Sometimes you want to get out in the woods and be alone with nature. And other times, you want to sit in a crowded theater, eat a plateful of fried chicken, and watch lumberjacks sing, dance, and tumble around a stage. Next time you visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you can do both.
“Lumberjack Adventure” is Dolly Parton’s latest and greatest offering in the town of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee—the retina-searing shrine to tacky capitalism that all tourists must pass through before entering America’s most-visited national park. The show opened this summer after more than a year of development, and it’s been a hit—the night I visited, almost all of the 700 seats were filled.
Knowing only that this Lumberjack Adventure involved dinner theater of some kind, I arrived with high hopes of dueling chainsaws and maybe some gore. Instead, it’s Appalachian Cirque du Soleil.
The show opens with a bearded storyteller telling a tale about the sawmill that once brought prosperity to the area. There are references to moonshining, hootenannies, and a few gunshots in the first five minutes—trope hard or go home, as they say. From there, the plot follows a predictable path: two feuding families fight over the mill, while forbidden love blossoms, and a pair of feds chase a moonshiner. All of this, rounded out with a few aerialists, a lot of tumbling, and the occasional pyrotechnic.
As you watch, an array of Southern food is plunked in front of you, almost in time to the music: a ladle of pulled pork, a biscuit, a deep fried chicken breast. The arena has stadium-style seating, but there's a bar in front of each row. Servers whiz by all night, delivering the meal one item at a time. Pro tip: Be the handsome man sitting at the end of the row. Any extra servings the server doesn't want to carry back to the kitchen will wind up on your plate, as my soon-overstuffed husband discovered.
The food is surprisingly good for the fact it’s being prepped and served on a massive scale. The chicken skin was crispy, the pulled pork was smoky, and the coleslaw wouldn't offend your southern granny. Dessert—a peach turnover—was probably the most forgettable part, but that could be because they were distributed right as the canine cast members took the stage. (Yes, there are dogs, and yes, they are perhaps the biggest highlight.)
Most of the cocktails offered up are mixed with moonshine. While white lightning has a reputation for being a bit like paint thinner, these cocktails will strip the varnish off your teeth because of their sugar levels. If you're a "Can I get whipped cream on my watermelon margarita?" kind of drinker, you'll love them. But my choice, the Timber Tonic, a mix of blackberry moonshine with lemonade, tasted too much like a melted Jolly Rancher to drink more than a few sips.
The food isn’t the best thing about the show. No, the best thing is the beards. Not in the sense that everyone has a beard, but in the sense that every beard in the show is so luscious and perfectly coiffed. If it were at all socially acceptable to do so, I’d rush the stage at the end of the show just to run my hands through those perfect crumb catchers.
Spoiler alert—the saga ends with the two families bonding over the hatred of the federal government. It’s an odd peg, considering the National Park Service brings more than $800 million to the Pigeon Forge area. But the plot is hardly the point. Parton has ensured that no minute is wasted on anything less than pure, showy lumberjack spectacle. While there are no chainsaws, there are axes, wielded with skill. Two strapping young men race to cut logs, chop down posts, and otherwise defile timber. There are a few rounds of axe throwing and dogs who leap into water to fetch targets. Parton even sings one number, a surprisingly insightful ballad about the plight of Appalachian women, which she penned.
The choreography isn’t always in synch and the plot certainly won’t win any awards, but Lumberjack Adventure is delightful in its earnestness. A night of beards, flying axes, fried chicken, and flannel may be reason enough to stop by before taking your tent, heading into the woods, and experiencing Appalachia for yourself.