Field Report: Lyrics & Lore

A few weeks ago, ISC and Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort & Spa launched Lyrics & Lore, our new annual weekend-long event that combines storytelling and song. As I stood in the resort’s lobby in Pigeon Forge, gazing at the Smoky Mountains through the huge glass windows, I thought back to the time just a few years ago, when I was first invited by the Dollywood team to view the blueprints.  That was before this place was even a construction site, at the very beginning of our long-term partnership. It also took me back to some of my own research, when I studied storytelling as a way to design spaces that foster a sense of home.

It was my fourth stay at the resort, and as always it was wonderful to see the front-of-house staff, who by now feel like friends. Much like our own Center here in Jonesborough, Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort & Spa is a place that fosters a real sense of community. Since 2014, we’ve worked closely with much of the senior management team as we’ve consulted and trained staff to embed the art of storytelling in the resort experience. Lyrics & Lore, our latest effort, was designed to bring together the storytelling and songwriting traditions, which are both a huge part of both history and contemporary life here in East Tennessee. The resort was full to the max.

It was a wonderful long weekend. Things kicked off on Thursday evening with a story by Beth Horner, whose work you might know from Storytelling Live! and the National Storytelling Festival. She shared a story about her great-grandmother Minnie—a tale about peace, love, and coming home. Her performance was the inspiration for 50 songwriters from the Smoky Mountain Songwriters Festival to write a song. They only had 24 hours, but the results were incredible. Beth, who had her audience in tears, later told me that she wished every storyteller could have the same opportunity.

Over the course of the weekend, Beth and Bil Lepp led workshops and storytelling concerts, and frequently collaborated with musicians and songwriters. The resort’s guests could drop in or attend any of the special programs.

Another reason I was on site was to help launch our new Storytelling Site of Excellence program, which recognizes people and places that are incorporating storytelling into their work. In the formal ceremony, in which ISC presented the resort with a special plaque, I had the opportunity to talk about how much I admire Dolly Parton—one of my favorite subjects. I talked about her “Dream more, learn more, care more, be more” motto, simple but powerful words that are especially resonant in today’s world. I also talked about how I recently discovered that my own dad, a traditional Sikh man who wears a turban and beard, is also her big fan! He’s around the same age as Ms. Parton, so perhaps it makes sense that the values he taught me as I was growing up are also the ones that she talks about in her work. I really admire Dolly Parton’s ability as a leader to unite people from all different backgrounds; when I’ve called her the Queen of America, I’m only half joking.

Over the course of the weekend, I made many new friends, including a couple that found out about the National Storytelling Festival from another couple they met while on holiday in Greece (small world). I had breakfast with some members of Jonesborough’s very own Storytellers Guild, as well as friends from the Mountain States Health Alliance. Much like our Festival concludes with sacred telling, the event ended on Sunday with an interdenominational concert. I opened by talking about Kathryn Tucker Windham and how she advocated for the importance of storytelling in helping us listen to others. It felt appropriate given some of the events in the world today, on a global scale as well as on a local one. Of course the wildfires in Gatlinburg that devastated the region in late 2016 were on everyone’s mind. Ms. Parton herself recently established her “My People Fund” to help the people who lost their homes. Under cover of snow, I had the opportunity to tour some of the areas that had been devastated, which are beginning to show signs of healing and renewal.

Lyrics & Lore was the first public-facing event that ISC has coproduced with Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort & Spa, and given its success it seems likely there will be more to come. It feels good not just to promote our growing region, but to celebrate some of the oldest art forms in the world, and the role they’ve played in shaping our lives here in the mountains.