Cali Tucker, a daughter of ’70s and ’80s hitmaker LaCosta Tucker and niece of Tanya Tucker, prepared for her current rise as a country artist by meeting Dollywood’s grueling demands.

“It was hardcore,” Cali said. “There was a lot expected of us, but I had so much fun. It was a blast. I feel like I was treated fairly. The pay was real, real, real, real bad, but other than that, it was great.”

Others with similar experiences share fond memories of working directly with Parton’s family, namely her look-alike sister, Rachel Dennison, and their late brother, Randy, as well as uncles Bill and Lewis Owens.

“I have a great friendship with a lot of her family because the Back Porch Theater is where her family did the Kinfolks show, so I was constantly in and out with them,” shared Naomi Reiser, whose eight-year Dollywood experience began in 2004. “They’d do their shows, and then I’d come in and do mine.”

Naomi Reiser singing in a show at Dollywood.

Courtesy of Naomi Reiser

Reiser became so close to Uncle Lewis that he once offered to co-sign for a vehicle and even broke protocol on picture day.

“Every year, Dolly takes pictures with her employees, and that’s something that everybody looks forward to,” Reiser said. “You get together, and everyone hangs out in the theater, waiting to get their picture made. This was my first time, and I didn’t know but when they do that, it’s in groups of like 30. It’s still cool, but it’s not like everybody gets their picture made [individually with Parton].

“Uncle Lewis, I told him I was excited, and I told him I wanted my picture made,” Reiser continued. “So, he went and pulled me on stage in front of about 800 other employees all waiting to get their picture made in groups and had Dolly take a picture just with me and then just with me and the band. Everybody in the audience was obviously very angry, and I was super excited because it was a special thing for me. Apparently, Lewis didn’t go about it the right way, so he got a letter from Dolly saying don’t ever do that again. It makes the photo extra special for me. Lewis was so nice and sweet. He was old school, so he wasn’t thinking about it.”

Naomi Reiser's controversial photo with Dolly Parton

Courtesy of Naomi Reiser

Reiser had another close encounter with Parton after being chosen as a backup singer for the 2010 Hallmark Channel special Dolly Celebrates 25 Years of Dollywood. Experience from working at the park prepared her for such a high-pressure gig.

“You have an opportunity to perform to thousands of people, maybe for just five seconds as they walk past,” Reiser added. “But it’s a lot of people on a daily basis, inevitably.”

(From Left) Johnny Russell, Jen Molyneux and Jean Shepard

(From Left) Johnny Russell, Jen Molyneux and Jean Shepard (Courtesy of Jen Molyneux)

A 10-year veteran of Dollywood and the current senior event manager of Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon, Jen Molyneux had her own interactions with country music royalty when Parton’s peers –including Jeannie Seely, Jack Greene and Johnny Russell– chose her as a collaborator for in-park appearances.

“I’ve had a lot of opportunities to sing with a lot of really cool people,” Jen said. “All those Opry stars, I would never have been able to do that had I not worked there and had they not done Country Treasures.”

Jen’s trajectory changed at Dollywood in a different way when she met her wife, the future Tiffany Molyneux. Tiffany first performed in the park at age 12 as part of a dance troupe hired by Randy Parton. She returned to the staff as an adult, not knowing that she’d soon bond with the love of her life.

“Once I was there and I was able to experience that you could actually make a career out of doing something like that, it intrigued me,” Tiffany said. “Ever since we started doing those summers there, I always said, ‘Well, I want to be a dancer at Dollywood when I grow up.’ As soon as I graduated high school, I knew I could audition on my own, and that’s what I did. I was very persistent and knew that’s what I wanted.”

Many of Dollywood’s entertainers go on to land similar jobs in East Tennessee and beyond. Reiser spent 10 years in the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud stage show in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., while both Pearce and Tiffany Molyneux worked together at the nearby Country Tonite Theatre.

“I knew she was going to make something out of herself because she was dead set on it, and she was just so talented,” Tiffany said of Pearce.

Every year, performers encounter more than total strangers who’ll hopefully stop for a song or two, if only to escape the sun during a Tennessee summer. There’s also season ticket holders who frequent the park often enough to become fans and friends.

“We would have our regulars that would come, and we would build relationships with them,” Tiffany explained. “They would come and we knew who they were. We would always take pictures with them, which was also great. After the shows, we would meet and greet with people, and we’d really get to know people and find out why they’re coming there or hear about their struggles. They’d come there to find their happy place or just something where they could escape from whatever they were having to deal with.”

Each former Dollywood employee interviewed for this story had one thing in common: they all sounded grateful for landing the coolest summer job for the raddest boss.

“The best memories in my life that I have had so far have been at Dollywood,” Tiffany shared. “Whether it be just because it was a dream of mine to work there or because I met my wife there and we have been together ever since. I just have really great, positive memories around it. Anybody that wants to be an entertainer, I would encourage them to go out to entertain there just because you learn so much. It’s just a great place to work. They really take care of their employees.”

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