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Unveiling Dolly Parton’s Secret Beginnings: Epic First Gig

Alissa Klein found herself seated in front of her keyboard, framed by a reclaimed wood wall that slanted diagonally across the black backdrop. Lush green vines, reminiscent of summer honeysuckle creeping along a Tennessee fence, adorned the wall from top to bottom. The ambiance was enhanced by a white neon sign boldly proclaiming the establishment’s historical significance: “THE PINES EST. 1944 2022.”

Decades earlier, in 1956, a young 10-year-old Dolly Parton had sung her first paid performance at the Pines Theater in Sevierville, Tennessee, as part of the Cas Walker Farm and Home Tour. During its prime, the theater accommodated around 700 attendees and offered a variety of entertainment options, including movies and rollerskating. After closing in 1957, the Pines Theater was revived and reopened in late December 2022, aiming to provide a heightened entertainment experience for visitors to the Smoky Mountains while also honoring the venue’s cultural and historical significance for the local community.

David Rule, a visionary involved in resurrecting the Pines, saw this endeavor as an opportunity to showcase a unique aspect of East Tennessee that might often go unnoticed. Born and raised in Maryville, East Tennessee, Rule had worked in the restaurant industry since he was 15, steadily progressing from a line cook at a local eatery to becoming a corporate chef at the renowned Aubrey’s. With experience at the luxurious Blackberry Farm resort, Rule partnered on several projects in Sevierville’s redeveloped historic downtown, a place he frequented during his childhood.

By February 2023, the Pines Theater had once again become a haven for emerging musicians. It hosted a qualifying round for the annual Tennessee Songwriters Week, celebrating the region’s rich musical heritage. This event inspired Alissa Klein, who had felt disconnected from her artistic pursuits, to return to the stage and reclaim her passion for music. As she performed her piano chords and melodious voice resonated through the room, capturing the audience’s undivided attention. The renovated space, with its exposed brick walls, concrete floors, and industrial chic black ceiling, exuded an upscale ambiance while maintaining a relaxed dress code of blue jeans, plaid shirts, and baseball caps. Children engaged in board games at the window bar, while others glided outside on glowing hoverboards.

The Pines Theater’s revival also showcased the talents of other local musicians, such as Willow Osborne, a 22-year-old banjo player from Pigeon Forge, and Elijah Wise, a young performer from Cosby known for his impressive mullet and statement mustache. Klein’s success in the qualifying round led her and two others, including Wise, to advance to the next stage of the competition, held at Gatlinburg’s Ole Red. This journey culminated in the finale at the legendary Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, an opportunity that resonated with the spirit of Dolly Parton, who undoubtedly would be thrilled to witness the abundance of local talent in her hometown.

The Pines Theater’s restoration under Rule’s guidance ensured that storytelling permeated every aspect of the venue, from its design to its culinary offerings. The team meticulously transformed the building, removing walls and restoring the theater’s original entrance, including a replica of the iconic black and white marquee. Thoughtful details, like scraping clean the old painted windows to reveal their unique rippled glass, added to the charm and authenticity of the space. The theater’s stage was repurposed for duckpin bowling, while murals showcasing Dolly’s presence and the theater’s historical performers adorned the walls.

Dolly Parton herself shared her fond memories of the Pines Theater, recalling the competitions held by Cas Walker, the local impresario, where participants would vie for a

hundred-dollar bill perched atop a greasy pole. Dolly’s personal connection to the venue and her support for its revival were evident in her handwritten notes to Rule’s team. The Pines Theater now pays homage to its past, hosting events such as Dolly’s birthday bash and offering trivia nights and karaoke events, evoking the theater’s playful roots.

The Pines provides a warm and welcoming environment for both travelers and locals alike, without succumbing to gimmickry or tourist traps. It embraces the art of storytelling, infusing value into the guests’ experiences. With a menu featuring themed drink specials and locally inspired cuisine, the venue caters to a diverse range of tastes. The Pines not only serves as a platform for artists like Alissa Klein to rekindle their creative fire but also fosters a thriving local art scene that bolsters the community’s well-being.

In summary, The Pines Theater’s revival under the guidance of David Rule has transformed it into a cherished establishment in Sevierville, Tennessee. Combining historical significance with a contemporary approach, the venue provides an elevated entertainment experience while honoring its cultural heritage. With a focus on storytelling, the renovated space invites musicians and patrons to create new memories while celebrating the region’s rich musical roots. The Pines has become a vital hub for artistic expression, community engagement, and a testament to the enduring legacy of Dolly Parton and her profound impact on the local area.

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