The Dolly Parton Connection

Katie Fata

Country superstar Dolly Parton, pictured here at a recent television special, began her solo career just 2.6 miles from IWU’s campus.         Credit: Flickr

Recently, I was watching country music legend Dolly Parton’s documentary “Here I Am” (2019), and I know what you’re thinking— no, this is not a review. Instead, this is an incredibly important public-service announcement to the Bloomington-Normal community. 

About half an hour into the film, viewers are educated on the early years of Parton’s stardom. Originally, Parton was not a solo-act but instead spent seven years on “The Porter Wagoner Show” as a featured performer. In 1974, Parton broke away from the partnership and launched her solo career. And around that thirty-minute mark, we find out where she launched that career. 

A video from August of 1974 comes onto the screen and we hear the following words: “We’re in Bloomington, Illinois, and this is our first show.”

Dolly Parton, a world-famous artist with more than fifty years of stardom under her belt, started it all here. On August 1, 1974, Dolly Parton performed for the first time as a solo-artist at the McLean County Fair. And no one’s talking about it. 

I’ve lived in Bloomington-Normal for an entire twenty-one years of my life and have been a fan of Dolly Parton for at least half of those years so it’s a little mind blowing to me that this is information not readily bragged upon by the residents of the city. 

The fair is held at the Interstate Center, known more recently as Reditus Laboratories’ COVID-19 testing site. The fair that Parton performed at was at the old location which was, according to the McLean County History Museum, “located at the southwest corner of Illinois Route 9 and Hershey Road,” and served as the fairgrounds until 1996. 

Based on my research, which consists of Google Maps and exploiting my dad’s memory of Blono in the nineties, that’s probably around Pheasant Lanes, Lowe’s, and just west of the Central Illinois Airport. To give an idea, all of these are about 2.6 miles from Illinois Wesleyan. 

All of Bloomington’s “current” claims to fame are about a century and a half old. Sure, 23rd U.S. Vice-President (and brief attendee of IWU) Adlai Stevenson lived here. Yeah, Abraham Lincoln was an attorney in Bloomington for a few years before he became President. 

Parton, an artist with a multi-generational fanbase and a cult-like following, began her still-successful solo career in this town and I think that Bloomington-Normal could benefit from exploiting that fact. We can modernize our celebrity connections. I’m not saying replace all of the Lincoln statues with Dolly Parton, though I wouldn’t be opposed, but we could throw a sign up somewhere— people deserve to know.  

So next time you’re home and your family asks you what is interesting about Bloomington-Normal, send them this article. Maybe we’ll get a sign someday. 

Manipulated image showing possible signage paying tribute to Parton. Original Photo: Flickr, edited by Katie Fata