Dolly Parton Pinball Machine

With sweaty hands, I mash a big round button and my eyes dart all over a gaudy landscape of pinks, yellows, butterflies, and blinking lights, trying frantically to predict the chaotic path of the small silver ball that has been my obsession for the last 20 minutes. I am so close…so close…LEANator’s unthinkable, unbeatable score of 15 million is within grasp. I just need to remember when to hit the ball at what point in its movement along the paddle. I’ve done this so often, become so familiar with this machine, I know I can place the shot exactly where it needs to go. Keep calm, focus…and…right in the gutter. Dolly’s done it again. Pulled the rug right out from under my dreams of pinball stardom. “She’s a cruel woman,” I reflect as I write down my score next to all the others who’ve come close but still aren’t LEANator, “She knows how to string a man along only to crush him when it matters most.”

Dolly Parton Pinball Machine

I’ve had many experiences like this since I’ve begun working in the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center. Of all the displays showcasing the rich, diverse region that is Appalachia, the Dolly Parton Pinball Machine is the most arresting. It’s loud, bright, and colorful, much like the country star/pop icon it honors. It doesn’t seem to fit the aesthetic of the center. Yet this machine, and the display accompanying it, highlight the remarkable dichotomy that is Ms. Dolly Parton (who recently celebrated her 71st birthday). Her rural, impoverished origins in Sevier County, TN, are widely known, as is her explosive rise to lasting stardom. She is a cultural icon hugely significant to both the country and pop music scenes. The informational display next to the machine gives players a look into the struggles Ms. Parton experienced trying to build her professional image and how that image has changed over the years. The pinball machine itself has two different illustrations of Dolly Parton, one as the country girl and the other as “Vegas Dolly” an image pushed by her producers and forced upon the pinball machine’s artist (a story recounted in the display) until she was able to seize control of her own career.

Dolly Parton Pinball Machine HeadboardMs. Parton is perhaps one of the most famous examples of someone from Appalachia becoming commodified and controlled by outside forces, but there are many others that exist in these rich and storied hills. A number of other displays in the Appalachian Center speak of this phenomena. My own home of Yancey and Mitchel County in North Carolina provides minerals pulled right out of the hillside that are commonly used in most of the world’s electronics. In that way, though the Dolly Parton pinball machine looks like a misfit, it is part of the complex Appalachian narrative that the Center showcases for inquisitive folks to ponder on. Riches from poverty, fame from obscurity, battle for control. These are concepts that I am wrestling with as I seek to understand Appalachia, and I find it amusing that one of the teachers aiding me in thinking about them is a pinball machine.

It is Vegas Dolly that looks down on me in my defeat, laughingly teasing me, egging me on. “Sure kid, you lost this one. But maybe the next game…or the one after at…or the one after that…”

Article Written by Jordan Hutchins

Relevant Links:

The Dolly Parton Pinball Machine in the Appalachian Artifact Collections

Dolly Parton Pinball Exhibit Page